The CIO’s Guide to Preparing for the Next Normal

What is “the next normal” and how can CIOs prepare? As organizations navigate through this uncertain time, they are struggling to maintain continuous business operations, while planning for a future world that will almost certainly be different from the one we once knew.

Many leading research firms have begun referring to this as the “new normal” or the “next normal.”

That next normal will inevitably involve a number of changes to business, society, and our daily lives. Though many of these changes are uncertain, businesses absolutely must prepare for that world if they are to survive and thrive in the coming years and decades.

In this guide, we will explore this concept in detail, including:

  • What the “next normal” is and what it means for businesses
  • How to plan and prepare for tomorrow’s uncertain environment
  • Why digital adoption, transformation, and maturity are more critical than ever

As forward-thinking CIOs know, the entire business world is founded upon and driven by digital technology – and this will become even more true in the coming years. 

To understand why, let’s explore how the world is changing and what tomorrow’s economy will look like.

What Is the “Next Normal”?

During the COVID-19 outbreak, the world has experienced unprecedented disruptions at a global scale. Work, daily life, finances, and social lives have all been severely affected by the outbreak. 

Many organizations have had to undergo radical changes in order to adapt to this stark new reality – but there are quite a few indications that life will not return to precisely the same state that we once knew.

Instead, a number of governments and institutions have suggested that the post-viral world will enter a “new normal,” which could result in restructured economies, social lives, and more.

McKinsey and the Next Normal

McKinsey has taken this concept further, dubbing it “the next normal,” and defining the stages of transformation that businesses must undergo in order to thrive in the post-viral era:

  • Resolve. At the time of this writing, response plans, disaster recovery efforts, and business continuity plans are well underway. Organizations are implementing telecommuting policies in order to maintain employee productivity, educational institutions are moving their classes online, healthcare organizations are scrambling to keep up with the demand, and so on. At this point, McKinsey says, organizations must “determine the scale, pace, and depth of action required at the state and business levels.”
  • Resilience. McKinsey’s analysis suggests that the economic impact the world is currently facing could be the biggest one in almost a century, which will result in losses that could exceed those experienced during the Great Depression. Resilience is the key to surviving such a difficult and trying disruption, since stress will compound at both the micro and macro scales. Leaders in all sectors will need to make challenging decisions that balance both social and economic sustainability.
  • Return. Returning to normal operations after a disruption of such magnitude will be particularly challenging, given, for instance, that the entire global supply chain has been disrupted from the ground up. On top of this already difficult problem, a second resurgence of the virus could significantly complicate matters and exacerbate the same problems we are facing now.
  • Reimagination. As a consequence of all of these changes, individuals’ expectations – whether viewed as customers, employees, or as citizens – will transform. To meet these changing expectations, organizations and institutions will need to reevaluate their business models from the ground up. 
  • Reform. The outbreak will reshape many aspects of the world as we know it, from public health policies to education to business. In the post-pandemic world, a wide variety of innovations and social shifts will ultimately result in a restructuring of the global economic order. 

Following these steps, says McKinsey, can help organizations navigate through the crisis and establish themselves in the next normal – “a normal that looks unlike any in the years preceding the coronavirus.”

Deloitte and the Next Normal

Deloitte has also developed its own model to help guide organizations through the pandemic, maintain continuous business operations, and prepare for the next normal.

During the first phase of the response to the pandemic, Deloitte points out, many organizations have been forced to implement rapid changes to their operations, many of which were mandated by governments.

During the next phase, governments will likely continue to adjust their response efforts, and organizations will need to plan accordingly.

Deloitte advises following three planning principles:

  • Safe. Continuing to look after your people and customers.
  • Flexible. Being ready to modify operations as needed, in order to meet fluctuating demand or conditions.
  • Resilient. Making the best use of available resources to maintain continuous business operations.

A systematic approach to scenario planning can help organizations stay flexible, which is vital in such uncertain conditions.

The research firm recommends planning for three specific types of scenarios:

  • Rising-peak. Where significant government restrictions inhibit movement and social proximity.
  • Post-peak. After these restrictions have begun to be lifted, allowing people to move more freely.
  • Towards recovery. When most restrictions have been lifted, except in a smaller number of necessary cases.

