The New Reality

Caribbean Businesses need to adapt quickly and permanently

 I didn’t once mention Covid-19 … damn it… 🤦‍♂️

Don’t infect anyone. Stay indoors.

🎙Podcast version will publish tomorrow🎙


The crisis will affect the region more deeply and for longer than we realise

Like most of us, you may find you have more time on your hands than before… for all the wrong reasons. If you own or work in a Business that is not recognised as a necessity of the state —think, medical or food-related companies — you may find your Company is at a complete stand-still.

I’ve been witnessing plenty of posts on LinkedIn and email campaigns telling me they are practising Business continuity or offering free of charge help in getting you up and running for remote working. (You should take advantage now, as they’ll likely charge you a crap-ton of money soon for such services.) I’m assuming it is true and they’re all flawlessly executing their well-thought-out and well-tuned DR plans.

Putting my snark aside, I started thinking about the change that is currently forced upon businesses, and particularly those located in the Caribbean. Challenging times for any business, regardless of your location in the world.

For us here in the Caribbean, the effects are multiple and felt almost immediately. Take tourism; the numbers of cancellations or demands for reimbursement must be too frightening to look at. The knock-on effects of having no tourists affect local Businesses geared up to take tourists on day trips, eat in restaurants, buy souvenirs and countless other activities that are all revenue-generating. We know that direct and indirect revenue of global tourism was at 10.4% of global GDP in 2017, predicted to rise by 3.8% per annum over the coming years, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council in their Economic Impact 2018 report. In the Caribbean, 15.5% of total GDP in the region is attributed to tourism. 2.4 million jobs, i.e., 13.5% of the entire working population in the region, valued at 35.4 billion USD. This view is shared by an opinion piece published by CARICOM today.

Putting it in different terms, in tourism alone, around a 6th of the economy has suddenly disappeared. The effects are more wide-reaching than that too. Unlike many continents, ours is not contiguous. The closing of borders and the cancelling of flights has significant implications for not only passengers but freight. In the case of fresh fruit and vegetables that are not, or cannot be, grown locally, this put a strain on getting these supplies into local shops. Small is the number of islands in the region that can self-supply all the food necessary to feed their populations using local agriculture and food processing facilities.

What this all means, businesses in the Caribbean are going to need some severe rethink of their business models in the near future to both survive and rebound. In the near-term, developing products and services to deal with the immediate losses and then thinking through longer-term consequences and how best they can adapt to this new reality and to the long-term wants and needs of a population that wants change.

Forced change isn’t necessarily good

I’m guessing we can all agree that change is forced upon us currently. It might be the first time in your entire working career that you are working from home. You’re juggling work with home-schooling and sharing the space with your partner, both adjusting to the new norm as best you can. The regular routine is destabilised, and we are all in a state of uncertainty. I don’t know when we’re going to get through this, but I know it isn’t going to be next week. But this abrupt change in our personal lives translates to a sudden and deep change for Business too.

Here in the Caribbean, we have been used to traditional businesses that have had little incentive to change in the face of Digital Transformation. Captive audiences have enabled them to stagnate in their innovation and in their offerings to the public that comes back to buy regardless of price, availability and choice. I’m generalising, and of course, there are some innovative firms out there, but they are mostly confined to services and often have clientele throughout the region or the world.

I have been very frustrated over the last 16 years that the development of digital solutions has been severely behind the times of other countries. Sixteen years ago, I lived in the UK, and we had been ordering our groceries online and having them delivered to our flat five years before that. Yes, you read that right, over 20 years ago, supermarkets in the UK were providing online ordering and delivery to the door. You’re lucky in the French West Indies to have one pickup point, AND you’re required to drive to it yourself, IF you’re fortunate, you’ll get the time slot you want! Have they not heard of Jobs to be Done?

This is not the only industry that is decades behind. The result feeds the collective Cognitive Dissonance in the region, where we as educated and worldly exposed people (through social media and travelling) cannot understand why we don’t have access to the same things.

Let me be clear; no one is asking for 1-hour to-the-door Amazon Prime deliveries of your favourite artisan toothpaste, let’s leave that for the Hipsters in Brooklyn. However, is it beyond expectation to want able to order something online and have it delivered to your door in a day or two; computers, phones, food, tools, groceries, services…, the list is endless? I would prefer to read that as the opportunity is unlimited, but I can’t quite manage it right now 😢.

Many changes in life(1)

I wanted to highlight a couple of tweets and articles that show that changes are being made, and made very quickly indicating what might be in the post-pandemic world we are currently moving towards.

