This article was originally published in Analytics Magazine on April 10, 2020.
The pandemic will lead to a recession. In a recession, companies cut back and hunker down. But consider a counterintuitive perspective for a moment. If you can possibly afford to do so, this horrifying moment may be the best possible time to invest in retooling your business for the future.
As I write this, it’s hard to envision the end of this chaotic time. People are suffering and organizations are considering draconian actions to conserve cash and ensure their survival. Companies may play defense, cutting jobs and eliminating “discretionary” projects. But if you can possibly do so, consider another option: play offense, and position yourself for the eventual recovery of the economy.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, there is a good rationale for making investments now. This is an opportunity to work on the things that are critical for long-term success but are difficult or impossible to get to during times of business as usual. Much of this work is possible despite disruptions such as having people work from home, closing locations, reducing production due to supply chain issues, and so on.
Investing now can do three things:
- Pave the way for responding to pent-up demand.
- Allow repayment of technical debt, which needs attention to create new capabilities.
- Keep experts productive and focused on improving the business.
Technical debt refers to improvements and initiatives that have been put off, often because of the day-to-day pressures to get work done immediately. For example, you can relieve this deficit by investing in data quality, supporting knowledge processes, experimenting with new tools, or developing innovative ways to serve the customer through data architecture that improves the digital experience.
Rather than letting the business slowdown inevitably lead to the need to furlough key talent, engage them in the work of building the foundation for the next level of digital productivity. Many large digital transformations (which inevitably use artificial intelligence, whether in a highly visible or behind-the-scenes way) fail due to the inability to connect with infrastructure, data architecture and knowledge management experts to ensure that new systems are properly designed. These experts are too busy working in the business. Now is a golden opportunity for them to work on the business. These transformations will be better thought out, have greater buy-in and will be better aligned with internal and external customer needs.
A key part of this transformation process is the development of an ontology (the organization’s knowledge scaffolding – containing representations of the things that are important to the business) applied to business problems. Building an ontology helps gain alignment and develop consistent language and definitions of processes, products, customers, etc., which will improve communications and collaboration. However, ontology development usually suffers from the lack of availability of high-cost, high-value experts in internal process, subject domain or customer-facing knowledge. Their time is too valuable during business as usual. This is a unique opportunity to take advantage of their bandwidth.
One option for using downtime would be to capture lessons learned. Organizations often solve problems as they go along, but the knowledge is rarely curated and stored in a way that allows effective re-use. The result is that lessons have to be relearned, which is inefficient. If lessons learned were stored in a repository with appropriate metadata, they could be made findable and reusable. If relationships were established between the lessons learned and (for example) a client or industry category, an ontology would allow a company to ask, “What have we learned about this client/industry that will help us identify a need or opportunity?”
Another project would be for experienced staff to work on improving enterprise efficiency. During hard times, it is more important for managers to find ways to get the most out of their people, tools and resources. Less efficient systems create friction – they slow down information flows and reduce the value from people’s time. Try to identify the things that have slowed your organization down. During normal times, you could not rip them out, replace or retrofit, but now there may be an opportunity to re-architect these systems.
Repurpose Talent, Reinvent Projects
Using talent in an innovative way helps organizations be more resilient. When the organization doesn’t make good use of professional time, it is equivalent to burning capital. That capital and bandwidth could be used to ramp a new internal project, or the headcount could be reduced to use that money elsewhere. This will help not only with direct costs, but also the opportunity costs.
When the economy does recover, rebuilding core infrastructure will enable new efficiencies and faster scaling than the old patchwork of systems and processes with hard coded integrations, prior generation tools and siloed data. Four types of reinvention projects in particular can help the business to retool for the future:
- Infrastructure: These projects could include platform migrations and upgrades for systems including accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP), analytics platforms, web content management, marketing resource management, marketing automation, document management, knowledge management, master data or data quality.
- Data projects: Poor quality, inconsistent or disconnected data continues to trip up organizations embarking on digital transformations of all types. Many times, the fault is in the underlying technologies and in poorly designed, uncontrolled or overly complex business processes. Both digital experience and digital transformation are completely based on data. AI programs, while over-hyped, can provide value; however, the data is more important than the algorithm, and AI projects fail without the right data sources.
- Information architecture: An improved information architecture can help with the data issues previously mentioned. When systems are using different language or different representations for core business concepts like customer or product, this mismatch will lead to data challenges and manual translation processes. Good information architecture – which cuts across domains including knowledge, content, product and customer – is critical to a good customer and employee experience. It prepares the organization to remain agile and adaptable – especially during times of stress.
- Knowledge and content management: One weakness that the current crisis is exposing is the inability to effectively collaborate remotely. For some organizations that operate virtually or have a distributed workforce, telework is business as usual. But for most enterprises, remote work is a culture change and calls out the need to organize and curate knowledge and content sources for easier access and improved efficiencies. When it is not possible to walk to the next cubicle and ask where a particular document or information source is located, people are left to their own devices and begin to experience the difficulties navigating and accessing poorly organized and haphazard information systems.
When organizations downsize, tribal knowledge of how to get things done with unintuitive workarounds begins walking out the door. In these difficult times, tasking subject matter experts to work on documenting and codifying knowledge can keep them motivated and focused.
We find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented economic disruption. In the long run, the disruptions will strengthen the digital economy. We will emerge with a better infrastructure for collaboration, virtual operations and many types of transactions. Our digital economy is all about data, data quality and compliance. Companies with the best architecture, algorithms, and information and data flows will win. Use this time creatively and productively to get your organization on track for a more efficient future.