Interviews

"The consumer has changed more in the past six months as a result of the digitalization generated by the pandemic than in decades"

 Manuel Serrano and David López

Manuel Serrano and David López

Manuel Serrano and David López, managers at FHIOS, a specialist business digitalization consultancy

 

The ineffaceable challenges of the pandemic serve as a reminder of the huge collaborative efforts that have been made by all sectors from the outset. The work done by the Internet Computing & Systems Optimization (ICSO) research group, an affiliate of the UOC's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), is an example of just that, with the team supplying their scientific expertise in the area of transport logistics optimization to help ensure the delivery of masks and visors to healthcare providers when they were in short supply. For this initiative, linked to the Coronavirus Makers digital support community, the group worked alongside the digital strategy consultancy FHIOS, which specializes in conceptualizing, designing, building, transforming and optimizing digital businesses. We caught up with two members of the company's management team, Manuel Serrano and David López, to talk about whether they feel the pandemic will accelerate the digitalization process and the importance of collaboration between the business world and academic research institutes.

What makes FHIOS different from other companies in the sector?

David López (DL). What sets us apart is the fact that we offer an agile consultancy service that is tailored to the client and clearly oriented towards their specific business needs, in which we apply comprehensive knowledge of both technology and strategy and digital marketing.

You are experts in the digital transformation of companies. What are the main challenges in this area?

(DL). The challenges are diverse. On the one hand, there is the transformation of the digital business side, which includes reformulating strategies, facilitating the transition between face-to-face and digital environments and marrying the two, as well as looking at digital globalization and product and price strategy.

Another challenge is addressing the user experience, understanding the behaviour of the new consumer, analysing the construction of omnichannel platforms, making the required product and market adjustments, studying the conversation with customer segments and the reputation of the brand and developing personalized campaigns using what's known as marketing automation or programmatic advertising.

And then there's the optimization of the operational side, which involves rethinking the processes and their agility, industry 4.0, infrastructures, communications and cybersecurity.

And the human aspect is equally important, as the digital transformation of companies affects corporate culture, knowledge sharing and the development of remote working practices.

Why are data analytics and artificial intelligence important for companies?

(DL). For three fundamental reasons. Firstly, we live in a context of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity or, to go by its acronym, VUCA. The democratization of technology and the current pandemic are generating radical change with regard to user behaviour. Many experts have no hesitation in asserting their belief that the consumer has changed more in the past six months than in various decades. These two major factors mean that there is now a need to replace or supplement certain common consulting techniques with data science.

There is a second element that also needs to be considered in digital business, which is that everything can be measured. This reality serves to increase the value of data and data analytics. Artificial intelligence, therefore, helps to optimize both the digital business and the customer experience.

Another important question we need to ask is: what's the point of a digital business if nobody is using it? Capturing traffic is key to success. In fact, data is subject to exchange and transaction, as its analysis facilitates the more efficient and effective capture of new and recurring traffic.

When did you decide to join forces with the IN3's ICSO research group?

(DL). We've been working together for a year now, during which time we've presented a variety of joint projects to major clients, published articles in important scientific journals and attended events and training courses, as well as organizing a number ourselves.

Are there any aspects of the collaborative experience that you would highlight in particular?

(DL). The researchers are experts in the field and provide multiple solutions from a range of perspectives on each specific problem. Above all, though, on a personal side, I would highlight how easy and great they are to work with, especially the research group director, Ángel A. Juan.

ICSO has had the opportunity to collaborate with you in the Coronavirus Makers project. How has that experience been?

(DL). It has been a fantastic altruistic experience working together with a range of multidisciplinary, multicultural teams from various companies all pooling their resources. Coronavirus Makers is a charitable initiative that was set up at the start of the pandemic for the production – on a non-profit basis, through 3D printing in individuals own homes and using their own materials – masks, respirators and protective visors, among other healthcare products. To everyone's delight, given the overwhelming demand, thousands of participants joined the cause.

As production quantities increased, however, this process of individually printing devices in private homes began to throw up issues, such as an absence of coordination in terms of types of products and quantities and the logistics of collecting them from homes around the whole country. These initial alarm bells turned into a real logistical problem that raised concerns with regard to collection and haphazard pick-up routes leading to high shipping costs and a protracted lack of supply in hospitals.

That's where the collaboration between FHIOS and ICSO came in, through which the Coronavirus Makers website was developed where people could register, consult printing needs, record what they were going to print by product type and quantity and confirm when products were ready for collection. Another key element in which the ICSO group was also heavily involved was the implementation of a machine learning algorithm featuring a simheuristic solution. Finally, we also created a mobile-friendly website to inform delivery drivers of the routes they had to follow each day.

The project made it easier to attract newmakers to join the initiative and increased the production rate. The delivery drivers improved their route planning by 10% on average – some even up to 60% – reducing costs and time, which resulted in more volunteers being able to join the cause. And, finally, healthcare centres felt the benefits, with the delivery of more than a million visors, almost 500,000 ear protectors and more than 51,400 masks. Materials amounting to a total value of over €880,000.

To what extent has your business been affected by the pandemic?

Manuel Serrano (MS). In general, we have been affected to the extent that our clients have been affected. In the early days of the crisis, when we were in total lockdown, there was a degree of confusion throughout the whole of society that led to a general period of economic stoppage. Fortunately, the situation hasn't hit us as hard as it has society in general and has even benefited our industry in some respects.

As a result of COVID-19 we are more connected than ever. Will the current situation accelerate the digitalization of sectors that are still lagging behind in that respect?

(MS). Absolutely! The behavioural changes caused by the pandemic have been an eye-opener for companies everywhere. The comprehensive digitalization of companies is an absolutely necessity for the future. Those that have been worst affected by the crisis view digitalization as the key to survival. Those that haven't been impacted know that their earlier digitalization has been one of the things that has kept them afloat. Whatever the case, many companies have made the decision to speed up their digitalization processes.

On top of all that, we now need to wait and see how the arrival of European funds impacts the acceleration of digitalization.

Why is it important for business to establish synergies with the knowledge source within universities and research centres?

(MS). Many of the major advances in digitalization were developed by universities and research centres. Building stronger synergies and aligning the objectives of the two worlds – business and academic – creates an unstoppable and hugely powerful innovative dynamism.

I also think that, to a degree, a lot of university research makes without a business space in which to apply it.

A company's day-to-day operations also make it hard for them to undertake research themselves, which results in this kind of collaborative link with the academic world becoming a crucial tool.

You have some former UOC students in your team. Is university education important in terms of strengthening your organizational profile?

(MS). Within our business context, university education is essential for many of the services we provide. We wouldn't be able to service certain projects without that academic level of expertise. It's definitely a key mechanism of growth and consolidation for the company. In fact, we have a number of collaborative links with the UOC involving both teaching staff and the incorporation of students as part of our team.