Knowledge Exchange

Digital Transformation During a Pandemic

Vinod Shamdasani (Class of 2012)

How quickly the world has changed in 2020! Who would have imagined back in January that COVID-19 would alter our personal behaviours, along with compelling nearly every company on the planet to adjust their business model to this ‘new normal’?

The impact of COVID-19 on many enterprises has been devastating, but it has also brought about sizable opportunities for those able to rapidly adapt. The pandemic has strengthened the C-suite’s business cases, helped accelerate digital transformation initiatives in order to remain competitive, and in many instances, to innovate around their business models just to keep the lights on. Even digitally conservative industries like manufacturing have accelerated their digital investments and accomplished in months what would have normally taken years.

With consumer activity also increasingly moving online, companies radically overhauled their marketing plans and shifted budgets from offline channels such as in-person events, to support digital channels. It was expected that the CMO’s office would help make this transformation much more visible to all their stakeholders in 2020. The pandemic turned out to be a golden opportunity for marketers to prove digital’s value to historically skeptical stakeholders such as those in sales. Whether that meant showcasing the relative ROI of virtual events and webinars over in-person events to fuel B2B sales pipelines or proving the value of an eCommerce site to drive online sales, it was game-on for digital teams.

The FIVE areas below are themes that I’ve noticed emerge among organisations who have moved their digital transformation programmes forward in this challenging environment:

1) Putting Employees First

Ensuring digital transformation initiatives succeed during a pandemic is only possible with committed and healthy employees. Best in class firms responded swiftly and showed dollops of empathy by placing the wellbeing of their employees first and staying true to their corporate values. This was typically accomplished by:

  • Senior leaders frequently communicating emerging developments and evolving policies impacting the business
  • Providing suitable working equipment, furniture and collaboration tools to enable WFH (e.g. Google gave US$1,000!)
  • Regular 1:1 check-ins with senior leadership, team coffee-chats, virtual celebrations, COVID-19 care packages, training on remote working, and other employee support resources to ensure employee well-being
  • Redesigning office environments to support social distancing and flexible working (e.g. Cushman & Wakefield’s “6-feet office“)

At SAS our senior marketing leaders spent time arranging virtual coffee chats with every team member to see how we were holding up and help alleviate any roadblocks.

The pandemic has oddly proven to be the world’s largest work from home experiment, with many companies also realising that employee productivity in many cases didn’t suffer and generally increased with the compulsion to remain ‘always online.’ While the jury is out on whether WFH is a healthy long-term practice, it may become the permanent state in some shape or form, even in relatively conservative markets and industries.


2) Aligned Leaders…Busting Silos

Successful digital transformation programmes during this pandemic have involved cohesive teamwork and commitment across functions at every level of the organisation, with everyone working towards a higher common purpose. This was only made possible with the highest level of support and alignment from the entire C-suite.

At SAS our response, in addition to our continuity of business efforts, included implementing an Incident Command System (ICS) to provide business focus and acceleration on how we meet customer needs. The ICS pulled in talent and volunteers from across the company, who helped to collectively brainstorm ideas and manage customer facing policies and priority projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic. ICS became a central guiding force to calibrate a globally coordinated company-wide response with our customers. This tight collaboration across boundaries resulted in the creation of a centralised communication portal to help disseminate critical information about the pandemic and our role in helping our stakeholders respond better to the pandemic, along with free public COVID-19 resources.

3) Auditing and Optimising Technology Resources

Organisations conducted enterprise-wide system audits to gauge the state of their digital investments and take actions to optimise and accelerate their adoption. For some, this meant accelerating the consolidation of duplicated vendor investments in their technology stack to reduce overheads and process complexities. For others, it was an opportunity to invest in new technologies to ensure their growth and survival, e.g. restaurants focusing on take-away and deliveries, and upgrading/signing on with digital ordering platforms.

4) Being Nimble and Innovating While Maintaining Customer Focus

In early 2020, like many organisations, SAS had a clear marketing plan on how we wanted to impact our brand awareness, generate demand and drive engagement with our customers. However, with the pandemic raging, a swift rethink was required to ensure everyone’s safety whilst balancing business priorities.

Our annual flagship event, the SAS Global Forum, was meant to be held in Washington DC, but was pivoted towards a virtual event. By working cohesively, we quickly scaled a virtual event platform, trained our internal digital teams, recorded 150+ sessions, and translated the event content into multiple languages – all in a few months. The virtual format helped attract 4X more attendees, which was a record in our history!

Sometimes the obstacle is the way.

5) Expert Change Management

Digital transformation projects in 2020 gained commitment from the entire C-suite working together to define objectives, success criteria, obtaining buy-in from employees, and supporting them to the finish line. Managing disruptive change has required C-level leaders to communicate more directly, frequently, emphatically and transparently with employees. Objectives and direct outcomes are being shared more openly than ever before, along with crowd sourcing ideas from employees globally to keep teams involved.

The organisations that are succeeding in making bold transformational shifts, especially during this pandemic, have been very clear about what and why they’re transforming, thoroughly auditing their value chains and resources, aligning and getting buy-in from all key stakeholders and then delivering business impacts in a compressed time frame. Digital transformation is a marathon, not a sprint, and leaders need to be resilient and committed to it for the long haul.


Industry: Computer Software
Company: SAS
Job Title: Head of Digital Marketing, Asia Pacific