Scenario planning can give way to more effective operational planning, financial planning, and more. 

An approach such as this, Deloitte explains, can enable organizations to continue operating with “flexibility, safety and resilience through varying levels of pandemic restrictions.”

Shifting from event-driven to planning-driven can provide a pathway to full recovery in the “next normal.”

Gartner and the Next Normal

One Gartner blog article also addressed the new normal, specifically as it applies to retail.

Though the future is always unknown – and thought it is particularly uncertain at the time of this writing – businesses can still plan for “multiple time horizons.”

Gartner recommends focusing on three critical time horizons:

  • Respond. Immediate responses to the pandemic often include fast fixes and temporary measures, such as workplace closures, new health measures, and so forth. In many cases, these response efforts are aimed at protecting operations or reducing losses, though in some cases there are positive results, such as increased demand for certain types of items.
  • Recovery. Recovery curves will look different for different organizations and industries. A “U-curve,” for instance, will decline gradually and rise gradually, while a “V” curve will have a sharper dip and recovery. A “W-curve,” meanwhile, may consist of two sharp dips and recoveries. Understanding these potential scenarios can aid in the planning process.
  • Renew. As the other research firms mentioned above, the long-term view will vary a great deal depending on what the next normal actually looks like. Regardless of what that next normal actually does look like, organizations in virtually every industry will need to reimagine and renew their business models.

Though many of us may hope that the world will return to the way things were in the previous decade, Gartner also agrees that we cannot go back to “normal”

To prepare for the next normal, therefore, organizations must be ready to adapt and change to the uncertainties of that world.

How CIOs Can Change and Stay Ready for the Next Normal

So far, we have seen several approaches to planning for the next normal, all of which can help organizations stay prepared and flexible for the future business environment.

Underlying all of these approaches, however, is a fundamental need for change. Since the entire global business environment is changing so dramatically, after all, organizations must also change with it.

There are three steps that every organization will follow when adapting to the current disruption – or any disruption for that matter.

These include:

  • Responding to change. During the COVID-19 crisis, organizations’ first responses were largely made out of necessity. Remote working, for instance, was the most common response for office-based businesses. For food service, hospitality, or similar industries, however, closure was a common response.
  • Controlling change. As quickly as possible, it is necessary to shift from reactive mode to proactive control. Scenario planning, as Deloitte pointed out, can help organizations shift from event-driven to planning-driven activities, offering an increased level of control over the disruptive change.
  • Mastering change. Strategic planning represent the first steps towards controlling change. However, an organization cannot be said to have mastered change until it has fully restored operations and is conducting business as usual. Since the next normal has not yet arrived, this state of affairs may be a ways off – but the sooner organizations prepare, the sooner they will be ready to master change.

According to McKinsey, in order to thrive during the next normal, it pays to focus on four strategic areas:

  • Recovering revenue as quickly as possible
  • Rebuilding operations 
  • Rethinking the organization for the post-viral era
  • Accelerate digital adoption to enable reimagination

An ambitious digital agenda, McKinsey argues, is needed in order to enable rapid adaptation and sustainable operations in the coming years.

Not only that, these digital changes must be implemented quickly – in only a few months, rather than a few years. 

The Case for Digital Adoption

Digital adoption is central to successful digital transformation, as McKinsey and others have pointed out.

However, given the recency of the term, not all business professionals are familiar with the term. Below, we’ll explore what digital adoption is, its role in digital transformation, and why it is so necessary to overcome the current crisis:

What is digital adoption?

Digital adoption means achieving a state in which users gain the ability to use digital tools as they are intended and to the fullest extent.

In a business context, digital adoption ensures that:

  • Digital tools and technology are fully integrated into workflows and the work environment. Deploying software makes new tools available for users, but building business processes and workflows around those tools is an entirely different matter. Digital adoption goes beyond deployment and takes a top-down perspective on the work environment, looking at cross-platform workflows, digital skills, and other elements needed to enhance work processes.
  • Onboarding and training proceed smoothly and efficiently. New hires must often learn a plethora of new tools when they begin a job, which can be daunting, to say the least. Also, when new tools are implemented in the workplace, existing employees must learn to use and integrate those new tools. Digital adoption strategies tackle both of these problems by simplifying onboarding and training, which is best accomplished using digital adoption platforms (see below).
  • Employees stay proficient and productive. Productivity is directly dependent on proficiency, which requires effective on-the-job training. Yet this is complicated by the fact that organizations are continually adopting new tools – and by the fact that existing tools are continually being upgraded. The result is that employers must find a way to continually train their workforce economically and unobtrusively.

