Part 1: A Conversation with the Chief Digital Officer

You’re a technologist and a CDO. What lessons have emerged from this crisis as far as digital transformation, technology adoption and the future?

To state the obvious, there is clearly an acceptance of a new normal. That new normal is about replacing inefficient work practices that we’re only starting to realize were inefficient — commuting to a workplace for an hour or hour and a half, then having people interrupt your workflow for an hour or more just seems so inefficient. I’ve found myself more productive while working longer hours. I’m calm, I’m not running around, but I do have more time to get things done.

My question is will we be able to take the “best of,” or will we be going back to work the old way. I find it hard to believe I’d spend 18 to 20 hours to get somewhere to have three days of all-day meetings, having a 50% productivity loss over what I have today.

Instead of making some of our online work sessions simply replicate the day-long meetings – stretching from 9:30 to 5:30 in some lucky person’s time zone – we’re doing them in three-hour maximum sessions over multiple days. We find that a meeting we could have conducted in four days in one centralized location we can do in seven days – without flight time – in short sessions of three hours each with a lot more concentration. Shorter work sessions stretched over a longer time. We’re able to keep a project going with development, deployment and legacy system maintenance, all in parallel. As opposed to having to do things sequentially when we met face to face.

I think the mood is better. The productivity is higher, the collaboration is greater. Of course, as will all things we take the good with the bad, and my team members tell me that they miss the social interaction. This substitution of workplace social contact with other social contact may not be a bad thing. It both expands a person’s network and draws a firmer line between work and personal spaces.

I’ve spoken to people over Zoom that I have not connected with in the workplace in years. It’s simple,  and you get face-to-face contact, and you’re done. I’m finding a move away from physical to digital. Sharing files, all that stuff, is a lot easier.

What has surprised you?

What has surprised me on the upside is the speed with which people adapted. I didn’t expect it. What surprises me on the downside is the trivial issues we didn’t think of that represent enterprise-level risks. We now have every employee’s home network as a risk because we don’t have an easy way to secure it. So we have had to boost our centralized security defenses. Data backups. How can you backup somebody’s home-based computer over a home-based wifi network automatically without adding a layer of administration? We haven’t had experience of these things at scale, and we’ve had to learn as we’ve gone.

Companies with employees who’ve had to do bandwidth upgrades on their home wifi to do Zoom calls. Who pays for that? Who manages that? How do you account for the fact that people will use the bandwidth to watch Netflix in the evening? Maybe that’s OK. In the past, companies used to pay for company cars and provide company car allowances.

I wouldn’t want to be a commercial real estate owner – an owner of office space right now. I think a lot of companies are thinking through what value it adds to bring everyone to a centralized place every day in high rent areas and then disperse them again at the end of the day. Work as a social construct may be ending.

Has the crisis separated digital laggards from digital leaders in your view?

Yes, but not in pure technology, per se. The time duration (of the COVID crisis) has been too short, so far. It’s the manner in which they’ve built a commercial response around technology. We’ve had vendors say to us that as a result of your having to work from home, we’ll temporarily remove the limits we’ve imposed on some of our technology – for instance, with VPN access and off-site license access. They’ve allowed us to “burst” capacity ahead. Others have taken advantage of it and said, this is a great opportunity for us to make money so we’ll exploit it. Guess where our preferences will be when we come out of all this? The leaders and the people who could afford to be generous towards customers are going to win.

What about the future of work? Workforce tracking, wearables, physical distancing, temperature checks?

I talked to a company this morning with warehouse-wearable tech they’re going to use so that it sounds alarms when social distancing limits are broken. I’ve been surprised by how fast people have responded. Contact-tracing apps are a missed opportunity. We didn’t adopt them when we should have. Apple and Google can tell us when traffic is up 16% or whatever in Los Angeles. They can help local authorities. But I don’t think it’s enough – it’s a hugely missed opportunity – largely because of the privacy aspects. I don’t see why every iPhone or Android device that I come into proximity with can’t be used to trigger a text that tells me somebody in my vicinity has come down with COVID in the last two weeks and tells me I should get checked. There are privacy concerns, but why not have it opt-in, then you can turn it off when COVID is over.

Australia, Hong Kong have done some good work with all this. Some of that is analog – masks are key, testing is key. This is basic science, not politics or items of faith. What is so wrong with relying on science and data? We even design our road and bridge infrastructure using data science on traffic flows. I get the privacy aspect but safeguards can be designed. ​

What about changes in consumer patterns and behaviors?

Online shopping has exploded, as if there was any additional momentum needed. I was impressed with the way Amazon quickly used data science to flag businesses that qualified for PPE. Amazon started to go thru biz users to say, you can’t buy masks because you’re not qualified, or you can because you are qualified. Companies in the medical industry were flagged. That’s using data science.

We’re using data science and classifications to choose who to channel supply chain product to. That has not been done before.

What about B2B and supply chain?

We’ve found that the customers that have a high degree of digital supply chain already built in were able to flex a lot better and more quickly with us. This is the new digital divide that separates winners and losers. Large, sophisticated apparel companies and technology hardware makers shifted to air freight and changed their ordering processes quickly, as an example. You’d expect little guys to be more nimble. But what’s happened is that the bigger players that already established a strong digital footprint were able to use it to put more distance between themselves and the competition. It’s created a catchup situation for companies that weren’t highly digitally capable.

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