Building a bridge to somewhere?

An open letter on living in a world with COVID-19: Where is the end state? (Part 4 of a serie)

Dear world
At a time when people everywhere are using smartphones to conduct virtual meetings, run business and keep up the flow of everyday conveniences that are quickly delivered to their doorsteps – all connected via a seamless global network run by seemingly nobody in particular – it can be hard to imagine that, not that long ago, building a bridge over a previously insurmountable open span of water or geographic divide constituted the world’s most amazing engineering marvel.

For some reason, the coronavirus pandemic has made me think a good bit about bridges. They seem like a good metaphor for where things stand. You see, like most people, I guess I often took them for granted. They were simply there; large, inanimate structures of concrete and steel, ready to take you from where you are now to where you wish to be. That is, until suddenly, the bridges were closed, victims of increasing chaos and equally chaotic decision making.

Earlier this week, I spoke with a journalist about how the current situation reminds me of building a bridge. Except that in this case, while we know where we are starting, our destination is still unclear. Since we don’t know where the other coast lies, or how far away it is, we need to continuously make small adjustments to ensure our bridge is well-positioned once we do reach the other side. This is essential, because when we get there, we need to hit the ground running like our lives still depend on it.

Finding equilibrium in uncertainty
It should not be this hard to figure out where our bridge will touch down. While the world may have never encountered anything quite like COVID-19, we humans have a pretty good track record for intelligent and innovative technological and scientific problem solving. As well as a knack for planning for, and figuring our way out of, crisis situations. I’d even say that, until just recently, we were getting better at it over time.

As the CEO of a sophisticated, foundationally-held data management software company with roots tracing back to 1794, and founder of Lanell, I am confident in my own organization’s plan, and in the data we are monitoring to keep us on course. You don’t stick around for as long as we have without a history of both physical and digital transformation in your blood.

Likewise, I am confident in our team’s ability to help our customers leverage the power of their data to execute their own plans. Our specialty is, after all, empowering organizations to manage and deliver value from their enterprise master data assets. To bring that data together from disparate sources and systems, make sure it is accurate and up-to-date. And then to leverage it to drive innovation and insight and enable transparency that builds better businesses that help build a better world.

Unfortunately, the answer to our current problems is not in our hands – which, due to current restrictions are in many ways tied. Nor is it in our customers’ hands. While I wish I could say it is in government’s hands, I think as it stands, this answer isn’t in anybody’s hands. And without anyone taking responsibility for helping everyone to achieve at least some semblance of equilibrium, amidst so much uncertainty, I’m concerned we may never get this bridge to touch down on the other side.

Crossing chasms, climbing mountains
As if building this bridge to an at present uncharted end state is not difficult enough, it will also need to scale an economic peak the likes of which the world has never seen. The latest data from the US Dept. of Labor paints a portrait of imminent disaster. And this is just for the US alone.

Of course, those on the receiving end of the relief package will see this as a lifeline that saves them from individual financial ruin and communities from short-term financial collapse. But the long-term consequences are at present impossible to fathom. This is going to have to be one incredible bridge.

Envisioning an end state to COVID-19
If I haven’t made it clear in my ongoing analysis, I am not a fan of addressing a global crisis through provincial thinkingand inactivity. While I recognize the impact social distancing has had on flattening the curve, I have difficulty understanding how we got here in the first place. We are smarter than that. In a world where people can manipulate data to make a pair of shoes literally follow your every move across your personalized digital experience, it just doesn’t make sense that we can’t see an end to this madness.

I personally don’t buy it. And to my fellow citizens around the world – regardless of what nation you call home – I’d like to suggest you shouldn’t buy it either. If I was to summarize our collective request, it would be straightforward. We ask for more transparency into how we got into this, and more importantly, what leaders around the world are planning to get us out of it.

As I have said many times already, I am neither a politician or a scientist. I speak as a business manager and father, confident in the knowledge that working together, there is nothing we can’t solve. As long as you start with a plan.

With that as our baseline, I’d like to direct the rest of my thoughts to a select group of key constituencies.

