Building NZ businesses amidst adversity: Think differently

COVID-19 opens the space - and time - for organisations to consider ICT decisions if they were to restart the business

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When New Zealand went on a lockdown last month, Nuwanthie Samarakone and her staff did not grapple with the technical and cultural nuances of working from home. They had already been working remotely for more than three weeks. 

Samarakone is a director at ICE (Inspire, Create, Engage), a firm that designs and delivers graduate and mentoring programmes across the Asia Pacific region.
She decided in February that all her staff in Auckland, Wellington, and Singapore would work from home. She had been travelling across the Asia Pacific and saw how the coronavirus pandemic was impacting all businesses in the region.

“Look, if this thing is escalating, we need to be prepared if we go into shutdown for this country,” she told her business partners. “If we don’t get ready now, we will struggle to help our clients.”

She says most of their systems were cloud-based, so the shift was not “too onerous”. However for some companies, including their customers, moving staff to remote work would be a challenge.  

Her team has already transformed one of their new programmes, The Growth Project - Whakaahu Whakamua, to become fully online. The programme mentors Maori graduates and helps them move into leadership positions in New Zealand businesses.

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Nuwanthie Samarakone (right) with Erene Punefu, a graduate student mentee

“It kicked off in October 2019 and it was only during the last two to three weeks that we pushed everything online,” she shares. “This was our reaction to what was going on. If we don’t react now, it will be too late in March and April. So, by February, we pushed everything online and the students and employers welcomed it.” 

Prior to this, the graduates only had face-to-face meetings with their mentors, and with their peers. An exception was a student in Auckland whose mentor was based in Christchurch. “We geared the whole team to be able to push all the meetings online,” says Samarakone. The move also opened the programme to Maori students in the regions, such as New Plymouth. 

Samarakone says they are now helping the companies that have signed up for their programmes to redesign their projects and shift online. “This whole situation is forcing us to work differently,” she states. “It is going to change how we are going to work forever.” 

As her experience shows, thinking differently and pivoting fast are critical skills for organisations as they grapple with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted all sectors. 

'Cut out waste, improve flow': a lesson from COVID-19

“This is a good time to do a few things that you won’t ever have the time again,” says Richard Raj, former head of digital and mobility at healthAlliance.

For instance, “You can spend more time on R&D and creating innovative ideas,” says Raj, now an independent digital strategy consultant at Knight’s Move Consulting.

“The reality is some of your staff, who are always very busy doing the work and always struggle to find free time for these, now have time to think about new ideas,” he says on some key themes he discusses with his clients. “This is now a good time to go back and think ‘if I have to restart our business, what should I do?’”

This applies for every organisation, including charities, small and big companies. “Business and finance analysts can start to map out end-to-end processes and then think about new automation, digital, and innovative ideas that can be applied to improve these processes, improve the ‘flow’ and take costs out,” he explains.

A lot of times when companies try to improve a system, they think of taking people out to reduce costs. “That is not the answer because eventually when the upswing happens, and it will, you need the people and you need the experts. What you want is to take the waste out and improve the flow of work.”

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Richard Raj

Raj observes: A lot of New Zealand businesses that grow from small to medium sized rapidly do not do this well, because they did not have the time to sit back and say, “This person B is doing too much. So maybe, to improve the flow, we will need two person Bs and half of a person A, which will improve the product and develop it faster.”

An area organisations can also look at is upskilling. A lot of the things needed to train people are already online. “I advise people to go and do an online course,” he says. “An organisation, for instance, can organise a video conferencing session with a trainer for people who are working from home. “

“One of the things that will be practical and very much in demand post-COVID-19 is new ways-of-working, which is agile,” notes Raj. “Agile, and an agile mindset may become just a normal way of working. So, teach your organisation how they can build agile teams, how to be more effective and do things in small increments and drive business value rapidly.”

He observes how COVID-19 has impacted larger projects that have bigger teams and vendors. The projects that would have likely survived will be those with small agile sprints that can deliver benefits in weeks and not in six months.

In the case of an organisation like healthAlliance, he says some of the teams he has worked on have not stopped at all and are in fact prioritising some COVID-19-related work. “There are things that technology can help overcome as organisations are in full lockdown mode,” he stresses.

“The COVID-19 situation prompted teams to think differently, for instance, in holding daily stand-up meetings remotely. There is a challenge of working and keeping in touch with each other, as all team members work remotely.”

In his previous team, the teams hold stand-up meetings via Zoom and combine it with Jira, a defect and agile project management tool from Atlassian. “This is good for the whole team as all of them can participate continuously in the meetings and chats, tracking progress, rather than depending on email,” says Raj.

He believes organisations should prepare for three months at least of working this way, before they can go back and have a full complement of people working at the office.

“At the same time, with the COVID-19 crisis proving more people can work more effectively from home, organisations may ask later, can this not continue and if they can cut costs for accommodation or office space, and plough the money towards driving the business?”

According to Raj, this thinking is needed as organisations work through the crisis and plan to re-emerge. Corporates, meanwhile, can do charity work, help SMBs with budget management services. “We should all try to highlight how the company can help those who are not so well off. Now is a good time to build goodwill.

How to become a customer-centred business 

Dan Cornwall, chief of design at Clearpoint, says with the fallback of 'in store' or 'in branch' taken away, there is definitely an opportunity for businesses to focus on how they can prioritise their digital channels to make them usable and enjoyable for all customers.

“If there are organisations with digital teams who are a bit more quiet at the moment, they could use the time to look at their existing digital channels and do a review from an accessibility standpoint."

Firstly, he notes, “We have to get away from the binary paradigm of people being abled and disabled, and more towards what is the level of difficulty that people have in using things?”

“Some of these are simple, but developers can miss it in the heat of the moment when there are other priorities in the business,” says Cornwall. One step they can take is to download screen reader tools and put their websites and apps through these.

Two years ago, they did this with a bank and because it has never been done, no one knew their app could not be viewed using a screen reader. This, he says, is part of being a customer-centred business. “Businesses that have embraced inclusive design have found that the outcomes of what they create tend to benefit all of their customers.

As Forrester analyst Tom Champion points out in an earlier research on customer-centric firms, shifting towards more mature components of customer diversity and inclusion is “more than a social good. It’s a strategic pillar.”

“Leading organisations will embrace diversity to win ‘the next billion customers’ - those who are in untapped geographies or have been traditionally underserved,” he says. “This is making organisations reset their thinking and revisit the customer experiences they deliver.”

Leading organisations also do not view these as one-off initiatives. “While events and campaigns to improve inclusion are helpful, the most successful projects are part of broader initiatives to embed new ways of working and shift mindsets,” notes Champion. “They will be guided by a belief that higher-quality CX for underserved customers leads to a competitive edge in a disrupted world where all customers have never been more empowered.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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