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Why ‘black swan’ resilience must be taken under the wing of digital transformation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Wright Studio / Shutterstock)

With talk of second waves and new strains it feels like we will be referring to ‘the current crisis’ for many months to come. At some point we must accept we are beyond the point of ‘crisis’ and continue to prepare for the unexpected. In fact, within business continuity circles, commentators have questioned whether what we are experiencing really is a ‘black swan’ (an unpredictable event with extreme consequences). Given the warnings we had had about the likelihood of global outbreaks - H1N1, SARs - our current crisis was a matter of when, not if.

Unfortunately, many organizations, no matter their size or sector have paid the price for taking an overly optimistic approach to operational resilience. Commonly referred to as ‘optimism bias’ - the prevailing attitude has been that it won’t be us that will be hit by disaster. Such bias serves no one, especially in the face of a global crisis! However, now the dust has settled, pre-crisis optimism has given rise to sober realism.

In fact, our joint research with NelsonHall measuring banking, insurance, and healthcare executives' response to this crisis revealed that 96 percent believed their organization had suffered from a lack of business continuity planning in the run up to the crisis. And now? Just 16 percent think their operations are highly resilient to another crisis.

Optimism might be one attitude we need to revisit but there are others. Despite our global economy (and now, our global crisis) localized thinking still reigns. Business continuity plans are often city and center focused rather than enterprise-wise. This doesn’t help when a crisis can’t be contained to one geography. We’re not just talking about outbreaks of disease - consider the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, not to mention the borderless and ever-present risk of cyberattack.

Where is operational resilience lacking?

Some of the challenges thrown up by the current crisis have been obvious; increases in remote working, health and safety of staff, issues with physical spaces. Others have grabbed fewer headlines but have been as impactful; a surge in demand for customer communication, shifting regulatory changes, maintaining workforce efficiency.

As we know, the ability to quickly transition to home working has been make or break in the last months. In the face of increased communications needs, what has been particularly worrying is the problems organizations have faced moving knowledge, data and associated operations between sites and personnel. When workers need to be quickly deployed to other sites not considered in any previous plan, or to work from home there needs to be an agile operational infrastructure to support it.

Over 70 percent of organizations reported to us that their ability to make this transition was severely hampered by a lack of remote access to data and documents. With workers unable to access the documents they needed, just 10 percent of executives were confident they had met SLAs, with the worst affected areas being customer communications, order fulfillment and sales support - it’s not hard to imagine the fall out of these dropped and cancelled services.

Resilience in an environment that requires homeworking or more flexible offices is built upon the ability to access and process documents securely and in compliance with regulatory requirements. Digitizing document workflows services - both paper based and electronic - is no longer just a stop on the way to digital transformation, it is a foundation of operational resilience.

Resilience is transformation

The British Standards Institution states that resilience is “…a strategic objective intended to help an organization survive and prosper …the ability to anticipate, prepare, respond and adapt to minor everyday events to acute shocks and chronic or incremental change”. Becoming resilient is not the ability to action location-specific, tactical responses to seemingly ‘random’ shocks but about enterprise-wide planning and transformation that provides readiness for a range of ‘black swan’ events.

IDC President, Crawford Del Prete recently argued that the time is right for previously cautious, highly regulated industries to embrace digital transformation - in fact, they must. For example, insurers in the UK have responded to the current crisis by rapidly accelerated automation initiatives such as the use of digital mailrooms and automation to digitize document processing. This is a step that the crisis has made a necessity, but that will have transformational impact for the future.

What steps should be taken to bolster operational resilience?

1- Take stock - inside and out

It goes without saying that organizations need a robust business continuity plan in place, but what many fail to do is ensure that these are end-to-end, encompassing suppliers and outsourced services.

Under 40 percent of organizations were satisfied with their outsourcing partners during this crisis. Now’s the time to rethink your partners and how you work with them. That might mean amending contractual terms or finding new partners. Whatever path you take you must ensure that partners are able and willing to support and deliver your continuity plans in the face of crisis.

2 -Embrace location-independent services

We know that flexibility in relation to home working or different service locations is vital. Many organizations have already taken steps to rid themselves of large, central offices but this has obvious implications for secure and compliant access and processing of documents. Digitizing documents in a secure, compliant manner enables agile movement of processes between service centers and home environments.

In light of this, document processing of electronic and physical documents is seen as vital to establishing operational resilience; 92 percent of organizations are looking to increase automation while 80 percent are looking to digitize mailrooms, with over 70 percent seeking to digitalize document processes.

As John Willmot, CEO of NelsonHall says, “The recent crisis has extensively exposed the limitations of existing center-focused business continuity planning. To increase their future operational resilience, enterprises now need their BCP [business continuity] plans to be location-independent and to support widespread work-from-home. This necessitates increasing the digitalization of document processing and distribution and enhancing the ability to move agent knowledge between sites and personnel.”

3 -Seek high-impact automation

Having dealt with the initial shock of lockdown, we are now entering a stage where focus is rightly on business resilience, where organizations must look to digital transformation initiatives to recover and ready themselves for a coming recession. The investments made during this time will see them ready to enter a post-recession growth phase. Successful organizations that reach that growth phase will have used this current time to extend digital transformation initiatives focused on agility. Automation has a massive role to play within resilience and must therefore form a key pillar of digital transformation initiatives.

Operational resilience is becoming increasingly synonymous with digital transformation. For example, manual processing of physical documents clearly has a very low level of operational resilience whereas automated and electronic document processing enjoys higher levels of operational resilience. Increasing automation has a direct impact on the resilience of key service areas such as customer care. In fact 92 percent of organizations plan to increase automation of processes following this crisis.

The next year will undoubtedly prove to be an uphill battle to counter the effects of the current crisis. However, this has also afforded the opportunity for organizations to focus on building operational resilience that will not only see them through future crisis’ but will ensure a foundation for first-rate digital transformation that will ultimately deliver growth.

Gary Harrold, Chief Executive Officer, Swiss Post Solutions UK & Ireland