The CIO has played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role in an organization's ability to respond to the continued and ever-changing challenges created by the pandemic crisis, recovery, and eventual return to growth.
As the organization's IT leader, the CIO, and their IT teams, are at the center of action in a digitally enabled world — and their most critical priority should be business continuity in the face of unprecedented change. All critical business processes must operate continuously and be able to flex and scale to meet unpredictable workloads. Much of that falls within the CIO's domain.
Now that we're months into the COVID-19 pandemic, CIOs have probably already taken many of the steps outlined below. Nevertheless, they remain relevant amidst continuing uncertainty around the conditions of the pandemic and its economic impact.
Step one — Identify what's critical
In times of crisis, the most important thing is to distinguish and prioritize mission-critical business processes, and update those as conditions change. Given the current situation, much of the focus has been on adapting the business process frameworks related to hiring, scheduling, and paying workers at a time when schedules, shifts, and organizational structures are constantly changing. In addition, businesses may experience spikes in requests for sick time, disability, leaves of absence, and other workforce benefits.
As market researcher McKinsey notes in a discussion of CIO responses to the pandemic, "companies moved at mind-boggling speed to support remote work." McKinsey now says it's now important to "revisit those emergency measures to understand what must be updated, changed, or replaced to deal with issues that continue to hurt productivity."
McKinsey recently polled more than 150 IT leaders and found their top concerns were dealing with remote work and the increased strain on financials. On the financial management front, processes related to consolidation and close continue to be mission critical. So too are sourcing, procurement, and expenses, as organizations continue to shift purchases and payments as businesses, suppliers, and others return to more normal operations.
Also, supply chain and project management systems must be resilient to perform as designed amid constant change as the pandemic continues and economies and industries reopen at various speeds.
Step two — Create alignment
Business continuity starts with business alignment. CIOs need to ensure that they remain aligned with their C-suite partners and create a heat map of the mission critical business capabilities that are supported by IT and digital technology. Create this heat map by:
- Assessing mission-critical system availability, performance, elasticity, and resiliency. The systems that support essential business capabilities must be closely examined for their ability to respond under heavier load and unplanned spikes in elasticity.
- Ensuring that vital systems function even if performance is impacted due to external factors or varying network bandwidth. In times of high uncertainty, IT teams need even higher levels of visibility to anticipate performance and scale issues and rapidly allocate additional infrastructure resources to keep systems and processes operational. The CIO is responsible for service delivery. It's essential to take steps with technology providers and within their own organizations to ensure business continuity.
- Sharing how vital systems will be monitored during a crisis. That might mean monitoring and dashboards that continuously check customer health, or tools that identify potential performance issues caused by erratic and unplanned spikes in demand. Reaching out to technology partners, in and outside of the business, to access monitoring tools, is always worthwhile.
- Identifying gaps in the IT infrastructure once the C-suite agrees on the heat map.
Step three — Develop an action plan
Having put in place an inventory of mission critical systems and processes, along with C-suite alignment, develop an action plan for whatever phase of the crisis you are in. Plan for:
- Potential degradation in system performance. Prepare ahead by testing the ability to rapidly scale more resources and communication to users who may experience performance degradation. Ensure you have a clear understanding from your outside technology partners around the timelines and planned actions if there are performance issues with their systems.
- Implementing self-service for as many of the critical processes as possible, in order to free the IT team to focus on triage and stabilization. In addition, IT should scale automation wherever possible.
- Consolidating systems of engagement and streamlining processes. Fewer interfaces for the user and the simplification of processes will reduce the support load on IT while increasing remote worker productivity.
- Scaling all levels of the IT stack.
- Continuing transformational activities. IT leaders are now focusing a lot on infrastructure to support the remote workforce and to bring workers back to the office. This doesn't mean that transformation initiatives should completely stop. In fact, business continuity efforts help the whole company become more agile and responsive—which will pay dividends as the focus turns more squarely toward innovation in the future.
The authors of a classic Harvard Business Review article, examining how companies fared after the Great Recession of 2008, conclude:
Companies that master the delicate balance between cutting costs to survive today and investing to grow tomorrow do well after a recession.
For an IT audience, it should go without saying — keep iterating on your action plan.
Steadying the ship
The changes spurred by the pandemic have resulted in the stress testing of IT systems and processes that would have been hard to imagine a year ago. In many ways, this time is a crucible for CIOs, where their actions are more vital than ever to a company's health. Rising to the challenge, their agility in fast-moving situations is steadying many pitching ships of commerce.