Technology: How COVID-19 Has Accelerated Change

Technology: How COVID-19 Has Accelerated Change

Sometimes Will Duckworth is frustrated by companies’ unwillingness to adopt new technologies when business is ticking along. But if there are positives from the coronavirus crisis, this is one: business wants to do better. “Organisations are realising that in the post-COVID-19 world many people have shifted their behaviour and their expectations have fundamentally changed,” says Duckworth. “The trend that’s accelerating is transformation itself.”

01. Remote working = flexible supply chains

The pandemic forced change on many businesses, which had to quickly digitise their offerings and reorganise supply chains just to keep afloat. Duckworth is excited about the transformation of entire business models enabled by technology. For example, one EY client, a financial services institution, could only operate its contact centre remotely if it changed suppliers. The switch took four weeks – the incentive was business continuity – but the company now has a truly flexible workforce and estimates it could reduce its real estate costs by up to 50 per cent. Staff can opt to work one hour a day from home – or eight – which wasn’t possible in a physical contact centre. “We could Uberise the workforce – just as Uber uses algorithms to get drivers on the streets when there’s peak demand, we could bring in supply when there was more customer demand,” says Duckworth.

02. The shift to AI, automation and the cloud will accelerate

Demand for automation has increased dramatically and artificial intelligence (AI) is a large part of any future response. “Organisations across industries have dealt with extraordinary demand, from the purchase of toilet paper to governments dealing with needs for payments,” says Duckworth. “Maybe you can try to continue the human processing of the work remotely but the sheer volumes mean you can’t.” The movement to the cloud is also escalating as companies struggle with outdated technology stacks. “Organisations that adopt the cloud in meaningful ways have already shown they’re in a better position to respond to new and shifting demands,” he says. “It’s not just a matter of cost; it’s a matter of scale and speed.” Companies will also need to more effectively use platforms adopted during the crisis.  “Having 20 people on a Zoom call is not productive,” says Duckworth. EY’s Wavespace network is coaching businesses in how to use tools to ensure reluctant participants are heard via anonymous suggestions or remote contributions to the whiteboard.

03. A desire for experimentation has been sparked

Having worked in emerging technologies for more than three decades, Duckworth is seeing an attitudinal shift among EY’s clients. “They’ve had a taste of these technologies through their initial response. ‘Next’ is looking at how they better optimise their business operations for the beyond.” He believes that Australian businesses have prospered in a stable, economically strong environment, which has held them back from investigating new technologies. “Some might categorise that as prior complacency,” he says. “There hasn’t been the need for mass innovation at the bleeding edge.” Duckworth, who is based in Sydney, works across the Asia-Pacific region and consults in countries where markets are subject to geographic, social and economic shifts. “Now we’re also having those huge shifts,” he says. “Changing consumer demands will drive the need for more technological innovation than Australian companies have ever had to provide before.”

04. There could be more positivity towards disclosure

EY’s Future Consumer Index: How COVID-19 is Changing Consumer Behaviors report tracks consumer sentiment in five markets. For two years, EY modelled different scenarios – and one was a global pandemic. (“We saw it as a low-probability scenario,” reads the report.) Of almost 5000 people surveyed before the pandemic, 53 per cent said they’d share personal data if it helped control infection – and we’ve seen millions download the federal government’s COVIDSafe app despite initial concerns. “Companies should consider how increased consumer positivity around sharing data will create opportunities for new business models,” the report goes on to say. “It may well accelerate the demand we see already for greater product traceability, creating an environment in which consumers and companies operate with total transparency.” The survey did not include Australians but, says Duckworth, it indicates that “people will give a little of themselves if there’s a benefit in return”.

05. There will never be a better time to be entrepreneurial

Duckworth sees digital transformation in three waves: the first comprised those industries with a product that’s easy to digitise (music and video); the second wave switched to digital because customer needs had changed (banking, retail, telecommunications). The third wave
(B2Bs, governments, industrial companies and pretty much everything else) brings
a period of intense creativity. Not only have engineers been problem-solving in isolation, “it’s a prime time for entrepreneurs,” says Duckworth. “Government/citizen interactions, healthcare, travel and retail models will shift fundamentally and technology can address the changing needs. That’s my hot bet for investors.

Will Duckworth is the Asia-Pacific digital leader and a partner at EY

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