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How compelling events can change our world

Even though the pace of change increased in the last century, progress seemed generally steady. However, every once in a while the pace suddenly accelerates. Necessity is the mother of all invention and history shows clearly all the technological advances and cultural changes resulting from the Second World War. We’re living through a similar era of change.

People have talked about “transformation” for a long time: how new technology and an evolving culture can change our professional and personal lives. This morphed in more recent years into digital transformation with all its myriad impacts. In reality, such transformations were often patchy and incomplete, especially for many workplaces and employees.

It’s taken a global pandemic to accelerate the rate of progress and, it appears, take us beyond the point of no return. A new normal.

Some changes are small and apparently inconsequential. Like the friend working in the travel industry who suddenly found himself not only working from home but working from his elderly mother’s home. He and his partner looked after her during lockdown. He had no printer, only his laptop in the spare room. Needs must and soon the inability to print documents for review and physical sharing no longer mattered. He and his team adapted and moved on. Behaviours changed.

At the other end of the impact scale, will daily commuters ever return to the rail network in pre-coronavirus numbers? That seems unlikely, and the knock-on effects – for rail companies, the hospitality industry, property market – will be huge. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to home working. In a pandemic and post-coronavirus world, every organization will have to become an IT company in that regard.

We can also see the “compelling event” effect in GSE UK itself. The first compelling event was that our conference had out-grown its home for many years in Northamptonshire. We needed more space for members, partners and attendees. The decision was taken to move a new location, the Celtic Manor Resort. Then a second compelling event. As soon as the implications of COVID-19 were clear, it was decided to take the conference online. This year’s conference is titled Virtually Unstoppable—and that does seem to be the case.

Some organisations have coped well, while others have experienced more of a scramble to adapt.

Take the impacts of COVID-19 on the financial sector. Contactless payments became the norm for virtually everyone every day, from retailers to railway stations. The maximum amount was quickly raised from £30 to £45. While most financial companies controlled the contactless limit at the software level, meaning change was relatively easy, some organisations had put the limit on the cards themselves. They had to reissue! A compelling event, a sudden new requirement demanding change whilst executing business continuity plans; normally a time when change is restricted.

Innovation happened too. NatWest bank rapidly launched a new “companion card” for carers and other people to pay for goods on behalf of vulnerable and isolated customers. Meanwhile, a huge jump was reported in mobile banking. One survey by a US fintech company reported that only 40% of respondents said they’d return to branches after the pandemic. Another change that seems likely to stick.

The pandemic has been a tipping point in so many ways, home working of course being one. Video conferencing platforms scrambled to secure their products and match competitor features. Backlogs got re-prioritised very quickly. Buildings are being gutted and refitted to be pandemic friendly and whilst some people may not want to, and for others it won’t be appropriate or possible, home working is now just the way we’ll do things. Organisations that can’t or won’t embrace the tech needed to make it happen may not survive in the months and years ahead.

More positively, we can experience those compelling events in our own day-to-day lives. For example, in a session at the GSE UK conference. Seeing how other people do things, how often have I thought, ‘I’m taking that back to my own organisation’? Years ago, in a different role, I was sold a concept by a vendor that I didn’t “get” at the time. Then, at a different conference (compelling event), I saw the concept presented by a customer company from Germany, describing how it had revolutionised their company. It was a light-bulb moment. Even as I was queuing to get out of the car park I was ringing the vendor to explain I’d seen the light and I was “all in” to make it the new normal.

That was six years ago. That concept has since morphed into what we now call DevOps. It’s transformed how I work.

So these compelling events can be both good and bad in how they reshape our viewpoint and, in some cases, change our world. It’s how we react, what we do after the event with the knowledge gained that makes the difference. We need to stay open-minded, learning from our mistakes, building on our successes and sharing the insights we gain. That is what GSE is about. Those moments can be a tipping point for us, as individuals, and the organisations we work for.

I look forward to “seeing” you in some form at the GSE UK region virtual conference in November. Who knows what compelling events we may encounter there?

Stuart Ashby works for Compuware. Chair of the GSE UK Application Development Working Group, his speciality is Application Development and DevOps. All views expressed are his own, and not necessarily those of Compuware or GSE.

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