Since digital adoption represents a fundamental stage in the process of digital transformation, having a digital adoption strategy is vital for any organization undergoing digital change.

Additionally, in the modern business environment, new tools and technology are being adopted regularly, making digital adoption a necessity even in businesses that are not undergoing continual change.

A digital adoption strategy aims to improve several areas within the organization, including:

  • The IT infrastructure. An organization’s technology is the underlying machinery that fuels its business processes, its service delivery pipeline, its innovative capabilities, and much more. Organizations that adopt cutting-edge technology have access to advanced capabilities and possibilities – however, as mentioned, those are merely possibilities unless that technology is utilized to its fullest extent. To realize that value, it is critical to focus on two other important areas: the employee experience and the customer experience.
  • The digital employee experience. Technology is operated by humans, and in the case of the enterprise, those humans are employees. Their experience matters, since a negative software experience can depress motivation, performance, and job satisfaction. Simplifying that experience, in contrast, can raise those metrics and improve the bottom-line returns of a digital tool.
  • The digital customer experience. Ultimately, the end goal of any digital adoption effort is to contribute to a better customer experience. And, as many organizations already know, a positive customer experience translates into higher profit margins, a better reputation, and more. 

This approach covers the entire service delivery pipeline, from the tools to the experience of the end customer. 

By improving each of these areas, it will be possible to significantly accelerate software adoption, digital transformation, and user training, among other benefits. Let’s explore a few of those benefits now.

The advantages of digital adoption

Software implementation or deployment does not account for an organization’s most pressing concern: actually extracting value from that software investment.

Digital adoption, however, focuses not only on successful deployment, but also on maximizing product value as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A digital adoption strategy – particularly one powered by digital adoption platforms (DAPs), covered below – can offer a number of advantages for the business.

These include:

  • Accelerated time-to-competency and time-to-productivity. The longer it takes to train users, the longer it takes them to become productive. These delays can frustrate users, while also slowing down an organization’s ability to realize the value promise of its investments and execute any plans that hinge upon that value realization. 
  • Improved overall software proficiency. It is common for user skill levels to stagnate after a certain point, often due to cognitive overload, insufficient training, or a combination of several related factors. Digital adoption platforms provide practical, targeted training that can help users become perpetual learners, boosting their overall skill levels.
  • Greater software utilization. All too often, entire portions of a software platform will go unused, due to many of the same reasons covered above: not enough time, information overload, and inadequate training tools. Using a digital adoption platform, however, CIOs, trainers, and managers can choose to promote specific features or functions, further increasing the value that a company can gain from its platforms. 
  • A more streamlined digital work experience. Since digital adoption platforms help users become proficient across multiple platforms in far less time than traditional training approaches, digital adoption platforms can transform the entire work environment. Software-related frustration decreases, employee satisfaction goes up, and the workplace becomes more efficient and productive. 
  • Higher product value and ROI. As mentioned, accelerated user proficiency and boosted productivity result in a greater return on software investments. Also, as McKinsey mentioned above, the speed of digital transformation matters now more than ever, which means that time-to-competency has a significant impact on organizations’ ability to execute such time-sensitive initiatives.

Ultimately, every digital tool is an investment, but the actual return on that investment depends heavily on users’ proficiency and the user experience.

For that reason – and since software has become the machinery that drives the modern business environment – it pays to invest in solutions that enhance employee performance and productivity.

How digital adoption platforms (DAPs) improve transformation efforts

Digital adoption platforms (DAPs) are specifically designed to streamline adoption efforts, making them the ideal choice for any modern enterprise.

