reflection flipped upside down/optical illusion of person walking on sand
PHOTO: Nine Köpfer

My favorite sci-fi books and movies involve time travel, where a major event changes the timeline going forward. Isn’t this reminiscent of today? As much as we might want to go back to the previous timeline — to normal — it won’t happen.

We will forever be changed by what has taken place since January. And when there is a vaccine, we will have achieved what social scientists are calling a new normal. The question for CEOs and CIOs is are they "figuring out how to thrive at the other side of the crisis?" said Amy Webb, futurist and professor of strategic foresight at the New York University Stern School of Business. Webb believes “they have it in their power to come out of this better.”

COVID-19 vs. Digital Transformation

McKinsey’s recent review of COVID-19 suggests that "overnight, every company has been thrust into a world in which digital channels become the primary and, in some cases, the sole customer-engagement model." It goes on to suggest that the “COVID-19 crisis seemingly provides a sudden glimpse into a future world, one in which digital has become central to every interaction, forcing both organizations and individuals further up the adoption curve almost overnight. A world in which … automated processes become a primary driver of productivity — and the basis of flexible, transparent and stable supply chains.” In this environment, it believes that CEOs and CIOs need to ask themselves: “What are the bold digital actions we’ve hesitated to pursue in the past, even as we’ve known they would eventually be required? Strange as it may seem, right now, in a moment of crisis, is precisely the time to boldly advance your digital agenda.”

Higher Education: One Case Study

Analyst Jack Gold said, “I think the advantage that higher education has is that they were ready for so many remote users. Not all industries are structured to allow that easily.” While this is true, former higher education CIO Theresa Rowe said, “higher education likely has a rough road ahead. What does budget retrenchment look like? Who are essential personnel in a minimal campus presence with all-online learning environment? How fast is leadership responding with an updated strategy or is it slash and scatter?”

Stephen Landry, CIO at Seton Hall, isn’t as pessimistic. “Pricing online courses is a challenge. Many higher education campuses have a tremendous investment in infrastructure in the form of excellent physical plant and outstanding tenured faculty; those expenses are difficult to cost into an online course.” At the same time, Landry worries that higher education needs to be “prepared for the backlash; some faculty and students will have poor experiences with emergency remote learning and will conflate that experience with intentionally designed online learning.”

At the same time, does this time represent a time to challenge models of higher education? Joshua Fiske, CIO of Clarkson University, said he “suspects serious paradigm shifts towards more modern teaching and learning techniques in higher education. Our faculty now know what IT's role in the organization is, I suspect we'll see higher demand for their services.” Joanna Young, former Michigan State University CIO, said it is important to lean into this change and put, “focus and priority to student-centric experience that enables multiple channels of interaction and delivery.” She gives Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) as an example. SNHU said it is time to “reimagine the traditional campus-based learning model and to bring more affordable, flexible, accessible degree pathways.” To do this it is providing, at $10,00 a year, the following options:

  1. Course-Based/Online — All courses are taken online with the option to live on campus.
  2. Course-Based/Hybrid — All courses taken online with face-to-face support from faculty, and the option to live on campus.
  3. Project-Based — Students will take courses through a project-based model with learning coaches and other academic supports with the option to live on campus.

This does what McKinsey suggests: It makes digital channels the primary, customer-engagement model.

Related Article: The Future's Always Clear in Hindsight: A Cautionary Tale for Information Professionals 

What Will the New Normal Look Like for the Rest of Us?

Last week during the MIT Sloan Disruption 2020 event, Amy Webb shared her view into the new normal and how it will disrupt business going forward. Webb was candid: "Would I have known that a coronavirus at this point in time would have caused this amount of disruption — the answer is no. There is no way to build that kind of a model. However, should pandemics have been in someone’s strategic plan? The answer is yes.”

While Webb suggests, “you cannot predict when something like this is going to happen, leaders can create a state of readiness,” she went on to say that “you have no singular control.” One of the problems is that CEOs and CIOs “tend to look at what is going on their industry and the challenge with this is that everything is so interconnected that it can miss what is happening in technology including huge changes or business risks.”

Webb said “the threats that are familiar have risks that are measured.” But other risks are not measured and this “creates a brittle organization” that isn’t prepared for the things they didn’t see coming and this fact, "forces leaders to make decisions under duress.” To fix this, leaders need to view the future via several lenses and not miss critical signals and trends.

CIOs and CEOs need to aim not only to perceive potentially weak signals and trends, but to have a state of readiness for risks. This includes designing for resilience and business continuity through a crisis. Most organizations weren’t ready for remote work. So the question worth asking is could we have been more prepared? Almost every industry will need to be more adaptable for remote work, which may include preparing for less workers to return to the office.

Webb said every strategy officer she talks to is asking when things will return to normal or when a new normal will be established. She suggests, like Derek Abell in “Managing with Dual Strategies,” that “every organization should be thinking near- and long-term simultaneously.” She noted past strategies favored speed and efficiency over resiliency. The pandemic has proven the brittleness of today’s supply chain. Leaders can’t sit idly and wait for disruption to end, they need to be able to think near-term survivability and long-term growth. It's like driving a car on ice, if you pump the brakes you will crash. But if you lean in — which seems wrong — and keep your eye on the road ahead and make course corrections, you will get out of this OK.

Related Article: The Sudden Move to Remote Work Unearthed Years of Bad Tech Decisions

Start Creating the Corporate Future Today

The crisis has exposed the weaknesses of our business and IT strategies. It has also revealed we should expect to see business models change in the near future for many industries, especially higher education. And while a new normal will await a vaccine, it is time for leaders of all stripes to start planning. Because as Russell Ackoff suggested, we can “create the corporate future” if we start today.