Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

COVID-19 and the new business normal

The shift from a centralized defense model to a distributed and containment model in managing a pandemic has highlighted the level of preparedness for businesses to function in a world that is highly distributed and digitally enabled. The physical disconnect of businesses and their stakeholders will require adoption of new technologies in order to maintain continuity and better future experiences for all.

Coronavirus: Uncertainty all around

My co-author Henry King and I have been asked several times since launching our series on Flow whether the model can tell us anything about the coronavirus pandemic as it is currently being defined by the WHO (as of March 15, 2020). 

We aren't health professionals, so we are reluctant to comment on the virus, how it works and spreads, or on medical interventions and antiviral technologies. But we can make observations about the emerging, and now normalizing, response to the virus at least in the USA, what we may learn from it, and what, if any, long term implications there might be for business and our society more generally.

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From a centralized to a distributed defense model

 The mandate we have all been given, from health professionals, from politicians, from our employers, is "stay at home". Don't travel, don't congregate, don't go to the hospital unless you develop symptoms, stay at home. Now, this mandate of social distancing is not entirely flow-based, since forced immobility and isolation are silo principles and more commonly associated with the lives of prisoners, not those of free citizens. And yet there is something significantly different going on here. The response to "normal" crises is to set up centers, often located at and re-purposing other centers like community centers and school gyms. Relief centers, advice centers, emergency response centers, places where experts come together, valuable resources are accumulated and victims relocated. But in the case of the coronavirus, the exact opposite is happening. Centers are closed down all over the country and the world, including offices, schools, stadiums and arenas, theaters, churches, restaurants, and bars, discourage and eliminating the opportunity for people from congregating. 

We are having to rewire our brains to prioritize distribution over centralization and the home over institutions. In this crisis, it is not the expert, not the center that counts. It is the individual citizen, making or keeping their own home a safe space for themselves and their family and practicing this new art of social distancing. What that really means is disconnecting physically from those centers while maintaining digital connections with our loved ones, our friends and our communities, and learning from each other via digital and social networks what we should do next. Our strength this time is in our distribution, not in our masses. This is becoming flow.
 
We are unprepared in several key ways of course, including lack of tests, lack of antivirus solutions, and lack of reliable information from those very institutions we have depended on in the past. We did not seem to come to this mode of resistance in any particularly smart or informed way. But we got here and we are learning this new and unfamiliar responsibility we have, to keep out of the way, to avoid the center, to stay at home. And there are encouraging and heartwarming signs from all over that we are thinking more about how we can help our neighbors, mindful that for some of us, including the elderly, our local businesses, disadvantaged families, this period of self quarantining will be very hard, physically, financially, emotionally and psychologically. This is a time for forgiveness, empathy, honesty, and love. We would not be surprised if a positive outcome of this crisis is a resurgence in fostering and supporting local communities.

The role of technology post-pandemic  

2020 will be the year that changed the trajectory of e-commerce, telemedicine and remote work. We will see greater pilot programs and accelerated adoption of autonomous delivery vehicles, digital payments, contactless payment technology, voice and video conferencing, voice-enabled mobile business applications, AI-powered CRM platforms, sensors, and wearable health monitoring technology with greater internet of things (IoT) technologies aimed at automated and autonomous serviceability capabilities, drone delivery -- medicine, food, and product home delivery via smart drones -- and 3D printing additive manufacturing. 

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Quadcopter Drone Carrying First Aid Package In The Air.

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Quadcopter Drone Carrying First Aid Package In The Air.

Andy Dean Photography

So what can we learn from our response to a pandemic? Tactically, we can learn that for a particular type of crisis the response needs to be the exact opposite of the norm; democratic, distributed and home-based. We know from our research that flow-based solutions are more responsive than traditional ones. So we can use the principles of flow to design holistic solutions for future crises. We can look to fleets of autonomous vehicles circulating continuously to deliver supplies to our homes, further reducing our dependence on food centers and the lines at checkouts that promote rather than avoid proximity and interaction. 

We can likely expect similar, automated distribution solutions for testing and potentially inoculation, giving us unprecedented autonomy and enabling us with the assistance of telemedicine and/or medical AI to self-diagnose and self-treat. We are already connected digitally and we should expect governments and other institutions to use those connections far more effectively to coordinate the content and delivery of reliable information and other resources to us, as well as the social networks we all use to share the real-time and real-world experiences that make us feel that we are not alone.
 
Longer-term, we think that the coronavirus may just accelerate the acceptance and adoption of the flow paradigm over business as usual. Our only effective response to the crisis is a distributed one, and we know that many of the technologies that are most likely to disrupt current models are technologies that enable or support distribution.

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Soft wearable monitor made using soft electronics offers long-term health monitoring.

Companies have for years been moving towards remote workers and distributed teams, but we all know how fragile most video-conferencing, document sharing and other collaborative technologies have been. This may be the moment at which entrepreneurs see the opportunities here for far more compelling remote/distributed experiences that will finally tip the scale to majority remote workforces, reducing real estate costs, emptying downtown areas, and asking the question of where a company's identity might reside if not at HQ. 

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Business adoption of digital commerce, powered by AI-mobile applications, integrated mobile payments, and contact-less payment technology will significantly grow in 2020.

The nature of large conferences and events will also dramatically change in the future, as companies realize and implement digital and virtual events using digital and social channels. Every business must reevaluate their content development and distribution strategy. The future of conferences will shift from a centralized to a distributed model. This does not mean that companies will no longer hold conferences and events, but rather a hybrid model of outreach that will more heavily lean into digital networking models. 

The autonomous vehicle, while in its early stages, is likely to become the most important technology of its time, creating a continuous, mobile, connected distribution system for anything physical, not just people, from any source to any destination, particularly to and from the home.

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The autonomous vehicle is designed based of flow principles - a blueprint for the autonomous enterprise.

The autonomous vehicle in many ways provided us with a glimpse into the future of business -- the autonomous enterprise. In the future, the combination of technologies like machine learning and deep learning, computer visioning, smart robotics, natural language processing, sensors and wearable technologies, digital smart assistants and spatial computing with augmented and virtual reality. will create a highly automated and autonomous set of capabilities at work and your home office. Future business applications will anticipate, recommend and many cases fully deliver value where individuals and organizations can co-create value at the speed of need -- their stakeholder's needs. The inevitable future of business is the autonomous enterprise and ecosystem. For some, the future is already here. AI-powered CRM platforms can deliver this single source of truth to businesses, the most important step in creating value at the speed of need.  

The internet of things, and in particular the advent of distributed, additive manufacturing (3D printers and other smart, connected machines) may further challenge the model of centralized, scaled production and enable smaller, more rural or remote communities to build and maintain the things they need locally. Rural regeneration is not reflected by the continuing increase in urban populations across the world but it is hinted at, and enabled by, all these new technologies. With investors like Steve Case and his "Rise of the Rest" initiative aiming to reach more of the country's entrepreneurs than those on either coast, we believe that small towns across the country are set for a new, more vital episode in their histories.

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Steve Case and the Rise of the Rest road trip.

The businesses of the future must safely create value at the speed of need. The services must be personalized, fast and intelligent -- the new currencies of a digital economy. To do this in an experience-led economy, businesses need access to the single source of truth. And they also need to ensure that their most important core value and guiding principle is Trust. So while the coronavirus itself will change little, the seeds of change have already been sown, and the virus will be a catalyst for a more distributed, more connected world and greater personal autonomy, a world of flow.

This article was co-authored by Henry King, a business innovation and transformation strategy leader at Salesforce