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The virtual enterprise: Six ways modern businesses can become more open and agile

May 26, 2021, 1:27 PM UTC
In an era of digital transformation, "extreme digitalization, platforms and partnerships are now the fundamental building blocks of competitive advantage," writes Mark Foster of IBM.
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It’s been more than a year since the cascading effects of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly shut down businesses and economies all over the world and spurred the massive shift to virtual work, where new tools and ways of working became commonplace overnight. Even before the pandemic, we were moving towards a tipping point where companies applied technology at scale to create new business models. Now, the need for businesses to go further and faster has accelerated their digital transformation journeys at warp speed. In fact, a recent IBM study found that close to 60% of organizations have accelerated their digital transformation due to the pandemic.

Now, more than 159 million Americans, including more than 60% of American adults, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Yet as countries with vaccine access begin to reopen, it’s clear that we won’t simply be returning to old ways of working.

In our new reality, business leaders are forced to embrace a new destination for modern business—what we refer to as the Virtual Enterprise.  It requires leaders to re-evaluate the role of physical assets, infrastructure and talent. Extreme digitalization, platforms and partnerships are now the fundamental building blocks of competitive advantage. 

As companies look to emerge stronger from the pandemic, better serving their clients and finding new sources of value, business leaders must be prepared to advocate for openness and agility across six key dimensions. 

Grow an ecosystem of partners: Openness is the defining characteristic of the Virtual Enterprise, as leaders are called upon to build the ecosystems necessary to solve problems, enhance innovation and secure market opportunities in this increasingly inter-connected world. Building strategic relationships with other organizations requires a clear vision of the growth potential and competitive advantage from orchestrating the extended business platform in which others wish and need to participate. The potential for ecosystems to connect with clients is given a new release through the power of digital connectivity and the sharing of information and new combinations of data. Technology architectures built on open, secure standards and software-defined networks allow these engagements to be increasingly straightforward.  

Innovate with science-forward and data-led approaches. Science and discovery constitute $52 trillion of the $88 trillion world economy, according to IBM Research Strategic Business Insights. With a scientific discovery approach, openness accelerates the access to new products and service innovation. Access to exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), and quantum computing enable related processes for businesses—faster than ever before, and across many different industries. All this can now be executed in real time through ecosystems and intelligent workflows that can identify and mine new value pools faster and better. This comes down to how leaders use data as a source of innovation across ecosystems and think about how products and services could be modernized to succeed in that world.

Expand intelligent workflows. For the last few years, organizations have been applying AI and automation to the essential “heartbeat” processes of the enterprise like hiring, supply chain, and customer service. Throughout the pandemic, this went into overdrive, as companies depended on extreme automation and AI to meet mass customer and employee connectivity and service needs. The next step is to extend those intelligent workflows beyond the enterprise, across ecosystems, to break down siloes and gain even more insights and value. 

Create inclusive human-technology partnerships. The extremes of virtual access to customers and work colleagues have meant hitting a reset button on human-technology interfaces. As location becomes less important, the opportunity to access skills and capabilities from anywhere becomes real. The virtualization of work has resulted in global capabilities that can be accessed with greater ease. But this extended access to employees across an organization has challenges as well as potential. COVID-19 spurred employees to permanently raise the expectations of their employers for greater support on skills and training and career growth, as well as individual well-being. New hybrid ways of working will require leaders to redefine workflows, provide more easy-to-use tools, systems and rules of engagement for people, teams and organizations, as well as cultivate renewed trust in data and technology as key drivers of decision-making.

Embrace the power of sustainability. The pandemic has reminded us how connected we are to each other and our planet. Nine in 10 consumers report that the pandemic has affected their views on environmental sustainability, and many are willing to pay a premium for a sustainable future. With sustainability and stakeholder capitalism taking hold in the C-suite, new technology-enabled business models will help provide solutions to the biggest challenges of our time around climate, health, security and equality. This focus on sustainability and stakeholder capitalism plays an increasing part, too, in the way that customers, partners and employees feel about engaging with organizations — and how leaders will need to make decisions about the future. 

Build a secure, open architecture. Data and information are the raw material of business today – but the ability to put that data to work depends on the architectural choices leaders are making right now. An open and secure architecture delivered on the hybrid cloud is the backbone leaders need to make use of their data, no matter where it resides, and achieve the flexibility, adaptiveness and security that digital acceleration demands. Hybrid cloud architectures also enable openness to connect with partners and access the full potential of leading open technologies and ideas to drive innovation.

Even after the world rebounds, there is no going back to the way things were pre-pandemic. Future disruptions are as inevitable as they are unpredictable—whether it’s a natural disaster, major cyber-attack or even another pandemic. As we place this revolution in the context of an increasingly virtual world, we see even more power arising from the ecosystems, digital workflows and networked organizations that technology made possible.

Mark Foster is head of Global Business Services at IBM.

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