Digital transformation: Corona, Digitisation & Sri Lanka


The coronavirus pandemic has altered the buying habits of consumers and the way institutions do business forever. Given the curfew/lockdown situation enforced by the government of Sri Lanka, products and services that we can use without leaving our homes continue to grow every day.

Those practising self-quarantine or mandated social distancing are increasingly drawn toward services being offered by various organizations ranging from education to entertainment, from grocery shopping to pharmaceutical drug deliveries. However, this tectonic shift caught many Sri Lankan organizations by surprise.

Much has been discussed in many forums, panels and sweeping statements made on the “progress” of Digital Transformations and Digital Product offerings. But when the ‘Digital Wave’ finally hit, most of them were either caught unaware or underprepared for shifts in buyer demands.

In order to understand and dissect how this happened, we must first dive into the corporate mindset of a Sri Lankan corporate. But before that, lets quickly iron out a niggle that’s I’ve observed in mainstream discussion.     

Digitization, Digitalization, Digital Transformation: All the same Right?

Unfortunately, the terms Digitization, Digitalization, Digital Transformation are used interchangeably in popular media, and by senior corporate leadership in Sri Lanka. Digitization is the conversion of analogue to digital, whereas Digitalization is the use of digital technologies and digitized data to impact how work gets done, transform how customers and companies engage and interact, and create new (digital) revenue streams. Digital transformation means doing things in a new, digital way.

Digital In Business🌍 – Digitalization
Despite being used interchangeably, each of these terms has their own unique meaning

Yes, We did that already…But…IT Capacity!   

The result of all this? When there is a genuine requirement for digital products and services to step up and serve customer requirements in this post-COVID19 world, most fell short. Some of them didn’t even get their engine running, let alone compete in the race.

Although some may retort on technical aspects and intricacies such as capacity planning or surge in demand which required more IT resources as key factors that led to their below-par performance, the truth is far from it; It was and always will be a deficiency in recognizing the true power of technology and how it will shape our world.

Digital transformation: Corona, Digitisation & Sri Lanka 1
Platforms like Keells Online initially found it challenging to cope with the sudden demand surge.

The virus was only a catalyst for the impending revolution, but as illustrated above in the satirical cartoon and in reality discussed at most senior/board level meetings was the dismissal that Digital Transformations or even Digitalization were “years” away. The focus of Sri Lankan corporates always has been to preserve existing business models or operations until it becomes costly to operate. Then and only then would consideration be given on technology.

“Digital” was always a buzz word, that was cover for cost trimming and efficiency increasing projects. The folly of this thinking is why you have to wake up at midnight to order your groceries, where you have to wait a week for delivery, or why no one simply replies to your email or WhatsApp. 

Digital transformation: Corona, Digitisation & Sri Lanka 2
While “digital” was a buzzword for most, there were organizations like PickMe that got it right. Look under the hood and you’ll find tech is in their DNA. (Image credits: PickMe)

But not all is lost, there have been some genuinely good organizations that have got it right, and if you check under the hood of these companies, one thing becomes obvious: Tech is in their DNA. it’s the core around which the organization is built, It’s in their vision, mission and their daily operations. They didn’t have to transform digitally. They were digital from the beginning.

Where do we go Sri Lanka? 

Once the dust settles problem will always be dished off to the IT Department, and quick manoeuvring by corporate planners will bend and twist this so that IT guys will struggle with it for the foreseeable future.

But let me tell you this, the problem lies not with your IT. Those guys are hardworking people who struggle day and night to solve your organization’s issues. NO, my white-collar friend, the problem lies in your thinking. Until you fix that problem, it will only take another crisis to expose your soft underbelly.

Coronavirus will wreak havoc on global business, as well as the world economies at large. According to the International Monetary Fund, it’s estimated that the global economy will contract by 3% this year as countries around the world shrink at the fastest pace in decades. The IMF described the global decline as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It said the pandemic had plunged the world into a “crisis like no other”.

Digital transformation: Corona, Digitisation & Sri Lanka 3
Digital transformation is a journey. The challenge of moving from one stage to the next isn’t an issue of IT. Rather, what’s needed is a change of mindset. (Image credits: Altimeter)

Yet at the heart of every crisis, lies an opportunity. The opportunity here is new business models, new ways to engage customers, and new processes that require creativity, imagination, and flair. Question is will Sri Lankan companies be up to the task? Or will they sneak back into their shell, and herd the customers also back to “Business as Usual”?       

Granted, some businesses and processes still intrinsically require physical closeness — think of hotels, big-box stores, car dealerships, grocery stores, and traditional retail. In addition, not all businesses with a digital operating core can be transformed to the same extent. But of the rest, you have been given the test, and the answers are obvious, will you heed the call? Or retreat into the wilderness?



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