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Why Covid-19 May Change Thinking in Many Areas

13 May 2020

Rethinking Your Business Processes May Be Critical to Thriving, or Even to Surviving

As we move into the next phase of the pandemic, the critical balance is between opening up the economy for effective commerce and the potential of disease outbreaks and exponential growth. Clearly, social distancing has an impact, so optimizing that in business is critical. As we have seen, for a large percentage of typical Knowledge Workers, there is flexibility within the role to work remotely at least marginally effectively, if not completely. Information and Service Workers that have physical and/or interactional components to their roles have been impacted if they are not considered essential.

In a recent BCStrategies podcast and post, Marty Parker discussed how business processes will change, and I believe this is completely true. In all business processes there are assumptions about what is “acceptable,” both to customers and employees. Ikea proved you could sell self-assembly furniture to the masses with simplicity of assembly and instructions. Prior to their success, many thought that a high-volume business of self-assembly furniture was a non-starter. Similarly, the impact of COVID-19 on the process, social distancing, implementation technology, and the behavior of the participants may require thinking outside the box.

The first example is health care delivery. We all are aware that tele-medicine is taking off. I saw this firsthand when my wife had a wrist injury. After about 5-6 days of not getting better, she decided it was time for an X-Ray. She scheduled an appointment and went in for the pictures. The doctor’s office team, over the phone, then scheduled a follow-up video call for a couple of days later. The time of the call came and the actual “office visit/video consultation/health meetup/?” went very well. While my wife was front-and-center on video, I was able to side hover and see the X-Ray image the doctor shared and when he zoomed in to a specific area. The good news was no break, but still discussed bones for a few minutes.

After it was done, I realized how much better this visit was than the old way. Other than the doctor wiggling your wrist and feeling around, this went very well. It eliminated the travel and office time and was probably more predictable. In fact, it was predictable. After my wife joined the video conference, she was in a waiting room. After about a minute, she got a text in the waiting room that the doctor would be arriving in three minutes. And that is when I realized that the doctor had, in reality, become a call center agent. While the current “back-end” interactions (the message, the data pop-up, etc.) were probably being handled by local staff, the reality is that in larger health care organizations, this could become a significant part of the overall structure. Imagine, even after COVID-19, an organization like Kaiser Permanente defining a set of doctor/patient visits that can be done (or should be done) virtually. If that is 50-60% of the overall visits, with one day for surgery, it is two of the remaining four days. The visits on those days can also be done remotely by the physician, reducing facilities load for follow-ups and routine non-physical exams like my wife’s injury. This has many impacts: increasing the footprint of care, increasing visit density for routine visits through virtual interactions, reducing facilities needs, and significantly reducing potential infection exposures in the future. Before COVID-19, there was a general reluctance by many to try virtual health care. Clearly that is rapidly changing; probably to some degree permanently. Similarly, every business must examine how customer and employee attitudes and process expectations have changed in this time.

The second realization of why the past processes and predictions may no longer apply came early in the pandemic. I live in the SF Bay area, and we sheltered in place mid-March (yes, it has been a long time). A couple of days into the shelter, I was doing a personal project and needed some pictures of the water at Moss Landing, down on the California Coast. It is about 80 miles away and required going through some of the worst commutes in the Bay Area, but, as everyone was sheltering in place, traffic was light. My intent was to “shelter in place” in my car and socially distance by at least 20 feet from anything mobile or human in Moss Landing. 

After getting there, I found there was an on-boat fishmonger and ended up buying two crabs through a social distancing safe transaction. They were fresh caught that morning and excellent that night for dinner. The problem was my 90-minute estimate to get home and get them into a hot pot was at the edge of the time. When I got back to the car and started Waze to guide me home, it showed a 1 hour and 45-minute drive time, making it almost two and a half hours to cooking the live crabs. I was concerned, but as I drove, the arrival time continuously moved forward, and the estimated remaining drive time dropped rapidly. In fact, the drive took about an hour (or however long it is at 65 MPH).

It turns out Waze was expecting all those commuters coming out of their offices in the same numbers and at exactly the same times they had been doing it for the previous months and years. That predictable cadence, captured in large number databases in the Google cloud, predicted they would do the same that day. However, most were not at the office, they were sheltering at home. The algorithm was not able to predict the disruption of the behavior change; it assumed they were still there. Someone forgot to tell the algorithm the past was not a predictor of a Black Swan future.

I believe there are innumerable processes that may have similar disruption in the traditional prediction models within businesses. Within all of our processes there are White Swans. These are assumptions or business facts that have not been questioned, because they are foundational or clear to all. In “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells how swans in Europe were always white and the concept of a Black Swan was not even comprehensible as no one had ever seen one. The general societal agreement that there were only white swans was transformed when Black Swans were found in Australia.

COVID-19 is a Black Swan event that will have impacts that are not easily predicted or understood initially. Businesses and organizations will need to carefully analyze value and process in a potentially radically changed environment. In some industries the Black Swan impact is obvious. Passenger load levels, route balancing and other pre-COVID predicting tools in the airline industry may dramatically change and most of the previous predictors and databases may have to be re-evaluated. Similarly, forecasting, sales funnels, time to close, geographic coverage, supply chains, etc. may all be changed within industries and markets by the impacts of COVID-19.

Together, these two observations emphasize how critical this time is to re-examine assumptions, models, and processes. The convergence of new effective Team, Meeting and Collaboration tools for Frontline (Information and Service Workers in the KISS worker segmentation), dramatic acceptance and adoption of similar or the same tools in the Knowledge Worker cohort, and the rapid acceptance and potential preference for touchless interactions by partners and customers is creating a perfect storm of opportunity (or reaction to market pressures if your organization is late). Integration of the next generation Business Communications tools and technologies with this opportunity storm will create fundamental business transformation and potentially strategic advantage in a rapidly shifting environment. Understanding clearly the Business Communications capabilities you have available and how they can be deployed and integrated can drive informative discussions with your business ownership peers of how they can re-think their strategic processes in the new environment.

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