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Perspectives

Building Resilience in a Black Swan World

2021-05-13


The aftershocks of the pandemic have spurred the need for businesses to turn resilience into a source of competitive advantage. By taking cues from nature and optimizing the technology foundation, automating business processes and adopting an agile operating model, businesses can go beyond business continuity to excel in an ever-changing world.

By Brian Humphries, CEO, Cognizant

Uncertainty, variability, the unknown — these are defining qualities of our interconnected world, which is prone to contagions of all kinds, not only pandemics. Even well-established enterprises are fragile, as evidenced by the regularly shrinking tenures of companies on the S&P 500 and Fortune 500 in recent decades. Resilience, the ability to rebound from shocks, has risen to a must-have capability for every organization that expects to thrive in the age of COVID-19 and whatever lies beyond.

Of course, businesses have long known of the need to be adaptive, flexible and resilient. But their experience with COVID-19 has turned a need into an imperative. Given how long the pandemic aftershocks could last and how much faster a competitor might regroup, it’s less an issue of returning to a former steady state than becoming continuously adaptable, agile and nimble. Doing so is really the best way to sustain growth amid uncertainty and turbulence.

For many corporations, the public health, economic and societal damage wrought by COVID has elevated resilience to a governance issue. CEOs and boards are reexamining their models of corporate governance, strategic planning, resource allocation and risk management. Future-fit organizations recognize the interdependence of businesses and the world’s social and environmental systems. In addition to their own resilience, for example, businesses need to contribute to the ongoing health of the communities in which they operate, understand how the nature of work is changing, and invest today in the talent pools they expect to draw from tomorrow.

Existential threats, Mother Nature and antifragility

During the early stages of COVID-19, our clients sought our assistance for overcoming a range of pandemic-induced interruptions to their businesses. A major pharmaceutical client needed us to quickly develop an app that could monitor COVID-19 exposures and diagnoses reported by its employees and contractors. The company used this information to establish strategic protocols for improved sanitation, quarantines and working from home.

When COVID-19 resulted in a country-wide lockdown order, a life sciences client turned to us to enable its call-center agents to work from home on short notice. After the pandemic forced a retail client to close 50 of its brick-and-mortar department stores over a weekend, we were called in to fortify its website to handle a huge uptick in online traffic, fulfill orders and provide up-to-the-minute information on store closures.

Later in 2020, when most clients were able to resume at least some of their operations and refocus on the increasingly unpredictable future, they saw the importance of going beyond business continuity. Although perhaps not expressed this way, they sought the ability to mirror the attributes of Mother Nature and her inexhaustible capacity for responding continuously to change.

In nature, feedback is continuous. When fire destroys a forest, the species and plants that were lost will reestablish themselves over time. Nature also likes to over-compensate with layers of redundancy. That’s why author and NYU Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Mother Nature, “thanks to its antifragility, the best manager of Black Swans,” those devastating events that are thought to be impossible until they occur.

For decades, companies have thought about reinventing themselves to mimic biological systems like the human body, which, as author Bill Bryson observed, “even when you do nearly everything wrong, your body maintains and preserves you.” Yet, too many once successful companies end up stagnating because they’re so well adapted to their past that they can’t see, let alone adapt to, their future.

The legacy-to-modern shift

Advanced digital technologies can help here. Thoughtfully applied artificial intelligence (AI), which is a set of technologies that includes natural language processing, machine learning and Evolutionary AI™, can predict, prescribe and act on huge volumes of continuously growing and always changing data for rapid forecasting. This can help organizations sense, react and adapt quickly to their environments. To bring this about, many of the companies we work with are shifting from inflexible operating models to more agile and adaptive ones, and transforming their business and IT architectures in parallel.

These businesses are evolving traditional IT foundations made from enterprise applications, on-premise systems and waterfall software development to business platforms built on consumer-grade applications, cloud technologies and Agile/DevOps practices. They’re also shifting their business practices from a physical-first, product-centric, one-to-many customer approach to a digital-first, experience-centric, one-to-one customer model. You might say they’re becoming modern businesses that continually retool the way they work to adapt quickly to shifts in the marketplace.

As a result, clients are disengaging from some of their legacy applications and upgrading their technology stacks at the infrastructure, data and applications layers. They’re migrating their apps and data to the cloud, and improving the agility of their underlying technology. But the real return from embedding digital capabilities within a business comes from optimizing not only its technology foundation but also its business process and operating models.

Digital drives agility & safeguards physical work

To realize more immediate customer and business value, clients are applying an agile operating model that enables their businesses to continually enhance their products, services and customer experiences. This requires workflows that are agile and underpinned by technology. These workflows can be industry-specific, like pharmacovigilance or automated claims and policy management, or they can cut across industries, such as quote-to-cash or digital marketing. Agile workflows are the signature of a resilient modern business.

Recently, we engineered an agile digital workflow for a leading apparel company that needed a safe return-to-work and return-to-stores strategy. We offered our Safe Workforce solution built on the Salesforce Work.com platform. This employee-safety solution provides the company’s management with information about public health conditions, office capacity, employee health and shift schedules. It can stagger arrival times to minimize contact, encourage hygiene through automated reminders and, when connected with IoT sensors, help enforce social distancing and occupancy limits.

Resilience has other dimensions beyond the ability to absorb shocks and continue operating. It’s also about being able to learn quickly from experience and incorporate these lessons to build extra capacity and strength in anticipation of new hazards.

From pandemic, to proactive purpose

Just as we’re helping clients do, we’ve given a lot of thought to our own resilience and agility, both in what we’ve built to-date and what we need to do post-pandemic. For example:

  • Globalization: The pandemic underscored our need to become a more global company. Doing so will mean diversifying our geographic revenue mix, our client portfolio, the number of countries in which we operate, and the backgrounds and work locations of our leadership teams. Globalizing also involves building a global delivery network that is robust and resilient enough to ensure continuity of service for clients no matter what’s happening in the world.

  • Diversity: The same traits that make economies and cities resilient can also do so for organizations: openness to new ideas and experimentation, and increasing diversity across race, gender, culture, language, age and more. Ecosystems tend to be hardier than monocultures. The more diverse and inclusive business teams are, the stronger their ability to innovate, generate knowledge and understand client needs and aspirations.

  • Continuous learning: Given the nature of the services we provide to clients and our record of helping them through natural disasters and recessions, our culture has evolved to be comfortable with stress and change, and has gravitated toward continuous learning. Our associates are skilled at discovering what needs to be done, collaborating across the globe with our partners and solving unexpected problems as they surface.

As the pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world, it has also turned resilience into a new source of competitive advantage. More and more organizations recognize the stark difference between adapting to an existing environment and excelling in an ever-changing one. We’re helping our clients strive for the latter — and are working to do so ourselves.

This article was written by Brian Humphries, CEO of Cognizant.

To learn more read the latest Cognizanti Journal, "The resiliency reset," or contact us.

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Building Resilience in a Black Swan World