The News: I happened to catch AT&T Business CEO Anne Chow’s keynote kicking off The Economist Event Series: A Whole New (contactless) World: The Rise of Digital Identity this last week. The focus of the two-day event (sponsored by Onfido) was about how COVID-19 is reshaping and has reshaped most industries and addressing the speeding up of the transition to a contactless world. Featuring leaders from Uber, Onfido, Headspace, Philips, NHS Digital, Mayo Clinic, Babylon, Ripple, the United Nations, Microsoft, Tusk Philanthropies, Box, Frame, Overview Collective, Google Cultural Institute, Expedia Business Services, Sidehide, and Thought Machine, alongside editors from The Economist, it was an event filled with interesting, relevant insights. You can find The Economist event here and register and request on demand access if interested in exploring further. I highly recommend it.
AT&T Business CEO Anne Chow Keynotes the Economist Event Series —A Whole New (contactless) World: The Rise of Digital Identity
Analyst Take: This event was of particular interest as I had just hosted a business roundtable discussion for AT&T Business on the topic of Smart Investments for the Intelligent Future of Business (linked at the bottom of this note if you’d like to watch it) and I was interested to hear AT&T Business’s Anne Chow’s take on how consumers are interacting with brands and how to think about creating a world where the rise of digital identities benefits us all.
This conversation was led by The Economist’s US Business Editor Vijay Vaitheeswaran and was the kickoff of the two-day event. In pandemic times, consumers’ relationships and interactions with brands has in many cases changed significantly. We’ve seen businesses all around the world pivot from business models that were built around location to business models that can support employees working remotely and still being able to not only be productive, but also be able to deliver a great customer experience in the process. The workplace has been transformed over the course of the last year, and business leaders are trying to figure out what that means for the future. Work is no longer a place, it’s something that we do. But that notion, or mindset around the future of work is very much a work in process.
From our research here at Futurum, we know that consumers (and employees) want safe experiences, and efficient, productive interactions and experiences, both in the world where they need products and services, as well as in the workplace. And we all know of course that connectivity and infrastructure that facilitates that is more important than ever before. And since connectivity is what Anne Chow and AT&T are all about, a conversation with her as a kickoff of this event made perfect sense.
The Death of Distance and the Power of a Savvy Digital Transformation Strategy
Vijay talked about the fact that what we (probably) know for sure by now is that the future is surely going to involve some kind of hybrid work. As I mentioned earlier, a pandemic has taught business leaders that work is no longer a place, it’s something that we do. Where we do it matters less than the fact that we do it, and do it well, efficiently, and that both employees and customers’ needs are considered in the process. That said, we are very early in this hybrid work process, and the execution of this is requiring rethinking of entire business models and preconceived notions around what work, and the workplace look like, most of which are decades old.
Vijay asked Anne for her thoughts on what she sees in terms of data and how companies are using data, work from home, the trends, etc., and I’ve gathered some of her insights below:
Data and connectivity are incredibly important and being able to serve customers’ needs in terms of network load was a primary focus for AT&T during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. She shared that during the peak 90 days to six months of the crisis, AT&T saw peak network load. Traffic was up about 26%, breaking several records. For instance, looking at average texts per second — the previous record was 15,000 texts per second. That record was broken twice during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, coming in at 22,000 texts per second.
No matter the sector, no matter the industry, the focus during that time period was all about getting the situation under control, which correlates to that data. Chow shared that what they are seeing now is a little bit of a moderation. For instance, in those first 90 days, the had some 16,000 customer requests for more connectivity and/or add-ons to home connectivity. They were able to respond to those requests very quickly and they have now slowed down to a more normal pace.
What was interesting to me here is this is the story of a smart digital transformation strategy, and how planning for a crisis before it happens pays off. Chow shared that AT&T’s early and ongoing investments into transformation and infrastructure in network, investing in software defined infrastructure, etc., was the reason they were able to handle this increase in capacity and capabilities. This wasn’t ever an over capacity situation, the organization is purpose built so that scale and reliability are at the core of what they do and serving customers’ dynamic needs are SOP.
Our team here at Futurum talk about this often as it relates to how embracing digital transformation early and proactively, adopting progressive designs and thinking about infrastructure and scalability at every step of the way allows organizations to pivot rapidly when they need to. In many instances, this can mean the difference between business success, and the opposite of that.
