There is this immortal verse in Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien which describes the all-powerful Ring, which has the power to destroy the biggest known evil, Sauron, the Lord of Mordor:
‘In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them’
The greatest modern blight is arguably the COVID pandemic. As it unfolds about us in all its destructive horror, the whole world is racing to find the One Ring which can destroy it – a vaccine. The right vaccine, it is hoped, will grant us immunity by triggering the creation of the right antibodies against a future outbreak.
But what if COVID itself was a vaccine, and organisations and societies of today could learn from it to build the antibodies they need to build immunity against future disruptive calamities? If vaccine technology can help a human body to be made immune with an inoculation of ‘weak’ pathogens, then conceivably we can take the same approach for our companies. Could we use and apply the learnings of this disruption and leverage technology and design to build an Immune Organisation, which is resilient to future shocks? So, when the next big disruption (like global warming, for instance) comes, it would not totally prevent a business interruption, but the antibodies developed could certainly help it get on its feet much faster. As Gandalf, the Grey says in the Lord of the Rings, “The burned hand teaches best.”
I have identified seven such ‘antibodies’ which an organisation can develop:
Decentralisation of Work: Decentralisation resists disruption much better than centralization. Take work for example, where Working from Home and, in fact, anywhere has saved the day for many companies. Decentralised kirana stores perform better than malls, decentralised gig-economy like food-delivery and ecommerce has kept many countries running. To survive future disruption, companies need to decentralise their operations.
Reimagining Business Models: Businesses with purely digital business models have gained, those with purely physical ones have ground to a halt. Not all businesses can be totally digitalized, but companies will need to rework business models to digitize whatever they can – build ecommerce, health companies to develop tele-health, schools to build online education
Building A Partnership Ecosystem: Companies will need to build a strong, unconventional partner ecosystem. Witness the ITC Foods- Dominoes tie up, or liquor companies riding on Zomato and Swiggy.
Automation: Everything that can be automated needs to be. This will ensure business continuity and productivity, even when human beings cannot be there to do the work. It will also cut costs, unfortunately often at the cost of human jobs. But automation is inevitable for companies and a powerful antibody to immunize a company
Lifelong learning, Multiple Jobs: The Future of Work has been fast-forwarded by COVID. Work from Anywhere is one symptom of that, the other is that employees will need to continuously reskill themselves to stay relevant. Additionally, employees may hold multiple jobs, so that if one goes away the other survives. Companies will be far more tolerant of this, and the permanent-temporary employee distinction will disappear. Lifelong learning, not lifelong jobs, will be the norm.
Reimagining Customer Journeys: COVID has change the customer journey, with social distancing, sanitization, work from home becoming the norm. This will mean that every company will have to tweak its business for this new customer journey, and future proof itself
Mindset and Cultural Transformation: This is the most formidable one of all, the Gandalf of antibodies. While culture and organisation change moves sometimes in glacial, geological timeframes, a cataclysmic event like a pandemic can change mindsets and cultures almost instantly. All the other antibodies require this one most potent one to be developed first. Once created and internalised, it is so much easier to build the others, and develop a high degree of organisational immunity. For example, CEOs have had an instant change on heart on a previous anathema, working from anywhere. The pandemic has also forced delegation, and authority has moved down to the customer-facing roles.
One of the great paradoxes of COVID is that it has slowed down the world, but simultaneously accelerated change. It is not the easiest of times to live in, but we need to make the most of it; we need to grasp this change, learn from it, and immunize ourselves against future shock.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. “So do I,” said Gandalf, the Grey, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
(This article appeared as an OpEd in Hindustan Times)