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Why now is the time to double down on digital transformation

A conversation with NYU business professor and futurist Amy Webb

Amy Webb Knowledge

Thousands of companies today face challenges that they likely never planned for. And many of those can seem all-consuming: transitioning most (or all) employees to remote work environments, meeting huge new demands on IT staff and infrastructure, or scaling up customer service operations nearly overnight.

But there’s an inherent opportunity cost for companies that get too absorbed in the urgency of this pandemic: They may lose focus on critical thinking and planning for the future.

That’s one of the core messages Amy Webb shares in her strategic foresight masterclass at Knowledge 2020. Web, a business professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and founder of the Future Today Institute, explains that while some companies may feel the need to dial back on new technology investments to deal with immediate needs, they should find ways to keep as much attention on strategic planning for the years ahead—particularly when it comes to figuring out how they can leverage artificial intelligence.

Even during the crisis, “now is exactly the time to double down on digital transformation,” says Webb. “There are huge decisions being made right now—about the future of remote work, the future of video-based communications, the future of 5G. There are all these decisions being made, but under duress,” Webb says. Smart companies, she argues, need to find ways to look beyond crisis decision-making.

How? Webb shares a three-part framework:

  • Look at macro sources of disruption. Webb identifies 11 forces of disruption where executives should look to see the earliest signals of change. Those include public health, infrastructure, government, education, media, and telecommunications, and the environment. Technology underpins each of these sources of change.
  • Commit to near- and long-term planning. Companies should consider using what Webb calls a “strategic time cone” rather than a timeline when planning for the future. A cone factors into account external variables and future uncertainties, while a conventional timeline merely identifies goals and benchmarks. “A lot of organizations don’t account for unknowns and external factors. They get really good at just staying in their lane,” Webb says. That’s a big mistake. “You have to commit to simultaneous near- and long-term planning.”
  • Connect vision with scenario planning. Tactics and strategy are important, but CEOs need to develop a vision for their organizations and thinking on the evolution of their industries. “If you’re thinking about digital transformation, what is the vision of your desired future state for your entire organization?” she asks. But even that doesn’t go far enough. “It’s not enough to spot the trend and signals. You have to get to action.”

Why is now actually a great time for CEOs to consider future planning when, from a practical standpoint, it may not seem urgent at all? As Webb explains, major events like the COVID-19 crisis have a way of accelerating technology trends that stick for years to come.

“Catastrophe tends to catalyze innovation.” Webb says. “If COVID-19 causes key technologies to accelerate, don’t you also need to accelerate our digital transformation process?” For Webb, the answer is a resounding yes. “Myriad factors and inputs create the constellation of change that becomes our future,” she adds. “Which tells us that you have to broaden your thinking, or you will be left behind.”

To watch Amy Webb’s full presentation, register for Knowledge 2020 for free.