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Cisco Live 2021 - how COVID has accelerated digital transformation for three end user organizations

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan April 7, 2021
A side-effect of the COVID crisis has been a hefty increase in the speed of digital transformation efforts in organizations across all business sectors. Three end users told their stories at Cisco Live 2021.


Customer testimony is the best validation for any pitch by a technology vendor - that’s the hill on which we at diginomica are prepared to die. I despaired recently when an invitation came in from one enterprise name to join it online to “understand the importance of customer experience”, an invitation I declined having checked out the speaker list to find…no customers. 

I confess I had a bad feeling when I scoped out the Cisco Live 2021 program last week, as session after session appeared to involve Cisco people talking to other Cisco people. But fortunately there were some customer-centric panels to counter this echo chamber approach, including one in which three customers from different business sectors discussed how they had used tech to transform end-user experiences over the past year. 

First up was Jeffery Whittemore, VP Infrastructure and Operations at retailer Ulta Beauty, where he is responsible for data centers and cloud infrastructure and oversees all operations for enterprise IT systems. Like every other company, Ulta was faced with shifting its workforce to a remote model in the face of the COVID pandemic, but unlike some others Ulta had a bit of a head start: 

We'd already been struggling with space in the office, so we were able to quickly pivot to a virtual space, giving people the ability to work at home full-time with video-conferencing and laptops. We have partners in the space who struggled mightily because they were used to having more fixed office space. 

A greater impact was felt at Ulta in relation to store associates in the field and to customers, he admitted: 

We had to meet our customers where they wanted to be and where they wanted to shop and we have had to introduce rapidly a great deal of technology into the store. Fortunately, we had leveraged [technology] for a number of years. We'd been on a journey to implement the [Cisco] Meracki stack in our stores and [make] a number of application changes that we had to go through in a short period of time to implement omni-channel capabilities that will unlock inventory in the stores [at a time] when our guests didn't want to walk through the door. The templating capabilities within the Meracki stack allowed us to make what would have taken us hundreds of hours of manual changes at the push of a button.

Again in common with many organizations, Ulta has experienced the accelerating impact of COVID on its IT infrastructure. Whittemore explained: 

There are many factors, at least in the retail space, that are driving a more rapid adoption of technology, right out of the gates - at the edge, not in the core data center, not in the corporate office space, but where the associates and the guests are in retail. We don't feel COVID was a disrupter; it was an accelerant. We'll never go back from from this disruption. In fact we feel that the pace of change is only going to increase in retail. We feel that data, technology, insights, AI, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality, frictionless payment and touchless payment are all key unlocks in the future of retail.

In terms of real world exemplars, Whittemore pointed to an Augmented Reality initiative to make his point: 

When COVID hit, it became unsafe to engage our guests in the store in the way we had previously. Our guests don't come to us just to walk in the store to pick up a product. They want to immerse themselves and they want to engage and they want to play with your product. So we leveraged our Augmented Reality technology to allow them to try on make-up without the sanitary concerns of actually touching the product. It was a key enabler to keep our guests excited and engaged when it wasn't safe to leave samples out.

Is that now to be the infamous ‘new normal’? There’s certainly no turning back, concluded Whittemore:  

I think we have to accept that what was disrupted by the pandemic is not going to go back to status quo. We feel that the pace of change, and the acceleration that we've seen in change through the pandemic is only going to continue to increase.

Dog food dinner

That’s a sentiment that would find favor with Dr. Bernd Heinrichs, Executive Vice President & Chief Digital Officer Mobility Solutions at Bosch, where COVID acceleration has also been felt:

Over the last year we learned really to leverage technology and digital transformation to stay close to our teams. Daily stand-ups, transparency to the whole team, really gets you closer, so there is a physical proximity generated in a world which is more apart than it was before and that is held up by technology. Digital transformation is a key to that and we leverage digital transformation now much more than we did before the pandemic, in external activities towards our customers and with our partners, internally by optimizing productivity and increasing efficiency. 

