How to Prepare for the Great Digital Divergence – Tony Saldanha

Quick: What do Jeff Bezos and Mansa Musa have in common?

Did I just hear someone say, ‘Jeff who?’

I’m kidding. More often than not, the response I get is ‘Mansa who?’ That’s an understandable question, since most education systems around the world equate medieval history to western medieval history, and as a king who lived during that era in Mali, Musa gets the short shrift in history books. The interesting thing is, Mansa Musa is generally acknowledged to be the richest person of all times.

Meanwhile, Bezos has recently been in the news as “the first person in history to be worth more than $200 billion”. That may be true for the modern era, but there have been a few wealthier people in history. A couple of years ago an article in celebritynetworth.com (Yes, such a website exists. Their slogan is: The website future billionaires read every day! ) listed the wealthiest people ever.

#10 Cornelius Vanderbilt – $185 Billion

#9 Henry Ford – $199 Billion

#8 TIE: Muammar Gaddafi And Vladimir Putin– $200 Billion

#7 William The Conqueror – $229.5 Billion

#6 Mir Osman Ali Khan – $230 billion

#5 Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov – $300 Billion

#4 Andrew Carnegie – $310 Billion

#3 John D. Rockefeller – $340 Billion

#2 The Rothschild Family – $350 Billion

#1: Mansa Musa I – $400 Billion

Based on this, Jeff would join Gaddafi and Vlad at #8!

Uh, congratulations?

The Great Economic Divergence of 2020

More reliable sources, including BBC have slightly different variations of this list, but they do firmly put Mansa Musa at #1. Musa (1280-1337) is an absolutely fascinating figure who ruled the Malian Empire, which stretched across modern day Mali, Timbuktu and Ghana. Unfortunately, for want of space, I’m going to have to give him the short shrift again. Sorry Mansa!

Jeff is of course the modern-day historical figure responsible for bringing the world’s marketplace, package by package, to my front porch. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his wealth grew $48 billion between March to June 2020.

He is not alone in benefitting from the pandemic. In general, American billionaires grew $637 billion richer during the pandemic, while at the same time 40 million Americans filed for unemployment. Obviously, this isn’t just a US issue, or unfortunately just an income inequality issue. The world’s economies themselves are diverging. When COVID struck, the world’s economic growth as well as approximately 500m full time jobs went up in smoke. And, countries are recovering at a diverging rate. China’s economy is expected to be 10% bigger by end 2021 than pre-pandemic. The US will be about the same as 2019. Europe will lag behind their pre-pandemic size. Among other things, an important factor for this divergence in recovery is the pace of digitization.

However, this economic divergence is another topic to which I’m unfortunately going to have to give the short shrift, because I need to get to the critical issue of digital divergence.

Digital Divergence: What Should You Do as a Leader?

Businesses results are already diverging based on digital choices made during the pandemic. Digitally driven business models are winning (e.g. the boutique in-person wine-tasting shop in California that reinvented themselves as a boutique wine-delivery business). On cost-cutting, there’s no doubt that as the current tool of choice for improving productivity, business leaders are turning en masse to digitization. However, pitfalls galore in how exactly to embrace digitization. Throwing money at the problem without a strong game plan will create a negative spiral. Here’s my suggestion.

Get the portfolio of your digital investments right: Numerous studies have shown that most companies that thrive after an economic crisis pull away from their competition during the crisis, not after. However, money is tight right now. What should a leader do? Cut spending (including in non-strategic IT areas) to reinvest in strategic digital capabilities. Not all IT/digital spending is equal or sacred.

Drive both digital short-term and long-term priorities: Talk about how a company has “accelerated digitization”, because it has implemented remote work or digitized work processes, worries me. That’s table stakes today and is short-term digitization. Whether you beat competition after the pandemic will depend on whether you created new disruptive digital models in addition to that.

Think people first: Your employees may be unable to focus on transformation if their professional and personal lives are dramatically impacted. Worse, they may not stick around with you after the economic downturn if they believe you made poor choices on supporting employees vs. supporting shareholders.

Economic divergence is unfortunately to be expected after economic upheaval. Some of it can be attributed to pre-existing conditions, e.g. whether you were a billionaire pre-COVID or already on the poverty line. For the factors which are within our control, it is the choices we now make that will determine which divergent path we end up in. We had no choice in the crisis that was thrust upon us, but we do have one on whether we waste it.

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