Dear world leaders
Around the world people and their families and businesses are looking to you, to tell us where we are heading, and when, where and how this can and will end. Crisis situations call for honesty, integrity and decisive, selfless decisions. The end state must be defined as part of the plan to get us across the chasm. The problem is, we are not sure these are part of your plans. That scares us. We realize nobody intended for us to be here, that nobody is infallible and that we all make mistakes. In fact, we must all take some part of the responsibility for failing to prepare our countries, cities and towns for a pandemic virus outbreak.

Right now, the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. Several articles have recently listed a couple of alternative directions for where we are heading.

Clearly the dream scenario would have been that every nation manages to simultaneously bring the virus to heel, as with the original SARS in 2003. Given the current status of the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that we will come to worldwide synchronous control. So, let’s stop looking in this direction.

That leaves us with the option that the virus burns through the world and leaves behind enough immune survivors and build “herd immunity.” But as COVID-19 is more transmissible and fatal than a flu, it could leave a trail of millions of victims and fatally devastated health systems.

I doubt many of you will choose this quick but deadly “heard immunity strategy,” making it likely that we continue to pursue a whack-a-mole strategy that is the longest and most complicated. But that means we have to live with the virus. Because we cannot stay inactive for too long.

And you are making it harder by not being transparent with regard to when and how we can all become active again. Time is the critical factor. A crisis cannot be fully solved through inactiveness or provincial thinking. But right now, we are at an economic standstill that risks sending our children on into a world where the next plague is long-term debt and unemployment that will leave us unprepared to support the weak and sick in the years to come. So, we ask you to tell us, where is your end state? How are you preparing us for the next wave of COVID-19? How are you preparing us for a new outbreak? Where will our bridge hit land and how will you prepare us to get across?

Dear fellow citizens and consumers
Over the last decade most of us have increased our personal consumption. Not simply in how much we spend, but also as a percentage of our income. Never before have we purchased and consumed so many different products and experiences. Digital technology put the power in our hands and we gladly took control.

But now, many of us have gone into retreat and we are limiting consumption to essential, non-discretionary things. It’s an understandable reaction. We’re unsure about the future, about our jobs and about the world we have created for our children. But let us remember, that the restaurant visit yesterday that didn’t happen, the hotel room we didn’t stay in, the hair cut we didn’t get – these things will never be sold. Their value – and the value they enable for many of our fellow citizens – is gone forever. So are the revenues to those who supplied these industries. This is the ripple effect of long-term inactivity that makes so many others wonder if they will have a job or a future tomorrow. Remember to do what you can to help each other so that when we do emerge from our current shelters, we emerge stronger together.

Dear customers and partners – present and future
I am proud to serve you. Like you, we are constantly evaluating our contingency plans. We are all affected in unique and different ways. We are looking at the same curves that lie ahead. We know your customers, employees and business partners are concerned. We are all holding back because we want to protect the jobs and the future of our companies. We are all cautiously waiting to see light at the end of the tunnel. We are all in the same boat.

In truth, depending on the exact nature of our businesses, some of us are struggling to keep our boats moving fast enough, while others might be following instructions to sail around in circles. In either case, we know everyone’s tank can run empty at a certain time. A hotel without guests will not be renovated, a restaurant without diners will not stay lit, a factory without raw materials or demand will not stay online. But through it all, we are ready to support you. Our ownership means we will stand strong, ready to help you manage your business to keep your suppliers, customers, partners and vendors updated and informed, and empowering you to make the right decisions based on trustworthy, transparent data.

Dear friends and colleagues
Thank you for your dedication in difficult times. Remember, no matter what happens, we do not leave customers or our people behind. Working from home can be tough, so be sure to take breaks and consider vacation to rest your mind. If you feel isolated, or if you are single or a parent who needs to balance a day with kids not in school, we will work with you together to find ways to navigate. Wherever you live, whatever you believe in, whoever you are voting for, remember, we will come through this by working together as one global company across borders. We know provincial thinking will not solve this. We have contingency plans to address this, and we keep updating them as we serve our customers. Together we will not be inactive. We will persevere and succeed because it is my personal purpose to make transparency a catalyst for a better world. And that is what I am continuing to do.

Keep building; “somewhere” lies just ahead
There are no easy answers to the questions or problems I’ve posed. But there are answers and we will find them.

