IT services delivery in a COVID-19 world - a conversation with Vijay Vijayasankar

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett March 23, 2020
Vijay Vijayasankar of IBM and Den discuss the future of IT services. Conclusions are vague today but there are some pointers to the future.

Last week, long time buddy and IBM'er Vijay Vijayasankar penned a thoughtful story on what the COVID-19 crisis means for the IT services delivery industry. In that story, entitled How will the IT services world look post Corona pandemic ?, Vijay raised a series of observations and questions which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Obviously, we will learn to work better from remote locations
  2. Travel and co-location become less important
  3. Less divorces, and more happy families
  4. Different measurements
  5. More pressure on the bottom of the pyramid – for both providers and clients
  6. Project delivery has to evolve
  7. Automation will increase manifold
  8. Security is probably the new black
  9. Massive consolidation will happen
  10. Systems integration business will grow
  11. Redundant collaboration tooling

I quipped on Twitter that most (if not all) of these topics represented issues around which some of us have bitched for years with little result. It was in that context I asked Vijay to make a recorded conversation with me during which we touched on a few of the items. As you can see from the video version, we used

As a side note, I could not connect via my laptop over Wi-Fi but managed a reasonably OK connection on my smartphone over 4G. For those that prefer audio, I have included the podcast version at the end of this story. 

One of my top of mind questions centered on the issue of business continuity. From what I can tell and regardless of firm size, few leaders have well thought through plans at this stage. If anything, the sense I get is that leaders are in shock. I have for example heard tales of CIOs fielding calls for anything up to 15 hours a day as they scramble to provision WFH laptops and telco services so that they can continue support operations. Hiring freezes are inevitable. A few firms are already looking closely at operational expenses. Gartner confirms:

Just 12% of more than 1,500 people polled in a Gartner business continuity webinar on March 6 believe their businesses are highly prepared for the impact of coronavirus, while 26% believe that the virus will have little or no impact on their business.

Most respondents (56%) rate themselves somewhat prepared, and 11% said they were either relatively or very unprepared. Just 2% of respondents believe their business can continue as normal, highlighting the huge range of businesses that could be affected by the outbreak. 

For his part, Vijay said that his team ensured continuous service delivery early on in part because IBM has rehearsed these types of scenarios in the past. I noted that Infosys sent home some 8,000 students from its Mysore campus in an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. On the day we recorded the conversation, India tried out a voluntary curfew and has now instituted lockdown restrictions. For its part, TCS says 40% of its staff cannot work from home although the firm is trying out a variety of scenarios designed to ensure business continuity while safeguarding staff. 

Business continuity affects everyone. Vijay told me that his relatives in India are used to strolling to local stores on a day to day basis but the crisis means that people are having to learn how to shop online. In common with my own concerns, Vijay fears that while technology will ease some burdens, the fate of the small retail business must be in doubt. 

Another aspect of crisis response relates to the training of next-generation consultants. To quote his story:

Back in the day, young consultants got into long term projects at low billing rates and learned the trade in an apprenticeship model . That’s already hard in today’s world with project sizes and time lines shrinking . Now when remote work becomes mainstream – it will be much harder to bring inexperienced new hires to the level of skills that is needed for actual projects .

This also will need some serious rethinking by the service providers along with their clients.

Vijay believes this is the greatest problem facing the future of service delivery. I suspect he is right. I along with colleagues have long argued that the current model, which starts with the idea of basic learning leading to multi-choice examination is fundamentally flawed. Back in 2013, I argued that some programs are outdated, a view I still hold to be true. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis has shone a harsh spotlight on the imperfections of a delivery system and ecosystem that cannot be expected to continue. in its current form.

Inevitably in these types of conversations, I wanted to get a sense of how Vijay sees the future playing out. He is of the view that if the crisis lasts one or two quarters then delivery will return to what it was pre-crisis. He is less certain about the future if we are still here in three or four quarters' time. While I chose not to argue the point, I'm not convinced. 

The fact that consultants who were used to traveling as part of their remit now find themselves stuck in one place should mean improved productivity. Less 'wasted' time running between home to a remote location and back again can surely be used for productive purposes? Customers are bound to ask questions around labor utilization and the value they actually receive at a time when their businesses face both top and bottom-line pressure. 

As our conversation wound down, it dawned on me that what we're all facing is not a technology or process problem (although processes can always be improved) but a people and change management problem.

It is easy for me to think in terms of WFH productivity because I made a conscious decision to limit all but essential travel some three or more years ago, adjusting how I communicate accordingly and scheduling time for meetings and calls in a way that better fits my desire for work-life balance. It doesn't always work that way but at least I have fresh choices that would otherwise be denied by a punishing travel schedule. 

But I can see that for those consultants who have spent a lifetime as road warriors, the sudden adjustment is a real challenge. That, I suspect, represents the most immediate pain point but one where strategies that put the well-being of people first will have the most lasting impacts. 

There are many more questions to be asked and we couldn't touch every topic in the available time. Even so, I think we both took a few steps forward at a time when the pathway to thriving in this period of extreme uncertainty is far from obvious. We shall no doubt return to this general topic as the situation evolves and workable strategies become clear.