Before COVID-19 came along, I was used to travelling more than 42 weeks a year. In the last eight months, I haven’t travelled further than my local grocery store. Yet, at the same time, I have had a ringside seat to a global crisis that is altering the course of an entire generation, with businesses in every sector, in every country, significantly impacted.

As businesses adapt to the market dynamics of what many are calling the ‘new normal’, it is time for them to consider their future in an emerging world beyond what we already know today: a future that is going to be our ‘next normal’.

The pandemic has forced many enterprises to re-think how they measure their success and performance. Before COVID-19, most businesses focused largely on managing profitability and growth. What this crisis has revealed is the importance of adaptability, resilience, and sustainability in its broadest sense.

We are all familiar with the huge challenges related to climate change. As per the United Nations (UN), we have entered the “decade of action”. A window of eight to ten years where as individuals and organizations we can still make the necessary changes to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Sustainability, however, goes beyond environmental issues. It also has to do with promoting healthy and safe places to live, reducing inequality and ensuring accessible education for all, as embodied in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For many businesses right now, this expanded concept of sustainability has taken on a larger meaning. Even before the pandemic, businesses were being challenged to measure sustainability and business success more holistically, in a way that connects the classic triple bottom line elements of economic, social and environmental impacts.

Right now, the conversations I am having with many business leaders in our region focus on how enterprises will navigate uncertainty while building resilience and creating truly sustainable models that are fit for a post-pandemic economy – the ‘next normal’. If Covid-19 has done anything, it has not only significantly accelerated many companies’ goal of becoming truly sustainable, it has also led them to understand their ‘sustainability advantage’. And it will undoubtedly be sustainable businesses that attract funding, trade and consumer attention in the future.

So how do organizations realize their sustainability advantage? I have long believed in – and evangelized about – the business-critical role of technology in helping organizations achieve their goals and create lasting value. And the only way to achieve that is by streamlining business processes with emerging technologies to create an integrated, data-driven management and operational platform. Businesses that achieve this become Intelligent Enterprises.

During the darkest moments of the numerous COVID-19 lockdowns across the world, we saw automotive manufacturers start making ventilators, wineries producing high-quality hand sanitizer and thread manufacturers turn their hands to personal protective equipment. It certainly wasn’t their core business. But they understood it was in line with their brand purpose, what their customers expected and how they could take action to help those in need. They were able to reconfigure themselves to adapt to market conditions and explore new business models, to scale up or down, and remain focused on their customers and employees.

In the midst of the pandemic, we saw the UAE-based agribusiness, Al Dahra, centralize its procurement functions to secure supply and faster delivery, and locate new suppliers to meet increased demand. Faced with huge project delays, Italian industrial engineering leader De Nora pivoted to a remote delivery model to ensure a successful water treatment systems implementation in the US. The Morocco Ministry of Health set up an SAP Digital Boardroom in just two weeks to provide real-time COVID-19 monitoring and tracking.

These businesses didn’t get lucky or happen to be in the right place at the right time. They were able to make decisions based on real-time, contextual data from their operations, and combine that with customer and employee demands and experiences, to deliver great business outcomes. If anything, they are now better businesses than before the pandemic struck.

What this pandemic has shown us is that Intelligent Enterprises are, by definition, resilient and sustainable. This resilience allows them to address challenges holistically, while continuing to make a positive impact in their communities and the world in general. Even by the UN Development Programme expanded definition of sustainability, Intelligent Enterprises have the unique ability to become sustainable organizations because they are able to make quick, data-driven decisions along the entire value and supply chain.

Realizing true sustainability in a post-pandemic world is about knowing where the customers and stakeholders are, what they need right now, and how you can best serve them with appropriate products and services. It’s knowing where the raw materials are and being able to pivot to new sources of supply when one closes off. It’s about building sustainable talent pools for staffing in the face of rolling lockdowns and taking a new approach to travel as travel bans start lifting.

Most of all, it’s about using technology to build resilience, innovate and thrive. So when the next crisis comes along, your business will not only be better prepared to weather the storm, but identify and capitalize on moments of opportunity.

Now that’s a ‘next normal’ we can all get behind.

This article is the first of a three-part series exploring the economic, environmental and societal responsibilities of sustainable businesses in a post-pandemic economy