To all those with the ability to influence action and change, we ask you to step up and take on the challenge, because silence and inactivity will not get us there.

To everyone else, be brave and dedicated and flexible as we all adapt to whatever “the new normal” brings next. As I have noted, managing through the pandemic feels like we’re building a bridge without knowing exactly where it will hit land. Finding our way to our unseen destination requires everyone to remain strong and agile and to keep building.

If we can all do that, I’m confident we’ll be stronger together for the experience when we reach the other side.

####

The danger of chaotic decision making in a time that demands something more

Managing in the age of Coronavirus demands greater data transparency; the future of our children depends on it. Part 3 in a series.

One of the things I learned studying chaos theory years ago was that if you drop a leaf two feet from the ground it is impossible to accurately predict where it will land. There are too many variables. 

What one can do is focus on the variables and denominators that do make a difference. If a breeze is blowing west… well… Likewise, if the leaf is wet, it will drop faster than when dry. This way of thinking can inform your direction. 

The Coronavirus pandemic is now evolving at a pace where all possible variables are in play, making it difficult to predict. But what I see happening is that, despite authorities’ best efforts, they are not necessarily taking into consideration all of the best possible variables and denominators to ensure the best possible outcome for all. And this has me concerned. 

COVID-19 does not mandate the world to be in chaos

Over the past week I’ve shared my thoughts on COVID-19 in a series of posts focused first on the challenges of managing a global organization through a global pandemic, but in a world of regional and often provincial governmental authority responses. And then later on the problems that can occur when those authorities react too quickly to what might be incomplete data, vs. on making more informed decisions, and on making the right data – what may previously have been “shadow data” – available, and to avoid reactionary, chaotic choices. 

Since that time, we’ve seen a series of decisions being made in all corners of the world designed to stem the spread of the outbreak. While they were made based on good intentions, many seem to have been made with the same parochial approach, using data that is not necessarily complete. The result of which, I fear, will create economic repercussions that we will live with for decades to come. Repercussions that could be avoided if everyone, everywhere made better decisions based on better and more transparent access to the best possible information. 

I hope I’m wrong, but I think we in Europe and the US right now are making decisions based on missing data. 

Looking to South Korea for more transparent answers 

The major problem I see is that by locking down the citizens of the world without understanding who has the virus now, we risk creating what is an otherwise avoidable economic collapse. 

In South Korea, unlike China, Europe and the United States, authorities did not set an indiscriminate curb on the internal movement of their people. Instead, tests were made available to hundreds of thousands of people everywhere from clinics to drive-through testing centers. At the same time, authorities enabled transparency into all available information so that those who were infected or otherwise vulnerable, including the elderly, could be better protected. While those who were not, could pursue their lives with some semblance of normalcy. And more limited damage to everyone’s economic prosperity. 

Here in Denmark, and in a number of other parts of the world, it seems we have now chosen another path; one informed by far less transparency. 

As a citizen – of Denmark, Europe and the world – and as a father, this has me gravely concerned. I believe we have chosen a path that one might consider to be reactionary at best, in an attempt to do something that can help protect everyone. But in doing so, pursuing a path that is not fully-informed, we are setting ourselves up for a potentially even greater overall catastrophe.  

Our children deserve more than chaotic decision making 

As often happens with a crisis that begins and evolves at a distance, no one wanted to approach this evolving virus in advance. The resulting inaction, and lack of coordination and regional reactions by leaders around the world, left only one point of equilibrium: financial inaction until the risk became tremendously exaggerated.  

As a business leader, time is one of the most important variables in any scenario that we can and do plan for. This is why we make multiple plans with multiple time frames, to address a wide number of possible outcomes and variables. 

When you don’t plan adequately, as can happen in government, where any suggestion of incremental spending to address what can seem like a far-fetched, “what-if” scenario, the only choice left can be to throw money at the problem. This seems to be happening now as governments worldwide pump money into the system. And it seems the chaotic spend will go on until the virus threat is over. 

The longer it goes, the greater the risk of economic meltdown. The domino effect will kick in from there. The result will be more initiatives needed to mitigate the social consequences of an expected rapidly rising unemployment rate that will affect all income groups as we see a wave of bankruptcies and other long-lasting societal problems.  

