• Monday, Oct 26, 2020
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OP-ED: The pandemic’s biggest victor

  • Published at 08:17 pm July 12th, 2020
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Covid-19 has led to drastic changes in how information technology is embraced in various sectors

Over the last few months, we have seen a major change in approach in the way of life with the elapse of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a matter of fact, our regular lifestyle has totally changed. Multiple areas have been touched, and this impacted our habits and ways.

Firstly, let us primarily focus on e-commerce. E-commerce has been around for a few years in Bangladesh; however, the usage of basic essentials has not been a priority, especially with bulk home delivery. Instead, value-added purchases such as mobiles, clothes, small electronic items, and only occasional home delivery of food items have been the centre of requirements of most people.

However, with the exposure to Covid-19, this country has somehow changed altogether. More and more supermarkets, shopkeepers, corner markets, have begun to avail the services of delivery logistics, or have extended their services with additional logistics for home delivery. More dependency on purchases has been tagged to home delivery services rather than physical shop-keeping due to the risk of exposure to Covid-19.

In one way, this is a blessing in disguise as changes in traditional approach are not embraced regularly and so fast. As stubborn people, we tend to be more resistant to change and this, unfortunately, delays acceptance of new processes and procedures.

We can easily state that this new method will become the novel means henceforth, even after we are blessed by a successful vaccine. This is primarily because the vendors themselves will realize that these procedures are actually ways whereby costs can be curtailed sufficiently.

Why would cost be sufficiently reduced?

This is mainly because fancy physical sites will not be required as long as items can be effectively stored with adequate mechanisms of promoting items through web portals whereby the things can easily be screened via photographs and occasional videos in the e-commerce sites with appropriate descriptions and specifications.

Then onsite staff can be reduced as well, and costly shops need not be rented. A respectable place where items can be kept will be sufficient to store items for ready delivery. 

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this has been and will continue to be the corner shopkeeper, as they will see that turnover will increase drastically, provided of course that the shopkeeper does have payment mechanisms whereby alternatives to physical cash are accepted against purchases.

Yes, logistics is a consideration; however, neighbouring locality pockets outsourcing logistics or cheaper delivery methods such as bicycles will easily permit home delivery. It may also be stated that the parameter of reach increases online. This is primarily because territorial segregation of coverage increases as going to the shop is not the headache of the end users.

As long as delivery is made within a respectable time frame, there is no headache as to how close or how far the shop is, provided the item is in stock, its quality is assured to satisfy the purchaser, and it is delivered within an acceptable time frame (between 30 minutes to an hour). 

Data analytics and planning

Now, the biggest thing that is going to be the concern of the shopkeeper will be the need to ensure items so that there is no gap between emptying of stock and refilling the stock. This rollover must be smooth as this will ensure a strong reputation as needs are met at all times.

Rolling capital must be available. From the perspective of Information Technology Data Analytics and Business Intelligence, it will certainly play an important part in addressing the demands of specific items and the segregation of frequently moving items and slow-moving items, and the adequate pricing will certainly be required to ensure optimization of sales and profitability. Even a shopkeeper does some basic data analytics from the daily movement of items and plans accordingly.

However, once the shop is placed onto the portal for online purchase, the shopkeeper stands to benefit from basic business intelligence (BI) and data analytics (DA) automatically, which will be guiding their business planning beyond the general planning they are presently used to.

Even the database of clients seeking purchase will be useful for client revisits and item demands. That will certainly ensure what should be kept in stock and what price to set for the items. Even slow-moving items will automatically be identified and kept in lesser quantity.

This itself gives the shopkeeper the opportunity to slowly consider graduation from an SME to the next level. It basically paves the way for development and growth besides the increase in standard that comes with embracing technology. 

Now, we are simply considering the supermarkets and shopkeepers in a specific urban pocket. However, this service can certainly be extended beyond markets in urban metropolises as this will be embraced automatically or through minimal promotion of portals and services through that portal.

One does not have to keep salespeople, market staff, or even large scale shops in lesser areas. All you will need is a cash flow with the ability to promote your items through the portal with adequate commitments along with respective logistics.

One can easily graduate from Microcredit to SMEs as well, and further up the ladder of growth. Even the delivery from rural Bangladesh to urban metropolises has been getting leverage through this; at the same time, the reverse effect is slowly touching the rural market.

However, this exposure to basic necessities has not been tapped as much as we would want it to be at this time. Even big franchises such as Bata, Singer Rangs, etc can easily operate directly through delivery platforms only, with fewer physical showrooms and shops. This drastically reduces their costs. They can solely be dependent upon warehouses and depots with limited showrooms (if required). 

Why are we limited to just e-commerce and home delivery?

The implication of the pandemic has been changing approaches to office work, meetings, and many more. We have seen that offices which are situated in various areas are not wasting time to physically meet, but rather than that they are insisting on Zoom, Cisco Webex, Google Meet, and other respective technologies to recurrently set this mechanism as the regular meeting process. Earlier, despite the availability of the technology, physical meetings were the preferred choice despite the problems affiliated with this.

It may be stated that primarily in a major city like Dhaka, the burdens of traffic, conveyance costs, and the time lost due to physical attendance are not considered. All these factors are aspects negatively contributory to efficiency where utilization of man hours is concerned. At the same time, conveyance cost is also a sizable overhead.

