COVID-19 and the digitale Transformation

Interview with Prof. Michael Barrett

Author: RWTH Business School
Published: 26.07.2021
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Prof. Michael Barrett is Professor of Information Systems & Innovation Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School (University of Cambridge) and also a lecturer at RWTH Business School. In our M.Sc. Management & Engineering in Technology, Innovation, Marketing & Entrepreneurship, he is in charge of the module “Digital Transformation and Information Systems Management”. We took the chance to speak with Prof. Barrett about the digital transformation in times of COVID-19.

Which developments are you most interested in during these times?

Prof. Michael Barrett: During COVID I have been studying the acceleration and development of digital health in hospitals globally. In particular, the rapid adoption of telemedicine in innovative ways for healthcare has been truly fascinating. Going beyond traditional uses in supporting remote areas and health communities, there have been novel implementation of inpatient telemedicine for staff and patient safety in providing care for ICU units, ophthalmology, and internal medicine. These developments have provided fruitful insights as to how we might build on a range of digital technologies (incl. AI, robotics, sensors) to redesign care in collaborative arrangements beyond the hospital and across the community,

COVID-19 is often described as an accelerator of digitization – what do you think about that?

Prof. Michael Barrett: Absolutely, in many ways, it has been the accelerator of digitalization during these times. Whether through sheer necessity to deliver service or to provide continuity of service through contactless approaches it has been a game-changer in many organizations and sectors. When I teach, we often consider who is leading digital transformation. Is it the CEO, CDO, CIO, or COVID-19? COVID-19 has been the lead on digital transformation efforts during the crisis. We have had to innovate and digitally transform to strategically improvise in unexpected ways and with great speed. Following the crisis, we need to take the learnings on digital from this period and rather than go back to an old normal take time to learn and recalibrate our service and work. We need to heed those famous last words ‘Never waste a good crisis’.

What are the biggest chances and challenges companies face now while trying to adapt?

Prof. Michael Barrett: It is telling that as of March 31, 2021, nine out of the top 10 companies worldwide having the largest market capitalization are digital companies. The increase in value of digital platforms (the likes of Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, TenCent) has been astounding. At the same time, those companies across different sectors whether it be healthcare or retail with low digital transformation have suffered greatly. In some cases, as non-tech dinosaurs, they have been relegated to extinction. For example, while Amazon thrived in retail, traditional high street retailers such as Debenhams in the UK with a 250-year history went crashing out of business. Without the capabilities, infrastructure, and readiness to move and accelerate business online their predominantly high street business model literally shattered. On the other hand, there is optimism and hope for the future in other cases. For example, in healthcare, the long-term plans of reconfiguring care beyond the hospital and into the community is a real possibility that may be scaled and at a speed previously thought inconceivable and unattainable. Digital innovation and transformation are at the heart of providing increased accessibility of care at an affordable rate that is sustainable over the long term. A word of caution. Older ways may return and may be appropriate where risk was tolerated during the crisis but may not be warranted post-COVID. In other cases, even where it may be agreed to continue with new ways of working, it will undoubtedly be a journey. For success, engagement and incentivization of key stakeholders are needed along the digital transformation journey as is the shift towards a digital culture.

What measures can companies take to accelerate digitization in the short to medium term?

Prof. Michael Barrett: It is important to have a common understanding of what is digital transformation before one considers how to accelerate digitization effectively. Digital transformation is more than the successful implementation of a technology or system as a cone-off project with a fixed start and end date. It is holistic in nature involving strategic, organizational as well as technology elements, and is a dynamic, open-ended process. There are at least 5 key measures needed for a successful digital transformation:

  • First, the need for strategic envisioning as to how your customers, partners, and competitors use digital technologies to change how they act and form service expectations especially following COVID-19. It is crucial to understand the strategic drivers of digital disruption in your and other sectors.
  • Secondly, there is a need to reimagine new possibilities for your business to respond to these digital disruptions or to be a disruptor yourself. Often this will require you to assess and diagnose where you are on your digital transformation journey and to prepare and develop digital capabilities.
  • Thirdly, develop digital capabilities at scale to enable operational excellence via a modular digital platform, allowing you to engage enduring relationships with customers around innovative services.
  • Fourth, building digital competency in both strategic understanding as well as data use in decision making amongst your workforce requires new ways of working and cultural agility to respond in a dynamic environment.
  • Fifthly, ecosystem leadership and value co-creation with your partners and competitors enabled by digital technologies is an important strategic aspect of digital transformation to accelerate digitization in the short to medium term.
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