That’s why I don’t share the optimism of those who believe that chaotic decisions, like shutting down life as all know it, and the tidal wave of challenges that will come with it, hold the answer to our future. For the sake of an entire generation of Danes, and people all over the world, I hope I’m wrong. If only the data was available, we might be able to prove it, or even reverse course before it is too late. 

Data shows a treatments/cures may not be too far off 

Scientific and pharmaceutical company leaders around the world are moving quickly to find potential therapies and/or a cure. While public reports indicate a vaccine could be six months to a year out, potentially faster interim solutions may be available sooner. The data is still new but appears hopeful; it might just require a bit more time. Scientists in China, Korea and the United States are experimenting with existing drugs.  

Preliminary data on these tests is starting to be made available. The results could provide tremendous hope. While it may not seem like we have the luxury of time, the ramifications of decisions being made that are also informed by incomplete data – without having done widespread rapid testing – could make the wait more justified.  

It is not too late for increased transparency

I do realize that this is a time where strong controls are mandated. There is data from numerous sources – most recently from Italy – that shows the devastating potential results of inaction.  

But, as both a business leader, and as a father, I ask, at what cost?  

Nobody in government ever wants to preside over these sorts of decisions. Regardless of what direction an elected official takes, in this day and age, they will be considered by one party or another to have done the wrong thing.

It doesn’t need to be that way.  

We live in a world where data is being used in more astounding and beneficial ways every single day. While people often point out the negative aspects of living in a data-driven world – loss of privacy, cybercrime, etc. – the upside is tremendous. We as a global business and social community, we have the potential to use data for good, to benefit everyone. Or to identify sources of new data and use it to solve the world’s biggest problems.  

COVID-19 is that kind of problem. With more data, and data transparency, we can take it on without the potential backdrop of economic collapse. While I do not mean to sound insensitive or crass, doing what might be seen as shutting down the economy in order to potentially save what could be a small percent of our most vulnerable, while crushing the hope, dreams and prosperity of an entire younger generation, does not seem like the only possible answer.  

I hope I am wrong about that. In the meantime, I suggest we continue to learn from the data and act accordingly.

Managing in the age of Coronavirus demands social distancing, containment and a healthy dose of data transparency. Part 2 in a series

One of the things I love about working with data is that it does not lie. 

While you might not like what data tells you, you can at least take comfort in the fact you know the truth. With trustworthy data in hand, you are prepared to make the best possible decisions, as difficult as they might be.

Problems can arise, however, when you don’t have access to data you need. Either because someone has not made an effort to find it, or worse yet, someone has it but will not make it available. When that happens – when you lack data visibility, insight or transparency – you run the risk of making bad or even dangerous decisions.

Yesterday the Danish government implemented strict measures to control the spread of COVID-19 throughout the country. Borders are now locked down. Schools and a broad swath of institutions and businesses are closed. And that is really just the start. What happens next is only partly predictable.

They say the truth can set you free, or perhaps not

While on one hand I have to feel positive that this will all be in the best interest of our country, the truth is – and for those of us in the data business, truth is what matters – well; we don’t know the truth. And that is the problem facing citizens of our country, and of many other countries around the world. 

The decision to enact these stringent measures cannot have been easy to make. There was of course some data available that must have raised the alarm levels to the point where strong action seemed mandatory. I realized this myself when I looked back at the article I wrote at the start of this week on managing in the age of Coronavirus, Global Organization. Global Health Crisis. Provincial Thinking?

At the time, there were 113 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country. As of this writing, we’re heading towards 850. The growth is both astounding and frightening. Swift and decisive action was clearly in order…

The danger lurks in the data shadows… 

Data like that can make you think drastic measures of some kind are clearly in order, even if they require substantial impositions on personal freedoms. This recent piece, which helps makes sense of a tremendous amount of data that is available and which puts an emphasis on “flattening the curve,” puts much of that into perspective. 

But it is visibility into the data that is missing – what some call the shadow figures – that makes the decision to shutter much of the country, without equally strong measures to protect against the resulting economic tsunami this action will create, so truly concerning. 