What About Culture? Are We Missing This in Our Quick Pivots?
The conversation turned to culture and whether we will see that culture is something that has been missing over the course of the last nine months. We are now past the crisis phase, but in many instances, it’s probably very safe to say that we are now seeing customers and employees are learning that there is absolutely something missing in the equation. Productivity was up, is up, customer experiences are largely fine, but physical distancing does take a toll and employee experiences are maybe not so fine.
Anne and Vijay discussed the power of social connection, which is powered by digital and which, in many ways what is holding us together as a society.
My thoughts here are that we know for certain that things will change, both for consumers and in the workplace. What we see currently with distancing will moderate and we will see a hybrid work environment as we plan for the future moving forward, and this is what they see from their clients as well. The important thing is that connection and connectivity and technology play a vital role in the transformation of every business, of businesses’ relationships with their customers, businesses’ relationships with their employees, and also in the education sector, which is being transformed just as quickly as the business world is being transformed.
On the topic of digital transformation and culture, Anne shared that she believes that what is happening now is assessments. Conversations are happening around what roles make sense, what functions make sense, what roles make sense happening in an office, which in a hybrid situation. She also thought it important to consider how we immerse young people in corporate culture and the workplace of the future as well as the impact of hybrid work on women in the workplace who have caregiving responsibilities. Addressing the talent lifecycle aspect brought on by changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, looking at employer surveys, data from recruiters, consultants and making a plan that addresses the culture you have today as well as the culture you want to create should be high on business leaders’ priority lists.
On this topic, Anne said, “What we are starting to see is that the pressures of the current environment, not having the separation of home and office puts a lot of pressure on women who carry the burden. There is a real risk if we don’t pay special attention to unique groups of demographics. There is a disproportion impact of the pandemic on minorities of color, Black, Latinex, etc. We need to over-rotate in our sensibilities and our policies, actions and outreach that we are being very purposeful of the demographics of that. “
Business Transformation and Business Model Transformation
Vijay and Anne agreed that digital transformation today is really business transformation. It’s time to go beyond digital transformation and really talk about business transformation and business model transformation. Connections with clients, connections with employees, connections with colleagues and how all of that works today and in the future. This notion of physical locale is really all about the physical and the digital worlds coming together — and really the primary focus of this event series. Anne used the term “phygital” to refer to this commingling of what were heretofore mostly considered completely separate realms. Chow shared that regardless of your business, clients are looking at how to engage differently — throughout the supply chain, with customers, employees, partners, etc. and the fact that distributed environments, whether they are in the workforce or in education (or elsewhere) are a reality. Her examples included:
- Retail and how retailers must now think about ecommerce strategy and move to an omnichannel approach and shift the roles of employees from storefront to a distribution center for ecommerce fulfillment. The goal is that customers can interact digitally with company, still have an omnichannel, hybrid experience, but a safer one.
- Restaurant model shifts from in dining only to curbside take out and systems and technology are important in executing that shift.
- Financial services organizations are being forced to think differently about branch locations versus how they are supporting customers them in their digital infrastructure.
- Telehealth is another shift that is powered by technology.
- People-to-people relationship-based customer relationships. Organizations are focused on business processes that address how they change how they manage/handle these and find a new way to create relationships with customers.
Lastly, Chow touched on 5G and the fact that this is the year “5G becomes real.” She gave examples about how 5G will transform sports experiences, concerts, and other live events, as well as a really cool example of how 5G-powered VR is being used in pain management.
In sum, it was an interesting discussion. This was the first of The Economist Event interviews that I watched, and it was compelling enough that I intend to set aside time to watch some of the additional interviews in this series.
The biggest takeaways here aren’t news — it’s part of a continuing conversation that business leaders are having and will continue to have moving forward. Embracing digital transformation is no longer an option, it’s a critical part of every business strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that the future of work is a hybrid one, that connectivity plays a critical role, and that thinking differently about business processes and business models is the path forward in 2021 and beyond. We’ve learned that infrastructure that serves a distributed workforce is essential, physical location doesn’t matter as much as we once thought it did, and the best way to successfully execute a rapid pivot is to plan for it before you need it.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
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The original version of this article was first published on Futurum Research.
Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”