The First Industrial Revolution saw massive changes to manufacturing processes from the mid 18th to the mid 19th century in the UK and the USA in particular. Initial responses from the population to these massive changes were negative. Yet, those changes led to rapid population growth, dramatic improvements in the wider economy, and paid employment for many who would have otherwise lived in extreme poverty. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution is now viewed by historians as the most important, positive and significant event since humans moved from hunting to agriculture.
Despite its massive impact, few had predicted the Industrial Revolution and many of those who did were naysayers, highlighting its potentially catastrophic impact. Only a small minority foresaw its potential benefits, planned accordingly, and so benefited directly from it. Sounds familiar?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the vulnerability of millions of employees and businesses across the globe.
Between April-June 2020, the world lost almost 400 million full-time jobs due to the pandemic, according to statistics released by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Despite decades, during which the potential of a pandemic was highlighted, virtually nobody planned for one. Despite decades of talk about essential changes to the way businesses operate, virtually none built up cash reserves for continuity during any disruption.
But note, “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore…” Yes, the vulnerabilities were already there. We have been bemoaning the shift away from physical shopping to online shopping for a decade; we have been complaining how technology could lead to less demand for workers for years. COVID-19 has merely been the force that caused most of us to take those concerns seriously!
Organizations that invested in quality leadership and management were already prepared. They had done their scenario planning. They had prepared for a major crisis (any crisis, not merely a pandemic). Why? Because they knew that they happen!
Despite the evidence (stock market crash; annual flu; mad cow disease; foot & mouth disease; tsunamis; global recession; 9/11; COVID-19), many organizations still believe that (a) things will remain relatively stable, (b) continued economic growth is both achievable and sustainable, and (c) promoting individuals into strategic people-management roles because they excel at something else makes sense. We all need to wake up – the earth was not flat, is not flat, and will not become flat.
COVID-19 must be the final wakeup call. We must face up to two facts.
- First, the world is not going “to go back to normal”. This is the new normal – periods of continuous change, interspersed with major disruptions. Repeatedly, we will see skills become outdated, roles cease to exist, and markets disappear.
- Second, new technologies and new markets will appear. They will lead to new jobs, jobs that we have not seen before. Organizations must prepare for that. Smart organizations will not only prepare for it, they will seize on the power of contemporary technology, drive those changes, and create those new jobs.
Organizations that will survive and thrive will:
- Identify their most creative and innovative staff at the earliest opportunity. They will then resource, enable, and nurture them to refine their skills and to excel at bringing visionary and disruptive new products, services, processes, and jobs to their organizations. They will protect them from the challenges and distractions of people-management, recognizing them in other ways for their unique contributions;
- Require all staff to continuously develop, grow, and adapt - and they will continuously challenge, recognize, and reward them for doing so;
- Hold managers and leaders accountable for risk and opportunity management – looking ahead and conducting scenario planning as a matter of course;
- Apply sound financial management at all levels, ensuring that they are able to survive the harshest of thunderstorms, not merely get through the occasional short cash-reducing shower.
As I have said before, COVID-19 has been a wakeup call for the world, countries, organizations, and individuals. We now understand that crises happen, and they will keep happening in the future. They each trigger previously unimaginable uses of technology and processes in all walks of life. We need to get on-board and ride the wave, and stop any Canute-like pondering else the tide will sweep us away.