Doug Brown Chief Data Scientist at Capita on how data is pivotal to our response to Covid-19

Doug Brown is the Chief Data Scientist at Capita. He has over 25 years experience in helping both enterprises and startups with their big data projects.

Here he looks at some of the short and medium term consequences of the pandemic and offers businesses advice on dealing with an uncertain, and potentially turbulent future.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to turn the world upside down, Capita have remained focused on supporting organisations to deliver essential services whilst taking every step possible to protect our own employees.

Capita is proud to have been asked by the UK Government to support the Covid-19 response across a range of initiatives. This has already included work for the NHS and other healthcare support; helping the NHS onboarding process for thousands of returning doctors and nurses; enabling government to communicate with, and support, vulnerable people during the crisis; providing digital technology to a London health trust; contributing resource to healthcare call centres; and being part of an initiative to set up health testing centres.

As organisations turn to focus on emerging from the pandemic into a new normal, Capita will continue its focus on providing mission-critical services for the UK government and some of the world’s leading brands.

What are the immediate, and three to five-year consequences of the pandemic as you see it?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world seemed to change overnight. For many this is a once in a lifetime economic, political and societal event that is going to require significant readjustment. As organisations of all sizes come to terms with the situation, and adjust to a new reality, we are going to have to reimagine business and operating models. We are going to need to embrace new ways of working, learning and living, and redesign how we as citizens, employees and customers operate an increasing digitalised world. And we’re going to have to rethink what sustainable business looks like, not just from an economic standpoint, but from a societal and environmental perspective too.

Looking at some examples of the immediate consequences we’ve seen a massive redeployment of workforces from offices to homes. Officially only around 5% of the workforce were classified as ‘working from home’ prior to the pandemic. By the end of March estimates put that at over 60%. As we transition out of the lockdown this shift is going to force organisations to re-evaluate the role of the office, and the efficacy of the many forms of remote technology we’ve seen deployed. At the same time, we need to remember that there have been significant numbers who have had to continue to travel to their place of work as key workers, in both the public and private sector, in order to keep the countries critical infrastructure and services running. What will the legacy of the pandemic be for them in the longer term and what changes could we start to see in industries such as healthcare, utilities and retail as a result of the accelerated deployment of digital technologies?

Another example is education and learning. Schools, colleges, universities and other learning institutions have seen a monumental push towards ways of working that few could have imagined possible in the timescales we’ve witnessed. This has presented many challenges, but also opened up the possibilities of exploring new models of education and lifelong learning. Might we be on the cusp of a transformation that has often been discussed, but to date hasn’t had the real momentum we have now?

From significant investments to seemingly trivial decisions, seemingly every aspect of how todays organisations are functioning has been impacted. Many companies lay claim to being agile and seek to have brand intimacy in an age of social distancing, but the pandemic has pushed them to really prove it. We’re seeing a number of organisations demonstrating the ability to adapt quickly and pivot their operations, revisiting the norms and ground rules for effective collaboration. These resilient companies, in industries as diverse as retail, manufacturing and healthcare, who have shown that they can move at pace, with agility and make big decisions amidst a global crisis whilst still delivering, are the future.

What about data? How do you think the conversation about privacy and safety will go on in light of the pandemic?

Perceptions of the value of data have changed as a result of the pandemic, that’s for certain. The EU, which has traditionally had very restrictive data protections, has allowed the use of data for the purposes of tackling the virus. Different countries are taking very different approaches. There are more or less intrusive, more or less restrictive routes, and I think that there may be an argument for a more relaxed privacy regime in Europe if and when the crisis is resolved.

If we see data as a currency, it is possible that the rate of exchange will speed up significantly. Not least if more and more people give permission for their data to be used for purposes like virus testing and monitoring social movement during the pandemic. But what happens afterwards? It’s a very interesting dynamic. One of the potential challenges will be how to put the genie back in the bottle once data has been provided to organisations that wouldn’t otherwise have had access to it.

What do you think businesses can do when it comes to establishing measurability after making these big changes?

Accelerate their investment in data analytics and enhance their digital ambition to understand and capitalise on short term consumer preferences. In our uncertain world, past behaviour is often no indication of future intent. Human design thinking, development of partner ecosystems to drive resilience and the move to skills-based working, rather than a more traditional and arguably inflexible construct of roles and responsibilities, will increasingly become the norm. In terms of measurement of these factors, we will require new KPIs as most companies will likely put an emphasis on the impact of their people on financial performance. In particular, the ability to link employee behaviour and decision making directly to financial results, environmental impact and social outcomes.

However, I also think that the intangible measures are going to become more important; finding out how you attract the right talent and understanding whether a particular person is going to help you drive your business forward in a crisis. It’s likely that there will also be more pressure on businesses to communicate about social engagement metrics which are difficult to measure to demonstrate social purpose. We’ve definitely seen a movement towards ESG becoming more important, with leading investment institutions taking a more proactive role in demanding accountability for more than financial results from businesses. All the social metrics that define how businesses are seen and valued will become more important. Not least because people who work for organisations will have a lasting memory of this crisis, and it will form an important part of the public perception of businesses’ brand value going forward.

Is it much too early to tell whether these changes will stick and become fundamental?

Taking the view that we won’t go back to the old ways, some of the changes that have already been made, both in terms of technology and relationships, will stick. Smart organisations have been asking themselves how to emerge match-fit for the market after this crisis, and they’ve realised it’s going to require significant, and in some cases irreversible, change. It’s about sustaining these changes as we navigate the new normal. Leading with purpose, taking care of employees and customers whilst building case reserves.

As a result of what one could say has been the biggest distributed workforce experiment of all time, it may also be that the nature of the skills that we will need going forward have changed. If we look differently at how we are working, reskill/upskill, and how we use and deploy the skills within a business with capital constraints, we’ll find that the pandemic has had a long-lasting impact.

How do you see the recovery taking place?

As economies shrink, many countries around the world will have to survive with limited capital and investment. But isolation won’t necessarily stop innovation. We should be demonstrating our ability to adapt and challenge the status quo, in terms of organisations, businesses and policies. Companies should be focussing on what is really important to them, what their purpose is, and in doing so re-evaluate their key capabilities. Those that resist the urge to revert to type and are willing to be bold and innovative (a bit like the Apollo 13 mission with its sling shot around the moon as they were running out of oxygen) will not just survive but thrive. Catastrophe can breed incredible advancements and ideas. We are in that situation now.

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