It’s said that “necessity is the mother of invention”, but the seamless transition to online work and education around the globe – forced by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis – makes me think that this age-old expression is misplaced.
As the Director of Programmes for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at The Entrepreneurship Centre, and a former design engineer and manager of supply chains, it seems that the amazingly smooth shift to an online work environment instead reflects that necessity can be the mother of “adaptation” rather than invention.
Let me explain.
At Cambridge Judge Business School, we just successfully delivered the late-March residential week of our Master of Studies in Entrepreneurship programme to students in 35 countries through online technology, after having to close the Business School’s doors to the usual in-person gathering. The same scenario is playing out smoothly in offices, schools and universities around the world, where all interactions have shifted suddenly to an online environment.
This is major news. A mind-boggling development. The type of breakthrough that in the newspaper industry’s 20th Century heyday would have sent bells ringing and teletype machines clanging in newsrooms around the world.
To be clear, my mind is not boggled by the technology’s capability. Yes, this is great. Yet when I pause for just a moment longer and reflect on what has transpired, and continues to, I am much more impressed by how little adaptation was required.
People were ready to adjust to online delivery. Work processes did not require a step-change in behaviour. The technology was familiar enough; we have been using some form of video conferencing for many years by now.
Sure, there are still slow connections, not all users make good use of the mute button, and family members may (perhaps endearingly) appear in the frame at inopportune moments with questionable attire. Yet, if these are the struggles we are experiencing, this is incredibly negligible and not really news-worthy. And the fact that we do not hear stories of schools or offices being closed for months while they figure out how to adapt is itself newsworthy – even if it has attracted little attention.
The root cause of many technology implementation failures often lies with an organisation’s inability to adapt because routines are deeply embedded, with structures and processes that simply were not ready. The current online transition happily flies in the face of that.
Take enterprise resource planning systems (ERP), which were all the rage in the 1990s. Even in the early days, the technology worked well in delivering integrated business processes and data linking such applications as finance, distribution, manufacturing and supply chain management. But what was underestimated was just how difficult it would be to adapt people’s behaviour and work processes, even within a single organisation. So ERPs took a long time to realise their full potential and they were far more costly than anticipated, simply because we greatly under-estimated the difficulty of the transition.
Yet, the sudden switch to online working in the past weeks has gone beyond single organisations to entire industries, societies and ecosystems.
Unfortunately, our bias for the status quo has often worked in the past to convince us the benefits from online delivery were simply not enough (more often framed as the loss in effectiveness was believed to be too great) to warrant the effort to fully adopt the technology. My observation in the past weeks is that we actually must have been ready for this shift for a long time. The technology has been perched and warmed up on the sidelines, and we were too. It is nice to (finally) be in the game!
Being in the game reminds me of my early days as a design engineer in the 1990s. I was a young, eager and driven engineer (so I tell myself anyway) in my mid-20s, anxious to use the tools at my disposal. The group I was working with was comprised of engineers who were 40-50 years old (my age now), all of whom had been creating engineering drawings on vellum and with pencil for the large majority of their careers.
By the time I joined the team, they were all using AutoCAD (computer-aided design) – but not really. In other words, they were essentially doing pencil drawings on a screen. They used the colours nicely, but they never used the structure or the processes that were built in. CAD in general, and AutoCAD specifically, offered the ability to define specific items such as blocks or layers of buildings or industrial equipment; yet it also allowed a direct mechanism for someone to perform virtual pencil drawings, and too many people chose this latter route rather than adapt to the full step-up in technology and the benefits it offered.
Right now, we face this same decision: we have a new (or at least newly relevant) medium to deliver classes or work functions through, so let’s not create virtual pencil drawings.
In my business school setting, we can truly accelerate learning by encouraging faculty, programmes and students to fully embrace online learning, the benefits of which will carry over to when students return to the classroom. Let’s face it, rarely is everyone so aligned around the need to make this work, so we need to fully take advantage of the current crisis to forge something even better on the other side.
What is true for business education is also true for business offices and the workplaces of organisations large and small, for or not for profit, in the public or the private sector.
We all need to embrace different ways of using technology, and if we do so, we may be surprised by what we can do. I have been.