Digital Economy Dispatch #050

22nd August 2021

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The Post-Pandemic Challenge for Digital Businesses: Moving from connected to engaged

I remember quite clearly the moment when I decided that I had had enough of business travel. A few years ago, I was sitting in my office in Madrid when I received a phone call from the Vice President’s administrative assistant. I listened to her request and was silent for a while.

“Can I check I understand this”, I finally responded. “He wants me to stop everything and fly from Madrid to Los Angeles tomorrow to sit at the back of a restaurant while he holds a dinner meeting with a client at another table in case he gets asked a question he can’t answer?”. Apparently so.

I politely declined, to the amazement of the administrative assistant on the other end of the phone.

“But it’s a special request from the Vice President”, she responded.

“Well give him a ‘Special No’ from me.”

I think I knew at that point that business travel was out of control. All the hard work over 25 years, a PhD in Computer Science, vast experience in designing and delivering significant large enterprise software systems and tools. And my value had been reduced to flying around the world at the whim of company executives to sit in the background at business meetings. Enough already.

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I often recall these experiences of my 25 years of business travel when I read some of the many articles now appearing that discuss the “return to business as usual” and the “changing travel patterns of business” in light of the Covid pandemic. When some friends of mine try to convince me that in a couple of years we’ll be back to the same work patterns we all experienced in 2019, I politely tell them that I don’t think so. Now, as we consider the way we will work in the future, it is great time to reflect on what worked in the past….and what didn’t.

We all have stories of our personal experiences with business travel in the past few years. My American Airlines frequent flyer account currently tells me that I have flown a total of one and a half million miles with them and their One World partners. That includes a 2 day transatlantic trip to participate in a 1 hour meeting. A 4 hour flight across the USA to a workshop that had been cancelled the day before. And, memorably, a cross European journey to talk at a Government conference held entirely in a language I didn’t speak at all (don’t ask!).

The shock to business practices initiated by the current pandemic has forced a rethink in many areas related to travel. As businesses define their post-pandemic strategies, understanding effective business engagement and remote working patterns are major concerns. We seem to have organizations adopting three different strategies:

Everyone for themselves. Some organizations such as Twitter and Facebook have announced that everyone can work remotely. They don’t see the need for office-based working and have adjusted their expectations about travel and working practices accordingly. They argue that if we all managed to get by during the pandemic, why can’t we treat this distributed working style as “the new normal”?

All back to the office. Other companies such as JP Morgan now want all employees back in the office. Their stated aim is to build employee cohesion and enhance client support by encouraging face-to-face interaction and creativity. They argue that cooperative working in teams requires significant time together in the same physical space.

A bit of this, a bit of that. Lots of organizations are still trying to figure it out. As a result, a hybrid working pattern seems to be expected in many places with most employees spending part of the week at home and the rest in the office. In what feels like an ongoing experiment, work patterns and space utilization will be adjusted over time to optimize time we spend together and time on our own. From this perspective, we’re in the early stages of understanding how this will evolve for different businesses and the impact it will have in organizational culture, business performance, and customer impact.

Of course, the adjustments being made in work patterns are driven by several related factors. While some cite innovation and creativity as the drivers, others point to flexibility and client support as critical. However, perhaps the ultimate arbiters of change (as with many aspects of business strategy) will be financial. Certainly organizations are looking to remote working to avoid paying the costs of expensive office space in very high-priced urban centres. The rising cost of office space has been an important aspect of the business environment for some time.

However, an additional factor is now being recognized. Most organization have benefited from much reduced travel budgets for the past 2 years. Enabled by the recent adoption of digital technologies for collaborative online working, the move to virtual meetings and discussions has been significant. There are some spectacular statistics highlighting the speed at which this shift has taken place.

One key impact has been on travel budgets. For example, it is reported that consulting company CapGemini saved a large part of the $600 million in travel it spent in 2019. Similarly, Amazon may have saved up to $1 Billion in travel expenses over the period of the pandemic. These are budgets they will not want to restore to their former levels. I can imagine that future travel requests will need a lot more justification than previously required.

Yet, the challenges of effective online working remain. Where can we gain some additional insight into the opportunities and challenges of engaging online in individual and cooperative work activities? Learning and education activities are a good place to look. In particular, the education industry is an important bellwether for understanding remote working.

