Every company has a strategy. It may be explicit, formally stated and running to many written pages, charts and spreadsheets; it may be so implicit as to lead the company to believe that it has no strategy and no need of one – that its actions are guided by nothing more sophisticated than experience, insights and common sense; or it may lie somewhere between these two extremes. Whichever, all companies do have a strategy.
Or at least they did. Now every company has two strategies – a ‘Pre-Covid’ strategy and a ‘Thru-Covid’ strategy. It is possible that some companies are continuing to follow in every particular the strategies they were using before the pandemic struck and are enjoying the same success as they did notwithstanding the upheavals in their markets, supply chains and sources of finance, but they must be few and far between. Rather, companies have had to park some or all of their key planks of strategy and instead take strategic action to survive the Covid crisis while positioning themselves as best they can to prosper when the crisis has passed, in what is popularly being called the ‘new normal’ world of market behaviours, supply chain structures and financing models.
Most companies expect that the new normal will be, for them, very different in some vital respects from the old normal, and while following their ‘Thru-Covid’ strategies, are engineering their ‘Post-Covid’ strategies. Some others think, or assume, or hope that for them the new normal will be so close to the old normal that their Pre-Covid strategies will still be valid in the Post-Covid world. Yet all agree that Post-Covid business models contain wholly new dimensions of uncertainty which, when added to the dimensions of uncertainty ordinarily inherent in all business models all of the time, bring about significantly more uncertainty than their company has ever encountered before.
So great can be the uncertainty that it can be tempting to ‘wait and see’. But in that strategy lurks a bigger and perhaps existential risk. If the lead time to line-up the resources needed to execute the least uncertain of all the uncertain Post-Covid strategies exceeds the time left before the new normal world is open for business, then the company will be left high and dry in a world in which its Pre-Covid business model is no longer relevant and in which its Post-Covid business model is relevant but cannot be executed because of insufficient or inappropriate resources. The only way of avoiding this potentially lethal trap is to begin now to line up those resources, but to proceed in a way in which, as time goes by and the actions crystallise, the remaining flexibility always matches the reducing uncertainty in the Post-Covid business scenario.
A good example is people skills, not least because the lead time required to reskill and upskill a company’s workforce is often the longest of all of the company’s critical resources. Yet, if the reskilling and upskilling is approached in the right way, it can be easier to match the reducing flexibility of provision with the reducing uncertainty of need than for any other of the resource types. The key is to take a holistic approach to the reskilling and upskilling pipeline.
A reskilling and upskilling pipeline has four segments:
The third segment – the identification of the learning pathways to get from Point A to Point B – is often the poor relation among the pipeline segments. Often it is skimped or, in the rush to start delivering the first stage of learning content in a what will be a multi-stage delivery, overlooked altogether. Yet it is the segment which enables reskilling to be optimised for individuals as well as for their employers; which maximises individuals’ motivation and commitment; and which, crucially for dealing with Post-Covid uncertainty in a Thru-Covid strategic action plan, facilitates flexibility and flexibility’s first cousin, resilience.
The learning pathways do that by virtue of their being the glue which binds the other three segments of the reskilling pipeline into a resilient plan. Like any other plan, the reskilling pipeline is unlikely to survive first contact with reality – hard facts will prove some assumptions and forecasts to have been wrong. Without resilience, a plan’s first encounter with reality is likely to force its creators back to ab initio planning – the plan will likely have to be wound all the way back to first principles to find the new best way forward. With resilience, re-routing can usually be done en-route, in real time or nearly so. If there is truth in the adage that the most valuable property of a plan is that it can departed from under control – no plan means no control – then it is true too that the most valuable property of a resilient plan is that departures from it can be controlled such that momentum is maintained and the objective is not compromised.
Such are the ever-increasing complexities and pace of the 21st century business world and the dynamic of all those who work in it, that the construction of the individual learning pathways in a sizeable workforce and the rapidity of the ‘en-route re-routing’ needed to maintain the strategic momentum will depend increasingly on harnessing data science and machine learning.
The technologies which have been driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution are the very technologies which far-sighted companies need to help them to deliver their Post-Covid strategies, notwithstanding the inevitable uncertainties in those strategies. And if they are to lay the strategic planks for their Post-Covid strategies in this present Thru-Covid era, which they must if they are to be ready when the post-Covid window of opportunity opens, they need those technologies now. Nothing exemplifies that more clearly than the strategic challenge of reskilling and upskilling.
Sir David Brown