Change in the time of Coronavirus

I have been with BlueGranite for quite some time, and most of that time has been wrapped up in Microsoft technology in the Data and Analytics space.  It was my focus, but also a source of excitement. Recently, I got to share some of my passion for a different facet of applied technology – the potential for organizational change that can come with it!

When I started putting together this presentation in mid-February 2020, the intent was clear: we wanted to talk about successful deployment and adoption of Power BI and its ability to deliver Digital Transformation – more on that in a minute.  But no one knew how dramatically the pace and patterns of nearly every organization would change by the time we presented in late March!  I spent some time reading, thinking, and reworking some of the content to reflect the new operating environment that exists as the US and in fact, the entire world, deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe that now more than ever, the capabilities of a modern analytics-driven organization are critical to both survive and thrive in the changing landscape in which we operate.

Digital Transformation

But back to Digital Transformation.  The People, Process, and Technology framework has been around for quite a while.  In fact, it was published in a paper in 1965 by a professor at Stanford University named Harold Leavitt.  He came up with the model for organizational change, but at the time it had 4 components rather than the common 3.  Eventually, Structure and Task were generalized to Process, and the People, Process, Technology model widely used today was born.  A couple of years ago, I heard a presenter from Microsoft posit that, in order to deliver true Digital Transformation, we must start to think about the unification of Technology and Process.  Digital transformation, itself defined as a re-imagining of business in the digital age that seeks to deliver change driven by technology but centered around People and Process.  Indeed, Technology has become so pervasive (and when done well, equally intuitive), that it could and should have a fundamental impact on process.  It is by applying that mindset to the award-winning technology in Power BI that we have developed the approach and material we leverage at BlueGranite and is the subject of this post.

Microsoft’s domains of Digital Transformation:

The Environment we find ourselves in – and how Organizations and Individuals can react

Ok – so 2020… where do I even start?  We’re almost done with Q1 and it feels like it’s already been a long year. Anyone reading this will already be fully aware that this has been the year of the Coronavirus – the pandemic that is COVID-19.  For some practical analysis of the situation, check out this recent blog from Dr. Colby Ford – one of our leading data scientists here at BlueGranite!  It has generated one of the most significant economic collapses in history and introduced us to the term “social-distancing”.  Potential recession had already been on the horizon, and the anxiety and disruption of the virus has hastened and amplified its arrival.  We have seen massive disruptions in almost every corner of the globe, and to every industry.  In developed nations, and especially the United States, we have seen dramatic increases to Working From Home (WFH) models hastily spun up, which have resulted in tremendous strain on existing operating models and technology platforms.  In a related post, Leo Furlong (one of our Principals) takes a look at how to maintain productivity while WFH – worth a read!  As of this writing, we are starting to see unprecedented spikes in unemployment, and the government-led stimulus beginning to fight back.

Here’s an interactive view of the sheer size of the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented expansion in the last few weeks:



And what should we be preparing for in Q2? The back half of the year? I will point out that I am in no way an economist, but many economists and financial analysts are explicitly forecasting a dramatic 2nd quarter.  With unemployment spiking into the double digits (12%-30%, depending on who you read) and an unprecedented decrease in annualized GDP of between 30% and 50%, it seems likely that – while not nearly as extreme or panic-driven – Q3 will continue with a more traditional economic recession pattern, but what’s interesting is what comes next.  As the markets and the economy more broadly stabilize, and start to resume a growth trajectory, it is likely that data & analytics will be the primary fuel driving us forward!

Fed Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard predicted the US unemployment rate may hit 30% in Q2 due to coronavirus, with an unprecedented 50% drop in GDP

But it is not all doom & gloom.  In fact, Bullard went on to say that while this Q2 impact will be intense and extreme, it is, at least in part, intentional.  We have chosen to slow down economic activity to help control the pandemic.  Former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke likens the scenario to a natural disaster more than the Great Depression.  And both believe that the downward trend can be unwound quickly.

So while recession may be inevitable, the panic and anxiety fueled extreme reactions are likely to be temporary, and if you take a step back, a common thread appears in most of the writings around our best ways to deal with the crisis: data.  Numerous outlets, specialists, epidemiologists, and prognosticators talk about how the key to successful navigation in trying times is access to accurate and plentiful data.  Health organizations and governments share and analyze charts and graphs to determine the patterns, the points of inflection, and the likely predictions.  We have shared a “flatten the curve” data visualization to help everyone understand the importance of social distancing, and perhaps started to appreciate just how important access to accurate and comprehensive data is when making decisions… So, an opportunity lies amongst all the volatility and challenge – a newly awakened hunger and appreciation for data!

But I must make something quite clear here: we’ve been shifting towards a data-driven mindset for quite a few years.  A study completed 4 years ago highlighted that the vast majority of organizations knew they needed to make data the heart of everything they do, and yet most of them failed to do so.  The consensus on the importance of data to literally fuel the future continued as data was compared to oil – in fact, dubbed “the new oil” – our planet’s most valuable resource.  And much of the message has shifted to AI in recent years, but what is AI except the technological potential of data (and of course, incredible advances in computation power and storage capacity)?  So the drum beat has been sounding for years, but even last year, published an article that highlighted just how far we still were from transforming into data-driven organizations, this by-most-accounts essential activity to remain relevant and to survive and thrive in the modern economy.  What was the blocker?  Why were organizations not making the transformation that was seemingly so obvious and imminent?  Perhaps operating amidst a decade long bull market resulted in the simple fact that success itself was the enemy of efficiency and innovation. As a Rockefeller (David, as it were) once added when quoting Plato, “If necessity is the mother of invention, discontent is the father of progress.”  And suddenly, with the raging pandemic and economic recession, we find ourselves awash in both necessity and discontent.

Even in early January, while corona viruses were still relatively obscure to most, 2020 was preparing to continue an already established trend of an increasingly tech savvy and data-aware workforce, from all walks of business.  And data-fueled technology has been poised as the accelerant, ready to transform the way we live and work! Microsoft has established a significant edge and leadership role with focus on the ‘democratization’ of technology, especially data, BI, and AI tools.  And this doesn’t mean that the tools participate in overblown campaigns and flawed elections before ultimately proving to be ineffective and inauthentic to the platforms they ran on – no, it means that these tools and their capabilities should be accessible to everyone.  Frequently shared wisdom to remaining relevant during a recession is to focus on skills and qualifications – improving the capacity with which one can perform their professional responsibilities – and increasingly the most relevant upgrade for almost any job-skill is to become more data-driven, analytics-minded, or AI-enabled.  The path out of the pending recession, the very ‘future of work’, will be spurred by massive efficiency gains as non-IT workers learn how to reinvent their own processes with the additional capacity of data-fueled analytics and AI. 

Although it may be rare to see organizational and individual trends align so well, the path forward is neither paved in gold nor easy.  Our markets will likely see shifts out of whole industries, and entirely new models and operating patterns may never return to their BC (before COVID-19) look and feel.  Some workers will be left behind, by choice or by capacity.  And technology is not a magic wand to be waved, it requires a concerted effort and thoughtful approach in order to deliver on its promise.  Some organizations may already be down an inefficient path towards becoming data-driven, and others will not come to it with the proper multi-faceted perspective. 

Once the decision has been made, or at least is being explored, to pursue the type of digital transformation that is possible with a Power BI Deployment, it helps to move forward with eyes wide open, and to benefit from the learnings of numerous organizations who have already embarked upon this journey.

Please continue to our follow up piece, “The Pain, the Gain, and the Plan for Modern BI”.