By the time I came to writing this particular thought piece, the situation with Covid-19 had moved so swiftly that it needs no introduction. Countries around the world have been essentially shutting down, putting up their borders and locking down their citizens. These are truly challenging, distressing and unprecedented times.

Before I get into my stride here, I’d like to offer my sincerest condolences to all those who are suffering, directly or indirectly, as a result of this contagion. Far too many lives have been lost already, the number of which continue to rise each and every day. All of us in the gases industry are affected on some level, but it is particularly sobering to see the suffering of regions that are known industrial gas hubs – regions in which we will all likely have a colleague, client or friend in need. Northern Italy and the ‘gas valley’ of Bergamo is one such example.

Our thoughts at gasworld are with all of those affected at this time, and since this crisis began back in December.

All of this serves to underline the importance of such significant and responsible restrictions that are being applied right now. Draconian measures? Perhaps. Necessary measures? Almost certainly.

Restrictions that are damaging to business, the economy and even mental health and wellbeing? In the short-term, yes. An inescapable opportunity to learn about ourselves, our interactions, our customs and how we can alternatively approach life? Certainly, for the long-term.

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It’s this latter point that I want to make here – the feeling that if there can be any silver lining at all to this terrible situation around the world, it is that it reminds us of the benefits of digitisation that are right there in front of us.

As businesses and leaders, the time is now to trust, empower and embolden our people, and to unlock and leverage the innovative technologies available to us.

Trust is of course a volatile currency. It fluctuates among different groups; it gets abused. From the biggest corporate or political level right through to the small independent business, trust can be hard-fought, incredibly fickle and so easily lost. It isn’t so easy to win back, either. But it’s essential to doing business today. It’s a different world out there now, morally, ethically and technologically – and the smartest businesses are those that will ultimately prosper. There can still be accountability, it’s just how it’s upheld and delivered that we need to still learn and master in this digital age.

Empowerment is another element of leadership that is increasingly understood and embraced, though is not so easily enabled when it’s easier to say “I’ll just do it myself.”

For our industry, it strikes me that problems with trust and empowerment don’t really exist. The biggest challenge lies in embracing and learning from the suite of technologies out there that can – and will – revolutionise the way we work and interact. Technology can overcome this social distancing that we are all applying, and it will have to if we are to keep the wheels of business turning.

This step change in how we operate and interact isgoing to happen, and we need to take the enforced learnings of coronavirus over the coming weeks and months to get on-board with it now and thrive. It’s also important to note that it’s not a case of learning new technologies necessarily, but learning how to implement and grow with them.

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Bandwidth over borders

Coronavirus has caused downtime for many industries, not least the wider events industry, and curtailed the travel plans of many businesses. For the gases industry, whose core pillars are steeped in personable relationships and the face-to-face connection, this presents a major challenge.

Viewed as a bigger picture though, does it present such a challenge?

Perhaps we will soon realise that Industry 4.0 isn’t just about mechanising plants and automating processes, it’s about how we connect and converse with each other – it’s about a reimagining of our current globalisation.

I alluded to this very point during a talk I gave 18 months ago in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: how we shouldn’t see the digitisation of the gases industry as a threat or trend to be feared – but instead as simply reimagining the same traditional pillars that it has been built upon for decades. We can still be personable and build our relationships, we just evolve the way we do that. It’s about bandwidth bridging borders; video over voyages; and webinar over whistle-stop visits.

Digital technologies – from e-commerce to webinars and conference calls – allow us to connect and do business with each other in new ways. They allow the conversation to continue, the transaction to take place, and the journey of data and feedback to further the learning and the relationship.

On that note of data, perhaps a curtailment in travel schedules will allow greater time to take a step back and evaluate the sheer wealth of data that we so often cannot devote the required time to and resource to.

Just today I reviewed some statistics sent to me regarding a related industry, the oil and gas sector, and its data that has essentially been going to waste. It’s estimated that on average, oil and gas companies only use about 2% of the data they generate. Cisco estimates that a single oil rig can generate over 1TB of data per day – but less than 1% of that data is used for decision-making.

At a time when oil and gas operators and service companies are under enormous pressure to maximise yield from well investments to meet energy demand, it’s felt that this data could unlock a huge and as yet untapped potential in the productivity and profitability of drilling procedures.

This is just one example of how high frequency analytics can be a source of invaluable competitive advantage, and are so often lost in the well-oiled day-to-day activities of business today. What could an enforced opportunity to step back and analyse real-time data tell us about the industrial gases business of today and tomorrow?

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Keep calm and embrace new learnings

All of the above will not be the case for everyone, of course. These elements of digitisation will mean little to the truck drivers or product assemblers out there that are keeping the wheels of our industry moving, often literally.

But for those that are fortunate to be able to take advantage of them, why not take the opportunity to embrace these new learnings as we attempt to inject calm into crisis?

The nature of globalisation today is such that we have become so very dependent on it, completely at the behest of travel far and wide in the name of insight, relationships, knowledge-sharing and entertainment.

We think nothing of jumping on a flight, whether for the shortest of journeys or the longest of adventures that take us halfway around the world. It’s become second nature. In fact, when we are told that we can’t jump on those well-oiled routes for unforeseen reasons, whether for containment of the spread of a virus like Covid-19 or for weather-affected reasons, we are almost affronted.

We are forced to re-think our strategies, recalibrate our mindsets – and as coronavirus has shown over the last 10+ weeks, we struggle to do so. We’re left scrambling around for ideas and inspiration.

Digitisation can be that inspiration. Maybe after all of this, we will be able to see webinars, virtual events and online exchanges as second-nature too. This can be the launchpad we need to embrace Industry 4.0 and the many other behavioural strands that need to come with that.