Industry-leading platforms, such as WalkMe’s digital adoption platform, include features such as:

  • In-app walkthroughs. In-app walkthroughs, also called product walkthroughs or software walkthroughs, take users one step at a time through a series of tasks. Through pop-up bubbles and in-app instructions, users can quickly learn new workflows without the need for human intervention. Not only does this improve knowledge retention and time-to-productivity, as mentioned above, it also reduces technical support calls and costs.
  • Interactive guidance and task automation. WalkMe’s digital adoption platform offers an AI-driven chat interface, WalkMe ActionBot, that helps users complete tasks, even if they have no experience with the target tools. It can be used to offer self-service resources, automate and streamline business processes, reduce errors, and more. 
  • Software analytics. Analytics track users’ behavior within target software applications, helping managers understand sticking points and training needs. That information can be used to improve software walkthroughs, inform training efforts, and provide insight into website or app design. 

The effective use of features such as these can achieve many of the outcomes covered earlier, which is why digital adoption platforms are essential for any organization that wants to raise the value of its investments and accelerate digital transformation efforts as we move forward into the next normal.

A CIO’s Agenda for Change: Transformation, Adoption, and Maturity

Though the timing may be uncertain, what is certain is that the next normal will be upon us soon, and it may arrive sooner than we think.

Adequate preparation can mean the difference between success and failure in tomorrow’s economy. 

Business continuity planning is certainly necessary and continuity efforts have become top-of-mind for many organizations, it is just as important to prepare for the next normal, as many major research firms have suggested.

Changes to customer expectations, the global economic structure, society, and the business environment will all necessitate completely new approaches to one’s own business. Though the exact shape of the next normal remains to be seen, digital technology will undoubtedly play a critical role in the future economy. 

For that reason, CIOs should be stepping up their digital transformation agendas – not waiting to see what happens. 

If organizations wait until the next normal arrives, then they will be far behind competitors who have already advanced forward.

We have already seen several approaches to forecasting and scenario planning, which can certainly help businesses plan appropriately. 

However, there are a number of agenda items that will be vital and valuable in the coming years, regardless of how the future economy actually evolves.

Let’s look at some of these now.

Accelerate digital transformation efforts

Since the COVID-19 crisis has brought about such a massive economic crisis, it is very reasonable to assume that the next normal will arrive in the midst of a recession or a depression.

Therefore, competition will be high and spending will be low.

Also, and just as importantly, the next normal will be even more reliant on digital technology. As we have seen during the outbreak, for instance, organizations with telecommuting capabilities were able to adapt more quickly than those that had none.

Remote working, however, is only one example among many that suggests tomorrow’s world will be more reliant on digital technology.

There are many other technologies and trends that have seen an uptick in the wake of the outbreak, such as:

  • Telehealth
  • Contactless payments
  • Online shopping
  • Online education
  • Robotics

Since the post-virus world will undoubtedly be far more health-conscious, we can definitely expect to see a continued interest in technologies and trends such as these.

The current trends, in other words, will not simply blow over. They will remain strong and they may even become permanent in the next normal.

Pre-virus predictions allowed CIOs and businesses time to prepare, but the crisis has pushed these trends into the here-and-now.

Rather than hoping they will go away, it is important to acknowledge that trends such as these may become permanent and to adapt by accelerating the appropriate digital transformation initiatives.

Implement a digital adoption program

Digital adoption should become a fixed business function, since technological change and software implementation are also constant.

New technology, upskilling, reskilling, and training are all vitally necessary in the digital workplace, making digital adoption an indispensable business strategy. 

Also, digital adoption is an essential stage in any digital transformation strategy, which invariably involves the adoption and implementation of new tools.

Since the effectiveness of adoption directly impacts the outcomes of digital transformation efforts – as well as employee productivity and organizational performance – enhancing those adoption efforts is a necessity.

Choosing to implement a digital adoption strategy is not enough however. 

To truly improve employee onboarding and training, it is necessary to leverage the right tools, such as digital adoption platforms, which are also known as digital adoption solutions.

These platforms, such as WalkMe’s platform, reduce waste, accelerate training, and dramatically enhance the digital workplace.

Upgrade the IT infrastructure

In the next normal, the right technology will almost certainly become a competitive differentiator, just as it is today.

