The current future-gazing that much of the investor, consultant, design, engineering and strategy businesses are engaged in is interesting if somewhat vexing. You’ve probably seen the headlines and Linkedin posts “The Post-Covid universe” “The great reset!” etc. But sadly my fear is it will mostly amount to business as usual. As soon as the budgets get defrosted, and organisations realise they have to do something rather than just stop, things will attempt to get back to “normal”.

That said, one of the many useful descriptors from the future gazers has come from the Investment community, which described the current environment as The Great Pause. I really like this. Clearly, the reference is to The Great Depression etc. but it’s bigger than that and far more universal, the idea that we’ve all stopped is globally shared, and it connects us all.

The future gazers are all predicting what happens when we “un-pause”. Societies will change and organisations themselves will change but in what way? Well, and it may seem obvious, it all depends on what your organisation was doing Pre-Covid or “pre-pause”, and actually how far along a specific track you were.

What do I mean? Digital transformation. Digital transformation, the process of applying digital economics and digital-centric thinking to your organisation has been rumbling along for years. Whole industries have grown up and made fortunes selling this to organisations, which in truth has mostly failed. This failure is due to a whole heap of issues. Typically the problems range from, key stakeholders pulling in different directions to a vested interest in “business as usual” and short term value. Often businesses only see “digital transformation” as a line in the annual report to keep investors and the market happy. In short nobody in the organisation really wants to change or at least not enough individuals do to make a difference.

Very few people get fired for hiring a top 5 consultant to tell them how to do this, but sadly most of this advice is ignored, largely as other “priorities” take over. Ultimately what we’re talking about with digital transformation is understanding our customers, understanding what and why they behave in specific ways, what they purchase and more insightfully what they don’t purchase.

Most clients will tell you they understand their customers, that they’ve done the research and know everything about them. In my experience, the truth is far from that. The way clients ask customers questions is like the bore at a party,

“This is what I do and what I’m about.”

“now enough about me, what do you think of me?”.

They are too business-centric and entirely self-obsessed.

Customer experience should be at the heart transformation; it should be customer and insight lead and not lead by technology or revenue targets while both enablers and the ultimate measure of success. So what I’m saying is that dependant on how well you understand your customer and how well adapted you are or were to their experience, will dictate how you survive post pause.

So back to the “pre-pause” thinking, I think there are broadly 3 categories of organisation that are or were on some form of digital transformation track pre-covid:

  1. The Institutionally entrenched. These businesses once thrived, became huge and have then fallen on mediocre times, AOL, ITV, M&S, almost every airline and automotive manufacturer, almost all telco’s. They make incredibly marginal profits at scale and are usually shored up by one aspect of the business that is a success; “M&S Food” “Sony Computer entertainment” etc. They are organisationally designed not to change. Its a cultural, institutional quagmire and they almost always get outplayed by disruptors who understand their customers better than they do. Tesla anyone? They hire consultants and experts by the truckload (Yay!) but for reasons previously said willfully refuse to change (Boo!).
  2. Escher Businesses. These are perpetually transforming businesses that culturally, have been designed to change as a cornerstone of who they are. The problem? They are opportunistic and follow the market and customer rather than lead or define it. They tend to be second or third to market, and while a safe bet, rarely perform spectacularly. Phillips, Samsung, Deloitte, Sainsbury’s etc., who are all great brands but all are second or third (or worse) in their categories and tend to follow.
  3. Brighton Rock Businesses. A business which when you cut them in half is Digital all the way through, fundamentally understanding their customers through the services and products they sell. These businesses are almost always digital natives and continually transform but lead rather than follow. But they run the danger of dropping back to Escher or Entrenched businesses as the market changes, customer behaviours move and technology evolves and outpaces their ability to transform. Facebook is already showing signs of becoming an Escher Business if, in fact, it wasn’t always that.

The point with all of these is that no one is safe, the speed of change is the key factor affecting everything, from behaviour change in society to the advancement in technology, and that speed renders everyone at risk.

Depending on who you were Pre-Covid, and how well you understood and delivered customer insight and experience, will dictate where you will be Post-Covid. But, and this is especially true for the first two types of business, there is a small and compelling window of opportunity to change fundamentally who, or where you are, and that window is right now. The “Great Pause” is there for all to make use of. It’s unique in what it affords, and probably, with luck, won’t happen again at this level. The winners will be those who didn’t freeze in the headlights of universal transformation, but who see the pause as an opportunity to turn their organisation on its head. By understanding their customers and developing services and products that meet that knowledge. Businesses that step out of short term gain and look to the future, that develop, sustainable, value-based offers for both their customers and their shareholders.

Mike Bennett runs creative consultancy “TheCltr” (The Culture), he also remembers when new media was actually new.