This ramping up of transformation activity has meant managing internal cultural change, he said: 

One example is how we educate our people. Everybody knows that education is key in these times and we are leveraging cloud-based education for our employees and really enabling them to leverage external in the same way as internal type of activities to learn more, and prepare for the future of jobs and positions.

Another reality lies in ‘eating your own dog food’, suggested Heinrichs: 

The first thing I learned at Bosch - and what was really instrumental for us and in our activities - is to look at your own plants, really eat your own dog food, and bring in technology and digital transformation into the plants and onto production floors. We did that. We are offering solutions to the outside world using the experience we gained internally. 

For us, it became very clear that in these difficult times, where our production floors are sometimes empty, we need to optimize even more than we did before. So we encourage our people to think about optimizing their environment and 'bot-ify' their environment, to come and learn how to implement bots, which can increase the efficiency and productivity in their environment and their plant and in their work. They love to do that. You need to educate people in doing that, so that they can really make a difference. 

At the center of all this lies data, he added:

There was one thing which we learned in this last year which is that data is a core of all the changes we are doing. That is what we do internally and bring to the outside world and I can only encourage you to do it like that, then you are capable of inventing things like prediction, like automation and all of that in a really rapid way.

Re-educating education

Meanwhile Down Under in Melbourne, Australia, John Dewar, Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University, reflected on the impact COVID has had on the higher education system there, highlighting an estimated 20% reduction in revenues for the next three or four years. That means looking at new ways of operating and once again the theme of digital acceleration comes for the fore:

A lot of the things that we are now doing are things that we were planning to do before COVID came, it's just that we're now doing it much faster than we thought we would need to or we might have been able to beforehand. 

There are two areas where this is most evident, the first clearly being on the core business of teaching: 

We've had to pivot very quickly to delivering all of our courses online, which we did very successfully. What we've learned is that there's actually an enormous cultural acceptance of the use of technology in teaching and learning, much greater than there had been before the pandemic, but also that students welcome having the choice available to them as to how they study. Some students loved remote study, others hated it. What we've learned is that we have to cater to the needs of all groups of students. So, online delivery and the use of technology will play a much bigger part and a much more strategic part in how we teach our students. 

The other area of impact is ‘back of house’, he said: 

We have to transform digitally and we have to do it quickly, primarily because to address the revenue downturn, we have to remove costs from the organization. The most effective way we can do that is to digitize as much of that work as possible, so that we can reduce the number of staff we need to do that work. We're actually partnering with Cisco over the next couple of years to roll out a major program of back office digital transformation.

As to the future, campus life will be different, he predicted. Students will still want to tap into social and community resources there, but other traditional aspects won’t be the same: 

The era of the very large lecture has gone. Those very large lecture theatres that you might remember from your days at university are probably going to stand empty now, until we find other things to do with them. I doubt whether they will ever make a return…the amount of face-to-face teaching that's done on campus will probably diminish. 

We also know that our staff have developed an appetite for more flexible work, for being able to work from home. For some of them, it's important that they do that for health reasons. For as long as this pandemic and this virus is around, there'll be some staff who simply cannot safely come onto campus. We estimate that we will be reducing the use of our real estate by about 25%, so what we're now doing is looking at which buildings can we withdraw from or empty out of our own staff, then package them up to try and attract other tenants onto campus to work with us. 

What we envisage is that our campuses will become much more diverse places where there's a university going on, but there's a lot of other stuff going on around it. Who knows what it might be, but one of our tenants on our Melbourne campus will be Cisco. Cisco will be setting up an Innovation Center on our campus. That's one of a number of tenants that local partners that we hope to have co-located with us on campus.

Underpinning all this is a wider digital transformation journey that will take up to four years to travel, he concluded: 

It's a bit of a race against time because we have to reduce operating costs, but we know that in order to do that, we have to make a big investment in digital technology. That's what we're doing - we're actually making the biggest-ever investment that universities have made in digital technology so that we can go on this journey in a way that will make us more efficient, more agile and more customer-focused than we have been in the past. 

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