Thriving through transformation: Lessons from a New Era in Experience

Organisations that thrived in COVID addressed the impact of the pandemic by pushing forward with digital transformation, automation, cost-reduction, innovation, and investment.

Team working around a desk in a well-lit office

The initial shock of learning how to navigate the sudden wholesale changes sparked by a global pandemic may have eased, but business leaders are only now coming to terms with the learnings and outcomes that will enable their organisations to thrive in a forever-changed environment.

A recent study into this ‘New Era in Experience’, released by the London School of Economics and Adobe, found that even as COVID-19 highlighted widespread organisational vulnerabilities around technology and business processes, one in four businesses were able to adapt quickly to drive digital transformation and growth.

The behaviour of this segment – dubbed ‘Thrivers’ because of their relative success negotiating the pandemic business climate – reveals a tendency of continued investment in branding and technology despite lockdowns and the resulting economic downturn. The objective being to emerge on the other side in an improved competitive position.

These organisations addressed the impact of COVID-19 by pushing forward with digital transformation, automation, cost-reduction, innovation, and investment, the report found.

Quote from Paul Robson, President International at Adobe: "The relationship between employer, employee , and customer will never be the same again."

Thrivers also took a data-driven, scalable approach to managing and delivering customer experiences that distinguished them from their peers and enabled them to measure and respond more quickly to change in the new, more agile, digital landscape.

In contrast, the report found so-called ‘Hider’ brands took a shorter-term view, prioritising spend to lower operating costs and maintaining their market position, while ‘Survivor’ brands, which typically saw revenues halve during the crisis, cut almost all non-essential spending, reduced staff and deferred innovation projects.

“The pandemic has brought about changes so sweeping that we cannot even comprehend the full magnitude of them,” says Paul Robson, President, International at Adobe. “We, as brands and business leaders, have changed too – from the way we work, to the way we connect with customers and colleagues, and the way we create and deliver experiences in this new, digital-first era.”

“Ultimately, it’s our ability to react to these changes that will define us.”

The New Era in Experience report, based on pre-and-during pandemic research with European and global organisations, includes insights from CIOs in 300 large enterprises, more than 20,000 interviews with SME managers, and ongoing analysis that began in 2007.

It shows the impact of the pandemic as GDP dropped by around 40 percent in the second quarter of 2020 in Europe, with seven in 10 European brands experiencing a decline in revenue, four in 10 reporting a struggle to fund technology and one in three halting tech investments altogether last year.

Despite the economic, social and health-related variables between markets – with Asia Pacific, in general, less affected by the economic impact of the crisis than mature markets in Europe, for example – there are lessons to be learned from how Thrivers around the world engineered their recovery.

1. Hands-on and open leadership

During the pandemic, Thriver brands enjoyed a productivity increase of 20 percent due to the impact of a more engaged and flexible leadership team, the switch to remote work and a willingness to redefine organisational structures.

“A highly visible C-Suite and senior management team during the pandemic planned for its impact both short- and long-term, with enterprise-wide engagement and accessibility,” the report found.

It also highlights superior supplier engagement, making them better able to deal with supply shortages.

India’s HDFC Bank expedited the shift to contactless experiences while staff worked remotely during the pandemic, prioritising the ability to open accounts, conduct transactions, apply for loans and manage investments digitally.

“Initially we were just translating physical to digital journeys,” says Manoj Kashyap, head of digital payments and digital bank at HDFC. “We have to be aligned to what the customer wants.

“In their personal lives they have already moved into experiencing the convenience of digital so obviously they expect the same experience from the bank and why not? Today it takes three minutes to open a bank account.”

2. An organisational culture built on trust

Four out of five CEOs who introduced new, remote work practices to support digitalisation say they’re likely to retain them.

During the pandemic, Thrivers adopted collaborative technology such as video and chat solutions not just for employee communications and wellbeing, but for rapid product development and enhanced supplier and customer engagement.

That trust flowed into more autonomous decision-making at the local market level, supported by technology.

This new employee experience is “a capability to be optimised”, according to Adobe’s 2021 Digital Trends report, released in January, and is expected to become a point of difference between employer brands.

