Getting Digital in a New Era of COVID-19

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Apr 27, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

I often have to check my calendar to remember what day of the week it is now. Not that I’m complaining. I’m fortunate to be able to work from home, unlike hundreds of thousands of other employees in the U.S. and around the world. This is an unprecedented and surreal time, as expressed in an amusing graphic I recently saw. The graphic presented a multiple-choice question that asked if the CEO, CIO, or COVID-19 was driving digital transformation in your business: COVID-19 was circled in red.

Humor aside, the notion of digital transformation is the new reality everyone keeps talking about – making Zoom and Slack part of the popular consciousness and lexicon. And now even self-avowed technophobes (like my mother-in-law) are being swept into a new digital era. The traditional technology adoption lifecycle – made up of innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards – is at a minimum massively accelerated and more likely becoming as much of a relic as Moore’s Law (arguably) is. It may be that technology adoption lifecycle models might still apply in terms of economic stratification (classes), but even that is questionable when you look, for example, at the adoption of smartphones by traditionally poorer ethnicities.

Juxtapose this massive shift in popular attitudes and adoption of technology with a massive (albeit forced) acceptance of a “work from home” culture, and you start to realize how far-reaching and profound the repercussions of the combination will be. (I’ve heard first-hand some staunch proponents of building corporate culture through centralized offices grudgingly admit that the current pandemic proves that remote work models can work.) Because this is not simply a matter of business end-users rebelling against carrying an IT sanctioned Blackberry in addition to the more stylish smartphone of their own choosing (#BringYourOwnDevice, #BYOD). People will want their home offices tailored to meet their needs and are becoming more willing to adopt technologies that will give them the ability to personalize the way they do their work.

In contrast, look at the way IT investments are traditionally made. A CIO will look for solutions that fill an enterprise need by automating the majority of predictable tasks (because the perfect solution that will automate every potential use case for your company doesn’t exist out of the box – if at all).  And then the inevitable gaps are backfilled by human labor until customizations are made. The thing is that dynamic market conditions and evolving technology topologies mean that the list of customizations that need to be made to fill functional gaps is never-ending. So we have somewhat of a conundrum. How do HR departments invert this way of thinking so that they can be agile and thrive in our new reality?

The answer is brilliantly simple – turn all of those business end-users (especially those who will continue to work from home) who are more receptive than ever to new technology into Automators. One way to do this is to offer and encourage the adoption of RPA (Robotic Process Automation). Even employees with little to no software engineering background can automate repetitive and predictable tasks.

Companies can streamline recruitment, onboarding, payroll, and more with RPA. For example, organizations can upload employee data from their recruitment systems to HR systems automatically versus manually with RPA. As responsibilities for HR departments increase across the board, reducing some of these more tedious, repetitive tasks can allow them to focus on more strategic efforts.

Organizations can help their teams, both technical and non-technical, automate numerous, monotonous tasks that are part of the job. And, a technical degree is not required. Thirty percent of my company’s end-users already self-identify as non-technical business users who are writing automations or what we lovingly refer to as “bots.” And that number is growing daily (both non-technical business users and bots, that is). Our most common use case scenario involves transferring data to or from web-based services, so it’s not only feasible but probable that companies who embrace a new vision of digital transformation – like user-friendly RPA combined with marketplace offerings like those from Zapier or Glitch – will develop more efficient and competitive best-of-breed solutions than those companies pursuing much-hyped but not yet realized visions (like Artificial Intelligence).

In other words, companies should lean into this new digital age by investing in their most valuable assets – their employees and the human ingenuity that their individuality brings.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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