Never waste a good crisis, they say. That being the case, the past few years have delivered up plenty of ‘opportunity’ from COVID through macro-economic problems to Putin’s war in Ukraine.
A truism that’s emerged from the pandemic is that savvy companies saw their digital transformation and change programs accelerate rapidly to cope with the new reality the world faced. Whether this took the form of shifting to new models of remote working or adapting to be able to deliver essential services to customers, every organization had to re-examine how it operated and what changes it needed to make, fast, in order to survive.
But as the Vaccine Economy takes shape, will that acceleration slow down or do organizations now have, if not a need, then a taste for speed? Or will they drift back into the ‘old normal’ and see a slowing down of decision-making and transformational spend as the uncertainties caused by the likes of the crisis in Ukraine and rising inflation worldwide take hold? Already we’ve heard an increasing number of tech companies cite a slowing down of the approval cycles by customers looking to make investments. Those deals aren’t going away, but they are taking longer to get signed off.
With that backdrop in mind, today sees the publication of the second Business Future Index from Unit4, designed to be a snapshot of the mood of organizations around the world based on data from 3,450 respondents across 12 global markets. That broad reach is impressive and exposes international differences.
For example, when asked about how digital transformation efforts had accelerated, Denmark saw the highest ranking (74%), followed by Singapore on 63%. At the other end of the scale, the US and UK reported the least accelerated change (48% and 49% respectively). Germany reported seeing the fewest benefits from accelerated change, with only 59% of respondents citing this. Germany also shared bottom slot with the UK in terms of business performance and exceeding targets in 2021. Only 41% of respondents in each country felt able to make such a claim.
For all that, overall, the Index suggests that organizations entered 2022 confident of their own resilience, which is perhaps just as well given what’s unfolded globally since then. Over two-thirds (67%) believe their ability to be resilient is good, up from 63% a year ago. That ‘toughening up’ is in large part explicable by dint of having survived the COVID crisis.
As noted above, the pandemic did indeed accelerate organization change and transformation, with 90% of respondents pointing to this. Digital transformation was the most impacted (52%), followed close behind by changing to new flexible working models (51%).
All of this sounds very positive in the main, but the Unit4 study does strike a note of caution in relation to how this accelerated change has been accepted by non-decision makers ie - the workforce on the front line:
When change gathers speed as quickly as these organizations have seen, there will inevitably be loose ends to tie up or decisions to revisit. Assuming everything works simply because it has been implemented is a mistake. It is important to engage with the employee base and understand what works for them day-to-day, especially as it is harder to spot these issues remotely. It is not the time for these organizations to become content with their efforts, but instead to look at them through a critical lens – yes, we have made a shift but what can we do differently? What have we learnt? And, as we progress, what can we do to push even further forward?
This year, a sense of urgency emerges. The learnings from the pandemic tell us that those organizations which are better prepared to take risks and move with agility performed better financially, attracted and retained talent more effectively and met customer expectations more easily. As we move into an uncertain economic time, it is paramount for organizations that they focus on maximizing the gains seen, keep innovating and investing in technology to support these accelerations, and absolutely do not become complacent.
So, keep on keeping on. But how straightforward is that going to be? Going back to that widespread slowdown in procurement approvals, the need to check and double-check the business case, do organizations have the necessary confidence to keep the corporate foot on the accelerator? Or are we all, to put it bluntly, just knackered after three years of ongoing crisis? In other words, while a crisis is a powerful accelerant for change, at what point do too many crises lead to crisis fatigue?
The one constant in business is change, argues Chris Richards, Regional President UK&I, Unit4, noting:
At the moment, we're in really uncertain times with what's happening with Ukraine and fuel prices, inflation, the pound. I think we are in a very unusual situation at the moment where it is almost a perfect storm. We've come out of a pandemic into another very disturbing situation. It is tough for people, but change is inevitable.
If everything was normal, would you just get complacent? You do have to be constantly on your toes. I've got a sales background and in a sales organization, you're only ever as good as your next quarter. There's always a crisis. If you're not watching, you're not going to be performing. For me, that's just how it is - there's always something that's an obstacle that you're trying to get around or over in order to deliver. I think without them, maybe you would get complacent.
There's always been this panic, this peak and trough type of attitude. We're up in the air or we're doom and gloom. There's always uncertainty in business and in the 25, 30 years I've been in business, there's always uncertainty, always peaks and troughs. I remember the dot.com boom, and then the absolute sinking of that and loads of my friends losing their jobs because they all went to start-ups.
As to her advice for organizations, private and public sector, in today's climate, she says:
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. It really is about knuckling down. It is about focused investing. My big takeaway - and I see this in my own business - is that it's about investing in people. One consistent theme on any of those deliverables is people. If you haven't got that right, if you haven't got the right talent strategies... I think that's the biggest takeaway from the report - when it gets tough, still focus on your people.
In Alan Bennet's play The History Boys, the character of Rudge is asked to define what history is. His reply:
How do I define history? It's just one f***ing thing after another.
Many organizations – and individuals – could easily be forgiven for taking the same stance to world events over the past three years as we've all lived through crisis after crisis and adapted to a world of near permanent background levels of organizational and personal stress. That being the case, the argument for 'crisis fatigue' is pretty strong. Are we dangerously close to operating in a state whereby crisis is accepted as the 'new normal' and not an unintended accelerant for change? Let's hope not, although 2022 has done little to dispel such a concern to date.
The Unit4 study provides an interesting and informative snapshot of where the organizational psyche is at present. But let's hope by the time next year's report comes out, the world is in a better place than it is today.