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Coronavirus and The Digital World:
Live, Laugh and Learn in Troubled Times


I was meeting Dave Cohen, ex-Procter & Gamble colleague, urban guru and decades-old friend for lunch. “Your next piece has to be about coronavirus!”, he insisted. I started to shake my head even before he finished speaking. “What’s coronavirus got to do with digital transformation?” I objected. Dave leaned over the table. “Think about it!  Globalization, the information economy, managing disruption….”.  Darn it! He was right again. This is why I have lunch with Dave periodically. He’s way smarter than most consultants. Much cheaper too.
Coronavirus has wrought disruption upon the world. And yes, while the chaos hasn’t been caused by technology, it’s a great sociological case study in disruptive change management. It is occurring in our current times and in a highly compressed time-frame. It has already generated key lessons on disruption management.

1. Reconcile beliefs and hard data: We’re sociologically wired to believe that dramatic events deserve dramatic responses. That’s an admirable trait that worked well for early humans facing carnivorous predators. But the unfortunate modern equivalent is often to create “pandemic pantries” filled with toilet paper.  Interestingly, the opposite behavior of ignoring data is also true. A few western countries lost a few weeks of precious time, believing that this was a localized issue. What good information brings is the ability to strategize for dramatic events. On digital disruption, there’s still time for traditional companies to ask good questions regarding potential impact. According to IDG, 55% of startups have adopted a digital first strategy.  That compares with only 38% of traditional companies.  Worse still for traditional companies, 77% of them rate their relationship with digital technologies and digital transformation as average or above average. It might be time to reconcile our beliefs on digital preparedness with hard data.

2. You need containment plans as well as mitigation plans: Over the weekend, the US strategy for battling coronavirus formally moved from “containment” to “mitigation as well”. In a global, economically inter-dependent world, containment alone is not enough. The digital disruption equivalent of containment for companies is to buy time through furious “sustaining innovation” plans within their current business models. The issue is, mitigation plans on digital require disruptive innovation in most companies. Studies published in HBR and elsewhere have previously demonstrated that R&D spending in companies isn’t the same as “innovation” because it doesn’t equate to customer-driven and business model innovation. Similarly, increased IT spending doesn’t equate to digital transformation. Your digital disruption “mitigation” plans must include investments in Customer Focus and Business Model disruptions. Digital Transformation is currently estimated to be a 2 trillion-dollar industry and 40% of investments are expected to go against disruption related costs. That’s not enough, given its stated goal of “transformation”.

3. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine: It’s been fascinating for me to watch our adult kids’ reactions to coronavirus. They spend as much time reading about it as I do, except that more of that time appears to be on Twitter memes. Here’s a sample shared by our younger daughter.

Funny tweets about coronavirus using classic hit songs:
@actioncookbook, using Neil Diamond's song, 'Sweet Caroline' with imaginary responses from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC)
NEIL DIAMOND: touching hands
CDC: no don’t touch hands
NEIL DIAMOND: reaching out
CDC: please avoid that
CDC: everyone is Boston is doomed
And another one from @Ottawapublichealth
TOTO: It’s going to take a lot to drag me away from you
CDC: might be best to avoid touching them
TOTO: There nothing that 100 men or more can ever do
CDC: Wait, why would you want to add 100 people to this situation?
TOTO: I bless the rains down in Africa
CDC: Just wash your hands, OK?

To be clear, coronavirus is no laughing matter. And there’s merit to the feedback that we need to be sensitive to individuals and families who are going through incredible trauma. What I find fascinating about the younger generation’s response to the disease is their matter of fact approach. They appear to be as educated as the older generation, more politically correct and are very emotionally sensitive (despite the memes). You want to be surrounded by them during this challenge. On digital transformation we often make the mistake of treating millennials as only customers of new digital experiences. That’s fine, but their more important contribution may be as change leaders. The digital era may bring the end of the world as we know it, but with their help, the future will be fine.

Go forth and transform.



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