What will the “New Normal” look like for organizations of all shapes and sizes? In this article I propose four areas (risk-taking & decision-making, budgets & investments, partnerships & collaborations, sales & client management) where change has the potential to yield positive impacts, as organizations adapt and redefine many aspects of their strategies & operations.
As I write these words at the end of April 2020, COVID-19 is raging strong, albeit with initial signs of stabilization in some North American and European cities. The term “New Normal” has now entered mainstream conversations across the globe. While we do not yet know how this new reality will look, plans are currently being discussed and introduced for the reopening of all facets of society: schools, places of work, government services, health care facilities, local, and national and international transportation.
The title of Linked Editor-in-Chief Daniel Roth’s summary of an online chat with Bill Gates (April 11, 2020) “The new normal, according to Bill Gates (and when it arrives)”offers a glimpse into this new reality from a leading philanthropist and technology visionary. HBR, McKinsey and other thought leaders are starting to offer their perspectives on the initial impacts of the post-COVID-19 world.
It is clear that Social Distancing and other precautions will last for some time, and impact every facet of life, as per University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. Ashleigh Tuite in this recent article “Coronavirus study: Why Canada could still be social distancing in 2022, even after it flattens the curve” by Ian Young, published 17 Apr, 2020, in the South China Morning Post.
Without knowing precisely what will ensue, it is certain that small and large organizations will resume functioning in some capacity before long. New methods, collaborations, business models and opportunities will also be explored in this “New Normal” world.
In this article I will touch briefly on four main areas where I believe organizations at large will experience dramatic change as a “New Normal” takes hold, with immediate as well as sustained impacts over time. My perspective is focused primarily on investments, partnerships, collaborations, sharing of assets, staffing and skillsets and how they pertain to organizations’ ability to execute in the market. There will be, I believe, positive implications to these events for the organizations experiencing them.
Hypothesis #1 — A need for greater certainty coupled with lower risk tolerance will improve stale and slow decision-making and operational practices
Organizations expect greater clarity and certainty on the benefits, anticipated outcomes and returns before decisions are made, which will drive organizations towards smaller, simpler initiatives. As per McKinsey leaders Matt Craven, “Approaches such as using a portfolio of initiatives and planning for decision-making under uncertainty can go a long way toward creating a compass for business leaders to follow” in the McKinsey COVID-19: Briefing note, March 30, 2020.
Key Implication #1 → Improved decision-making given higher standards of accountability and proof
Simplifying what are currently largely overly complex and inaccurate organizational decision-making processes will yield a positive impact as organizations learn to remove some of the overhead surrounding their existing back office activity. Typical business-case documentation, often convoluted and based on high degrees of conjecture by internal teams rather than market driven confirmations, will become more precise and less risky. Executives will force their teams to account for facts underlying projections with greater reliability and assume higher degrees of accountability for the results.
Rather than larger programs that span many months and years, we will see smaller, dedicated initiatives with clearer objectives. Companies will be hesitant to re-hire full-time staff and instead shift to project-based approaches and hires to achieve a greater line of sight to the expected outcome from their staffing costs. A recent piece by .com, “The Gig Economy Gets Its Props”, published April 17th, notes: “More traditional companies that have had to switch to remote operations may also be turning to freelancers as they find themselves working with tighter budgets and potentially with fewer team members following bottom line-saving measures like layoffs,” adding that, “Collaborating with freelancers could provide a solution by giving firms access to talented pinch hitters who can help complete projects without requiring companies to allocate funds for salaries and benefits”.
Hypothesis #2 — Budget & investment shrinkage will yield smarter, more analytically driven organizations
Given widespread financial impacts across client, supplier and other ecosystems, organizations will curtail investments and seek to cut costs where possible. Budgets across all facets of organizations will be reduced, and there will be an emphasis on marketing, travel, account management support, certain aspects of R&D and product development, IT investments and upgrades. Multi-year capital projects will be canceled or delayed across all these domains.
Hope Reese in “How COVID-19 is forcing companies to reduce workforce costs” on .com (March 31, 2020) references a Gartner Survey which indicates that “most HR departments have begun cost-cutting — nearly half of respondents (49%) have implemented hiring freezes, for instance, and 41% are making efforts to use technology more efficiently”. The report also finds, however, that many companies have held off on making larger-scale cuts, instead focusing on preventing extra costs. The data also suggests that we should expect to see a second round of larger cost-cutting measures in the near future, which may include layoffs, furloughs, and other forms of downsizing.
Key Implication #2 → Smarter organizations due to greater reliance on analytics for leverage
For some organizations the positive impact will lead to a refocusing of budgets on initiatives that are core to their success, rather than pet projects or traditional recurring initiatives. For example, annual recurring budgets for and events that have ‘always been attended or sponsored by the company’, may now be reduced, given questionable ROI metrics.
R&D projects that arose from executive team pressure which may not align to core organizational strategy and standards will (thankfully) be put on hold. Costly travel to early-stage sales meetings and “hand-holding” of accounts will be limited and scrutinized far more heavily. Similarly, clunky, outdated, non-transparent, legacy code based IT systems will finally be replaced, not by larger multi-year implementations, but rather by new, service-based hosted systems that offer far more than simply process handling, and include embedded analytics and learning systems process optimization.
Across the entire organization, the emphasis will shift to higher-value initiatives with inherent leverage, an ability to yield potential results far greater than the costs and investments needed. Key to these changes will be an increase in reliance on internal and external analytical capabilities across all departments, with new demands placed on internal groups and on management to rethink their activities and points of leverage.
