Corporate Resilience and the Pandemic

My latest article published in PRMIA Intelligent Risk – April, 2021 ‘COVID’s impact on cyber and operational risks looks at how corporate resilience has evolved in the face of a major global pandemic. Covid represented an unprecedented global risk factor and a major test of corporate resilience.

The Dragonslayer App matches your personality to different travel experiences around the world to help select an ideal holiday. The App launched three months before Covid hit the USA, so its business model was quickly dead in the water. Rather than packing up, the founder refocused and relaunched the venture in September 2020 as a subscription-based service that gives travellers up-to-date information about COVID restrictions across the globe. The company had taken a radical approach and adapted swiftly to the new environment, demonstrating its resilience in the face of crisis.

The global pandemic was the crisis that no one could avoid. Corporate resilience was tested as businesses were squeezed in many directions: loss of demand, supply issues, and workforces facing sudden mass remote working.

But how has corporate resilience evolved over the course of the pandemic to deal with a business landscape which has moved a decade in a single year?

McKinsey survey

A McKinsey Survey of 300 executives found that half of the respondents reported that COVID exposed weaknesses in their companies’ strategic resilience and that business model innovation was the most effective response. Over 60 percent of the respondents felt that these innovations would last beyond the crisis. Interestingly, 42 percent felt it had weakened their position, while only 28 were in a stronger position.

Companies that were in the right sectors such as online retailers, software firms and pharmaceuticals enjoyed a boom, whereas companies in the vulnerable sectors such as energy, retail and transportation were hardest hit.

Two stories from the retail sector demonstrate how agility and adaptation can be the difference between success and failure.

Traditional retail was one of the hardest hit sectors in the pandemic; busy high streets were left desolate, and shops shuttered.

Traditional retail

Retailers without a significant online presence faced ruin. In the UK, household name, Debenhams, dependent on physical shops and so unable to reach its customers filed for bankruptcy. In contrast, another traditional retailer Mars Petcare innovated quickly during the pandemic by moving beyond traditional lines of dog food and pet products to providing animal telemedicine.

Telemedicine is a field that has shot to prominence in the last year. Mars Petcare demonstrated it is not just for humans, as it helped many veterinarians shift online to treat patients.

Hybrid working

As the world looks gingerly towards a post-COVID world, hybrid working has appeared as a term, which promises to make organizations more resilient. In theory, a more dispersed organization (with staff split between office and home) will reduce dependence on physical buildings, and more flexibility could result in a more contented workforce.

However, hybrid working at this new vast scale is untested. Many workers have to adapt to new technology and another change in working practices. In addition, there is a potential conflict between those who favour working face-to-face and those who prefer technological solutions.

The pandemic has provided a number of lessons for organizations striving for resilience. The companies that are adaptable, agile and understand risks will thrive in the future.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commented in 2020; “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. The quarter is the new year, and the fastest will win”.

The lessons of the pandemic

Adaptability: Organizations can change processes, structures, and business models, or design them with maximum flexibility in order to adapt to new circumstances. For this to work, the organization needs to have a willingness and desire to learn from mistakes and evolve through trial and error. In a similar vein, volatility and exposure to stress, rather than seen as a negative should be viewed positively.

The experience of this (unless taken to an extreme) will help the organization face the future. Adaptability can come at the price of stability. Agility is usually easier for a startup like DragonSlayer but much more difficult for a vast lumbering multinational.

Understanding Risks: Many firms in the software, online delivery, and pharmaceutical sectors did well during the pandemic, but that does not mean they will thrive in another crisis. In fact, their success may blind them to risk in the future. Identifying and prioritizing risks as they appear is critical for a resilient organization. Organizations should be asking what risks will appear in the future, how they will play out over time, and are we equipped to respond effectively to these threats as they appear.

Businesses should employ horizon scanning and identify key emerging risks that will affect them in the future.

Adopting the precautionary principle: Murphy’s Law states, “If anything bad can happen it probably will.” This pessimistic view was borne out by the evidence; most people have a bias towards optimism and a tendency to ignore even obvious risks. For example, the World Economic Forum Global Risk report has been warning of a global pandemic for many years. Inadequate planning in many western countries has created an opportunity for this threat.

Businesses can adopt this principle through contingency planning across business units and stress testing of their activities for weaknesses. Business units should draw up contingency plans and test these in live scenario exercises. Of course, these measures are often time consuming and disruptive, but increasingly organizations will have to adopt them if global crisis and widespread systemic change continues to be the norm.

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