You heard it here first, but, he said it better, “he” being Professor Ravi Bapna of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management; “it” being a discussion of “Two Things Companies Should Do Now to Set Up for a Post-COVID-19 Future.”
Well, okay, he actually said it first too — beat me by a week.
Professor Bapna’s recommended two things are: (1) upskilling your workforce, because “as organizations shift to an AI-first world, they need a workforce which understands the world of data, analytics, and AI”; and (2) re-thinking operations and strategy toward an “AI-first strategy.”
So let me up the ante with KJR’s Thing One and Thing Two: AI-based business modeling and anticipatory customer re-identification.
AI-based business modeling
While our pre-COVID-19 fascination with Digital transformation frequently led to little more than Digital superficialities, it did lead to one salutary change in executive thinking — recognition that increasing revenue is just as legitimate a strategic outcome as cutting costs. It didn’t, sadly, overcome the metrics obsession that’s the root cause of management’s over-reliance on cost-cutting, but it was a start.
Briefly, the issue is that connecting a cost-cutting effort to an actual cost reduction is, for the most part, pretty simple, while connecting revenue-enhancement efforts to actual increased sales is frustratingly multivariate.
What’s needed to manage effectively isn’t more and better metrics. It’s the ability to model complex cause-and-effect relationships.
Start here: For many companies, strategic change isn’t really strategic in nature. Planning is based on the unstated assumption that the business details might shift from year to year, but the basic shape of the business doesn’t change. The buttons and levers management can push and pull to make profit happen are constant.
To the extent this unstated assumption is true, it should be possible to direct the attention of machine-learning technology to a business’s inputs, outputs, and operating parameters so that, after some time has passed, the AI will be able to determine the optimal mix for achieving profitable revenue growth.
And in case you’re curious … no, I’m not remotely qualified to delve very far into the specifics of how to go about this. That would call for deep expertise, and I’m a broad-and-shallow kind of guy. I do know someone who built this sort of model the hard way, and she verified that yes, it can be done and yes, machine learning would be a promising alternative to doing it the hard way.
Anyway, while I’m a broad-and-shallow kind of guy, I’m not so shallow that I can’t suggest Thing #2, which is:
Anticipatory customer re-identification
Right now, as pointed out here a couple of weeks ago, most businesses are just trying to survive until the future gets here. And please don’t misunderstand. Succeeding at this will, for most businesses, be nothing to sneeze at (insert your own COVID-19 snark here).
But smart business leaders will take their planning to another level, and it has everything to do with their expectations regarding what the economy will be like once the crisis has passed.
My own, everything-I-know-about-economics-I-learned-on-a-street-corner expectation is that as we’re reaching Great Depression levels of unemployment we shouldn’t expect the post-COVID-19 consumer population to look just like it did before we started self-isolating.
As with the Great Depression most working-age adults will be employed, so there will be consumers to sell to. If we use the Great Depression as the benchmark of our worst-case-not-including-total-societal-collapse analysis we’ll figure about 20% unemployment as the basis for customer re-identification — my just-invented term for Figuring Out Who You Want to Sell To.
The KJR point of view: There will still be consumers and they will still be spending. Fewer and less, for sure, but still well above the zero mark. The affluent and wealthy won’t go away either, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many do quite well in the aftermath and decide this is an excellent time to buy stuff.
I’m not going to try to identify specific consumer segments here. That’s for you and your fellow strategic planners in the business to do. What I’m recommending is that business leaders shouldn’t wait to find out who will be spending what, and shouldn’t undertake their survival efforts based on an expected return to status quo ante.
Make your adjustments based on positioning the business for the consumer marketplace to come, and which segments within it you want to cater to.
And yes, that includes those businesses that don’t sell to consumers, because in the end, no matter how long the business-to-business-to-business value chain, it’s always consumer spending that pays for the steps in between.