Liquid Business … Covid-19 is accelerating a shift in how we work and compete, with the emergence of new types of “liquid” business models

May 23, 2020

The global pandemic is accelerating our shift to the future of work, the future of retail, the future of healthcare, the future of education … more “liquid” in the way it fuses physical and digital, employees and consumers, purpose and profit.

The pandemic has accelerated the “megatrends” which were already shaping our future.

Whilst some people say “nothing will change”, others say “everything has changed” … the reality is somewhere in between. 3 months of lockdown, and a likely 2-3 years of economic impact, are likely to have a lasting effect on business and markets, and also on our attitudes and behaviours.

New consumer behaviours … the shift to digital me

For consumers, whilst many underlying “jobs to be done” might not have changed – we still want to create a better meal with our family, to perform to our best in sport, to be educated to get a better job – the ways in which we achieve this may well have done.

Life under lockdown forced new behaviours upon us. Most significantly, the need to stay connected, and for most that meant using digital media in more fundamental ways – online chats, online shopping, online working, online learning. Zoom parties were happening in every room of our house. My 80 year old mother started using FaceTime, and shopping online. My daughters now prefer online lessons, and few colleagues look forward to long commutes to work again.

In particular, in this new “Zoom” world, belonging has become much more important. Not just wanting to stay in touch with families and friends, but also our awareness of neighbours, our concern for our communities, for local businesses. Whether this comes in the form of singing from balconies in room, favouring local suppliers, or clapping at front doors for frontline workers.

Our digital dependence has accelerated the shift from “physical me” to “digital me” … which in so many ways is no different: we are still human beings, just using technology to help achieve our enduring needs. But in Maslow’s hierarchy, one thing has changed in particular, and that is the increased important, or essentialness, of belonging.

So will these habits last? Neurologists say that it takes around 90 days for new bridges to form between synapses in our brain. If we interpret this as the time for new habits to emerge, then we have now had long enough in a Covid-19 world, for new behaviours to become new habits, and to have a lasting consequence.

New business models … the shift to “liquid” businesses

Indeed, thanks to a small bit of contagious RNA we are all now unwilling participants in a seismic experiment that is shaking the foundations of society, technology, economics, healthcare and more.

Dan Pink wonders if it’s a message from the future. Klaus Schwab calls it the bonfire of blinkered capitalism. Satya Nadella describes it as a shift “from hierarchies to wirearchies”.

And in every economic cycles, financial downturns are matched by innovation upturns. In fact 57% of the current Fortune 500 were founded in a downturn. Right now, the next generation of businesses are taking shape. So below today’s business turmoil, a tremendous digital revolution is taking shape.

Consider some of the “big pivots” right now, the ways in which companies are adapting to survive and thrive in these crazy times.

Fundamentally, we are seeing a rapid shift to more “liquid” business models.

In chemistry, you will remember, a “liquid”  state exists between a solid and a gas – between a structured and unstructured state. In the business world, between a physical and digital world. “Liquid” is a much better word than hybrid – it means that we can fuse together the best of physical and digital formats, and also give consumers much more choice in how it is constructed.

Liquid businesses are more accessible and agile, responsive and personal.

These “liquid” attributes permeate both the inside and outside of business – shaping the new ways in which we work – how we communicate, collaborate and learn – and the new ways in which we compete – sell, create, manufacture, and support customers.

The megatrends which I have described in recent months will only be accelerated by this pandemic – the shift in economic power, the shift in demographic audiences, the shift in sustainable practices, the shift in urban development, the shift in intelligent technologies. Some of the details may change, but only to accelerate the realisation of these emerging futures.

Liquid Business … driven by human and tech ingenuity

The pandemic has seen rapid adoption of new technologies, and the “digital me” (belonging and connected) – in distributed working (remote and hybrid), intelligent healthcare (online and data-driven), digital retail (cashless and automated), personal mobility (electric and local) education (hybrid and collaborative).

In particular we will see

  • Liquid Health … the fluid combination of digital technologies like Babylon Health and Good Doctor, providing smartphone consultations, AI-enabled diagnostics, robotic surgery, together with empathetic care.
  • Liquid Work … the fluid combination of more distributed and remote working from anywhere, more flexible jobs and employment, and more diverse and collaborative teams, creative people augmented by tech.
  • Liquid Production … the fluid combination of made remotely and on demand, embracing 3D printing to print what we like as we need it, the shift from fragile slow supply chains to dynamic personal ecosystems.
  • Liquid Retail … the fluid combination of digital consumers, with physical delivery – dark kitchens of Deliveroo delivering restaurant meals to our home, luxury brands sold direct from Tiffany to Common Threads.
  • Liquid Mobility ... the fluid combination of multi-modal transport, as we shift to electric and autonomous cars, we shift from ownership to subscription, enabling a choice of transport modes, as we become more local.
  • Liquid Learning … the fluid combination of distance and physical learning experiences, for children to executives, lifelong learning becoming the norm with flexible qualifications, topped up over time, relevant and applied.

And many other forms of “liquid” transformation.

Time for leaders to step up … to create a better future.

It’s a watershed moment. As the virus followed the flows of money, goods and people around the world, the networks that facilitate our modern lifestyles facilitated the pandemic. 183 countries have reported Covid-19 cases, 3 billion people across the world have been under some form of lockdown, with a $2.7 trillion projected economic loss (according to Bloomberg).

Right now, we are seeing a huge unmasking of our current systems – the fragility of business and society, the consequences of urbanisation and globalisation, our dependence on technology and healthcare. Activities in which consumers are likely to change behaviour most are in travel, shopping, and socialising. And to some extent in work, education and health.

We are faced with a choice to re-build the world as it was, or to realise the possibilities before us. To build stronger economies and more inclusive societies, to harness the power of our resilience and ingenuity to shape a better world of our choosing. We each have a role and a stake in solving humanity’s most pressing challenges, and also seizing its opportunities.

In my forthcoming book Business Recoded I describe how organisations need a new code for success. And business leaders need to step up to make the 7 shifts:

I believe we will see a rising social conscience in business, more future-proofed portfolio-based strategies, an acceleration to digital, a humanising of technology, a shift to dematerialisation, to more personalised experiences, more distributed businesses, supported by more agile ecosystems of global and local supply and demand, a more flexible workstyle, fast projects replacing traditional jobs … and better leaders who look forwards not back.

As we move from survival to adjustment, from chaos to catalyst, the next normal (or abnormal) is being shaped right now. The next generation of businesses are being forged. The leaders of the future are stepping up.

Great leaders are made in a crisis, and innovation thrives in tough times. How will you seize this moment to do more, to be more, to create a better future?

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