Covid-19 has these 7 lessons for companies

The novel coronavirus has disrupted the life we lead. It has scripted the code for a new normal that has successfully managed to dispel the “tyranny of distance” ism. Workplaces, too, have tried to adapt and adjust to this new code of conduct as remote working and virtual management takes the lead, aided by optimally used technology. Digital watcher and practitioner Jaspreet Bindra made good use of the lockdown to articulate what corporations can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic. In 'The Immune Organisation', published by Amazon Westland, the tech evangelist looks at interesting ways in which organisations can leverage technology and design to overcome current calamities and crises.In a virtual interview with Lopamudra Ghatak of ETOnline, the tech practitioner details the Black Swan moment for India Inc and draws parallels with fiction-writer JRR Tolkien and his cult series, ‘The Lord of The Rings’. Lopamudra Ghatak (LG): Congratulations, Mr Bindra, what a time to be alive, and what a time to write a book! Tell us a little bit about the genesis of 'The Immune Organisation': what triggered it, and how long did it take you to complete?Jaspreet Bindra (JB): Thank you very much, Lopamudra. I agree with you that this is a very interesting time to be alive and to see this hopefully once-in-a-generation event happen in our lifetime. And yes, it’s an interesting time to write a book also. As the pandemic spread, I saw that there was much chatter about a vaccine against Covid-19 and everyone was talking about immunity and antibodies and prophylactics, etc. This triggered a thought: what if we were to think of Covid-19 itself as a vaccine, learn from it and start producing the antibodies necessary to make ourselves and our organisations immune for the next big disruption that strikes? My second book, a Long Read, dropped on @AmazonKindle yesterday.Called 'The Immune Organisation', it posits how w…— Jaspreet Bindra, Tech Whispering from Home (@j_bindra) 1590467532000In the process of a vaccination, vaccines themselves do not cure a disease. They just prevent it from happening again because they make one immune. When weak worms and weak viruses are injected into the body and the body sees them for the first time, it starts using a new kind of antibody. And because these viruses are weak or dead, they don't really fall very ill. But, the next time when something like this happens or a similar disease strikes, the antibodies are ready so the disruption is much less and that was the idea. So, that’s how the idea became a short book, and it helped that Westland showed interest. The lockdown is not the time to write big, lengthy books which would sell at bookstores. People do not have that much time to read as they have been busier than usual and, secondly, bookstores were closed. A short e-book is also a book for these times rather than normal times, and that led to ‘The Immune Organisation'. LG: In your e-book, you have mentioned seven antibodies that an organisation must incorporate in order to survive a never-before-seen condition like the novel Coronavirus. And decentralisation tops your list. Do you think, as a culture or even in the corporate realm, Indians like to control power and are wary of delegation? Is this what leads to less innovation and risk-taking as well?JB: Yes, I have mentioned about seven antibodies, and decentralisation absolutely tops the list. It is probably one of the most effective antibodies and you have seen that for yourself. For example, work has completely been decentralised and it's only this decentralised work-from-home scenario which has shown some level of continuity and the fact that companies have not totally shut down. And this decentralisation is not only for work, it's for retail as well - small kirana stores have survived and the big malls and departmental stores had to close down. Going forward, I see this decentralisation in hospitality where people will be afraid to go to big hotels with lots of people, and rather visit small, decentralised Airbnbs all across the country. I tend to agree with you that, as a culture, perhaps, we do not allow decentralisation or delegation as much as some other cultures. We like to keep control close to us, and that is going to be a problem. And yes, traditionally that has led to less innovation and much less risk-taking. However, I am hoping that sometimes if a massive crisis like this happens, these old habits crumble or change. 76872276LG: This crisis has debunked a lot of notions about efficiency and the tactics that many companies - big and small - thought they could use to survive. Consequently we have seen job cuts, furloughs, being benched, pay cuts and no-bonus. What do you think companies can do to navigate themselves through such a scenario? JB: It’s an interesting question and there is no one right answer for this. One of the things that companies are realising is perhaps that they are chasing too much efficiency. Efficiency and resilience is actually a trade-off. If you are super efficient, and sometimes when a massive event or a crisis like this strikes, your companies are far less resilient. No inventory, there is much less cash, but if you are conserving some cash and if you are having some inventory kept at your warehouses for example, you become more resilient. I think one of the things companies will learn is actually to be less efficient but more resilient. Now, what do they do in the scenario is a million-dollar question. In fact, that is what I have tried to answer in terms of these antibodies. Many of these antibodies will make one immune to the next disruption, but some of these will help make the business model as digital as possible or help in digitising and automating staff operations or also enable decentralization for that matter. Things which can be immediately done to save costs include enabling a work-from-home module and automation. Yes, it will mean a certain loss of jobs but very frankly if you don't automate and don’t embrace some of these technology-related things, companies are going to lose people anyway because the companies will not be running. So, I also call this a Darwinian Moment, where many companies will die. The ones which survive and thrive are not necessarily the biggest or the strongest. But, as Darwin says ‘the species which is the most adaptable survives’, and so companies which are much more agile and adapt much more quickly to these changed environments are the ones that will survive. LG: How do you see the India Inc workforce of 2025? What are the key traits that you think employers would look for in potential hires?JB: If I look at my crystal ball, I think a lot of employers and employees will learn from the Covid-19 crisis. This is not going to go away although collective memory is often short. I think a few things that employers will look for- i) How adaptable and flexible