It’s an area in which Adobe practices what it preaches: Over one weekend, during the early stages of the pandemic, the company shifted its entire global workforce of 22,000 to remote work with barely a blip.

“In general, our employees have more than doubled the time spent virtually with colleagues, they are collaborating and using messaging services 60 percent more, and our engineering productivity has remained the same,” says CIO Cynthia Stoddard.

The employee experience was “one of the most critical concerns” in making the transition to remote work. Adobe took steps to safeguard this, including an established work from home support channel in Slack and simplified security measures to enable staff to access secure enterprise applications remotely.

3. Rapid decision-making and organisational agility

Organisations that undertook digital transformation before and during the pandemic were able to alter business processes, organisational structure, and resource allocation at speed, driving a new focus on organisational agility.

With the realisation that agility must become part of the organisational DNA, Thriver brands released new products and updates in a matter of days during the pandemic, rather than over weeks and months.

Digital and mobile-first fintech app Hay was built to enable rapid innovation, and designed its online presence to allow it to respond quickly to customer needs across all of its mobile and web touchpoints.

With customer data at their fingertips, and the ability to test and iterate on the customer experience based on that data, Hay was able to condense improvements to the customer onboarding journey from months to just a week.

“We’ve been able to consistently scale with very quick improvements at low cost,” says Hay’s head of digital Brad Pidgeon. “By measuring how our customers are interacting with our business and making significant improvements to their experiences, we’ve been able to grow even in the midst of a global pandemic.”

4. Continued learning, upskilling and transformation

Digital transformation remained a priority for Thrivers during the crisis as they strived to equip staff with the right skills, tools and mindset to drive change and improve performance.

Thrivers foster data-rich cultures by enabling access to enterprise data across sales and marketing, operations and reporting, accelerating analysis and rapid solution design and delivery based on what the data suggests.

Singapore-based telco M1 underwent a digital transformation amid the pandemic, refreshing its brand, rebuilding and relaunching its website and reinventing the customer experience by offering hyper-personalised recommendations designed to provide individual customers the best value based on their needs.

“At M1, our new brand and promise of providing hyper-personalized experiences and services for our customers is supported by our digital transformation,” says Nathan Bell, Chief Digital Officer at M1.

“With our partners, we want to focus on building an innovative and forward-looking technology infrastructure to keep M1 at the forefront of building Singapore’s digital economy while driving real value to our customers.”

5. Technology housed in the cloud

The cloud emerged as the primary accelerator of digitalisation before the pandemic, with 90 percent of those who adopted it regarding it as their primary transformation enabler.

In some markets, two in three brands have already moved to the cloud due to the inherently scalable and flexible nature of cloud technology, which allows for rapid trial, testing and adaptation.

In Australia, convenience store brand 7-Eleven announced a strategic partnership with Adobe and Microsoft in December to accelerate an ambitious digital transformation strategy founded on customer experience and operational technology and data in the cloud.

7-Eleven General Manager of Strategy and Technology Stephen Eyears said the company sought to deliver more agile innovation to meet customer needs across both physical and digital retail environments, including its relaunched My 7-Eleven app and website.

“The convenience customer now, but even more so by 2030, expects brands to provide digital channels which complement the physical retail experience,” Eyears said.

7-Eleven expects to launch trials and create new opportunities much more quickly and deliver personalised value for customers while reducing the impact these innovations can sometimes have on our store teams.

“The way we do business is going to become simpler, easier and much more efficient,” Eyears says.

Before and during the pandemic, organisations that demonstrated the characteristics of Thriver brands realised impressive outcomes, from sales growth and productivity increases to faster launch cycles and improved customer satisfaction.

They continued to act on clearly articulated technology strategies designed to improve their competitive position, as well as reduce costs and increase efficiencies, emerging as leaders in a turbulent time.

“The relationship between employer, employee, and customer will never be the same again,” Robson says. “Leaders must willingly embrace and adopt these traits, right now, in order to thrive during the New Era in Experience.”

To hear more about how brands such as 7-Eleven, M1, HDFC Bank, Hay and others are driving digital transformation and growth through the pandemic and beyond, watch Adobe Summit 2021 on demand now.