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What a pandemic teaches us about business continuity and efficiency

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Peshkova)

Industries of all shapes and sizes across the globe have faced serious disruption due to Covid-19 and its effects on their workforce. This has elicited an awakening among business and tech leaders, with the current pandemic exposing significant gaps in their business continuity plans. These holes in key processes and systems have had a negative impact on both customer and employee experience.

Yet by highlighting what’s not working, these gaps have also presented an opening for improvement. As the Chinese author and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity” and the unique nature of the pandemic, compared to other types of disruption or disaster, presents a unique opportunity indeed.

An IT-centric perspective on business continuity tends to focus – somewhat naturally – on systems and data and assumes that “disruption” comes with hard edges: systems are up or down, data is available or not, breaches have occurred and been mitigated. The very notion of Disaster Recovery presumes that something unexpected happens, from which the business recovers to return to normal operations.

But what if, as is the case now, the unexpected isn’t temporary (or at least, isn’t short)? And what if the disruption isn’t to systems or data, per se, but to the very process by which you operate? What then?

As businesses confront turbulent times, their ability to understand, manage and control processes is critical to smooth and continuous operations. Across industries, business leaders have and continue to react swiftly to the operational process changes dictated by the pandemic. But at some point they must thoughtfully assess: do we revert back to the old way of doing things? Continue along the current path?  Or strike out in a new direction to redesign business operations for the medium and long-term?

According to Gartner’s recent Business Continuity Survey, less than 2 percent of organizations believe business can continue as normal.  Rather than revert to past practices, smart organizations are taking the opportunity to both address immediate impacts of the pandemic and position for longer term success by focusing on the exposed efficiency gaps. Here’s where to start:

Recognize and embrace permanent change

Similarly, customer interaction has rapidly shifted from in-person or in-store to online and through mobile, dramatically accelerating a transition that was already well underway. This presents an opportunity to get ahead of the curve by embracing new channels for customer interaction. One South African-based financial institution addressed the fact that branches were closed by shifting the loan application process to WhatsApp, solving an immediate problem while also addressing long-term trends.

Until a few months ago, remote work was an edge case for most businesses. Now two thirds of employees are working from home in the U.S., and many organizations are planning for this to be a long-term or perhaps permanent change. While this certainly presents a systems and data challenge, it also directly impacts process and workflow, with more than a third of those organizations noting that collaboration is the biggest challenge.

New tools and better data/cloud access can certainly help on this front, but many aspects of organizational workflow are either designed for or depended upon some level of in-person or in-office collaboration. Assuming that Zoom or Slack will fix or band-aid these broken processes and workflows is shortsighted.

Double down on digital transformation

If there’s one thing the response to the ongoing pandemic has highlighted, it’s that enterprises that were further along the path of digital transformation are the ones most likely to thrive. In general, that’s reflective of both tools and infrastructure, such as the cloud, that are suited to the new normal, as well as an agile operational and process mindset. In short, companies that have already embraced transformation are positioned to quickly continue down that path.

For example, the government had to adjust its rules for the Paycheck Protection Program to limit the ability of some financial institutions to rapidly file applications; these were organizations that had implemented process automation for business loans, and were effectively able to “flood the zone” with fast submissions on behalf of customers.

Reassess risk and governance practices

Gartner’s Business Continuity Survey found that only 12 percent of organizations are highly prepared for the impact of coronavirus. Matt Shinkman, vice president of Gartner’s risk and audit practice, points out, “This lack of confidence shows that many organizations approach risk management in an outdated and ineffective manner. The best-prepared organizations will manage the disruption caused by Coronavirus far better than their less-prepared peers.”

There are many aspects of risk management to reconsider in light of current disruptions. For example, Deloitte breaks these down into several key sections: initial measures, such as implementing recommendations from the World Health Organization or government agencies; infrastructure risks, such as checking that corporate systems can be managed remotely; and cyber risks that include monitoring applications for remote access.

Perhaps most importantly, there are the business and operational risks to consider. For starters, map single points of failure within the organization (e.g., processes, employees, technologies) and draft countermeasures. Of equal importance, make certain to establish emergency measures and organizational instructions to ensure continuity of operations according to the level of risk. In addition, make arrangements for any work that cannot be done remotely, while also preparing for any issues that may arise within the supply chain. Lastly, stabilize the organization for any potentially significant economic impacts and prepare scenarios, plans and measures to restore business operations.

Automate processes for greater efficiency

The proven way to quickly digitize your new processes and make them standard operating procedure is through low-code process applications that orchestrate people, systems and data. Process automation has been at the core of digital transformation since the last financial crisis when organizations across the globe turned to business process management software to unlock efficiency and cost savings. Yet research shows 90 percent of staff are still burdened with repetitive tasks which could easily be automated.

Fortunately, nearly 60 percent of employers want to use automation to improve productivity. Many companies are now accelerating their investments in automation technologies such as digital process automation (DPA), robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence in order to maintain business continuity. For many, the immediate priority has been to rapidly build new processes that respond to new challenges and opportunities in the market such as supply chain challenges or the unprecedented demand for small business loans.

Areas to consider for automation include the flow of data across various silos in the enterprise, where automation can guarantee compliance, automate auditing, ensure process standardization and orchestrate personnel or bots. Manual, labor-intensive tasks such as form-filling, data extraction or validation, and order processing are obviously ripe for automation. But automation – especially when married with AI – can also intelligently handle information such as responding to customer queries, routing service requests, even providing predictive analytics or big data interpretation.

Conclusion

As organizations find breathing room post-pandemic, the smart money is focused on longer-term solutions to the exposed gaps and deficiencies in business operations. The shifts caused by global lockdowns and stay-at-home orders – more remote work, greater emphasis on digital transactions, agile transformation, etc. – aren’t in the rearview mirror, they’re a taste of what’s to come. And these changes don’t just demand new tools, they require fundamental adjustments to operational processes and workflow that are designed with the “new normal” in mind.

Gustavo Gomez, Founder, Bizagi