The debate between in-person and remote teaching and learning has been active for some time and has received particular attention during the pandemic. One of the key challenges faced by educators working remotely is to understand patterns of learning for individuals and dispersed groups. While often criticized as old fashioned and inefficient, the in-classroom experience for education has been widely practiced for many years and is considered by many the most effective and efficient way to work with groups of students. In support of this, institutions such as the UK’s universities have defined their investment approaches and financial management schemes around physical teaching hubs, well-provisioned labs, extensive central campus facilities, vast accommodation blocks, and the staffing policies and processes required to deliver by exploiting these facilities. No wonder universities are keen to get students back on campus.

As a consequence, digital transformation in universities and other educational institutions has focused largely on digitizing the current delivery models. For a number of years, the majority of digital technologies have been introduced into the classroom to support in-person teaching. Online digital delivery is used to augment the in-person experience. In many cases, while digital materials have replaced physical books and libraries have become “learning hubs”, much of the day-to-day activities in these learning institutions would be familiar to anyone who has been educated over the past 50 years.

The feedback on this approach has been mixed. Research studies have found a very wide set of experiences with the digitized classroom, and concluded that there is:

  • A wide gap between the expectations and preferences for digital learning from students and instructors.
  • Vast differences in application of digital approaches across disciplines (e.g., between the sciences, the arts, and humanities areas).
  • A major skills gap for many instructors in the effective application of digital technology.
  • Lack of experience and capacity in digital support functions (e.g., IT teams) within the institutions.
  • Ineffective budgeting and decision making for the rapid lifecycle of acquisition, training, application, maintenance, and disposal of digital technology.

Of course, a great deal has been learned in the forced move over the past 2 academic years to online-first education. And while the promise and pitfalls of online education have been widely debated for some time, the experiences in recent months have emphasized several good and bad elements of working online.

On the plus side, significant progress has been made supporting online delivery of education at scale. Existing deployments of learning management systems (LMS) have been essential. These have been brought to the fore through additional IT investments in the software and hardware required for remote access, secure data management, single sign on, and so on. As a result, the digital operating environment at universities is in much better shape that it was 2 years ago. Significantly, many more of the educators and administrators at Universities are becoming comfortable with both the idea and the reality of digital delivery of education.

On the negative side, more and more educators are discovering that the most difficult challenge of working online is not connectivity, but engagement. The classic broadcast approach of an educator delivering a monologue to a large audience does not transfer well from the classroom to online. Without direct feedback and class interaction, the 1 hour lecture format can feel dull and lifeless. It is very tough to maintain interest when viewed through a mobile device from a basement, spare bedroom kitchen table, or wherever. Similarly, students are finding that there is limited impact working within smaller groups online through the “celebrity squares” interface of tools like Zoom and Teams.

As a result, educators are introducing various collaborative solutions such as Mural and Miro, and experimenting with simulation, gaming, and virtual reality solutions to encourage deeper engagement with the concepts being addressed. Some great examples are appearing and a wealth of new EdTech startup companies have been launched with interesting offerings. Through personal experiences with these technologies, and having seen how colleagues are deploying them, the best that can be said is that we are in the early stages of their use. From this initial work, three strategies are emerging:

  • Be bold by highlighting the key ideas with direct, open language and using clear and compelling examples to demonstrate their application.
  • Be interesting by breaking up material into shorter units and delivering them in a variety of formats (text, videos, simulations, podcasts, etc.).
  • Be focused by reducing wasted time, being prepared with meaningful materials, and ensuring you are fluent with the use of the digital technology.

So, will business travel, commuting, and face-to-face get togethers return to their pre-Covid approaches? We’ll see. One thing is clear: please don’t ask me to make any long journeys to sit in the dark at the back of a crowded restaurant.

Digital Economy Tidbits

AI Liability: The rules are changing. Link.

The role and impact of changes I the legal system is a key topic for widescale adoption of digital technologies such as AI.

The law has been relatively slow to regulate artificial intelligence, but the rules are evolving. An important question is whether an AI company can be held liable for malfunctioning AI.  A company’s liability for its AI depends on whether a defect was present upon the AI release and whether, in the EU at least, the application is “high-risk.”

Millions of Web Camera and Baby Monitor Feeds are Exposed. Link.

Are we surprised by this? Unfortunately not. And this is just one of many such warnings we’ll be seeing over the coming months and years. Good software engineering practices are so essential but appear to be poorly understood and applied. I would argue that the software engineering profession is declining. Anyone want to disagree?

A VULNERABILITY IS lurking in numerous types of smart devices—including security cameras, DVRs, and even baby monitors—that could allow an attacker to access live video and audio streams over the internet and even take full control of the gadgets remotely. What’s worse, it’s not limited to a single manufacturer; it shows up in a software development kit that permeates more than 83 million devices—and over a billion connections to the internet each month.

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