All these aspects are being averted in the process that is being followed. Corporates with multiple offices are being able to efficiently use the man hours without any unnecessary time loss in the daily schedule. This is a factor that will certainly have an implication down the road as efforts can be better weighed against the time put in.

Even the concept of working from home is getting first-hand exposure as a pilot project. Why do we treat this as a project? Traditionally, the mechanisms of 9 to 5 office hours and timely physical office attendance which have been laid out by our ancestors of the British era. The existing modus operandi is being evaluated and reconsidered by alternatively managing work from home and keeping safe. 

Traditional entrepreneurs are finding it very hard to accept this change. They believed in the regular 9-5 timings and physical office attendance which, if not followed, meant that the staff would be penalized in one way or the other. They could not contemplate home office despite the fact that many major global companies like Apple, Google, and many more companies have been practising this process as long as timely task completion is getting its due share of justice from home.

We are seeing that it is helping because in a room corner we are busily working with office matters, and self-discipline is being tested and exercised to see whether due efforts are allotted to given tasks. This is a form of minor revolution in practice as this process is slowly being embraced by conservative company management.

The fact that they are mentally accepting it is a major revolution in fixated mindsets. They are also finding this a mechanism whereby staff will be able to complete tasks even on off days from home, without creating problems. That might not be favourable for the staff; however, the management is the victor in this regard. 

Digital payments

Now let us look at other means of technology-based changes in process in this pandemic. When we look at operating from home, we also look at our personal needs. We think about payments as well. We are seeing that more and more services are looking at means of digital payments as opposed to taking physical cash directly from bank branches so that everything can be managed remotely and safely from home.

Even payments are smoothly being received and disbursed on the basis of online mechanism and module-based transaction management. These include internet banking dependency, payment through local disbursement modules (ie Bkash, Nagad, and EFTN (Electronic Fund Transfer Network), etc).

It also clearly shows that more flexibility is being exercised with payment disbursement through third-party gateways such as Bkash. This was earlier not acceptable for certain types of payments; however, with the difficulties created by the pandemic, this has also been relaxed and the issue of KYCs and payment ceilings have been relaxed and made more flexible so that payment convenience can be exercised specifically by people who are operating from their respective homes.

In one way, it is good because even those who have been dependent on cash-in-hand have now taken these mechanisms as the means whereby payment settlements are undertaken. These are applicable to schools, universities, small shop payments, and payments for all types of services. Even banks have taken steps to enhance their mobile banking applications so that dependency on third-party channels outside of banks are minimized.

Innovative approaches of pushing an agenda into accelerated mode to help service have been undertaken to fight competition. These might have taken much longer if the situation was more normal, but due to the need of the time they have been fast-tracked.

Digitization of documents

This is not the only aspect being considered. Even the digitization of documents and the usage of those documents as the main reference points for personal data availability and identification is being considered, whereby a paperless environment is also being contemplated as a means where the dependency on hard documents will slowly be replaced by database type digital documents which will accordingly be kept as the main record.

This, of course, does not mean that the digital documents will immediately take over. It certainly will take time as there are so many forms of documents under consideration in any environment, and the challenges are quite big.

E-learning

Now, when we look at schooling and university classes, technology is also playing a big role there. The methods of Google Classroom and Zoom are being used to ensure that the school is being continued from home. Even homework is being sent either via Messenger or email accordingly, and it is being completed and sent back.

Now, will we not need proper physical schools? What about school fees, where we are paying a sizable amount just for the privilege of giving children a proper environment to avail education, whether in school or in college? Is this change (classes from home) going to be permanent? This is something that technology is also dictating.

At present, of course, the preferred choice still remains attending classes at school or university premises physically in the direct audience of a teacher; however, one can never challenge technology. Technology is improving on a daily basis, and it can take challenges for improvement much better than generic alternatives.

Technology has had regular R&D which, of course, means the application of thorough research round the clock for better means. But even then, we see that IT will certainly play a part here no matter what happens.

Schools and universities are victors too unless they consider the demands of guardians and parents to reduce the tuition fees. This is because the overheads have drastically reduced for these institutions. One does not need to use electricity to full capacity, nor do they need to keep the premises operational beyond maybe 25-30% with the mandatory staff that are generally needed all the time.

Yes, maybe internet services are more needed and the teaching environment has to be created for undertaking remote classes. Some equipment might be needed, such as smart screens/boards; however, most school owners will set the standards they wish to embrace and allot for their teachers. Teachers at present are simply undertaking classes through online lectures and following up with occasional homework.

But from the perspective of the student, whether they are giving 100% or 25% is a bit hard to judge remotely. These issues will certainly be variables that will need consideration and focus on improvement and methodology approach changes with the use of technology and psychology. 

Yes, the biggest victor in this pandemic has been information technology. Technology has been embraced in all the diverse platforms mentioned, where the impact of Covid-19 has pushed for drastic changes. The need to work around the environment has led to the changes that need IT to intervene everywhere.

Now, does the IT professional affiliated with the technologies concerned celebrate this or resent it considering the negative implications of the pandemic? We are in a state of dilemma as we celebrate from one side and accept the negative consequences of this pandemic with a sad face on the other. 

Waleed Morshed is a Consultant to Shanto-Mariam Foundation and all its concerns since 2015. He is also an entrepreneur, focusing mainly on IT automation, projects, development, process engineering, financial management, and public relations. He is also very closely attached to the Financial Sector with modifications over the years including promoting technology and changes at banks and other financial institutions.

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