How design keeps companies focused on people as the pandemic pushes businesses online

This newsletter is dedicated to the proposition that, for businesses, design matters.

In nearly every issue, we’ve tried to show how the perspective of people trained as designers—whether from classical, commercial, or computational backgrounds—can change businesses for the better. Designers, we have argued, bring unique skills and ways of thinking that can help managers without design training understand customers and tailor products and services for them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has offered designers a chance to prove their worth. We’ve written in this space about the many ways designers are helping to create protective gear, reconfigure workplaces, and make it easier to work, shop, and study from home. But designers also are helping companies think through fundamental, long-term changes in the way they use data and technology to deliver value to customers.

In management jargon, those big changes are often described as “digital transformation.” The term is messy, overused and means different things to different people. But in its most basic sense, “digital transformation” implies the integration of digital technology into all aspects of an organization’s operations. Digital transformation generally involves reliance on things like automation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and data analytics. It also entails the changes in corporate strategy, structure and culture necessary to make those technologies work.

Before the virus, many companies were experimenting with digital transformation. Since the pandemic, it has become an urgent corporate priority. Indeed, for many companies, going digital has been the only way to stay in business. We’ve seen explosive growth in online shopping and food delivery, telemedicine, remote education, online entertainment, and more. At the virtual Fortune Global Forum earlier this month, a panel of digitally savvy CEOs told Fortune CEO Alan Murray the crisis has helped convince even skeptical CEOs that they need to embrace new technologies as quickly as consumers.

“The value of digital channels, products and operations is immediately obvious to companies everywhere right now,” declares Sandy Shen, a senior analyst at Gartner. “This is a wake-up call for organizations that have placed too much focus on daily operational needs at the expense of investing in digital business and long-term resilience. Businesses that can shift technology capacity and investments to digital platforms will mitigate the impact of the outbreak and keep their companies running smoothly now, and over the long term.”

A forthcoming report by the Economist Intelligence Unit argues: “The public health crisis has motivated organizations to accelerate plans for technology deployment, governments to waive regulatory requirements, and consumers to accept new products and services.”

International Data Corporation, in a May 2020 report, forecast that global spending on digital transformation technologies and services would grow 10.4% in 2020, to $1.3 trillion. That’s down from 17.9% growth in 2019, but “remains one of the few bright spots in a year characterized by dramatic reductions in overall technology spending,” IDC analysts said.

But as Paris-based designer Patrick Avril argues in this excellent post on Medium, digital transformations that invest heavily in technology and engineering but lose sight of people risk going horribly wrong.

We’ll be talking a lot about how designers can contribute to digital transformations in the coming weeks. Here are three events you can attend virtually to take part in that conversation:

  • On Friday, November 20, I’ll be participating in a virtual event presented by the Business Design Initiative at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to talk about why organizations need design and how it enables innovation. This year’s theme: “Decoding Design for Innovation.” I’ll join in discussions with Angèle Beausoleil, Academic Director of the Business Design Initiative at Rotman, and two renowned design stars, John S. Couch and Bruce Mau. You can register for that program HERE.
  • On Tuesday, December 1, 5:00 PM Hong Kong / 9:00 AM London / 10:00 AM Central European Time, I’ll lead a virtual Fortune event entitled “Fast Forward: How the Pandemic is Shifting Digital Transformation into High Gear.” Panelists will include: Paul Scanlan, chief technology officer at Huawei Technologies’ carrier business group; Michael Frank, manager for public policy at the Economist Intelligence Unit; and two other senior European executives. You can sign up to participate in that conversation HERE.
  • Then a week later, On Tuesday, December 8, 11:00AM Eastern Time, I’ll join with Fortune deputy editor Brian O’Keefe and senior editor Ellen McGirt for “Resilience by Design: Driving Business Transformation,” a 90-minute virtual conversation presented in partnership with Salesforce and IBM. We’ll hear from PepsiCo’s chief design officer Mauro Porcini and global chief commercial officer Ram Krishnan about how design drives business value. We’ll also talk with Deanna Van Buren, co-founder and executive director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, about design’s role in building communities. We’ll tell you more about how you can sign up for that event next week.

More design news below!

Clay Chandler
[email protected]

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