Hypothesis #3 — Demand for partnerships & collaborations will increase, holding all sides accountable to higher standards and clearer value
Organizations of all sizes will increase their desire to partner and collaborate in order to achieve greater leverage as well as shared risk. As companies seek new opportunities to collaborate with others to reduce risk, cost, and leverage shared capabilities, data, assets and investments, we will see changes to existing organizational partnership practices at several levels.
As in the smartcitiesworld.net April 16, 2020 article “Data alliance aims to limit economic impact of Covid-19 outbreak”, “Established by Rolls-Royce, the alliance will combine data from different sources to create insight and practical applications to support governments and around the world.”
Myplanet is a software studio headquartered in Canada (www.myplanet.com), that has built its success in large part thanks to a global network of technology partnerships. Michael Younder, Head of CMS Partnerships for the firm notes in a phone conversation on 2020: “For Myplanet, COVID-19 is a strategic pivotal point for us to re-examine and invest in opportunities with greater scrutiny and resolve. Focus, ability to execute, depth of skill and commitment take on an even greater meaning going forward, and this holds as true for us, as for current and prospective partners”.
Key Implication #3 → Broader, deeper and more fruitful collaborations due to higher standards
The impact of COVID-19 will force organizations to raise their standards for collaboration, to rethink and expand who they collaborate with and the nature of the collaboration. Organizations of all sizes already recognize the need for cross-industry collaboration as a key part of their strategies. In reality, partnerships often yield very little value for one or both sides due to unclear or unrealistic goals and expectations. Furthermore, partnerships are often relegated to joint marketing and sales programs, but less so to true R&D. Development and Data-level, as well as Analytical collaborations, are where a great deal of unexploited strategic value resides, not in the marketing and sales channels.
The anticipated changes must include, first and foremost, a higher standard of due diligence with respect to the true value that each party will contribute to the relationship. In times like these, few organizations can afford to squander resources. No longer can they allow themselves to waste time on endless collaboration meetings without clear objectives, attempting to leverage each other’s marketing and sales channels without true commitments to outcomes, often retaining IP within the individual walls and not sharing data and analytical capabilities (as legally permitted of course). This last point is most critical, as in every domain organizations seeking to truly differentiate in these challenging times would benefit greatly from deeper collaborations at the R&D, Development, Data and Analytics levels, areas traditionally guarded and isolated from partners.
It behooves organizations to seek collaborations with a broad array of new parties that have typically been outside of their relationships, such as industry associations, university teams and researchers, other private and public firms, vendors, suppliers, technology and analytics firms. Parties who may have competed earlier this year or last may now seek to collaborate for mutual benefit.
Hypothesis # 4 — Remote work and client engagements will force organizations to become increasingly effective and efficient
Domains such as marketing, sales, partnerships and account management have traditionally been high touch environments, with senior team members justifying the use of extensive travel & entertainment and conference/trade show budgets to achieve personal contact and exposure. This will change as organizations are forced to leverage their assets in a smarter way to accommodate critically important new health and safety measures.
As Patrick Grey states in TechRepublic on April 14, 2020 in his article “Remote work will be forever changed post-COVID-19”, “While this was nothing new for most technology leaders, COVID-19 forced a sudden and dramatic change: Rather than remote work being an exception, it is now the norm for everyone from the CEO to the new analyst. This sudden change forced even the most reticent leaders to acknowledge that it was possible to be productive outside the four walls of the company, and also forced workers to quickly learn and embrace remote working technologies.”
Key Implication #4 → Organizations will transform core sales and client-service practices
The new normal will force organizations to rethink these ingrained practices, not only due to their budgetary constraints, but due to new safety standards. There is an opportunity for organizations to methods and protocols for engagement and support, instead of simply replacing an in-person meeting with a zoom or video conference and carrying on as normal.
After all these years of skype, WebEx, Zoom, go-to-meeting, etc., the value of an in-person interaction remains leagues ahead of its brethren. There is an opportunity for innovation to close this gap by developing groundbreaking methods that allow body language, emotions, tone of voice and additional personal attributes to transcend the digital pathways. Parties can be brought together with far greater efficiency and effectiveness, allowing organizations to utilize their most expensive assets with far greater benefit.
As Patrick Grey continues, “One thing I noticed and confirmed with several colleagues early in my COVID-19 experience was that productive video conferences were mentally more than an equivalent in-person meeting. A two-hour workshop over had the same mental drain as an all-day affair in an in-person meeting, especially for the presenters and facilitators. The medium seems to force more intense interactions, and more planning to successfully orchestrate.”
The “New Normal” will evolve before our eyes over the coming weeks and months. The uncertainty and even fear that are commonplace will give rise to opportunities for organizational innovation as leaders and teams at all levels rise to the challenge and forge new paths for growth and success.
About the Author
Simon Brightman is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Ottawa, Telfer School of Management. His research interests include global strategy, data analytics and Artificial Intelligence driven decision making in government, international organizations, as well as private corporations.
Simon has lectured and taught technology commercialization, innovation, product validation and product development for over 12 years in private, public and academic organizations. He has served in various executive roles leading data analytics product technology firms in the USA and Canada, including Head of Data Strategy & Open Banking at TransUnion (Credit Reporting Agency), Vice President at Panvista Analytics (a US wearable geo-location analytics firm), Head of Agile & Product Management at Points.com (Nasdaq traded, leading global loyalty e-Commerce provider to Airlines & Hotels), Senior Manager at KPMG (program management), presently a Senior Partner with Global Data Insights (data analytics advisory & investments across Fintech and other xTech domains).
Simon holds a BSc. in Computer Software & Business Management, an MBA in Technology Management as well as a Masters in International Relations from Cambridge University. Connect with Simon on Linked in