COVID-19 has tremendously accelerated the development, adoption, and implementation of technology, bringing many organizations' digital agendas forward by years, and this rapid change will continue to ripple outwards for months to come. People Matters asked Peter Fox, EY's Asia Pacific HR Transformation Leader, for his observations on how this paradigm shift is progressing. Here are the highlights of what he shared.
There's been a huge rush towards technology adoption as a result of COVID-19. What kind of role do you think technology is going to play in the post-COVID world?
What we're seeing across the majority of our clients is a broad acceptance that the way they work with each other will fundamentally change. There's an increasing emphasis on the rapid adoption and rapid improvement of new platforms for working together and teaming across organizations. And one of the interesting things we've observed is how these new technologies very quickly become part of business as usual, weaving into the fabric of how we connect to people across and between organizations.
The other interesting thing is that we don't see clients going to any one particular solution. There's no single silver bullet to driving collaboration: it's a whole suite of tools and a whole suite of behaviors, and we have to find the right architecture and the right solution based on the people challenge that our clients are trying to overcome.
As for these challenges, I think the challenges around effectiveness and connectivity have largely been overcome. No one's questioning that this can be an effective way of working. But what they are questioning is, how do you create the human connection? The kind of water cooler conversation that you get in a physical environment, but that pulls away when you're working virtually?
Is that particular challenge related to people's ability to adapt, or to something else?
I think this period has proven that people can adopt new technology incredibly quickly when they have the motivation to do so. All the paradigms around changes being too difficult or too time-consuming have been fractured.
We're no longer at the stage where we pick a technology and then take a lengthy period of training and implementation to launch it. Instead, we're now in a world of true agile delivery of technology, where we are launching, learning, and improving as we go.
However, a lot of the success of this delivery depends on having the right support mechanisms in place to drive user adoption—IT support, HR support, automated support mechanisms. These days, support is scaled very differently. For instance, we now have chatbot support based on integrating artificial intelligence into video conferencing platforms. Technologies are deployed to support technologies.
Educators are increasingly saying that people need to learn entirely new skills to interact effectively with the new technologies. What's your take on that?
Absolutely. There's a need for basic knowledge like how to interact on the various communications platforms, the do's and don'ts of effectively facilitating large groups on a digital platform so that they interact well together. And so we're going to see a lot of training and upskilling for a range of platforms, delivered in bite-sized chunks that people can quickly pick up.
Then there's a need to educate people on how to choose the right platform for their purpose. Platforms like Microsoft Teams for example, are great for video conferences but not so great for collaboration amongst large groups. Or platforms like Mural are very good for facilitating cloud-based ideation sessions with large groups. And there are other platforms for managing work amongst a virtual team. There is a whole suite of tools out there to choose from, but how do you pick the right tool for the job? So far, we're doing it on a by-use basis—look at the business challenge and the use case first, then find the tools based on the requirements, and develop the learning nuggets that we can give to our people at the point of need to learn those tools quickly.
Are you seeing budgetary concerns around the implementation of these new technologies?
Interestingly, many of our clients are seeing savings from remote work. Physical environment spend, travel spend, entertainment spend, all these expenses have very rapidly fallen away as people have pivoted towards this way of working. There is quite a bit of offset on the profit and loss statement, and I think the cost concern has largely fallen away as a result.
I've actually seen big projects that have not only remained on schedule through the whole pivot to virtual ways of working, but are now under budget because there have been so much savings on travel.
The whole experience has really reinforced that spending money on IT absolutely has returns, and because the adoption has been so rapid, those returns are coming through now. It's no longer theoretical: the savings are already being realized.
How do you see these tools and platforms evolving? Are there certain features that will become more needed or more commonly used in the future?
The cloud-based platforms out there are being developed Agile-style—they have user forums where ideas are put forward, voted on by users, and then prioritized by votes. That really informs the development roadmap for a lot of these platforms. So for example, you see Microsoft Teams trying to compete with Zoom, that has a great breakout room functionality. Teams does not have that, but it is very high on their list because the users are demanding it. So I think we'll see a lot of feature convergence as we move forward.
But the feature that I think no one's really cracked yet is that true collaboration session around whiteboarding—that experience when you get in a room with someone, in front of a whiteboard, and try to come up with an idea in an interactive way. There are certainly tools you can use to do that, but they're not as mature, and people are still struggling with the concept of using tablet-based input devices for virtual whiteboards. So I'd say that area in particular, the creative generation of ideas, is going to emerge soon—maybe even in the next six months.
With all the tools and technologies available and more coming up, where should businesses be investing?
One of the big things would be infrastructure. The tools themselves are not an issue as they have similar features, but the place where people are starting to struggle, particularly in the APAC region, is the infrastructure. It's not up for the level of usage. So the question becomes, how do we enable a distributed workforce to access these services if the broadband's unstable?
And we're seeing in this environment that infrastructure and telecommunications are rushing to quickly accelerate the growth and deployment of that infrastructure. In Australia for example, you have the rapid acceleration of the rollout of the 5G network and also the push for the national broadband network. COVID-19 has been a crisis, but it's also been a catalyst for the adoption of these new tools and for the evolution and growth of the infrastructure needed to support them.