Technology is one of my passions and I’ve spent many years of my career pursuing the digital transformation of the ways we work. I’ve also been using digital collaboration tools since their beginnings. However, I have never expected my onboarding as Chief Digital Officer at Schneider Electric, a company with 135,000 employees worldwide, to be a fully digital experience.
I started at Schneider in June last year, eager to connect and collaborate. Onboarding as a leader in a global organization always requires many meetings, lots of travel, learning, sharing, and decision-making. In the new normal, most of that happened behind a screen at my home office near Nuremberg, Germany.
The Digital difference: here’s what I learned
Rather than hampering things, this all-digital new reality actually worked well for me. During the first couple of weeks, I found myself immersed and connected in the company — even more than would have been possible otherwise, but in a different, digital way. Despite restrictions and social distancing, I was, ironically, more connected, reachable, and flexible. Everything was within one click’s reach.
Of course, this mode of work doesn’t come without challenges. Building relationships and trust in the digital sphere can be hard for employee communities. We all miss the social, in-person aspect of our professional lives – those cups of coffee or chats as we run into each other by the office printer or in the lifts. They’re important, and we all have to find workarounds to fill the gaps. Similarly, we all need to take extra care to find a healthy work-life balance, now that work has come into our homes.
Still, we’ve had time to adapt to the accelerating digital transformation that we’ve witnessed in the past few months – and we’ll no doubt continue to find more, new ways to overcome the challenges of living and working in the New Normal.
A path forward in the new reality
But what does all this mean for businesses? How will our individual experiences shape the future of the digital economy?
According to McKinsey, consumer and business digital adoption have vaulted five years forward in a matter of around eight weeks, amid the COVID-19 crisis. This was mainly driven by the skyrocketing demand for remote work and remote access to services across industries.
However, the manufacturing sector is still lagging in the adoption of advanced, digital technologies. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 70% of industrial businesses are still in pilot phases of their transformation, while only a select group of manufacturers can reap the benefits of deployment at scale in their plants.
Plenty of uncertainties remain. But one thing, at least, has become clear: that digital transformation is the only way for us to move forward. Businesses that entered the pandemic with a high level of digital maturity fare better, and are more likely to do well going forward, than those that were less digitally prepared.
True, digital transformation is not a new concept. After all, we’ve been building digital roadmaps and adopting new technologies for many years now. But as Schneider’s CEO, Jean-Pascal Tricoire, put it in a recent blog, “crises are a powerful learning accelerator, because they leave us no choice.”
The past year has turbo-charged and revolutionized the process. We have changed irreversibly. Digital transformation has become the single road to recovery.
Shaping the future through Digital Transformation
We’ve also learned – and must not forget – two other lessons we’ve learned along the way:
The first is about the importance of agility. This applies not only to business operations, but also to people and how we think. We must operate as if we’re constantly in a beta mode, being able to pivot not once, and not twice, but as many times as the situation requires. All of us need to be in a continuous state of learning, making decisions fast, and adapting quickly to constantly changing circumstances. Our business strategies must rely on technology and be flexible, with built-in agility.
The other lesson is about ecosystems. We’ve long known that no-one can thrive and innovate alone in the digital world. Now, trust in the ecosystem of customers and suppliers, between employees, between all the players, has become the cornerstone of resilience.
As 2021 progresses, we must embrace the lessons of 2020, and resist simply returning to the old ways. Instead, we must welcome the New Normal and learn to thrive with agility and trust in our people and technology — whether from our home offices near Nuremberg, or from wherever you are reading this right now.