You see, what we don’t know is how many people in Denmark are already infected, because we haven’t done the testing required to make that information available. 

If we did, we might see that, rather than simply shut the borders in order to accelerate the impact of social distancing and associated containment strategies, and much of the economy along with it, to keep the infected out, it might have made more sense to focus on testing the people who are already here to see how many people are carrying the virus with them already. As well as start to prepare a economic impact plan to protect vulnerable businesses and their employees, while also providing an incentive for larger and more financially stable companies to strongly support the government’s actions.

Regarding testing, while many around the world have been critical of what some called a slow and provincial response to the virus in the US, the announcement by the Trump administration to dramatically accelerate testing while also introducing a range of programs to help insulate small businesses, and enlisting support from corporate America, is a positive step. Only by coming to grips with the true scale of the problem, by closing the gap between the known and the unknown – the truth and the shadows – can an effective solution be put into effect.

Trusted decisions demand data transparency

At this point, many people might say that what is done is done and there is no turning back. That may be true for the short term. But long-term, we as a people, both here in Denmark, and throughout the world, need to think very carefully about what we are doing to be sure we are taking the right steps.

It is essential we all realize that decisions made today, and in the days ahead, will impact our lives for years, or decades, to come. Without additional insight into data revealing where the virus lives now we can’t truly understand what we are dealing with. 

Beyond that, without simultaneously putting a financial backup plan into place to prevent the potentially crippling, counterproductive effects of closed borders, we risk amplifying the impact of COVID-19 to an even greater magnitude. Strict social distancing and containment strategies are obviously in order. But the economic impact of isolationism is hard to forecast, and too important to leave to chance. Without more data and associated transparency, we don’t know what kind of truth the future holds.

Decision making isn’t always easy. Whether you are leading a family, a company or an entire country, there are constant choices to be made that will change outcomes and lives. Decisions like that can never be taken lightly. Intuition and experience are fine sometimes. But in more cases than not, decision makers need to trust the information at hand to be sure it is correct. 

But when information, insight and transparency are lacking, and the balance between truth and fiction disappears, we put ourselves, and everyone around us, at even graver risk.

Let us hope that in the days to come, data transparency can be the bridge we need to achieve our collective objectives. The future depends on it.

Navigating a global organization through a global health crisis in a world of provincial thinking

Everyone can’t be right

As CEO of a data management software company with a team of highly-skilled people scattered across the globe, this is something I have to tell myself, and members of my leadership team, on a regular basis. 

Until recently, this meant it was often my responsibility to evaluate recommendations from different, and occasionally dissenting, but always well-informed sources. And then to make the best decision for the organization based on the most trustworthy information and insight possible. 

That is the beauty of leading a confident, yet humble, organization where everyone is in it to win. And where it’s clear that what is best for all of us supersedes what is best for any one of us (myself included).

Then came the Coronavirus / COVID-19 and suddenly, living in a world where “everyone can’t be right” creates a whole new challenge.

I should say here that, since we are based in Denmark, a small country ranked 115th by population – we are accustomed to managing the subtleties and complexities of global markets. While our software addresses universal challenges and needs, to succeed we must always keep in mind that what works for our customers or employees in one country does not always match with what works in another. 

But COVID-19 is different. While it clearly presents an equally disruptive threat to people and societies everywhere, the actions being taken to contain it aren’t nearly as consistent. 

Here in Denmark, where we typically take what might be seen as a careful, more measured approach, our health authorities had been monitoring developments closely and following advisories from the WHO. That is until confirmed infections multiplied (113 as of this writing), including a former world cup football player, leading to an elevated risk assessment and a range of cautions and responses including quarantines, cancellations of large gatherings and advisories against casual contact. While unconfirmed, there are also rumors circulating of contingency plans for an even more direct response, should the situation escalate. 

But as I said earlier, “everyone can’t be right.”

Or shall I say, what is right for Denmark now is not necessarily right for those elsewhere. For example, looking East to China, where our business and presence has grown rapidly, authorities are moving assertively now after initial criticisms. Restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns abound, all enabled by extensive tracking of data provided by tech leaders including Alibaba Group. 

