Companies large and small have spent the last two years changing. Google "digital transformation" and you get over 500 million returns. For "organizational change" you get 309 million, and you get over 3 billion for "the future of work". Big numbers. But what do they actually mean?
It's my experience, from talking with customers of all sizes, that these numbers mask a great deal of granular reality: businesses have changed, but have done so for any number of reasons.
Many have changed less than we might imagine, and some have hardly changed at all.
And for some companies, as McKinsey reported, the pandemic has been a trigger for growth and innovation.
Here are two examples of these granular differences. One of Superloop's customers is a healthcare company. Their priorities inevitably shifted when COVID hit, and their plans to upgrade their network infrastructure were certainly put on hold. But they continued to provide extraordinary care for people living in their facilities, and they are now dusting off those earlier infrastructure plans.
Their experience differs markedly from another of our customers, an RSP, that needed to upgrade their wholesale network and selected Superloop to do so. They invested despite lockdowns, and did so not just to replace an incumbent, but to position themselves to be ready once lockdowns ended, and to be ahead of their competitors.
Coming out of the new starting gates fast
What companies and businesses of all sizes are looking for are ways to come out of the starting gates as fast as they can, now that some degree of certainty is with us.
Their starting points will in turn be influenced by the degrees to which they have already changed, through choice or simply to survive, and what their plans for change might have been before the pandemic hit.
In practice, this means reassessing and then rebuilding their connectivity and security strategies.
At the centre of this should be the needs of their customers and users.
These will, I think, continue to define, and will certainly influence, every decision being considered around infrastructure, from hybrid cloud to network speed, from security to frictionless customer experience, from resilience to flexibility, and from being able to manage everything from supply chains to helping customers buy products and services.
Establishing new priorities
When creating new strategic plans, companies now face changed priorities.
The first is network infrastructure: is what they have, and is what they acquired during the pandemic, what they need for the future?
Having spent up to two years building new infrastructures for remote and hybrid access, businesses now face the prospect of rebuilding infrastructure again, to accommodate a hybrid return to work in a single location, branch networks or subsidiaries, or even locations shared with other organisations, alongside remote work locations that, of course, now include homes.
The debate about hybrid work has also been general, and again masks important differences. As just one example, we often talk about hybrid work as meaning working partly from home and partly from offices. But according to digital media company, AllWork.Space, co-working is on the rise and has continued to do so during the pandemic, with an estimated 35,000 flexible work spaces around the world.
These needs are very different from those associated with working from home.
Infrastructure for remote working is different from infrastructure in an office.
And for many companies, what they have in their offices is two years out of date, and will be even older for many. As employees and network managers walk into offices or take possession of new premises for the first time, the networks they find may not be what they need.
Technology such as network management, cyber security and cloud security, software-defined networking over a wide-area network (SD-WAN), network resilience, and security solutions such as SASE, have all moved forward. With little or no on-premise investment for the best part of two years, many companies will now find themselves in a fight to catch up, compete and differentiate.
Indeed, as McKinsey notes, companies that have already upgraded their network infrastructure believe they are now ahead.
Different companies will have different requirements, of course. Some require increased network visibility, others will want to improve Wi-Fi access in their buildings.
Dusting off the network, security, and infrastructure strategies will help companies redefine their priorities. With their employees online and remote, their on-premise requirements have inevitably changed.
The back-end customer experience must match the front-end
Another area that many companies will now be prioritising is back-end operational infrastructure.
Many businesses have focused on attracting customers as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Statista reports that over two billion people purchased goods or services online in 2020, and global retail e-commerce sales grew more than 25%.
Many companies have rebuilt their front-ends, their websites, and their transaction applications.
But there is a very important difference between making the front-end order capture digital, and completely transforming the entire business. They are two different things, and any company needs to be very clear about what they've done, and what they need to do, and not confuse the two, because that then defines the next iteration.
Now they are starting to turn to improve, optimise or even replace their IT and infrastructure back-ends. Are their stock and supply systems integrated? Can they track raw materials or shipped goods accurately, and can they integrate front-end orders with back-end fulfilment so that queues at stores, poor online experiences, or a simple lack of data become distant memories?
For some companies this will now be their priority. Techzine reported in 2020 that nearly half of network equipment in companies is likely to be outdated.
Blowing off the dust or starting from scratch?
The management of deferred projects, capital and investment, and the focus on creating remote networks that are secure and flexible, have all bought time and ensured survival. In many cases, they have reset companies' digital transformations.
But what worked well over the past two years will not necessarily work as well over the next 24 months.
Technology has also moved forward in the past 12-24 months.
Organisations and businesses that had plans to transform in April 2020, and then put them on hold, will likely now rediscover them on the desk of the project manager, waiting to be dusted off.
Whether they are still valid is the first question these companies will want to answer.
For others, there will be nothing waiting for them. Deciding whether or not this blank slate is good or bad will be the first question these companies have to consider.
And the questions I think every business, whatever their size and situation, are now grappling with, are these:
- Have we truly disrupted and driven digital transformation?
- Have we done so for the organisation as a whole, or for just part of the organisation?
- Have we truly created a more secure operating environment, do we understand and are we comfortable with any risks, and is what we have right now what we need for the near-term and mid-term future?
- As we return to the office, are we 18 months beyond where we need to be?
As companies consider their next moves, perhaps the best advice I might offer is simply this: change - where required, and for good reasons.