Resiliency During Uncertain Times: What’s Next for Technology Operations and Investments?By Hassan Khan | February 25, 2021
A year in and the world continues to grapple with the uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 and its ever-increasing impact on the global economy. However, it is imperative to note that this event is first and foremost about people—their families, their well-being, and the institutions that they rely on in times of need. From hospitals to banks to transportation, it is critical for these organizations and businesses to be strong and resilient so they can serve the people who depend on them for products, services, and livelihoods.
The virus’s full impact on organizations may not be known for months. However, as COVID-19’s ramifications ripple through the global economy, one thing is certain: technology will be among the most powerful weapons in every organization’s arsenal for responding effectively and decisively to this challenge. Nonprofits and higher education institutions will not be an exception to the norm.
Like other executives, nonprofit technology leaders have a responsibility to lead their function through this crisis. Beyond making sure that core systems are operational, tech leaders must also seek out and support key areas in the business that are likely to be impacted, such as fundraising and human resources. For example, with human resources, there may be opportunities to support personnel by providing the tools and reliable communication channels they need to work remotely.
A college or university’s operational resiliency depends on its technologies and systems, and tech leaders should assume the role of a crisis leader. Crises like this have presented themselves in the past and will again in the future. If there is disruption, there will also be recovery, so how technology leaders act in a time of crisis can also inform our long-term impact.
Organizations are already considering which new technologies they want to embed in their infrastructure. Agile organizations think of technology not as a supporting capability but as being seamlessly integrated with and core to every aspect of their mission. Organizations undergoing a full agile transformation would cut any technology that was outdated—including legacy architecture—to adopt new, more suitable platforms. By necessity, many organizations have had to move to a model where technology is key to every interaction, and a number of familiar tools have quickly become part of ordinary working life.
Developing a Response Strategy
Technology leaders in organizations are often pulled into responding quickly to tactical, operational, and logistical challenges in crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Although IT organizations may need to respond quickly to some issues, such as by enhancing remote work capabilities and securing critical assets, it is essential that they put organizational strategy and plans in place to ensure operational resilience. This early focus on planning can ultimately help execute quickly and effectively.
Establish a crisis management office. This should be a permanent, virtual structure that is activated for events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Having a crisis management office in place can help ensure that there are regular testing and iterative changes in your continuity and recovery plans, rather than updating them every so often. This crisis management office is often part of a broader cross-functional crisis response team, as the IT organization’s role is not only to manage the direct risks to IT but also to support the other functions in their response.
Develop a communications plan. You should be able to communicate quickly and efficiently and assume workers may not have their laptops/office communication channels available. Your communication plans should include technology infrastructure, software, and service providers as well as broader ecosystem vendors and partners. Also, ensure there are communication channels established with business partners, your personnel, constituents, and other stakeholders (e.g., students, faculty, donors, etc.).
Perform scenario planning to understand technology needs. Think ahead to how a situation could play out and run through multiple possible scenarios. Some of these scenarios may simulate various response timeframes—be prepared for a rapid spread requiring immediate action versus a gradual spread requiring a long-term, global approach. Consider running business stress tests for different epidemic scenarios, which could include a mild, contained outcome, a broader global epidemic or even a global pandemic, as is the case with COVID-19.
Define the role and expectations of leadership in planning and communications. Your team expects accurate, authoritative information and support. They also need transparency; trying to conceal risk can potentially create more risk. The most important players in your communications plan are your leaders, so provide clear guidance to them and set expectations for them. Make sure they are equipped, prepared, and have conversations with your people, partners, and other stakeholders.
Plan for the recovery rebound. Leaders should also consider in advance how to restart disrupted business operations, even though pandemic prevention and control measures are still being enacted. For example, restarting operations may require different staffing levels, capacity, or production ramps, which in turn could translate into flexibility, scalability, or security needs for technology.
Know your organization, roles, and priorities. Prepare temporary succession plans for key executive and management positions and critical roles in your business. As COVID-19 has spread globally, there is an increased risk that key people will be temporarily unavailable due to quarantine or illness. In the event of illness, the IT organization needs to have clear leadership alternatives to ensure that decisions can continue to be made quickly and confidently in the crisis, and that IT operations are maintained. Also, certain critical functions such as payroll should be identified and prioritized, not just to ensure the systems supporting them continue to do so but also to make sure personnel are able to access them. There should be contingency plans for such operations.
