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With economic uncertainty clouding the futures of even the most successful organizations, it would seem prudent to tighten spending and postpone projects during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there are some who believe the downturn is the best possible time to forge ahead with big endeavors, particularly to accelerate digital transformation initiatives that could put an organization ahead of its competition, not just for when business operations regain some normalcy, but also for these uncertain, unprecedented times. As millions of people are working from home to reduce exposure to the coronavirus, they expect -- and even demand -- seamless and dynamic digital experiences.
Peapod, for example, recognizes that now is the moment to shine. The Chicago-based company hasn't halted its work toward expanding its omnichannel experience.
With many consumers relying even more on delivery services to bring groceries to their front doors, Peapod recognized it has a unique window to continue aligning its digital offerings with its clients' in-store operations to create an ideal omnichannel experience, said Amit Shah, the vice president of DevOps and technology innovation at Peapod. By wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines, consumers are grocery shopping in stores once again, but they'll also continue to rely on delivery services, especially if they want to avoid crowds. This balancing act of digital and physical shopping gives Peapod incentive to keep its omnichannel project going.
"We are fortunate to invest in these difficult times," Shah said. "Digital is the way forward. Omnichannel is big for a retailer. It's important to not let up. COVID-19 has reinforced why stores need to have a strong omnichannel strategy."
Peapod and other organizations that are doubling down on digital transformation projects during the pandemic will be pleased they maintained their commitment, according to Kristin Moyer, a research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.
"The strong will get stronger and the weak will get weaker," Moyer said. "Before COVID-19, leaders of digital transformation [initiatives] were already creating more distance between themselves and their markets. What we know is CIOs who invest in new markets and digital transformation during a recession will outperform, in the next cycle, those that don't."
Indeed, Gartner found that corporations that make a "big bet" on an initiative during or immediately after a crisis earn 32% greater return on assets and 10% greater return on invested capital.
Even organizations that had not committed to accelerating their digital technologies and strategies prior to the pandemic can do so now and take advantage of a time when their competitors have postponed such work, Moyer added. And there are a lot of companies sitting it out, according to Gartner -- 66% of CFOs plan to delay capex investments due to COVID-19 and the economic crisis.
While keeping an eye on its competition, PwC is also mindful of the financial circumstances of the clients it serves, according to Sarah McEneaney, the company's digital talent leader. As PwC continues its four-year $3 billion digital transformation project, it won't "be blind" to clients' changing priorities, she said.
But the digital transformation initiative called "Your Tomorrow" will continue mostly as planned, although McEneaney and her team will "not be frivolous with money" as they create a budget and plan for the next fiscal year of the program. Now in its third year, the initiative builds off a continuous loop of feedback from many of the company's 276,000 employees to ensure they have the proper digital skills and that everyone understands what it will take to serve clients, she said.
"We've reached so many people and thousands are engaged in the strategy," McEneaney said. "It's how we work. It has saturated our culture."
Established companies such as PwC are at an advantage during the pandemic because they tend to be more disruptive in their markets and are digitally savvy, Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst Nigel Fenwick said. "They are much better set up for coming out of the pandemic faster than others. They can cope with the state of affairs," he said.
Undeveloped companies, however, have found the pandemic and recession to be a "wake-up call," Fenwick said. "It has highlighted how firms are dependent on digital processes." Companies that hadn't provided their employees with the necessary digital tools prior to the pandemic, for example, immediately found it difficult to serve customers because their workers lacked what was needed to do their jobs from home, he said.
Six years ago, Fenwick started annually categorizing companies by their successes and failures in digital transformation, labeling the victors as "predators" and the losers as "prey." In 2020, he expects predators to buy out more firms than usual because they couldn't transform on time.
But echoing Gartner's Moyer, Fenwick said companies can still move forward, perhaps slowly, with digital transformation initiatives. For those not in survival mode, projects can be modest, but they should deliver ROI. Large digital dreams such as IoT might have to wait until the economy improves, he said.
Dell Technologies won't put the brakes on one of its biggest tech projects simply because the end goal is just what the company needs during the pandemic -- having a majority of its workforce in position to work remotely.
In 2009, when the project started, Dell leaders intended to give 50% of its employees the capability to work away from the office, chief digital officer and CIO Jen Felch said. When 2020 started, 60% of Dell's 165,000 employees had the tools in place to work remotely. As COVID-19 rapidly shut down businesses in March 2020, the company had to quickly accelerate the process and now 90% of the workforce has remote capabilities, she said.
"Like most companies, we did a lot of testing around various types of disasters, but we did not have a situation where everyone worked from home," Felch said. "It didn't cross our minds." As restrictions lift in locales, Dell will allow employees to return to the office. Still, she expected at least 50% of employees to continue working from home.
The pandemic revealed that it was advantageous to stay true to the remote work project throughout the past decade, no matter the hurdles at the time, Felch said. That type of commitment is what organizations can use as they consider pursuing big initiatives during the pandemic, she said.
"Take the few critical things that will build momentum and demonstrate the value of digital transformation," Felch said. "Keep building on it. People often look at big multiyear efforts and panic but pick a few small things at a time and focus on them. You definitely need focus."