Picture: 123RF/JAMES TEOHART
Picture: 123RF/JAMES TEOHART

While “2020” becomes shorthand for “the worst the world can throw at us”, there is one area in which we may eventually look back less in anger than in surprise: innovation. It was not only about the world having to come up with new ways of working, but also about the pervasive use of digital tools suddenly making people and businesses aware that they could reshape their futures, too.

“It’s a fairly well-known now that we went through three years of digital development in three months,” says Adrian McDonald, president of Dell Technologies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “But we already had most of that capacity. We had the capability to run Zoom meetings with 1,000 attendees, but we never really did that. We had the capability to contact our doctors virtually, and we didn’t really do that before.

“These are just some of the examples of how the world of accelerated. Likewise, business models that had momentum have just accelerated. The business models that were challenged, became way more challenging.”

In short, the “new normal” is still normal — there is just a lot more of it, and it is happening faster. But there is a more subtle shift under way that will have an even greater long-term impact, says McDonald.

“In the boardrooms of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, there’s been a great deal of introspection on what the new environment means, what their companies will be and what will be in their 2025 plan.

Cloud computing is critical to accelerating or replacing existing business models — as long as it is not for its own sake
Adrian McDonald, Dell Technologies 

“Ultimately, that introspection is driving a wave of innovation. Like many industries, the IT industry has periods of immense innovation then long periods of enjoying the benefit of that innovation wave. I think we’re going through another rapid innovation phase, and that that will bring about immense benefits to business, to society, to government, to healthcare. We will drive much more human good through the changes that are occurring now.”

McDonald does not for a moment suggest that Covid-19 is a good thing, but makes the point that for all its human and economic destruction, we must not waste its lessons or its opportunities. One of the great opportunities, be believes, lies in the “big data” that is being relentlessly gathered about every active participant in the global economy. As long as privacy and security are looked after, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in drawing on this data will dramatically enhance decision-making, services and consumer experiences.

“The analytics we can apply to data is now so high and so rich that it’s possible to build a profile of each individual on the planet, and to look at genuinely individualised healthcare, for example. If you look at how the healthcare industry is responding to the pandemic, you will see rapid innovation on the bow wave of coming up with a cure to the pandemic. You’ll also find lots of other cures or approaches to solve similar problems.”

The ability of companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google to thrive in these times, he says, can also be explained from a point of view of business models that have been evolving for many years.

“One of the main trends is the successful models taking the business of the unsuccessful models, and that’s accelerating, too. Amazon built a great business based on direct access to the customer, and they’ve had phenomenal growth. Likewise, in our industry, the movement towards ‘as-a-service’ consumption models, which includes cloud computing, has accelerated at a great pace. For good or for bad, the differentiation between one company and another will be established easily.”

Cloud computing, he says, is critical to accelerating or replacing existing business models — as long as it is not for its own sake. “Our founder Michael Dell famously said cloud isn’t a place, it’s just a way of working.”

During the SA edition of this year’s Dell Technologies Forum, due to be staged virtually at the end of November, McDonald says, this will be a central theme: “Cloud is the answer, but you have to ask what question you are trying to answer.”

For more and more organisations, that question will be how to be part of the wave of innovation, in both their products and their business models.

Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za

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