Panel Discussion: Reshaping Technology Priorities in the wake of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered on us the new normals. Critical among those is the need to be more connected than ever, to take care of our health priorities. In a panel discussion organised by the Indian School of Business’s Srini Raju Centre for Information Technology and the Networked Economy (SRITNE) and NASSCOM, three technology leaders from different business areas shed light on answering some of the critical questions related to this new normal.

The session was moderated by Deepa Mani, Professor of Information Systems at ISB and Executive Director of SRITNE. In the panel with her were Prakash Bodla, VP-Engineering and Head of Carrier Corporation’s two global research centres. Joining him were Vidya Laxman, Technology Director of Tesco and Mohit Kapoor, Head – Technology Capability & Optimisation with Singapore-based global bank DBS.

Professor Mani welcomed and introduced the panel and then threw open the discussion with the question, how digital technology has enabled business continuity keeping in mind the changing consumer preferences through this pandemic. She wanted to understand how the technology arms of these firms addressed survival, competitiveness and the underlying mechanisms that allowed them to enable it.

Responding to her queries, one of India’s bright woman tech leaders, Vidya Laxman jestfully acknowledged that COVID was more effective than any CTO or CEO in driving digital transformation within most organisations. She said that the UK is a major market for Tesco, where procurements are done mostly from brick and mortar establishments.

However, with recent usage of enterprise services, APIs and cloud computing, the number of transactions of the UK-based retailer has surged through the three months of lockdown surpassed levels witnessed in the holiday season of Christmas.

“We have 700,000 to 800,000 transactions per week during Christmas. This time the number of transactions doubled to 1.3 million. Our e-commerce business went up by 46%. This is something we could not even envision earlier,” said Laxman, highlighting how digital technology has allowed the traditional large-format retailer to break new ground.

She also highlighted how more than 450,000 Tesco partners and employees communicated, collaborated using cloud and online tools which everyone was reluctant to use. “Thanks to these tools distances between us did not matter while providing a great experience for our customers,” said Laxman.

Professor Mani supporting Laxman’s observations remarked that the latest research on digitally savvy companies are showing that these firms are witnessing less decline in activities despite lockdown. Their employees were enabled to work and reduce distances between them with the use of technology and managed businesses better despite the demand shocks witnessed through the pandemic.

At the DBS Bank, technology came to the aid in three stages, says Mohit Kapoor. “First was responding to the pandemic, next was digital acceleration, and now in the last phase we are restoring customer functions,” he said.

Giving a picture of the future of banking, Kapoor said: cashless, contactless, telecommuting is here to stay. “Biometric, facial recognition, gesture controls are some of the mature technologies that are not yet being used yet and will become big from now on.” He said that DBS is coming up with technology innovations like face-based account opening in Singapore or contactless ATMs, which will go a long way in ensuring health safety for their customers.

Detailing on how technology aided his organisation through the present pandemic, Prakash Bodla said, that organisations must highlight on making employees adaptable. “Companies need to teach adaptability to unlearn and learn new things. Because of COVID, existing markets will evaporate, new markets will be created or rather, companies will need to create these markets.”

Bodla remarked that WFH and many of these new normals would remain to be part of our lives. At this point, Professor Mani wanted to understand from the panellists if WFH had different repercussions for people and their cultural attachment to a company. In response, Bodla shared that his organisation and most others have provided training for soft skills as well as psychological counselling for their employees.

On the question of challenges faced by organisations with this increased reliance on technology, Kapoor said that businesses using these new and mature technologies could pose a skill set challenge and new opportunities for younger people. He bestowed faith that these changes will better the diversity and inclusion index of any organisations and would be even better for the planet.

The panellists responded to some questions from the audience expressing their optimism for technology-driven changes in organisation and for the fact that most of these changes are here to stay. Professor Mani thanked the panellists and the participants for this panel discussion and expressed that more questions were raised in her mind from these conversations, answers to which she may be exploring in her research or during her next conversation with more technology leaders.

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