Welcome to the second half of 2020. We’re on the downward slope of a very challenging year, and probably one of the most demanding for CIOs ever. Never before has Information Technology been so vital to businesses and other organizations. It’s a year that’s made many business leaders turn to their IT departments and ask, “What do we do now?”
While simply reacting is not normally the best way to respond to change, when unforeseen emergencies happen, good leaders make decisions and great leaders look at ways to capitalize on these situations, making decisions with an eye cocked towards the future.
A time for heroes
Today’s CIOs are struggling to ensure continuity of their businesses and organizations, spurring forward transformation that allows employees to work and collaborate during times when governments worldwide have mandated lockdowns and social distancing. The mindset has shifted concerning digital transformation, and CIOs have now taken center stage.
Yet for all the leadership opportunities, the IT world is showing three types of CIOs. These include:
The traditional CIO: focused on infrastructure reliability and cost-efficiency, many of these leaders have not risen to the challenge faced by the pandemic.
Decisive managers: these change instigators helped drive the necessary digital transformation many businesses needed to continue operating, resolving problems quickly and pragmatically.
Visionary and innovative leaders: these drivers of business strategy are often the co-founders who help lead effective crisis response while positioning their businesses for the future.
It’s no secret that technology has helped organizations quickly adopt digital solutions, showing how IT can play an instrumental role. IT is at the forefront of these changes.
Workers who’ve never worked remotely had to adjust to working from home. Management had to adjust to new systems to supervise from a distance. Online sales channels had to flow smoothly, sometimes completely replacing in-person sales, and customers needed to receive service without dedicated call centers or customer service representatives. And IT departments still had to deal with the basics, protecting against increased cyber threats and ensuring continued collaboration between dispersed and distributed teams.
This quote by a CIO in the banking industry encapsulates the year so far: “All eyes are on me. And I’m trying to deal with exploding online loads, people working remotely, new cyberthreats. Every day it’s something new.”
But behind any effective reaction to challenging times should be a strategy to position your organization so that when this emergency ends, you’re ready to hit the ground running. While many businesses worldwide are starting to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, those in some places – especially the United States – are finding going back to business problematic.
While the disease continues to spread, many of these businesses whose employees can effectively work remotely have given them the choice to continue working from home. Trying to keep both employees and those they serve safe, businesses mitigate the danger however they can.
Curtis A. Carver Jr. – Vice President and CIO for the University of Alabama at Birmingham – wrote in June 2020 how he led his department through three phases:
Triage: This initial phase requires you to identify your organization’s most vital concerns in order to keep it running. Here you’re essentially reacting, trying to organize, prioritize, and make the best decisions you can based on available facts. Most organizations have moved beyond this phase by now, though it’s likely once the second wave of disease hits, many will fall back to this stage.
Stabilize: This phase involves a longer-term outlook, looking at the next week or 30 days. For CIOs this has meant most employees working remotely, along with automated workflows managed via software like eOriginal SmartSign, which helps keep data safe when people are working from home through its multiple authentications and electronic signatures.
Transform: Yes, that’s essentially what you’re trying to do as CIO in any case. But what does this look like during a pandemic? You want to optimize for this new reality while creating new business opportunities for after the crisis ends. It’s about capitalizing off the agility the situation has forced many businesses to adopt, and using it to strengthen your position.
Back to basics
Meanwhile, data protection is a key task that can’t be ignored. The hackers and other bad actors trying to break into your systems didn’t take a break. In fact, in many cases they upped their game. With many employees working from home, less attention was paid to data security, so it’s no surprise that the pandemic also led to a spike in data breaches.
In March 2020, the International Association of IT Asset Managers (IATAM) warned that at-home work would lead to cybersecurity breaches. Within a month their predictions became reality.
Administrators in many cases left off permissions so that employees could complete tasks at home without supervision. Companies had to install new hardware and software. With many remotely working employees inexperienced and undertrained in these often hurriedly adopted systems, care often went by the wayside. This environment multiplied the vulnerabilities that allow hackers to gain access to sensitive data.
Meanwhile, these changes coincided with transformations that were already happening, particularly regarding cloud migration. Unless you’re a tech company, there’s really no reason for you to invest in hardware to store and protect data.
It’s important that businesses do what they do best, and outsource those things for which they’re less capable. Modernizing infrastructure has taken on a different meaning, as much of the hardware IT departments once used to rely on has now gone to the cloud and become virtual, including data storage. In other words, businesses should not be operating as data centers, unless your primary business is storing data.
If this pandemic has shown businesses anything, digital transformation is necessary to keep them competitive. A strong case has been built for outlays that may have been put on the back burner before, especially regarding the ability for employees to work remotely. The CIO must still make this case to others within the organization, and work with those outside IT to resolve problems and address the needs of the company.
CIOs today must still concentrate on transforming the following:
Data science and analytics: While storage can be outsourced, having capabilities to analyze data are a necessary part of any company’s technical transformation.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning: We’ve seen how both AI and machine learning has help businesses adapt quickly to this new environment.
Robotic process automation: Automating more mundane tasks can create more self-service capabilities, allowing customers to help themselves.
Yes, our businesses and other organizations need CIOs today to be heroes more than ever. For CIOs everywhere, this quote from George Westerman – a research scientist at MIT – has never been more apt: “There has never been a better time to be a great leader, nor a worse time to be an average one.”