Early in 2020 much of the world went into lockdown. Companies sent workers home to work. Schools sent students home to study.
As a response, there was a surge in technology adoption. Often, people, companies and organisations tried, for the first time, technologies they had not used before. In others, rarely-used technologies moved centre stage.
Video-conferencing, online shopping and streaming were among the technologies where adoption leapt forward. Cloud and collaboration surged. All became mainstream overnight. And those that were popular before lockdown reached the more reluctant users. That’s a group technology companies can overlook.
Vaulted five years, ten years
A technology adoption graph would show a discontinuity in the second quarter of 2020.
In May 2020, McKinsey, a management consultancy, reported: “Recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks”.
And for online shopping in America, progress was even more rapid: “ten years’ growth in three months”.
Shopping, banking, health
Netcomm, an Italian retail consortium, says shopping in that country, considered an e-commerce laggard, witnessed a “ten-year evolutionary leap” towards digital.
Banking experts canvassed by The Economist reckon the share of cashless transactions worldwide jumped to levels they had expected to see in two to five years’ time. This may look odd from New Zealand: cash and paper transactions remained popular overseas.
A British doctor told the New York Times the National Health Service saw a decade of change in a week, as doctors switched to remote consultations.
Late last year I interviewed Auckland-based Van Tang and Phillip Bradley from GHD, an international professional services company in the infrastructure sector. The story appeared in the NZ Herald’s Infrastructure Report as: NZ playing infrastructure catch-up after decades of under-investment.
The pair told me how the business took around 24 hours to make and implement a decision to send workers home before the first lockdown.
In normal times, a decision like that might take months of planning. Then there might be a trial project, an evaluation and another round of planning before pulling the trigger.
Compressed decision making
Tang made an important observation. If GHD could compress that decision making process into a matter of hours, it should be possible to proceed at the same pace with other moves.
It’s as if a conceptional barrier to rapid change has been breached. She says GHD will make more decisions this way in the future.
Sending workers home wasn’t the only sweeping change at GHD. Much of the work from the Auckland office involves infrastructure projects in Pacific island nations. In the past this meant sending engineers and other skilled professionals to the islands.
This wasn’t possible in the pandemic. Instead GHD turned to augmented reality. A worker on site in, say, Fiji, can inspect progress on behalf of someone in Auckland. They can use a video camera, earphones and augmented reality to send back images.
The desk worker, can talk the remote engineer through the site inspection. If something looks wrong they can ask the on-site person to take a closer look.
GHD says this process not only works, but it is an excellent way for older, more experienced skilled employees to pass their expertise onto younger people.
At the same time, this approach extends the working life of older, skilled employees.
As I talked to executives at other New Zealand-based organisations while working on other stories, a familiar picture emerged.
Leaders in businesses as diverse as HP, Vodafone and Russell McVeigh, the law firm, all had stories about accelerated technology adoption.
The lessons learnt, the progress made will make businesses more efficient, boost productivity. And heaven knows New Zealand needs to boost its productivity. As The Treasury makes clear, productivity is New Zealand’s biggest economic challenge.
Last month I interviewed Datacom group chief executive Greg Davidson for a Dynamic Business report feature in the NZ Herald. In Digital transformation accelerated by Covid he echoed the story I heard elsewhere.
Davidson said many of his customers brought forward their digital transformation strategies.
Those who had a strategy moved things forward by two or three years. Those who were further behind became more focused on the job of preparing a strategy. Matters have reached a point where you either have a digital transformation strategy or you don’t have a future.
Something similar happened with schools and education. Many switched overnight to online learning. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t without problems, not least issues with less well-off students not having the tools.
The move to online learning highlighted inequality. We need to address this. It’s a subject we’ll come back to again and again until it is fixed.
One way trip
An interesting aspect of this Great Leap Forward is how it forced the hand of reluctant companies, individuals and industries.
New Zealand companies have been slow to reap technology productivity gains. It’s possible Covid has given them the kick up the backside needed to get moving.
The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no going back. Yes, a proportion, even a majority of workers may return to CBD offices. Yet the list of excuses used by luddite bosses to refuse working from home has diminished.
Working from home has challenges, it’s not all great, but no-one can ignore it.
We need to find ways to deal with loneliness. Companies need to generate fresh ideas when thinking heads don’t bump into each other in the tea room. Zoom fatigue is not imaginary. You can add your own examples, there will be many more.
This year saw a discontinuity in technology adoption across a range of industries and sectors.
When we iron out the problems, yes it is not trivial, we should see significant gains. They will be patchy, not everyone will get a boost, yet no-one can argue we failed to grasp the opportunity.