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Actionable intelligence

Post-COVID-19 sense-making in an age of fear and uncertainty
National University of Singapore (NUS) Ripple FinTech Lab (Associate Professor Keith B. Carter, Glenn Tan Jian Rong, Gao Shei Lee, and Yao Jun Chia)

25 May 2020

The COVID-19 crisis hit everyone like a freight train. Businesses were forced to close, and many people had life-changing experiences in a matter of weeks. People were rushing to supermarkets thinking that food would run out, as others looked for new sources of income due to the temporary closures of their companies. We have witnessed how a global pandemic has the ability to threaten our livelihoods. We have also seen how some countries and organizations were able to respond to the crisis, maintaining healthy food supply chains, as well as critical medical equipment and supplies. In other economies or regions, supply chains crumbled due to a lack of planning. What was the difference that enabled some organizations and countries to pull through and thrive, while others did not?

The ability to utilize actionable intelligence is one reason why certain countries and organizations were able to pull through the COVID-19 crisis.

Actionable intelligence refers to having the right information in the right person’s hands at the right time to make correct decisions. Actionable intelligence has existed for thousands of years and is used in all domains and at all levels of governance. In the classical Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhuge Liang was a strategist who served the Shu kingdom. Faced with an invading army led by Cao Cao and with no arrows in his arsenal, Liang devised a plan utilizing a heavy night fog to replenish his ammunition. Skeleton crews sailed small boats filled with scarecrows near the enemy army on the shore of the Yangtsze River, who rained arrows down on them. When the boats returned across river with the desperately needed arrows, Liang’s victory was assured. This episode evolved into the Chinese proverb “草船借箭” (cǎo chuán jiè jiàn; borrowing arrows with straw boats), which refers to the act of utilizing a competitor’s resources to overcome a threat. If Zhuge Liang utilized actionable intelligence thousands of years ago, you can do it today.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have been forced to digitally transform their business processes to continue operations. It is currently not feasible to conduct business in traditional office spaces and in face-to-face physical meetings. However, many companies are struggling to maintain productivity and efficiency levels achieved before the pandemic. Until a vaccine is developed, which may take a few years, telecommuting is likely to be the norm for most jobs. How can firms thrive despite the challenges created by measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus?

It is helpful to take a look at success stories around the world showing how actionable intelligence is being applied to ensure that business processes continue to function as usual while being digitized to allow remote service provision.

Banks in Singapore have introduced digital signatures to replace pen-and-ink signing of financial documents. Similarly, hospitals and clinics have gradually replaced physical medical records with digital ones. PR China’s Wechat Pay is the world’s largest e-wallet system, with over a billion users, which revolutionized global trust and payment systems and replaced the use of cash. These and other innovative efforts reduce the transmission of COVID-19 through physical contact. Digital processes are also much more efficient, save time, and reduce costs compared with traditional transactions. Digitizing business processes is therefore a major coping mechanism in the face of the current pandemic.

Figure 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Now more than ever, countries need to efficiently manage their resources to meet demand. Actionable intelligence enables them to do this, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Figure 1), a powerful framework devised nearly 80 years ago, helps leaders understand and prioritize their followers’ needs. That hierarchy starts with physiological needs, then proceeds through safety, to love/belonging, to self-esteem, and finally to self-actualization. Government and business leaders need to recognize Maslow’s hierarchy and prioritize physiological and safety needs to eliminate fear before advocating digital transformations.

Many countries are positioning themselves as “smart” economies. How is a smart economy defined? It is not simply reliance on advanced technology. A smart economy starts by providing shelter, food, and a safe haven for its citizens. Access to actionable intelligence on success or failure in delivering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs enables governments to transition into true smart economies because the right information will be available to the right people at the right time to meet citizens’ needs.

Figure 2. Three zones of fear during times of crisis.

As shown in Figure 2, in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, three zones prevail: the fear zone; learning zone; and growth zone. The fear zone consists of negative actions like spreading anger and fear, being irresponsible, and panic-buying or stockpiling. In the learning zone, people start to understand their emotions and conduct rational evaluations before acting. Finally, in the growth zone, they learn to live in the present while focusing on the future, assist and appreciate others, and look for new ways to adapt.

Leaders must position themselves in the learning zone and progress to the growth zone to maintain productivity and operational readiness. There are numerous opportunities for growth, and all of us should experiment with different ways of using technology, such as now common videoconferencing and online meetings to eliminate travel time and maintain social distancing. We should seek innovative ways to benefit from digitization and extend previous efforts in this direction.

With the end goal of improving economic productivity and meeting citizens’ needs, leaders should inspire people to:

 See the big picture and act selflessly;
 Understand the importance and advantages of working from home when possible; and
 Support and participate in automating routine processes.

It is important to note that the automation of processes does not eliminate jobs, but eliminates tasks so that humans have time to deliver higher-value results. If this automation is done right, time and resources are saved. However, we must realize that people should not be replaced. Instead, we should attempt to open more revenue streams to further boost the overall economy. How can we ensure smooth success in digitalization? A useful reference is the 4Es and 1P framework presented in The 4 Es of Leadership: How to Put GE’s Leadership Formula to Work in Your Organization (Krames J.A., Welch J., New York: McGraw-Hill; 2005).

The 4Es and 1P refer to “energy, energize others, edge, and execution and passion.” Government and business leaders must show strong, positive energy in daily operations and channel that attitude to their organizations by communicating plans with clear intentions, goals, and visions. They must have the edge to make tough decisions and execute them successfully. Leaders must also be passionate in ensuring that the 4Es are met. They recognize that success is not just about conducting business but how they lead people, especially during a crisis like the pandemic the world is currently facing. Welch’s framework can be used as a guide to leadership during difficult times.

An example of good leadership is Singapore’s response to COVID-19. It adopted the “circuit breaker” approach with the goals of:

 Keeping citizens safe;
 Containing the daily COVID-19 infection rate; and
 Emerging with a stronger economy.

Singaporeans were not allowed to leave their homes except for essential errands, which took a toll on their social lives. It was a tough decision a necessary one as the government was committed to controlling the spread of COVID-19. During the lockdown period, the government communicated with citizens frequently to update them on the situation and put in place plans such as the working from home initiative. The intention was to ensure that Singaporeans understood the preventive measures and the economy remained stable so that they could recover and be stronger after the circuit was broken. It is clear that Singapore’s government is committed to its citizens’ safety first, followed by sustaining the economy. It is accountable to the community, which is what all leaders should be to gain the benefits from digitalization such as increased GDP, better jobs, and more competitiveness.

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted us all, but the positive side is that it provides a reason to improve. This definitely will not be the last crisis leaders face. We have witnessed how our current operations have been disrupted. Hence, it is important realize that we need to start transforming our organizations digitally. We can utilize Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs framework to focus on the priorities of citizens and staff, while at the same time ensuring that we position ourselves in the learning zone and push toward the growth zone to seek new ways to maintain productivity and operational readiness. Welch’s 4Es and 1P can guide us while we are making these changes to our organizations. Finally, we can ensure the appropriate delivery of change by using actionable intelligence to put the right information in the right people’s hands at the right time to improve outcomes.



The NUS Fintech Lab( has been collaborating with major industry partners to identify challenges, develop tools, and leverage relevant off-the-shelf practices to help resolve issues.

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