What large organizations learned about soldiering on through the pandemic

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For people who worked through the pandemic often complain, half in jest, about suffering from Zoom fatigue. But the fact is having the right digital technologies in place ensured continuity for the federal government no less than in many industries. To figure out what industry and government learned in all of this, Microsoft commissioned a study by a group called the Economist Intelligence Unit. With highlights, Microsoft regulated industries president Toni Townes-Whitley, and Economist Intelligence Unit managing editor Michael Gold, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Toni, always good to have you back.

Toni Townes-Whitley: Great to be here, Tom.

Tom Temin: And the Economist Intelligence Unit Managing Editor, Michael Gold. Mr. Gold, good to have you on.

Michael Gold: Thank you very much.

Tom Temin: Ms. Townes-Whitley, tell us what Microsoft was trying to discover with this study first of all?

Toni Townes-Whitley: Yeah, good question Tom. First, really tried to validate our own experiences of the last 16 months where we had to examine our own assumptions about the speed, the velocity of digital transformation, the focus of government during a remote everything world and so we wanted to at least get data to underlie, and challenge our own experiences to see if what we had lived through with our customers was, in fact, how they described the experience and what they prioritized, we’re really trying to understand their pain points, we really tried to understand how they procured what they focused on across the government, what might be the lasting impact as we go into what everyone is trying to characterize as the new normal post pandemic.

Tom Temin: So in many ways that could benefit Microsoft by being able to tailor future products and consultive offerings. But it could also help help the customers to understand their own situation somewhat better than perhaps I think we’re all still kind of figuring this out.

Toni Townes-Whitley: Absolutely. Because so much about technology is also how you think about technology. It’s the mindset of how quickly you want to adopt what you want to build how you understand it as a means to an end, generally a mission, as you mentioned up front, the resiliency of your own mission agency mission. And so it’s not just what they procured and how they engage – but what what’s the shifted mindset, if any?

Tom Temin: Okay, good. And from the Economist Intelligence Unit, Michael Gold, tell us how you went about the research.

Michael Gold: We conducted a survey of 800 executives and public sector officials, across 15 countries around the world. And eight industries were represented in that survey sample, including 100 from government/public sector. And we asked a number of questions in which we tried to assess the respondents use of technology during the pandemic and their organizations, as well as how priorities have shifted, from pre pandemic norms into sort of the world that we’re facing now.

Tom Temin: Alright. And so Toni, I want to ask you then, we all know that you need these digital tools. And everyone kind of intuitively understands that 20 years ago, none of this would have been possible. Nobody could possibly spend three hours a day on conference calls where you can’t see everyone. So I should say Teams in honor of Microsoft here and not Zoom. But going deeper, what do you think are some of the more important learnings that may not be so obvious?

Toni Townes-Whitley: Yeah, let me start with a few basics, quite frankly. The correlation between those agencies that had an advantage in navigating through the upheavals of the pandemic, were those agencies that had made some investments already. And were already on a transformation journey that may seem obvious. But as you look at the VA that’s been on this journey for five years, not just with Microsoft, but others, you could see it and how quickly they were able to deploy sort of AI chatbots and give veterans 24/7 access to COVID-19 testing and scheduling and how to schedule telehealth visits, how to refill your prescription. They did start to use a full range of I would say sort of what we’ll call app development, low code app development using cloud technologies to help their agency get kind of real time information from bed utilization through the heat of the pandemic, to really kind of almost monitoring and triage and COVID-19. So you’ll see that, you’ll see it an SBA, how they leveraged all kinds of security capabilities to kind of make sure that they were able to operate with the most critical needs of distributing pandemic related funding, but keeping it secure and remote, they were already on part of that path. So that’s the first obvious finding. Another would be this real focus on the employee engagement. So when we did the research, we found that 72% of our respondents reported not only an acceleration in the pace of transformation, but that they had focused on the employee engagement. So one perfect example of that would be the commercial virtual remote environment that was done by the Pentagon, which was a platform with Microsoft Teams collaboration platform, and other products. And such a focus on the Pentagon designing and deploying this in just a month. Now, that would have been a year, 18 months, two years in a prior world. In a month, they were able to stand up CVR, what we call CVR, this commercial virtual remote environment. They had to, it was a requirement. The last thing I’ll just mention in terms of maybe things that might not be as obvious – skill building, how important it is to get beyond devices to digital scaling, and really building out the capability and the competency of the employees in the government agencies on how to use. Many of them had technology they had already purchased and maybe even deployed. But knowing how to use it and knowing how to quite frankly, adapt it and morph it to the situation at hand, I think that you’re gonna see that going forward.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Toni Townes-Whitley, president of regulated industries at Microsoft. And Michael Gold, the managing editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit. And, Michael, the whole range of learnings that happened in the public sector, based on looking across private and public, would you say that government is pretty good at this relative to the private sector?