I enjoyed the tweet, the idea that a younger generation is taking it in their stride, compensating and coming up with simple, but effective ideas to continue. Dating is so essential for the world, and self-containment and confinement couldn’t be more damaging if it tried. But as witnessed above, we as humans seem to find a solution.

This next tweet is from Stewart Butterfield. Stewart is the CEO of Slack, a collaboration tool I’ve mentioned before. In a lengthy Twitter thread, he documented how his company went from a couple of million Daily Active Users (DAUs) to over 11 million in the space of a couple of weeks.

Image 26-03-2020, 10-00_1.jpeg

But this tweet identifies perfectly the shift Business is facing, independent to this pandemic. He estimates that the shift from email communication, which is that backbone of so many companies today, is moving to channel communications and that that has accelerated by possibly 18 months as a result of this pandemic. I would argue that it has accelerated change even faster than that.

Channel-type communication is so much better for teams, whether they are 2 meters away from you, or two continents. It's two-way, it’s subject filtered, it’s asynchronous and synchronous at the same time and most of all, is personable, unlike email —how many times have you written an email, forgot the smiley, and the recipient completely missed the point? 

The feedback loop of interaction is so much better, and it can help better articulate how people in the team feel about each others’ efforts and implication. All done seamlessly, easily, taking next to no time. In years past, managers and co-workers would need to draft and double-check an email to give feedback for the project you were working on together. If that feedback was personal, there were just too many risks associated with getting the tone wrong.

Other innovations are being fast-tracked with some surprising results. The uncanny valley that technology so often creates, is being redesigned at a breakneck pace. Things that were proposed over ten years ago that were rejected by the world for their insensitivity or downright weirdness at the time are readily accepted today in this climate of pandemics. My son had his first virtual class though Hangouts this morning. I’d been pressing the education system for years to innovate and use virtual learning, all to no avail. How life changes.

As another example, have a read of this article on onezero hosted on Medium, Coronavirus is spurring a new era of digital funerals. It will become more and more acceptable, not only from a health standpoint but as we continue to distance ourselves from our birth towns, looking for better opportunities and lifestyles, we will need these tools to help us reconnect back home when needed. From a personal point of view, I would have liked to have had this option a few years ago when my Grandmother passed away, and I was regrettably, unable to make the transatlantic journey back to the UK for the funeral for time and financial reasons. Or this article on Protocol, What it feels like to be laid off on Zoom during this crisis. Ouch! Will we look at this with the same distaste in the near future?

From a more local perspective, this crisis has shown us many things, things we honestly didn’t want to face.

Take the aforementioned disaster preparedness. The number of companies that I consulted for that reduced their disaster recovery budgets to peanuts because they didn’t see the value, left me feeling dismayed. Apparently, volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes are a non-issue. Go figure. 🤷‍♂️ But Coronavirus has called their bluff, and it’s not looking great for some.

Flexible working should have been the norm ten years ago. The tools existed back then, but they were rudimentary and only slowly developed. Why did it take so long? Because there was no demand, no incentive. Software companies had no audience to sell to. Companies with ancient attitudes wanted “bums on seats” rather than productive and collaborative workers because they didn’t trust them OoO (2). You must trust them now though! Slack and Teams would have arrived earlier if Businesses had been more grown-up about it.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. I wrote about Fortnite hosting a live mega-concert for Marshmellow, with something like 10.7 million concert-goers — not counting the countless Twitch streamers (estimated at a total of 27 million people all told). I wondered then, as I do now, how could this technology be used for more “serious business” purposes. I was a regular attendee of Microsoft Conferences over the last 13/14 years, conferences that attract up-to 25 000 attendees in one place I have a badge and a letter to prove it 🏅. So how could Microsoft replace these conferences with an entirely digital experience? One thought that comes to mind is precisely that blueprint trialled by Fornite.

Minecraft, Microsoft’s online virtual world game/education platform, brags over 90 million monthly active users. Its scale is enormous, more significant than anything we can create in the real-world, for cost, permit and land constraints. Estimates of between 1 and 10 million simultaneous users are suggested. Microsoft’s “virtual” conference could be opened up for many more attendees offering Microsoft further reach than is physically possible and more interaction with its up and coming partners, resellers and developers.

Attending a recent webcast about virtual conferences, the speaker — who happened to be the organiser of the Virtual Island Summit — mentioned that the mere fact that the summit was virtual, allowed participation from an Island so remote that only a 12-day boat trip to South Africa (one that happened once every three months) was possible.

The impossible, made possible because of Digital Transformation.


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1 A song by Barrington Levy

2 Out of Office