From stress test to tech test in Consumer Goods and Services: Pandemic lessons learnt

While the COVID-19 pandemic created several problems for businesses, it also compelled them to come out of procrastination to prepare for the future digitally

Was the pandemic all bad news? Or was it that much-needed stress test or push for businesses to develop a sharp technology focus? And now that the world is trying to recover from the crisis, how can we get ready for the new future, which is on the horizon and quite different from what it expected? And when will there be no room left for enterprises that cling to the past?

A prominent think tank discussed some of these questions at a webinar organised by Dataquest in association with Accenture on ‘Technology Vision for Consumer Goods and Services’. It turns out that the recent few months have not only been tough but also a stress test, a catalyst and an accelerator of sorts for digital transformation of businesses.

Anil Chopra, VP, Research and Consulting, CMR opened the discussion with questions around the real triggers and impact areas of digital transformation. The panel shared a number of lessons and outlook points – all of which were hands-on and quite a compass for business leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve.

What’s new, what’s changing?

“Ninety-nine percent of the executives report that the COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented stress test for their organisations,” said Manish Gupta, MD and Client Group Lead – Products, Accenture in India. Citing an Accenture survey report, he added that for 63% of the executives, the pace of digital transformation is accelerating. In addition, 53% have scaled up cloud technologies in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Gupta illustrated the case of enterprises that have deployed creative solutions to tackle the pandemic-induced challenges. The survey results also show a similar trend where 40% of the enterprises use digital twins for product innovation, and 63% feel that data management will become more transparent with blockchain enablers.

Another point worth noting is that ‘remote work’ is not seen as an accommodation but an advantage. “Almost 80% of CGS executives agree that a remote workforce opens up the market for difficult-to-find talent and also expands the competition.”

There is no fundamental change in behaviour but the pandemic has pushed the changes that were already being introduced, such as consumer focus on health and sustainable brands. “How consumers receive communication has changed as we see new digital mediums and OTT platforms becoming mainstream. There is little attention span and an expectation for personalisation.” reasoned Narendra Agrawal, Global CIO, Dabur India Ltd.

Vaidyanath Subbaraman, Director, Global Head, Technology, Unilever, underlined the digital element of expanding consumer reach. “Digital is also being seen as a safe and fast alternative. The line between personal and business/retailer experience is changing too.”

All of our habits as B2C customers are trickling into the B2B space, echoed Suhas Devaraju, director, fulfillment operations technology, Amazon. “The operating models that exist today are also changing. The traditional distributor model is evolving into four different archetypes – especially hyper-local models.”

R N Mohanty, President, Pidilite Industries, also accentuated the aspect of localisation. “It is the main change that the pandemic has enforced. Logistics has been disrupted a lot during this time and that has led to new forces. We try to manufacture at the point-of-use now. This is another form of localisation so that we can address a number of distribution issues. We have to depend on local resources, so the shift from global to local is another strong change because of the pandemic.”

Should IT be taking notes? 

It is important to understand that while IT will lead the change, the entire organisation needs to rally through to enable it. Democratic data platforms, micro services, investments in skills and security, collaboration, data protection, and right architectures that do not restrict but facilitate growth can all be used to catalyse the progress in order to execute the digital transformation plans in a gainful way.

Agrawal from Dabur India talked about reducing tech dependencies. “Barriers for the adoption of new technologies is another area that cannot be ignored. Just like process change, getting used to a technology interface has always been challenging.”

As to barriers, Subbaraman chimed in and explained that change management at the grass-root level should be leveraged well. “Mindset change is also important. Doing something well for decades is not an excuse for not being in rhythm with the future. Another thing to pay attention is the fact that technology was always built in a permanent beta phase. Now we need to build for scale and value. Standardisation – seen in new technologies – is an encouraging part. We need that too.”

Moderating the session, Chopra spurred the panel towards an interesting food for thought: what will stay permanent?

Gupta responded to this question by talking about ongoing innovation. “Everything will change. Businesses should keep in mind that change and disruption would be a constant factor now.” Other panellists also chipped in and mentioned the need for agility, strategy and resilience as an ongoing imperative.

Are we ready?

One of the most significant results of the survey is that 91% of the executives feel that capturing tomorrow’s market will require their organisation to define it first. Accenture’s insights into the moods and fears of business leaders do provoke a lot of questions. The results reveal that companies have learnt that leaders do not wait for a ‘new normal’, rather they build it themselves. Big changes today require bold leadership and prioritisation of tech, says the survey report. And it’s not just about fixing the business but upending convention and creating a new vision for the future.

Accenture’s Technology Vision 2021 outlines that 77% of the executives surveyed from the consumer goods and services industry say that their organisations have faced a moderate to complete supply chain disruption. Thus, implementing multiparty systems is no longer seen as an ambitious undertaking but an urgently needed solution. Remarkably, multiparty systems can allow organisations to offer transparency and accountability to their customers, create new value, and make ecosystems resilient and adaptable. Additionally, where enabled by blockchain, 63% of the executives agree that multiparty systems will make data management more transparent.

Looks like, as we move into the future, financial success will only be one measure of leadership. Accenture contends that it is a unique moment to rebuild the world better than it was before the pandemic.

The overall sentiment at the panel aligned with Accenture’s prognosis that the past year has poked holes in long-standing norms on how companies operate and how people live. Indeed, the year 2020 has ushered in the need for a different path to light.

A major distillation from the panel’s conversation was how digital transformation is not just the IT department’s responsibility but the business team’s responsibility as well. This iterates the need for businesses to continue to have a clear-eyed perspective and sharp focus on their expedited digital transformation. Only then can they master the art of adapting to change and become the new leaders. After all, as Accenture’s insights stress, there is no leadership without technology leadership.

By Pratima Harigunani

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