Michael Gold: Well, government respondents definitely showed some, you know, sort of exceptional results compared with some of our private sector survey respondents. So when we’re looking across the entire survey pool, we’re seeing that government respondents are much more likely than the average of the sectors to say the securing budget for digital transformation has been easier, since the start of the pandemic, which is probably not particularly surprising when you think about government in and of itself. But given how every sector needed to sort of move into a digital space, it is perhaps a little bit surprising that government was, you know, above and beyond other sectors, when it said that it was able to secure a budget more easily for digital transformation. Also, on the thread that Tony was raising about skill building, they’re more likely than other sectors actually in the private sector, to engage in skill building initiatives with universities and with educational institutions. So that really does point to the fact that they see the need for you know, talented pipeline of individuals who can engage with these digital skills that they’re trying to instill in their departments, and build that pipeline for that talent workforce going forward.

Tom Temin: And Toni, I wanted to follow up on that point of the employee experience and employee engagement. I think of maybe one of the greatest pieces of mechanical technology ever developed, and that was the ball turret gun in the bottom of an airplane in World War II, but a perfectly dreadful thing that you had to contort a person to fit into. And if they were alive, when they came out of it or not frozen to death, well, then you got the mission done. You’re looking at this in an entirely different way, is to adapt the technology to get the most from people in an intuitive way. And that’s a pretty profound difference from the way technology has often been deployed.

Toni Townes-Whitley: It’s really about what you build to. So if you’re building towards sort of human centered design for technology, you’re saying, it isn’t about the device being remote – it’s about the human being remote. It isn’t about the device, connecting the dots, it’s about allowing the human experience, the engagement with the technology, to meet, as you said, the natural organic flow of how productivity occurs. And that’s what I think is one of the shifts and people had to get there, they had to get there in a remote everything world. And now they’re starting to experience it. In fact, as we look forward Tom, we probably don’t have much more time with you, but as we look forward, I really think you’re gonna see sort of three areas that will continue to provide a bit of a beacon on how the government will continue to acquire, deploy, and I think innovate on their own in the tech space. One will be around people, the skilling, and this workforce development and digital skilling, it’s not going away, it will be part of a standard capability set, I think, for government over time,. And wonderful organizations are working with us on trying to get that embedded. Policy during this pandemic, we had to look at some policies like trusted internet certificates, policies that are 20, 30 years old, that we needed to think that we’re actually standing in the way of the adoption of the technology needed to work in this environment. So I think there’ll be a harder look at both how you procure those kinds of policies, which we’ve talked about before Tom, but all forms of sort of outdated policies that stand in the way of technology. Flipside of that is they’ll be the ethics, and where I’m most excited about, the use of the tech has been this focus on data. Data is currency, data is budget. This idea that government really started to lean on our data and AI, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and started to do that even more than some other sectors during this time. We’ve got some great examples of how they use that data and artificial intelligence. But we also have in compliment many agencies that also started to check themselves to make sure they had ethics and ethical frameworks in place to understand the implications of using artificial intelligence and machine learning in their environment. So you’re going to see that going forward, I don’t think we’re going to go backwards on the use of data to help drive mission prediction, as well as decision making.

Tom Temin: And in many ways, then this is all too important to leave solely to the pure technologists in the organization. You really need the leadership and the planners and human designers to be part of what’s going forward. And I guess the other challenge now for agencies is to take a good look back 15 months and really analyze what they did, because that could really drive how they think about future technology investment so that they’re not caught behind, if they were one of those that was caught behind, the next time.

Toni Townes-Whitley: Yeah, Tom, we’ve talked about before this construct of tech intensity, which is basically, how do you acquire technology that’s available quickly and adeptly? How do you build your own skills? And how do you do that and create sort of an environment of trust for your employees, and even for the citizens that are gaining the services that you’re providing? So I think you’re gonna see some tech intensity, and we’re already on that glide path that’s going to stay.

Tom Temin: Michael, anything final that people should know?

Michael Gold: I think one of the interesting threads, and Toni and you were touching upon this, was just around kind of that sort of mass shift to remote work. And in one area, you can actually see that the government maybe went even further than some of the other private sector respondents in the sense that they had previously rated themselves as less prepared for that going into the pandemic less prepared for remote work in collaboration than the private sector, but that their investment in remote work and collaboration tools was actually higher during the pandemic than it was for our private sector respondents. So you can see that they were really playing a game of catch up, but that they really did kind of make that effort to go above and beyond where they really needed to, and they saw that need to do it. And they tried to meet that moment pretty well.

Tom Temin: Alright, so everybody be cautious about stuffing all your employees back into the office at this point. Michael Gold is managing editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit. Thanks so much.

Michael Gold: Thank you very much.

Tom Temin: And Toni Townes-Whitley, president of regulated industries at Microsoft. Thanks so much.

Toni Townes-Whitley: Thank you, Tom.

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