Who would have thought that a movie could be made and released during lockdown! C U Soon1 , a gripping thriller produced during the pandemic was recently released on a streaming platform to critical acclaim, while many more films2 are in the making globally. In many positive ways, the world seems to be making the most out of this pandemic. So much that, it is now safe to say that a lot more got done in these past six months which under typical pre-COVID-19 circumstances might have taken years to see the light of day. From e-commerce to EdTech, from streaming platforms to collaboration tools, since the outbreak of COVID-19, the world has taken many strides towards ensuring and enhancing human life, with Digital Technologies playing the lead role!
The pandemic is causing many companies to accelerate their digital journey. These companies are quickly moving from active experimentation to active scale. This means that the many digital pilot programs and initiatives which companies had in place, now need to mature into full-fledged digital initiatives. However, these digital transformation initiatives cannot follow the pre-COVID path journey. They need to be looked at from a fresh perspective – with a post-COVID lens. Companies need to re-draw their roadmaps based on changing customer behavior, newer workforce demands, digitally enabled operations to support the core business, supplier dynamics, regulations, etc. Any firm which does not align with the business priorities and considerations from the new normal in their digital journey is bound to be usurped and become irrelevant.
We do not need to look too far. Education systems across the world (school, higher education, and vocational training) have been traditionally classroom based with minimal technology dependency. This pandemic and its restrictions dealt a serious blow to education systems worldwide. By the end of March 2020, schools across 180 countries had closed, impacting ~$1.5 Billion learners. This pandemic has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the EdTech sector. Using digital and platform technologies, EdTech companies were able to quickly scale to meet the rising demand from educational institutions.
For example, the University of Washington3 was one of the first educational institutions that moved all in person classes online amid the pandemic4 in March 2020. Using the latest digital technologies, this University enabled learnings for 6000+ courses and over 50,000 students registered for its Spring semester. In Wuhan, China, 81% of school students attended classes via Tencent Online School5 . These examples help us understand the level of digital disruption that is taking place in our world today. This trend is further reinforced by the huge bets investors are placing on the EdTech sector. According to Crunch Base6 , funding for EdTech companies reached $4.1 billion between January and July 2020 vs $ 2.6 B in the same period in 2019.
Crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine things and envision a better and new normal. We have heard about the work-from-home (WFH) trend earlier, but we had never experienced it on this large a scale. The pandemic has left us no option but to push us towards remote working. Even roles which were assumed location critical (like in manufacturing or lab-centric engineering design) have been enabled digitally. At HCL, with our digital tech support offerings and remote labs, we ensured delivery of services to our clients through the pandemic-related lockdowns. Thanks to the existing digital infrastructure like cloud, network connectivity, and collaboration tools, and the human-centricity it offers, people are quickly able to adapt to the new ways of working.
We do not have to look far to feel the pulse of the post-COVID world. With almost ‘everything’ now moving to the Cloud, and with the ‘as-a-service’ business model being increasingly preferred, we feel the ‘real’ momentum of businesses transforming themselves into digitally mature organizations. Use cases for Edge, remote working, streaming (to name a few) keep getting stronger with every passing day, especially since the beginning of this pandemic. Look at the number of people who today effortlessly use Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Byju’s– the learning app, Amazon! We can work and study, order our groceries, consult a doctor, and meet up with friends and family, all from our mobile device.
Digital technologies are making the unimaginable possible in the wake of this pandemic. Who would have thought of taking a virtual reality (VR) vacation before COVID-19? Today, there are apps, wearable devices, and platforms (AirPano, GoPro Fusion + VR, Wanderlust Travel Videos, etc.) that bring the world to you. You can travel the world from the comfort of your couch. Offerings range from a shark dive in the Bahamas to a Tahitian surfing excursion to a fast-paced tour of New York City. It is no exaggeration that with 3D and these new VR technologies, we can experience almost every nook and corner of our world (from the Danube to Dehradun) without leaving home.
Business travel (Events, Summits, Conferences, Client meetings) used to be a top priority for many corporate leaders. Thanks to usage and adoption of all the video conferencing and collaboration tools (Zoom, Teams, Meet), event delegates and participants can attend industry events (large-format or niche) from the comfort of their homes. It is only a matter of time before VR technology disrupts this space further to create human-like experiences.
With human centricity in technology taking center stage, the line between what is accepted and not (rule versus violation) tends to blur. Things like data privacy and security will still be concerns and will need to establish a lot of trust with the customers. When the Indian government tried to establish the biometric system (UIDAI, Aadhaar) in 2009 for social safety and direct beneficiary transfer schemes there was a lot of scrutiny and pushback citing data privacy and security concerns. It took more than a decade for Aadhaar to establish the necessary trust i.e. for people to let go of the fear of sharing their data. (90% of people trust their data is safe in the Aadhaar system7 , per the 2019 Omidyar Network report).
However, this pandemic has proved that we might not hold technology to the same level of scrutiny if it means sharing data to protect our lives. Governments across the world are relying on app-based contact tracing8 which collects personal and health data from the users to identify patterns and manage the pandemic. These apps are being implemented as part of standard operating procedures for travel, entering offices, entry at schools, shopping at malls, etc. According to an MIT review, there are more than 47 countries where these technologies are being deployed. For example, Qatar9 COVID tracing app “Ehteraz” is being used by 90% of its population and Iceland’s9 “Rakning C-19” app is being used by close to 40% of their population. India’s COVID-19 tracking app Aarogya Setu9 became the world’s fastest-growing application, beating Pokémon Go with 50 million users in the first 13 days of its release (Currently 150+ Million installations). Is this shift (health and safety taking precedence over our data and privacy concerns) for the long term?
Earlier, we would have frowned if offices had installed face (facemask) recognition devices or had asked for our biometrics every time we entered the work-spot. China has effectively deployed facial recognition with mask algorithms and biometrics to allow entry of people into schools and office, to enforce lockdowns, track people coming out of hotspots. With the pandemic, our health and safety have taken precedence over our privacy concerns.
COVID has bought about certain lasting changes in customers and patterns of user behavior. We are seeing people embrace social distancing, contactless technologies, online buying like never before. We also see people give more importance to health and safety over data privacy concerns. While companies look at long-term work from home (WFH), data security, health & safety, digital operations, newer business models, and Supply chains, in the new normal, companies need to quickly adapt to these changing trends and therefore will need a greater focus on enriching customer experiences.
“Customer leaders who care and innovate during this crisis and anticipate how customers will change their habits will build stronger relationships that will endure well beyond the crisis’s passing” – McKinsey
Vijay Anand Guntur
Corporate Vice President, ERS, HiTech and Communications – HCL Technologies
Vijay is a Corporate Vice President and heads the HiTech and Communication (HnC) business within the Engineering and Research & Development Services (ERS) division of HCL Technologies. He is responsible for global delivery, sales and solutioning business. He is a member on the board of Actian, a JV between HCL Technologies and Sumeru Equity Partners, focused on data management.
Vijay is adept at devising strategies for disruptive markets and establishing market differentiation through solutions, IPs, and strategic partnerships. He is responsible for the P&L and drives leadership position for HCL services in Telecom and Networking, ISV, Online, Consumer HiTech, Semiconductors, Server and Storage, Fintech, and Communication Services provider domains.
Vijay has an MBA from The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and a Computer Science degree from BITS Pilani.
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