Though the current economic climate is hardly conducive to excess spending, a modern IT infrastructure can help boost organizational resilience and a company’s ability to thrive in the coming years.

From cloud computing to AI to RPA, CIOs and other business leaders should evaluate the viability of their current long-term plans, rethink their digital strategies, and be willing to take risks.

A robust IT infrastructure, after all, can…

  • Increase revenue
  • Reduce costs
  • Mitigate risk

Ultimately, a modernized IT infrastructure will allow organizations to more effectively deliver on its value promises, innovate, and stay agile in uncertain times.

Do more with less

Since the economy will undoubtedly be tight for the foreseeable future, businesses will need to find ways to perform at the same level with fewer resources.

Doing more with less can mean:

  • Adopting the right technology
  • Encouraging employees to follow productivity best practices
  • Standardizing and improving business processes to reduce waste
  • Letting go of preconceptions and being willing to innovate

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for economizing operations, of course. 

However, necessity is the mother of all invention and today, that necessity may spur business leaders to think outside the box and consider approaches that may previously have been left off the table.

Enhance the employee experience

Every organization is made up of human employees, which means that the organization’s performance depends directly on their skills.

In the digital business landscape, this makes digital onboarding, training, and adoption paramount, as we have covered above.

Training is only part of the battle, however.

Employees may be proficient, but if they don’t enjoy their work or their workplace, productivity will suffer. 

Of course, productivity should not be the only reason to improve the employee experience. A better workplace will draw in better talent, improve the brand’s reputation, and it will ultimately have a positive impact on the customer experience.

There are a number of ways to improve the employee experience, such as:

  • Improve the digital employee experience, by ensuring that they have the right skills and tools they need to succeed
  • Provide adequate support for remote workers, including adequate software training, as well as education on how to stay emotionally healthy when working remotely
  • Simplify onboarding and training with digital adoption platforms, as mentioned above
  • Implement corporate wellness programs to help employees stay physically and emotionally healthy
  • Cultivate an organizational culture that aligns with the organization’s mission and values, then be selective when hiring new workers
  • Hire an employee experience manager to coordinate these efforts

Most of these recommendations will not fall directly under the CIO’s prerogative. 

However, when developing a digital transformation program, it is important to bear in mind the impact that the employee experience can have on the success or failure of that program – not to mention the organization’s day-to-day operations.

Sponsoring changes such as these will improve the organization’s ability to transform successfully, while also providing employees with much-needed support as they navigate through the crisis.

Become digitally resilient, mature, and agile

Digital maturity represents an organization’s overall digital capabilities.

At the bottom of the scale lie organizations that have limited IT systems, poor integration between those systems, and a workforce with limited digital skills. 

An organization that is more digitally mature, however, will have well-integrated IT systems, an advanced IT infrastructure, and a fully utilized set of technology stacks.

Maturity, in short, covers technology as well as people and processes.

The more an organization can develop these areas, the more capable it will be in virtually every area of business.

Not only will it be able to implement digital transformation initiatives more swiftly and effectively, it will be more efficient and effective in a wide variety of operational contexts.

image source: deloitte.com

Since, as covered earlier, the next normal will be more digitally dependent than the economy of previous years, digital maturity will not be an option, it will be a necessity.

Final Thoughts: Transform Now to Thrive Tomorrow

McKinsey, Deloitte, Gartner, and many others are predicting that tomorrow’s economy will be substantially different from the one we are familiar with.

Social, economic, and technological changes – to name just a few – will reshape the business landscape in ways that we have yet to fully grasp. 

Those changes will redefine the world on many levels, fundamentally altering customer expectations, the economic structure, and more. 

In other words, given the trajectory and pace of current trends, business leaders cannot and should not expect that today’s crisis is just a hiccup. It represents a transition to a new normal that will redefine many areas of life and, in consequence, the way that organization’s conduct business.

Understanding this fact is the first step, but it is only the first step.

That realization should be followed by swift action and preparation, not merely for business continuity and survival, but for success. 

Rapid digital transformation should become a priority for organizations, which places an important responsibility on the shoulders of CIOs everywhere: transform quickly in order to prepare for, survive, and thrive during the next normal.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.