IT experts and administrators have always known that decentralised systems, while sometimes more unwieldy and expensive to manage, are far more resilient and resistant to disasters and disruptions. Redundancy is a built-in feature in these systems – cloud operations, for example, are always distributed across multiple locations, rather than being centered in one.
As the COVID pandemic rages on, flattening and disrupting entire industries and societies in its wake, companies and countries are scrambling to figure out the way forward. Not only is it about business continuity and recovering quickly from the onslaught, there is a great deal of thinking on what is the way forward – how and what kind of organisation and operations design can help make organisations more resilient. In this context, I suspect that organisations will need to borrow a leaf out of the IT playbook – make organisations more decentralised.
We have already seen the beginnings of this phenomena in several ways. Perhaps the most tragic and in-our-face example of that, is the Great Migration. In scenes reminiscent of the 1947 Partition, millions of people, generally poor day labourers, are walking the highways to go home. The big cities, which had become economic engines of the country, had attracted them from their far-flung villages with the economic opportunity they offered. This was the Big Centralization, as millions of people left their villages and congregated in a few central, large cities. COVID has reversed the equation, and the people trudging home are swearing never to come back. What this means for industry is profound – companies will have to spread themselves out, or decentralize themselves, so as to get the labour and talent which is raw material for their operations. They might have to go to the people, the people might not come to them.
If you go change the colour of the collar to blue, the same phenomenan is playing itself out here too. As I have written before, and as is manifest before us, work is decentralizing. Work from home and anywhere has suddenly become the one antidote to this disruption, as millions of employees, primarily in knowledge companies like technology and services, has started working from home, wherever their home might be. The great centralized offices are barren. What is interesting is that large and small corporations (Google, Twitter, TCS, Udemy) have declared that they will continue a large element of work from home even after the lockdowns are over. They have discovered the hitherto unknown advantages of this – cost reduction, productivity spikes, talent diversification – and resolved to continue a portion of this forever. The interview question, “Will you be willing to relocate to where we are?” suddenly looks so passé`.
The same is true of how the gig-economy, which is nothing but decentralised work taken to a logical extreme, has come to save the day in the Great Lockdown. This is not necessarily true in India, where haphazard regulation and control did not allow it to happen. But, globally across almost every country it was the food-delivery and ecommerce companies which kept the cities and homes running while every mall, restaurant and departmental store was closed due to contamination fears. Amazon added 100000 employees in the US and has declared it will add 50000 in India now. The decentralised gig economy of ecommerce, food-tech, freelance work survived the disruption far better than the centralized ‘old economy’.
In the Indian context, the same can be said of Retail and how the ‘kirana’ or mom-and-pop neighbourhood grocery stores came to the rescue. Armed with basic, but functional, technology like WhatsApp ordering and UPI payment they became the saviours, when the big malls and ecommerce ground to a halt. This super decentralised retail model has became the cynosure of all eyes, and attracting massive investment and attention, as corporations and tech companies look at how they can use technology to enhance the decentralised infrastructure. The Facebook-Jio deal is a case in point.
This Great Decentralisation that COVID has wrought will extend itself to other sectors too. I can see how decentralised models can help disparate and distraught sectors like hospitality, restaurants, events, education, healthcare and even manufacturing. I will take the next few columns in this publication to detail this one by one.
Taking a philosophical view, this was a long time coming. In many ways, the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns have taken us back to the way human beings lived and worked earlier: spread-out, peer-to-peer, local (and vocal). If successful, the model could generate more employment, make our cities more livable and clean up our air. It is ironic that it took a pandemic to make us realise this, but that is how it has always happened in history, and how it will happen again now.
(This post was published as an oped in Mint)