Digital era calls for managers to don several hats in post-COVID world; vaccine is not sole requirement

September 11, 2020 10:26 AM

Managers in the digital era will be working with no definite answers but with the idea that every intervention will provide a new direction that will lead to a new capability that will move things forward.

Global thinkers predict that work from home and learn from home will become permanent features of the future on account of the social distancing practices.
  • Y Shekhar

Do you recall ‘Stanley Ipkiss’ the lead character in the movie ‘The Mask’ (1994, Jim Carey)? He would, on wearing a mask, experience his inner feelings and desires and express them out in the real world. From looting a bank to romancing the heroine and bashing up the bad guys, Ipkiss could do everything. He was a ‘Superman’ with all the powers and capabilities at his command, when he wore the mask over his face. It was then, a funny movie!

Today, Ipkiss-like behaviour happens in the real world thanks to technologies like VR/AR. These technologies can virtually move you in space to experience travel; immerse you into a problem situation that seeks your multi-disciplinary thinking skills to solve it; make you exercise your body without you needing a gym environment… These technologies are bringing experience of the real world events and situations to wherever you are, thus, obviating the need for proximal physical presence!

During this pandemic, which has impacted our lives and movements, medical practitioners have extensively used technologies to treat people who have tested positive and to provide care and preventive treatment to those who are on the fringe of contracting the disease. Thousands of ICU beds are connected online for doctors, nurses and clinicians to provide critical care services. Over hunder-thousand clinicians have undergone online training to deal with covid tested cases; the knowledge content itself has been revised over twenty times in the last 3 months with all clinicians accessing the updated versions. Technology has scaled medical care when social distancing challenged existing practices of face to face interactions. In this context, VR/AR and other elements of digital technologies like cloud computing and AI have transformed the complete medical services which started off as tele-
medicine in the beginning of this millennium.

The Digital Disruption

We are currently witnessing an unprecedented change and its associated experiences, which are transformational, implying that in future, these will become the normal states. Social distancing, which prevents face to face interactions has impacted industries like travel and tourism, hospitality, in-store shopping, cinema & theatre, in-stadia sports, etc. But new collaborative technologies have enabled online business meetings, school sessions, organizing family chats, celebrating birthdays and special occasions, streaming wedding and musical events, etc. that are making interactions over the internet a new habit and culture!

Global thinkers predict that work from home and learn from home will become permanent features of the future on account of the social distancing practices. With over half-a-billion users of internet and mobile phones in the India, digital penetration is entrenching. Silencing the hitherto narratives of implementation challenges due to illiteracy, language barriers, class divides, social practices etc; the Government of India transferred billions of dollar worth of rupees to millions of Indians into their Jan Dhan accounts in less than a week’s time using digital techonology. The UPI framework ensured the large scale financial transactions was smoothly executed which benefited a large population that
normally faces neglect and deprivation during trying times.

There are many such examples happening around us which are ushering in the digital disruption. Medical consultations and healthcare services are being offered online and medicines are ordered over the Internet. Schools and colleges are shut but education and examinations are happening; cinema halls, restaurants, malls and sports stadia are empty, but OTT players, online food delivery and online shopping are increasing. The unemployment figures are lowering and the stock market is booming; Banks are functioning close to 100% of their services through bots, chats and online agents. Global giants like Google and Facebook find India attractive for big investments and have committed billions of dollars in public and private sectors. The challenge is for business to reinvent its customer engagement
models, discover new efficiency in its operations and supply chain processes, engaging and motivating its highly distributed talent pool using digital technologies. No wonder, everyone finds reality in the humour – the ‘C’ that ushered in Digital Transformation wasn’t the CEO, CFO, CHRO …. it is Covid!

The Digital Transformation

Organisations are transforming into digital platforms that are lean in structure, agile and responsive in action. They are mostly medium-termed in vision and strategy, and pride in their ability to pivot and discover new paths for competing and succeeding. Operationally, they tend be super efficient; they leverage technology to the hilt; provide new and enhanced customer experiences; dissect and analyse every consumer and product data point and use them in their communications, promotions and strategies. They have the ability to know their customers uniquely and intimately, and also have the ability to follow their customers’ life journeys. Everything is backed up by data!

In the context of digital, ‘faster change’ is a constant. Data is central to decision making, which is a devolved authority. Managers are expected to take their decisions based on the visibility of data with them and up in the hierarchy decisions are taken by various people that shape the activities from operational levels to strategic ones. The speed of flow of internal decision and the changing external contexts make decisions at different levels distinct. The skill is to understand which data points are relevant for a given context, and their analyses for decision making.

However, digital platforms also have Strategy, Speed, Scale that impact skill. The lens here is on the ‘skills’ parameter to see how it behaves in the context of changing speed, scale and strategy that are key to digital transformations.

Skills in Digital Development

The demands of social distancing and the advancements in digital technologies like AI, Robotics, VR/AR, IoT, Blockchain etc. will soon lead organisations to become ‘HuTech’ — human + technology. Human beings will be involved in finding, discovering, experimenting, researching and in leading & directing resources in newer aspects of business activities that improves its sustenance. Such activities are invariably of kinds involving high uncertainty and unpredictability, require deep cognitive and problem-solving capabilities besides the ability to lead and guide emotionally expressive and very creatively thinking teams that are part of a distributed workforce. In essence, nothing of this role can be converted into an algorithm for it to be done by technology. Infact, in the hutech environment, technology will do everything else – from the grunge to the gargantuan tasks – complicated, regulated,
formulated and all structured forms of work – where efficiency is a key measure.

But the fact is, as human mind solves a new problem, the problem and the solution now become parts of the tasks that can be automated. Thus, human tasks will keep changing and each engagement will be a new situation or experience that reuires some new skill, thought or action. Therefore, adaptability and learnability become very essential part of staying relevant to jobs in future. Human beings can think in multiple dimensions and multi-disciplinary experiences will be highly rewarded. The instinct of wanting to survive and thrive will lead human beings becoming more self-aware, emotionally more sensitive and therefore solving those problems that require a multi-disciplinary approach.

The Covid situation is not one of health-care alone. While the world is expecting some succour in the form of a vaccine, it continues to solve challenges of lives and livehoods. Management capabilities are directed towards averting a global economic meltdown; a deterioration in diplomatic and geo-political relationships; efforts in transforming habits while protecting cultures; ensuring safety and security of people, their mental and emotional well-being and holding the diversity of views in a socially expressed society. Vaccine is an important but not the only answer for managing the pandemic and therefore, multitude of skills are required to tackle this situation. Digitally transformed organisations will be a
microcosm of such an experience and management therein will demand knowledge that are creatively, analytically, caringly and purposefully deployed.

The function centric approach to management learning like, Marketing, HR, Finance, Operations etc. or the industry specialisation like BFSI, Retail, Healthcare, etc. will transform into experiential problem solving skills with the use of collaborative technologies that will bring the experience into the classroom. The Ipkiss’ will learn about global trends and local phenomena in the classrooms that develop perspectives for creating original solutions to unprecedented challenges. Management skills in the digitally transformed world will be involved in solving nebulous and complex problems of the environment, energy, ethics and education, that are in the contexts of a small society or relating to the world at large.

Managers in the digital era will be working with no definite answers but with the idea that every intervention will provide a new direction that will lead to a new capability that will move things forward.
Unlike Ipkiss, who had to wear a mask to show his prowess, managers’ of the future will have capabilities to deal with uncertainties, unpredictabilities, unpreparedness and the unprecedented events of the world!

  • Y Shekhar is In-Charge of the Centre for Digital Enterprises at IIM Udaipur. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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