In the Tour de France, cyclers often race neck-and-neck, with almost no space between them. It’s in the hills and mountains where separation occurs and where the contestants can blow the race wide open. If the post-pandemic landscape were a bike race, that’s where businesses would be today — perfectly positioned to separate themselves from the pack. And while it seems antithetical to our usual understanding of capitalism, the way to do this is by serving the greater good.

The reason is twofold: public appetite and the easy availability of digital technologies. With the great challenges of the post-pandemic world, the public eye (and prevailing hope) is on businesses to fill in where government and other social institutions fall short. Meanwhile, businesses are becoming increasingly adept at using data and advanced technologies to really find out what customers and communities need and deliver it to them.

By focusing on this connection, businesses could turn the tables on age-old norms that put profits (shareholders) over the greater good (stakeholders). With nearly everyone on the planet open to a silver lining emerging from the crisis, those businesses that turn digital competency into stakeholder centricity will emerge as leaders.

Tech for Good

Of course, “digital” does not necessarily equal “social good.” From misuse of cyber surveillance, to intrusive use of personal information, to toxic and hateful speech on major social media platforms, it’s clear that technology, in and of itself, can be used as much as a weapon as a balm.

But during the pandemic, we saw a dramatic increase in the digitization of the major pillars of a good society, from banking, to insurance, to healthcare, to education, to government. Suddenly, students could attend class from anywhere; people with mental health issues could get treatment without leaving their home. If these types of experiences and interactions were taken further, they’d create a digital bond between the business and the customer that — when optimized — could not only reveal continued needs over the course of a lifetime but also deliver them.

The relationship between businesses and customers could suddenly shift from “outputs” to “outcomes.” Instead of “here’s your diploma, here’s your car, here’s your checking account, it would be, “this skill will enhance your career, doing this will increase your driving safety, by spending ‘here’ and not ‘there,’ you’ll boost your savings.”

The results would benefit businesses and society, alike. We’re already seeing universities pivot toward using data, artificial intelligence and high-speed networks to pull together a highly pixelated view of how individual students think and learn and, as a result, which courses and fields they’d excel in. This would result in students leaving the campus with not just their GPA but also a lifelong career counselor.

Similar relationships are already emerging in other industries. Car buyers are starting to leave the lot not with a machine that lasts 100,000 miles but with ongoing advice that ensures they’re safe and environmentally sensitive. In healthcare, patients are on the way to purchasing not just a health insurance policy but also a wellness service that advises them on how to stay healthy. Banking customers — not just the 1% — are gaining access to wealth management tools. All of this can change the trajectory of people’s lives and that of their family and the community around them.

In short, by understanding how customers are consuming their goods and services over time, businesses can create these long-term impacts and outcomes. With that ability comes responsibility — and those who take on that responsibility will rise above the rest.

Making the Shift

And that’s where the Alps and the Pyrenees and the other French mountain ranges of the famed bike race come in. Businesses have been cycling along the road to digitization for years now, but suddenly the pandemic compressed years of digital strategies into months, and months into weeks. That makes now the time to pedal — fast. Businesses that gain ground now will ensure a healthy gap between themselves and their competitors when crossing the finish line.   

The keys to accelerating digital competency are very clear:

  • Data modernization. Number one is getting your data under control. With a strong data foundation, you can create moments of magic for consumers.
  • Software engineering. The software capabilities once relegated to Silicon Valley need to now be embraced by the entire Fortune 500. These capabilities are needed to create the beautiful experiences that will enrapture consumers.
  • Internet of Things. We’ve been talking about IoT for years — it’s finally found its business reason this year. We’ve seen advancements in not just smart products that stretch the business’s bond with the people who buy them over a lifetime, but also safe buildings that ensure social distancing and the health of the workforce through technology. We’ll see these connected capabilities inexorably shift into the consumer world, as well.
  • Digital experience. This is what will define the battleground for the next 10 years: using software to create engaging, beautiful, enticing experiences for consumers. Clearly, this is decidedly a growth area for most companies, but those who excel with digital experience will be well-rewarded.

Widening the Gap

Even when businesses embrace all four of these elements, change won’t happen easily or immediately. Forceful leadership needs to provide new incentives, as well as hiring and promotion practices, that motivate new behaviors and upend entrenched values and cultures. Yes, performance may suffer for a quarter or two, but shareholders need to accept that’s what it takes to get to the other side. But it can be done, especially with a new generation of employees in the workforce for whom this thinking comes naturally.

Soon enough, when we view the list of top performers in any industry, we’ll be surprised to see familiar names that underperformed in the past but decided against obsolescence by rising to the challenge and responsibility set before them in the post-pandemic world.

This is the opportunity businesses have right now, in this short window of time that precedes the post-pandemic world: fortify the pillars of a good society by turning digital competence into social responsibility and serving the greater good.   

For more on this topic, see Malcolm Frank’s interview with David Kirkpatrick, editor-in-chief of Techonomy.

Malcolm Frank

Malcolm Frank

Malcolm Frank is President, Digital Business & Technology (DB&T), at Cognizant. In this role, he is responsible for bringing together the industry’s... Read more