The abrupt nature of the Covid-19 crisis and widespread lockdown measures have propelled digital usage to an all-time high. From remote working to private messaging and video cocktail hours, over a two-month period everything went online. What lessons can we draw? Fabienne Billat, expert in communication and digital strategy, sheds some light on it.
During the lockdown, what digital trends have surprised you the most?
Fabienne Billat – Beyond the massive use of video and “live” content enabled by the web, I was surprised by the transformation and deepening of relationships for people forced to use unfamiliar communication tools, particularly for work. Not being physically present changes people’s personality and way of speaking and they have been forced to develop specific interpersonal skills. This is a new skill we’re now learning but haven’t fully acquired.
In France, a number of critics have spoken out against contact tracing apps while they are being deployed elsewhere. How have other countries led this approach?
F. B. – Firstly, tracking apps are used for different degrees of surveillance: from simply mapping the spread of the epidemic nationally such as in Germany to a tighter security approach such as in Taiwan, where the contract tracing app can alert the authorities. In Germany, the system is voluntary to respect personal freedoms. At the opposite extreme, in China, the system feeds your “social credit” and the digital app helps to “score” its citizens.
How do you explain the attitude of the French?
F. B. – It’s normal for the French to protest, especially when it comes to protecting freedoms within the framework of our democratic values. On the other hand, it is imperative we test out a technology so we can evaluate it before adopting or abandoning it. Otherwise we can’t progress: digital technology is nourished by data and using it is essential as part of a “test and learn” approach. French people still lack a certain digital maturity.
The lockdown period highlighted the essential role of digital technology to ensure continuity of business activities, education and more. How do you view its strengths and weaknesses?
F. B. – Digital is a “pharmakon”, which in philosophical terms is a double-edged sword with positive and undesirable effects. When it comes to remote working, for example, the lockdown enabled us to experiment with new ways of working and question new forms of organisation. People’s mindsets evolved over a short period of time, which was very positive in terms of people getting used to new technologies. On the other hand, remote working raises the question of work/life balance, which is increasingly difficult to maintain when working within a company. I’m convinced training and support should be put in place to manage this complementary working practice going forward.
For digital in general, negative aspects tend to increase with the increase in use: the higher the volume, the higher the risk. But the equation isn’t only specific to digital.
When it comes to digital adoption and maturity, which countries lead the way and why?
F. B. – There are many reasons, linked to culture and even human geography. Countries with limited internal markets such as Sweden and Israel by necessity look to the international market, and so digital technology is a valuable driver. However, along with internationalisation and digital technology, English is also a key success factor. Estonia is a particular case: its strong digital culture is the result of its political history: it was tasked to review its entire administration system following the fall of the USSR. Anglo-Saxon and Northern European countries are also ahead of the curve. From a cultural point of view, these nations pay great attention to the concepts of service and customer experience. Customers have really adopted smartphone uses. In France, companies are still very “product” orientated. The challenge of digital transformation lies in this paradigm shift. The current crisis may accelerate awareness, but a model won’t change overnight: we need a culture of internal connectivity shared by all employees and especially managers. Business transformation will only happen through connected leadership or management.
In France, is digital immaturity an issue for all types of business?
Digital immaturity mainly affects micro and small businesses. In France, 81% of mid-sized companies are estimated to have started their digital transformation. However, even small organisations must think about digital tools because they already have an online presence, sometimes without realising it, via customers who comment on their experiences via social media.
Digital transformation is therefore not just a question of technology...
F. B. – Absolutely. It’s about driving a strategy for the future, a new direction that resonates with the company’s culture and history and that engages employees. The transformation isn’t just about acquiring so called innovative technology but in finding the tools to meet the company’s requirements and employees’ expectations. Human needs are central.
What lessons can we draw from this crisis today?
F. B. – A crisis reveals what is not working or what may need to be (re)adjusted, and also what positive experiences must be extended. Better than repeated directives, this outside reminder, which has been so sudden and violent, has forced us to change direction. There is a need for everyone to become a digital citizen, which can only happen if everyone acquires digital knowledge and skills to help them have their say. This not only involves school lessons or vocational training but also individual curiosity, and the desire to experiment to move forward and progress.
A member of the Strategic Digital Committee of the Caisse des Dépôts CDC2, Fabienne Billat advises on communication and digital strategy. She works with large groups and institutions to stimulate digital transformation internally and helps managers with themes such as digital presence. Fabienne Billat reaches 40,000 Twitter subscribers @fadouce.ext here