The Long-Term Impact
In crises, resilient leaders are defined first by who they are, and then by the actions they take. With clarity and resolve, the most resilient among them will put the immediate mission first. They will stabilize the situation by taking decisive action, prioritizing speed over elegance. Yet at the same time, they will provide the kind of leadership and vision that the moment demands by creating a narrative of a clear path forward and embracing the long view.
Many technology leaders today are in a unique position to help their organizations reimagine the future of work, the workforce and the workplace powered by technology. Through automation, robotics, cloud and cognitive computing, the work done by humans will fundamentally shift. By offering virtualization and enabling the extended enterprise, the workforce will transform. And by enabling collaboration, cloud-based services and remote work, the workplace will alter forever.
The good news is that many of the major technology shifts proposed are either underway or should be underway for many organizations. The key is to enable present workarounds and use this as an opportunity to shape the future ways of working, which are more efficient, effective, and collaborative, beyond the boundaries of the function and the enterprise. Technology leaders have the opportunity to show visionary leadership and execution across the following disciplines.
Being methodical and disciplined in automating manual processes. Of course, automation of key processes will reduce dependency on humans and improve quality for manual, error-prone processes. Almost all traditional IT operations could be candidates for autonomic computing, which really means taking automation to the next level by architecting technology environments that are built upon virtualized assets and advanced management and monitoring tools that seamlessly move workloads among traditional on-premises stacks, private cloud platforms and public cloud services. Autonomics also has the potential to re-engineer business process to increase efficiency, quality, speed, and reliance on humans. Many have predicted this would be the beginning of the end for the human workforce — in fact, this automation will give rise to whole new classes of jobs for humans — “super jobs”—that will allow people to play to their strengths and create significantly more value for their organizations.
Advocating a cloud-first approach and aggressively migrating to cloud services. There are obvious advantages to cloud-based services and infrastructure, and a pandemic like COVID-19 makes them all the more relevant. They provide the convenience of accessing services from anywhere, anytime, from virtually any device. New workflows can be pushed out quickly to enable self-service capabilities and on-the-fly process and configuration changes. Cloud-based service providers also have the elasticity of scaling solutions, such as bandwidth and computing capacity, based on needs—a critical capability especially when the scope and scale of the outbreak is not known. But longer term, cloud-based solutions are critical for organizations to achieve quicker time to market, creating self-service solutions for business and providing sandboxes for experimentation and innovation.
Pushing virtual collaboration as the default. The last time organizations invested heavily in collaboration tools was about a decade ago in response to the crisis created by the H1N1 influenza pandemic. Since then, collaboration tools have improved tremendously, and the bandwidth and hardware are a lot cheaper and of higher quality for video conferencing. Investigating and investing in these tools will not only be good risk mitigation for the COVID-19 pandemic, but could also allow for easier collaboration, quicker turnaround times and cost savings as a result of less travel.
Envisioning new business opportunities and modes of working. The COVID-19 pandemic may also help leaders rethink established paradigms around physical presence. Industries like education may be ripe for this mindset change. Physical presence may not be a requirement to take a course at a university or college. Not only should institutions invest in remote work capabilities, but they should also rethink creating new business models utilizing virtual presence.
Leaders that adopt the recommendations outlined here will be able to help their organizations withstand the demands of the crisis and post-crisis period more effectively. Thinking through the following questions can help tech leaders begin that journey:
How has digital adoption and increased change velocity impacted IT resilience over the past several years, and where has the COVID-19 crisis created the most pressure?
How does my company’s incident response compare to our peers’ and to other industries’ more generally in terms of the number and severity of incidents and associated costs?
Looking across the business, what issues are driving the highest volume of incidents, and which user and customer journeys are most impacted?
What percentage of all IT application-development issues are first detected in production, and how many human hours went into tracking down and resolving them? Would an automated process be cheaper and more effective?
CIOs should move quickly. As businesses accelerate the pace of development and adoption of tools, channels and business models, technology service resilience will play an increasing role in overall mission resilience.
About Hassan Khan
Hassan Khan is a Principal in Marks Paneth’s Technology Services Group. Mr. Khan works collaboratively with clients’ management, audit committees and boards, and provides independent, senior-level expertise that enables executives to drive value from technology and improve business performance. Over the course of his career, he has led and delivered advisory engagements including technology governance, risk and compliance assessments; organizational reviews; board governance; benchmarking and best practices reviews; enterprise risk management (ERM); internal audits; technology... READ MORE +