are employees? Are they able to work from home, work from office, work from anywhere? ii) They will look at skills beyond normal MBA or engineering degrees. Are these guys teaching themselves skills, are they contemporary, are they indulging themselves in lifelong learning rather than acquiring a degree and then just forgetting about it? iii) Qualities like collaboration and delegation will become very important. And by collaboration I don’t mean by face-to-face meetings but how effectively you use online and other software tools and technologies to collaborate, and manage remote teams in a much better way. iv) I am also hoping that employers will be less controlling and will be more tolerant of people doing multiple things; they might be doing a full-time job and may be doing a couple of other things also. And very frankly that is what the future of work calls for doing multiple jobs: changing from ‘one company, many employees’ to may be ‘one employee, many companies’. And I think some of these mindset changes may happen. These are the 3-4 things that they will look for in 2025, at least I hope that they look for. 76872362LG: In the book, you have mentioned the need for digitisation, and the use of technology. With AI and ML becoming invasive, where do we humans stand? It's a scary thing to know that a bot could read your book and send you questions based on the keywords that are being searched - but it's a likely scenario in another decade, maybe!JB: In my first book which is called 'The Tech Whisper', which came out last year, there was a chapter on AI written by an AI tool! It was a global publishing first. I, and everyone else, were super thrilled with it but if you see the quality of that chapter and the one before that which I had written, you will see that the quality of the one written by the AI tool doesn't read very well. It's not interesting, it doesn't have a soul. Having said that, I agree that AI will take a lot of our jobs by becoming equal or better than us in many skills. AI is different from automation; automation does not have any major intelligence, it's not about artificial intelligence. Automation is just the mechanistic jobs that are there, few things like robotic processes, various sensors etc. You can just make those jobs happen by machine, therefore leading to a loss in human jobs. But AI is different, it strives to be like a human being. Even with narrow intelligence, AI tools can do many things which we thought only humans could. They can defeat humans in various chess-games, create a painting or music, write a chapter like the way they did it in my book. Having said that, I think the best possible outcome is not about humans or AI, but humans and AI and how both will work together to accomplish tasks. In certain cases the role of humans will be more, in certain cases the role of AI will be more. Sure, there will be certain exclusive tasks which will be only driven by either AI or only humans, but I think in the best-case scenario, most of the roles and jobs will have humans and AI working together. LG: Post-Covid, how do the following stakeholders keep themselves relevant - organisations, senior management and individual employees?JB: I will answer them in order.i) Organisations: My seven antibodies exactly tell how organisations become relevant, adopt a decentralized business model, make your business model digital, adapt to new customer journeys and become agile to changing customer journeys, invest in partnerships, internalise partnerships, etc. As part of your business model, automate anything that can be automated and finally work on your culture. ii) Senior Management: I think the last bit is very important for senior management because culture flows downwards and senior management need to change their culture to become far more flexible, decentralising, less controlling, far better in adapting to change, far more tolerant of multiple jobs for that matter; themselves indulging in lifelong learning. And I think that's how senior management would need to change, adapt or keep themselves relevant. 76872309iii) Individuals: Individuals, employees or entrepreneurs, I think the biggest thing that they would need to do is to do lifelong learning. And lifelong learning is actually a key talent in the future of work. So, basically we used to believe that once you have done your engineering or your MBA, learning is over. We need to learn till we die. And there are many ways to do that. Probably what I do for example is, I resolve to learn one new skill at least 12-18 months and I don't necessarily say that this is what we should do but you have to learn lifelong and a new skill every year or every two years. And, that skill can be technology, can be a new language, learning how to drive. But, if you have a portfolio of skills rather than one deep skill, you will be far more resilient when a new crisis or new disruption strikes as well as when technology advancements happen, and then you suddenly discover that you have other skills and there are possibilities of other jobs.LG: 'The Immune Organisation' has multiple references from Tolkien. And Nicholas Taleb. Tell us how you decided on such narratives considering both are from different periods, and deal with fantasy and world truths respectively. JB: Nicholas Taleb was very obvious as everyone has been calling this event ‘The Black Swan’, referring to his book by the same name. Taleb himself says this is not a Black Swan, it's a Grey Swan. Black Swans are events which are not unpredictable and hugely disruptive. This one was hugely disruptive, and there is no doubt about the fact that it was predictable. Bill Gates had predicted it a few years ago and that intrigued me. But then, I thought that even if Covid itself is not a Black Swan, the lockdowns that it has caused are certainly Black Swans. And then in his next book he talked about the fragility and how fragile systems or companies collapse when come with disruption, while robust and resilient systems remain standing. But, the opposite of fragile is not robust: it's antifragile systems or companies which actually gain from this disorder. Companies like Zoom, Netflix and Hotstar - which are 100% digital models - actually gain from this. I was intrigued as to how we can develop some antibodies to make companies gain from crises like Covid and that's how Taleb came in. I was reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for the second time and although it’s a great movie, the trilogy of books is greater! And I was struck by how some things in ‘The Lord of The Rings’ are similar to what is happening today, and that inspired me to use quotes and references. A quote of the Gandalf, the wizard, where he says that “these are not the times we wished for and no one wishes for time like this. So the only thing we can do in these times is to figure out how to make the best use of it,” stayed with me for a long time.74452491