The 5 disciplines companies need to strengthen to emerge stronger post-pandemic

Simon Mulcahy Profile picture for user Simon Mulcahy November 3, 2020
Simon Mulcahy, Chief Innovation Officer at Salesforce, explores how companies can navigate the uncertainty of COVID-19 - from making decisions, to engaging customers, to serving society.

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

In scientific circles, there is widespread consensus that insect populations are declining so dramatically that, according to one famous study, "insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades".

This same scenario is playing itself out in the business world. Faced with managing more change on more levels than any predecessor, many business leaders are facing an extinction-level event for their business. The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has been plummeting for years - and the decline was accelerating even before the pandemic. Now, it is even sharper, with COVID proving to be a massive accelerant to many trends that were already pushing leaders to change.

The urgent question facing CEOs is how to go beyond simply responding, to reimagining and acting differently now. How can you make your business more relevant to your customers, partners and employees, and make your company more resilient to future shocks?

It is clear to the scientists and business leaders alike that incremental improvements are unlikely to steer us safely away from either grave environmental catastrophe or business failure. Yet drastically increased social, economic and geopolitical uncertainty makes big bets feel risky.

The good news is that there are some powerful lessons we've learned that will help you make sense of what to do. There are important "no regrets" moves every leader can make to begin now.

Five digital transformation disciplines

Here are five key disciplines we have seen successful companies strengthen to evolve and thrive through digital transformation:

1. How you make decisions

Your organization needs to win the race for relevance. You need to be able to sense, anticipate and respond to changes in your customers' needs. This will enable you to stop treating every customer touchpoint with you as if it were their first. You'll start by organizing yourself around their profile, identifying more specific contextual opportunities to expand what you cross-and upsell them. This will then prepare you to expand beyond commodity transactions by understanding the broader 'job to be done'. You'll be able to identify adjacencies you don't currently serve and expand into those broader areas or more closely partner with an ecosystem, for example life interests, education, health, financial wellbeing.

This means auditing who your customers are, and what their needs are. You need to think about how you earn this data from your customers, as you are incrementally building trust. You need to integrate the data together to create useful insights. And then you need to share it across the right teams, often breaking down a historical culture of hoarding where people believe "information is power".

This is not about flooding the company with dashboards. How you visualize those data as actionable insights, share it, and collaborate around it becomes your data culture. The stronger this data culture is, the more decisions your teams can make, faster; and the better your customers will reward you with more data. The more this happens, the greater your ability will be to understand and anticipate your customers' needs before they do.

2. How you engage customers

Your business practices are your company's habits - repeatable behaviors that enable you to scale effectively. In a product-centric world, these business practices optimize how you manufacture, market, sell, and service your products. In a customer-centric world, you still need to do all of that, but you also have to think about those activities from the customer's perspective.

Your goal: Make it easy for employees to make it easy for the customer.

Redesigning business processes to be customer-centric means moving away from seeing your business as selling to seeing it as serving. It means leveraging customer insights to deliver more personalized experiences, including tailored recommendations. It also means streamlining customer touch-points to increase speed and reduce effort. Reducing the number of steps in a transaction could be the start of a journey towards making that whole transaction invisible.

3. How you work

In a digital-first world, where the customer is in the middle, everyone is, arguably, in service-based selling. The challenge is how to orchestrate the full power of your organization to where it can best serve the customer. Most organizations operate in rigid silo's, with lots of bureaucracy, making collaboration hard. It's bit like watching a really bad 4x100M relay team where everyone is a great sprinter, but no-one can pass the baton.

Creating one team, aligned around the customer requires employees to be better empowered. They naturally need the right tools to collaborate and share information. This is the era of the augmented employee, who continually adopts new digital tools to augment their customer-facing performance. However, the need is greater than tools. Customer-facing employees also need better training to be more empathetic than before, ask better question, be better listeners and story tellers.

These needs in aggregate are highlighting a major deficiency in continuous learning. The shift to an all-digital world has made this gap more apparent and critical. Salesforce's Global Stakeholder Series: Future of Work, Now research surveyed more than 20,000 people around the world and found that around two-thirds feel they lack in-demand skills and wish they had access to free technical training.

The Pandemic has also revealed another unresolved issue: many workers have worrying levels of stress, and concerns about health, with 79% of survey respondents saying workplace safety should be a higher priority.  

4. How you embrace technology

Adapting to a digital-first world requires fundamental rethinking of the essence of the company. Brian Moynihan, Bank of America's CEO, said it best: "We're a technology company wrapped around a great bank". You could be a bank, telco, retailer or healthcare company, but soon, you'll have to be a digital company wrapped around that organization, making your own many of the tools and approaches that software companies use every day.

This means you need to move from having lots of departmental IT to having an enterprise digital operating model. Think of it as moving towards having the leanest possible tech stack. This starts with a simplification program that reduce the number of apps, and moves as much as possible into the public cloud. You build capabilities once well, with the intention of infinite reuse. Teams can then leverage shared data, processes, apps and APIs to create capabilities quickly. Development is agile, leveraging "devops" teams who deeply understand the business. Lo- and no-code tools empower business analysts, closer to the needs, to build the capabilities they need.

This also means you'll build deeper relationships with fewer technology providers, expecting them to behave more like partners than vendors.

5. How you serve society

The past six months have heightened demand for true corporate social responsibility. According to the Salesforce survey, a majority of people feel that businesses should give back to the community and make addressing global inequalities a high priority. In the past, the public didn't demand much more from companies than jobs and wealth creation. Now, every business needs to play an active role in moving the needle on critical societal issues, like diversity, equity and sustainability. Making progress on these challenges isn't just the right thing to do; it's also a significant business opportunity. For example, research has shown that more diverse organizations are more innovative and perform better than more homogenous ones, and leading the pack on sustainability can create a lasting competitive advantage.

This means it is critical to put in place leadership, measurement and reporting around your social programs. This is a move from episodic ‘write the cheque' thinking to turning your company into a platform for change, energizing your employees to act and putting in place programs that makes this easy for them.

An ongoing evolution

According to Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent.  It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Business leaders today are facing changes of unprecedented scope and speed, and the overhauls needed to adapt can feel daunting. This customer-centric digital transformation is necessary, but it can't be achieved overnight. Instead, it requires a mindset shift that embraces a constant state of evolution. That means recognizing the need to change, painting a vision, building an operating model, and setting off on your journey. Over time, the company will become more agile, capable of anticipating the needs of tomorrow and adapting to whatever comes next.

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