10min read

The news of the Covid-19 Corona virus has gripped the world into a state of panic.  We find ourselves in a situation where we are not exactly sure how to deal with information encountered.  What are the real risks in the long term? Well, probably not the virus itself.  After all, it is just another flu and we have been dealing with them for thousands of years.  The difference is that in recent decades, our access to data has changed.  More people have access to more information as their contact in the physical and cyber world increased exponentially.  People react to information: good, bad or fake.  This has had consequences on society which we should unpack.

1. The Real Risks

We are flooded with information about the Covid-19 virus from around the world, ranging from the number of infections, the fatality rate and how the communities affected have dealt with the outbreak.  There is of course a risk with contracting the virus, but so far statistically it is only slightly worse than the many strains of influenza and other similar (including former Corona) viral strains we encountered before.  Think about it: how many people can you recall in your lifetime that have died from flu.? Now multiply that by two.  This is probably the number of people that you will learn about in the coming months to have been affected by the latest outbreak.  Now do the same thought experiment and think about the number of people in your community lost to gender related violence, gun violence, drugs and alcohol abuse, motor vehicle accidents and bee stings.  I am quite confident that you will have far larger numbers for each of these groups of causes than that for the flu.  And how do we react to these societal risks? Have we had the necessary reaction to suggest that we have a pandemic on our hands?  NO. Yet we have far more control and can decide to effect change with these man-made causes (let’s leave the bees alone).

I am concerned that the behaviours observed around the virus outbreak is causing a breakdown of our social construct.  Without proper engagement on the data, we have found a reason to create distance, separation and reason for judgment. I was stunned when my hand was declined for the first time in a business meeting during a round of introductions.  How have we moved from only a few infections to “let’s stop thousands of years old customs that built bonds and strengthened relationships” in such short time?  If we can cause judgement about someone coughing, how soon will we find ourselves desensitized to people causing each other harm because of obscure differences? First a cough, then a look, next a community, a culture, a race, a nation?

These behaviours are driving fear and fear has been the primary cause to global economic collapse. I have been following the massive decline in stock market value over the last two weeks. Are those companies really worth so much less?  The real risk with Covid-19 is not now. Rather, it is the hundreds and thousands likely to die from starvation and lack of access to medical treatment for other critical ailments due to the massive impact of a contracted global economy, less jobs, lower taxes, families not fed and care not given. I can only conclude that the poor will lose significant value in their meagre savings as pension funds scramble to exit the market taking massive losses in accrued wealth. Don’t worry, the rich will buy up the cheap stock and get richer when all settles, while your pension will be 25% down.  I’m being facetious. This is no laughing matter. Poor people will be impacted the worse.

We should not allow this to continue. We must look within ourselves how we behave when confronted with information and therefore make an effort to hold reaction until we have better information and have done better analysis.

2. Smart Cities

Observing the behaviours flowing from the responses to news of the virus, it made me think about several conversations I had in the last few years on the topic of smart cities.  As a digital transformation guy, smart cities are very exciting. We talk about advanced infrastructure to support high density populations.  Distributed power grids, localised water purification and sewage treatment as well as massive pipes of data flowing among the communities within such a city are only a few of the essential infrastructure components. We talk about infrastructure projects and developing standards and protocols to build the power, resources and information highways.  Yet we talk very little about the massive micro infrastructure. The one we build inadvertently.

You see, as we densify our communities with the attraction of smart cities, we also concentrate the microbial and viral population harboured in our ecosystem.  The transmission of disease is so much easier when populations are dense and of course, double whammy, all the more difficult to contain when an outbreak does occur.

Does this mean we need to rethink smart city design, moving from designs built around the constraints of power, water and other resources provisions? Should we rather formulate our constraints on how we can manage access control, isolate micro communities within the broader city and utilise data to lock and isolate sectors of society when an outbreak occurs?  We can control access to a freeway if traffic is too high by not allowing vehicles to enter the freeway. Or we can control density by initiating a congestion surcharge. In the same way, does this mean smart cities of the future will monitor the temperature of its citizens as a proxy and if the associated microbial / viral density reaches a threshold we get locked down?  Perhaps such information would be used to drive educational information (not the fake kind) to reach us timely to act in a more proactive way?

We will need to look carefully at smart city designs in this context. Maybe similar to our current sectors allocated to load shedding, we will need to have sectors that can attend to the outbreak of disease. This means that even general infrastructure servicing will need to be contained.

Is this a society we would want to live in? I guess we need more data!

3. The implications for Organisational Design

At this point (if you are still reading and not off to Clicks to get more hand sanitiser), you will recall the title and wonder what I am on about when I talk about organisational design in the context of pandemics and smart cities.

Well, let’s look at the Covid-19 developments from a positive perspective. Let’s try:

The virus occurred due to certain developments in nature.  In an organisation, this could be a market development. The virus replicates and is transferred to others. In business, this could mean that there is a reaction driven by leadership and the organisation must respond quickly and effectively.  The virus impacts its environment, simply cause and effect.  In business, we see information flow from leadership to certain focus groups who initiates action. The effect is buy-in and reaction with the required response.  More adopts the response. As the impact of the virus spreads, others become aware and take precautionary measures. In business, as the news carry through the organisation, more teams respond, even without the direct contact with leadership. We get an organisational hurrah!

Unfortunately, what typically happens in poorly performing businesses is that someone starts quarantining “the virus”. In business, success is stopped because of the resistance to change. We see teams finding ways to quarantine progress, creating a proverbial barrier to the growth of success.  Information is not shared, or false information is propagated.  Sceptics rise to say that observations where anomalies and one should stick to your ways. Confusion sets in.  The organisation does not progress.

Wow! I’m not suggesting leadership is like a virus. No, I am saying look at your organisation and see how viral communications and buy-in can cause a positive pandemic within your organisation.  Make sure you have the right information available to your teams, drive correct responsive behaviour and take care that quarantines don’t stifle innovation and growth in your business.

As with news about the Covid-19 virus, in business you need to reflect on the information you received. Who did you receive it from? What were their intentions with the information given? How did they source the information? Is the information formulated from statistically relevant data? Is the information serving the greater good of the organisation and its stakeholders? Is there a feedback loop from decisions made based on available information, validating that the information supported the appropriate actions taken? Do the right people have the right information at the right time? More questions can be asked.

In the end your organisational design and leadership actions can create an environment for viral behaviour in your business. You need to be sure that it is a good virus taking you to new frontiers.

What to do?

Do you understand the flow of information in your business? Have you analysed the decision load on your management and staff, ensuring that they have the capacity to process data effectively? Do their actions achieve positive change to the benefit of your stakeholders?  Perhaps you are concerned about your digital strategy and how data is formulated, propagated, analysed and used within your business?  Do you have the strategies in place to turn data into actionable information and imbed these as organisational wisdom?

We recommend you get answers to these questions within your digital ecosystem, before you become quarantined and disrupted.

Johan Louw is the founder of Aguru Business Solutions.  He helps companies to get ready for automation and digitalisation.


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