Digitalising business in lockdown

In the last blog I introduced Rewise Learning Limited, a company that provides courses, educational resources, and support to those in secondary school and young people not in employment, education, or training (NEETs). This blog post explores how COVID has forced us to innovate and digitalise our business model to ensure we can still inspire the young people through this difficult time.

Digitalising a business within a 12-month timeframe is not something that I thought was possible or necessary in a world pre-COVID. 18 months in, however, and most businesses will have had to re-evaluate their digital presence and strategy. Rewise’s focus group, i.e., young people, in relative terms are well ahead of the curve. Their phone is their most prized possession, and the more traditional forms of communication are now obsolete.

As a company we were not against the concept, in fact we were happily engaging new forms of digital media at a faster pace than most businesses. Grappling with changing our mindset to a more digital age, yet not putting it at the forefront of our strategic initiatives. Then COVID happened and it forced us to analyse what needed to change in order for us to survive.

Conceptually, digitalisation is where companies transform and improve an entire business model using digital processes. There is significant interplay between digitalisation and innovation and it is considered to promote sustainable development, economic growth, and prosperity (EU, 2021). Globally the COVID crisis has been the catalyst for technological innovation, 70% of companies are expected to accelerate their digital transformation in the pandemic (DMEXCO, 2020). Through this period in person meetings between family, friends and colleagues were virtual, working from home became the norm and society disposed of cash. These are wholesale bold changes in people’s behaviour and business models the world over and at a speed never seen before .

The adoption of tech by industry since COVID. Source: McKinsey (2020)

There are lots of manuals and tips on “how to transform your business…” but applying those to a small established, people centric business is HARD. As a result, the handbook of ideals went out of the window, and it was necessary to look at the fundamental USPs of the business to understand what changes are needed to survived and be a sustainable business into the future.

In the short term it was necessary to critically look at business model and furlough teaching staff that could no longer perform their duties. This allowed us to cut immediate overheads and focus on how we could evolve our model for longer term sustainability.

Our business focus is to maintain relevance to young people, the schools, local councils and specialist providers that procure our services. By doing this we will naturally remain competitive in our marketplace. To start our digital journey, we used some basic grounding questions, thinking back to the grass roots of the company to understand if and what needed to evolve in an COVID environment and how it should be done.

The questions:

1. Does our business purpose need to evolve?

Our purpose is to “Make learning fun”, we definitely didn’t want this to change!

2. Do our products work in a COVID environment?

To a degree yes, we have online learning provisions for older and younger children that can be instantly mobilised. However that does not address the fact all of our courses are delivered to students in school or a third party location.

3. Do we have the infrastructure to deliver in a COVID environment?

Whilst the online learning provision allow some content to be delivered digitally, we are primarily mobilised for in person taught environment, we are not equipped for remote project delivery and product distribution.

4. Should we look to change our model to capture the opportunities presented by COVID?

It was important that the business continued to generate revenue over this period. However, we needed to ensure that any changes also built for a future business model post lockdown.

These simple questions allowed us to analyse the areas that required evolution and focus on digitalising areas of business in a manageable format, channelling the creativity that we would normally use in our course delivery into business innovation.

We didn’t want to follow the masses into a saturated online learning environment. We were also incredibly wary about injecting all of our capital into products that had no track record in a unpredictable market environment. As a result, we focused on the long-term model and recognise how we could leverage off our key strengths; innovation, understanding the needs of young people and relationships with key customers & stakeholders. After what felt like hours, days, and weeks of brainstorming, we decided to focus on two areas, product development and building the tech infrastructure.

To evolve our product base we created a suite of bespoke STEM kits that can be coded and controlled through their phones, ensuring users aren’t reliant on computers and more expensive tech that could hinder adoption. My favourite product is the STEM BitBox that allows the young people to build, code and decorate a Bluetooth speaker.

The Rewise Bitbox speaker

In parallel it was necessary to reassess our I. T. architecture build a new website and platform allowing delivery of courses remotely and digitising all the content associated with courses. Both solutions took a lot of time, many iterations, and a significant diversion from our standard BAU model.

Now things are normalising focus is back on having face-to-face interaction again, and as opposed to seeing COVID as a time when the business was at risk of failure; I see it as a critical milestone in the development of our business into the digital age. This time of crisis has allowed us to find a new medium to reach out to the young people and a mechanism to our business more sustainable in the future.

References:

- Publications Office of the EU (2020) Digitalisation and its impact on innovation https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/203fa0ec-e742-11ea-ad25-01aa75ed71a1/language-en

- The COVID recover will be digital (2020) https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/the-covid-19-recovery-will-be-digital-a-plan-for-the-first-90-days

- Is the coronavirus pandemic an engine for the digital transformation? (2020) https://dmexco.com/stories/is-the-coronavirus-pandemic-an-engine-for-the-digital-transformation/