From survive to thrive: digital leadership beyond lockdown

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The COVID-19 pandemic delivered an abrupt shock to organisations across the UK both large and small. The experience has dominated our lives and news headlines around the world – disrupted business and triggered economic volatility in global markets. The ever-changing pressures of lockdown have emphasised the criticality of areas including remote working, business agility and digital customer engagement. Up and down the country business resiliency plans have been put to the test.

Now a few months down the line organisations are starting to reflect. A recent Omdia survey of over 300 UK companies commissioned by IBM discovered 78% believe their business continuity/disaster recovery plans were inadequate or short-sighted. They just weren’t prepared. However, at a time when business infrastructure was severely disrupted, 88% agreed that technology helped them to mitigate the impact of the crisis.

Now they need to move forward and apply the lessons learnt. The organisation of the future needs to be resilient, innovative, flexible and as agile as change itself.

As we emerge stronger we must rethink digital and business models. We must understand the data and insights we have gained, factor in changes to customer behaviour, stabilise supply chains and ongoing operational conditions while working to mitigate against the possibility of further crises. Organisations must review the role of IT in their business, it is more than just an enabling function, it could also be the leader of the organisation in customer engagement, product development, agility, innovation and resilience.

These are all essential steps to help organisations thrive in a post-lockdown world and prepare for a future of possibilities unleashed by other emerging technologies such as 5G and Quantum.

As I start my first week as the new Chief Executive for IBM in the UK and Ireland and the tech community comes together for London Tech Week, I wanted to share further insights from our research and provide recommendations to help current leaders and the leaders of tomorrow accelerate digital transformation across business and society.


Survive and Revive

Organisations across all sectors have been forced into survival mode and consider technology a life-jacket for survival, bolstering digital capability to aid business continuity for employees, customers, supply chains and operations.

In fact, 85% of respondents made new investments to manage the shift to remote working as more than half of organisations expect to have a majority of their employees working remotely in the future. Telecoms and media companies were the least prepared for remote work at the start of the crisis, with only 17% stating they were fully prepared, compared with 39% in Financial Services.

Companies that were further advanced in their digital transformation programmes were better equipped to meet the challenges of lockdown. This group was three times as likely to class themselves as well prepared to react to the crisis. This was most apparent in their ability to be agile, and to switch quickly to remote working. 98% of companies who were in the early stages of digital transformation felt that they should have invested earlier in data-driven and cloud-based technologies.

These organisations have learnt that digital readiness is key and it’s important to have the technology in place before you need it, and in some cases that also means rethinking the role that technology plays in the organisation. It is not merely an “enabler” of business operations.

As expected, cybersecurity and resiliency continued to be in the spotlight as organisations look to enhance security capabilities to ensure that sustained remote working does not undermine their operations. In fact, 72% of respondents surveyed revealed they were already enhancing their defences against new or increased cybersecurity threats.


Renew and Thrive

Organisations now have the opportunity to refocus their digital transformation efforts on customers and put greater emphasis on digital capabilities that deliver direct value to the business frontline – particularly in engaging customers and better serving the demands of remote customers. According to our research, prior to the pandemic, 80% of companies had not fully implemented an omnichannel customer engagement strategy, but 68% of respondents will now prioritise this area.

Organisations are being pressed to accelerate digital transformation plans and are fundamentally rethinking workflows as a result of Covid-19. For example, the pandemic has led businesses to adopt hybrid strategies and shift many operations and offerings to the cloud. 95% of respondents agree that moving applications to the cloud had benefited their organisation during the pandemic, with 94% anticipating further investment to accelerate recovery.  This will be augmented by investments in edge computing and IoT to further build out their digital platforms.

A recent example of this in action is Coca-Cola European Partners accelerating its transformation to an open hybrid cloud environment to reduce its operational expenses, increase IT resiliency and leverage analytics and artificial intelligence in its daily operations.

To emerge stronger and smarter from these times, organisations need to align customer needs, digital priorities, funding, skills, capacity, and strategic objectives with these new priorities in mind. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning are seen as key components of a digital business with 57% intending to invest in business-wide AI, both embedded in applications and as part of a business data platform, with supply chain and customer insights as primary use cases. We believe the greater use of data and AI has become essential to help organisations garner insights that allow them to be more agile to changing circumstances and better serve customers.

A great example of this was TSB seeing an urgent need to give customers immediate access to the measures the bank had introduced during the pandemic, so it launched a new Smart Agent function on its website. This gave customers the chance to ‘chat’ live online with TSB staff for the very first time.

We have also seen first-hand how technology has been used for good, with our very own NHS innovating to handle the unprecedented flood of patient requests and adopt virtual agent technology to improve access to authoritative advice about COVID-19 to both staff and the general public. A great example is Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, part of NHS Wales, which launched an English and Welsh speaking virtual agent called CERi to support healthcare workers, patients and the general public in Wales who have questions on the prevention and management of COVID-19 post lockdown. Another example was Royal Marsden, a London based specialist cancer treatment hospital, which launched Maisie to ensure key workers had immediate access to the latest COVID-19 HR related information and policies as well as updates on the hospital and evolving workplace guidance.

Throughout all the challenges of the last six months, we have been inspired by the resilience and creativity of UK business, government and wider society. We are working hard to lead clients in their next chapter of transformation, as they build agile organisations fuelled by data, guided by AI insight and able to work in any cloud environment. Next, quantum computing will become part of the journey to the Cognitive Enterprise. No matter the challenge, we’ll continue bringing together the right communities of experts — all working hard to manage and solve today’s hardest challenges.

It has not been easy and there are many challenges ahead. But COVID-19 is a turning point for digital transformation and I’m proud that technology is playing a fundamental role in driving the innovation helping to build resiliency for the future.

Chief Executive, IBM UK and Ireland

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