Once again, “everyone can’t be right.”

To the West, while many people and communities across the United States are highly concerned, and where confirmed COVID-19 cases are popping up in increasing numbers nationwide, the official government response is more tempered. Quarantines are self – though not legally – enforced. Selected gatherings and events (most recently Austin’s SXSW) have been cancelled. And while an $8.3B emergency spending plan has been approved in the worlds largest economy and significant more initiatives will be announced later today, many are concerned that decisive action should have come more quickly, including many of our employees working across multiple states.

So which direction shall our company take? What kind of guidance shall I, as CEO, provide across the company that bridges everyone’s individual concerns for their safety and health in the days ahead? Shall we work in the office or go advise people to go remote? Travel to customer sites? What about global company and industry meetings and events? 

Do we take the somewhat balanced approach as we are being advised here in Denmark? Or perhaps the much more draconian approach that has taken hold across China and much of Asia? Or maybe the more moderate approach as we’ve seen thus far in the U.S.?

It is a decision that has weighed heavily on my mind over the past few weeks and I know others in similar positions must feel the same way. How – as the leader of a modern dynamic global organization, operating in a global business environment where borders are less visible to so many people than they have ever been before, faced with a crisis of truly global proportions – does one take action against a backdrop of what I can only describe as provincial, or parochial thinking?

It occurs to me that in what has become an increasingly interdependent global society – a world where cultures and economies are becoming increasingly intertwined, and where our fortunes can rise and fall quickly due to unexpected, extraordinary global challenges and events – we can’t risk allowing our regional biases to jeopardize our safety as a whole. 

Bill Gates has long warned that the world is ill-equipped to manage a pandemic. And WHO has yet to conclusively say that the novel coronavirus has reached the level of a pandemic, but I have to support Gates when he say: “I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume it will be until we know otherwise,” as Gates wrote in an op-ed for the New England Journal of Medicine February 28.

I’m not sure if the dilemma I have had to face regarding COVID-19 is the first of its kind. But I am pretty certain it won’t be the last. The next one may not involve healthcare. Whatever it is, I hope that technology can be applied to solve things in a more unified way. By providing better insight into data – and increased transparency for people around the world into global events – I believe we can all begin to think things through and address huge challenge like COVID-19 together. 

As I said at the start, “Everyone cannot be correct.” 

Once we all realize that, there isn’t a global challenge we can’t collectively take on. 

I should note here that in the days it took to put this opinion to paper, we continue our cautious approach, based on insights from the WHO, cancelling all non-essential business travel for at least the rest of this month, setting up local teams to monitor the situation locally, drill testing our contingency and evacuation plans, while continue to delight our customers virtually with less face-2-face meetings. We’ll figure out what is right for us from there. I hope for the same for you, as well.

###

Merry Christmas

One thing I enjoy about the holidays is exchanging cards from friends and family everywhere. In a world gone digital, it’s nice to see the printed word is still a popular way to celebrate and connect.

I recently read sending Christmas cards began in 1611 when one was received by James I of England and his son, the Prince of Wales.

This reminded me of the history of the company where I’m the CEO – Stibo Systems. This company’s story actually began in 1794 as Danish printing house Aarhus Stiftsbogtrykkerie. They worked at first primarily for the Church and the King. But they grew over time, eventually publishing many catalogs. Managing all that data required sophisticated software, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Much has changed since then. Yet, 224 years later, Stibo Systems remain connected to that humble print shop. With a focus on getting the right (master) data to the right places, in the right way.

If they could see today, I know the people of Aarhus Stiftsbogtrykkerie would be as proud as I am. Proud to be part of such a dedicated team, of what we accomplished this year and of the potential we have ahead.

I Boyum-IT where I’m Chairman and we are closing yet another stellar year with significant growth. I’m equally part to be part of this amazing growth journey where we have grown with a factor x18 the last 9 year. And we will continue next year.

And in Clear View Trade we are turning the 1’000 customer mark – a truly amazing result from the Clear View Trade team.

To all who work so hard to stay on the forefront and to everyone we work with to apply common sense to achieve success, I’d like to express my gratitude and wish you all a joyous holiday and a wonderful new year.

A