As a leader, my thinking is often evenly spread between planning for the short-, medium-, and long-term. What is good for the business now, in the year ahead and for the next 10 years? I constantly move between the immediate and the gradual, but 2020 brought all our plans sharply into focus and grounded my leadership team and I very much in the immediate. As multiple leaders around the world did, we focused on the safety of our employees and the short-term productivity and profitability of the business.
A new term entered our vocabulary – the new normal. In our desire to preserve and sustain, we moved heaven and earth to re-frame our world into the ‘new normal’, a world that we told ourselves would be the basis of life beyond 2020. However, once we passed through the initial shock of the pandemic in 2020 and the rollout of vaccines into 2021, I allowed myself the chance to start planning again for a medium- and longer-term future…the next normal.
Business is a series of next normals, and as the proverb says, we ask not for a lighter load, but for broader shoulders. I was quoted recently saying that the pandemic was a helpful distraction to the ongoing Brexit talks; that in some way, this global catastrophe was a positive. This could not be further from the truth. When a business changes to overcome a crisis, it isn’t because their motivation lies in profiteering – equating the turmoil and misery inflicted by the virus to a profitable outcome is to misconstrue what a business stands for as a member of a community, or part of a society.
We have a responsibility to react to external headwinds and we have a duty of care to remain relevant and competitive for the people we employ. It’s about recognising that harder roads will often take us to better places.
The only constant is change
Siemens has been adapting to ‘next normals’ for most of our 170-year history. We do it to offer safer, smarter, and more sustainable solutions for society, decade after decade. Our technology transforms the everyday for billions of people in energy, healthcare, transport, manufacturing, and infrastructure. Our pursuit of this goal is embedded in the mentality of the 300,000 colleagues around the world that call Siemens home. This point was highlighted to me when I saw that even during 2020, we spent €4.5bn on R&D and registered 5,120 inventions.
This is what adaptability means to me. It’s about driving customer impacts, empowering our people, creating technology with purpose, and above all keeping a growth mindset. It’s precisely because Siemens is strong today that we focus relentlessly on tomorrow.
As our journey continues, we can be the force behind a new agenda; one that focuses on a decarbonised, decentralised, and digitalised future. 2021 will be the year of moving from emergency to recovery and putting in the work to realise some of the visions that were shared when the pandemic began. As a recent McKinsey article put it, ‘2021 will be all about how companies and governments shape their futures rather than just grinding through their present’.
The central tenet for us all at Siemens is that we provide technology with purpose – genuine value-adding ideas that will make this next normal safer and more productive for employees and businesses alike.
Our focus will be on digitalising and connecting multiple sectors of infrastructure, manufacturing, and transport. The digitisation of hardware, and the resulting interpretation of that data, will blur the lines between where a hardware manufacturer ends and a technology company starts. It’s the fusion of our physical, digital, and biological worlds. Industrial customers are no longer simply manufacturers of hardware – they sell digitalised, AI-powered, cloud-based solutions in every transaction.
Industrial internet of things (IIoT) applications will help companies emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, primed for sustainable, profitable growth. This won’t happen overnight or in a style that we’ve witnessed during the pandemic, but will take the collective and incremental advancement of multiple technologies, from improving our vast network of buildings to exist as smart prosumers on the grid edge, to advancing industrial facilities to unlock productivity gains and process improvements through machine learning and AI-driven automation.
A long road to travel
Let’s never forget that while the pandemic presented opportunities, it also created (and continues to create) inequality. According to a recent paper from the World Economic Forum, the impact of the pandemic on livelihoods has been ‘catastrophic’. Working hours equivalent to 495 million jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2020 – 14% of the world’s entire workforce. Youth, unskilled workers, working parents – especially mothers and already-disadvantaged minorities have been especially hard hit. 70% of working women across nine of the world’s largest economies believe their careers will be slowed by the pandemic’s disruption, while 51% of youth from 112 countries believe their educational progress has been delayed.
No one company, no one government and no one in isolation can tackle the tremendous impact caused by the pandemic. A world that emerges in the next normal needs to be one that addresses these issues and go beyond a vision, into tangible action and change that guarantees everyone a seat the table. To walk far on this journey, we must walk together.
The next normal will be about rekindling a lost sense social cohesion and lifting our heads up to look beyond the short-term, putting in place the changes that will impact our society for the next 100 years.