woman paddling a canoe
PHOTO: Neora Aylon

Over the last several weeks, I have been trying to understand what the journey forward looks like for CIOs. Professor Aisha S. Ahmad says, “global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the COVID-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened.” Given this, I was left with one question. What will the roadmap look like going forward?

Fortunately, Bill Gates provided an answer on “The Daily Show.” His perspective is critical to the folks who are keeping enterprises running, especially CIOs. "It will take a month to start to bend the curve and with that, summer to reduce cases to the point where we can do limited engagement — work and school. And these will need to be done carefully," Gates said. Sporting events and conferences and most international travel are out until there is a vaccine, he added.

Given this, it is time to take stock of the organizations that proved most prepared and those that are already getting ready for the days and months ahead.

What Types of Organizations Were Most Prepared to Handle COVID-19?

CIO Aldo Ceccarelli said, “Organizations that had web-enabled their businesses have been much better positioned to weather this pandemic, both in the short- and long-term.” David Seidl agreed, but said “organizations whose business models work well in or adapt well to physical distancing/shutdown scenarios and those that were or could be heavily work-from-home friendly” were best positioned.

CIO Jason James said, “tech-enabled organizations with flexible workforces seemed to pivot more easily. For them, collaborative tools and processes were already in place to enable long-term remote work. Most importantly, they had cultures that supported non-traditional hours with remote workers.” CIO Ryan Fay added, “initially digital native businesses had competitive advantage to quickly address immediate needs, keeping the business running and optimizing cost.”

However, “there is a paradigm shift and now businesses that have disrupted their own thinking, exploited learnings and opportunities are innovating faster than ever,” Ryan said. It seems clear that higher education was in the best place to succeed technologically through the crisis. “It wasn’t exactly planned, but existing investment in educational technology, and the willingness of the faculty, enabled scaling to emergency remote learning for this crisis,” said Stephen Landry, CIO at Seton Hall University.

“Much work remains to expand online learning. What we've learned is that the investment in online learning was valuable, and we've increased demand for and learned how to scale production of online learning, which will support the next wave of higher education's response to the coronavirus crisis,” Landry said. However, Landry claims that higher education has to be prepared for a backlash. "Some faculty and students will have had a poor experience with emergency remote learning and will conflate that experience with intentionally designed online learning. The investment many higher education institutions made in distance learning has paid off as we shifted to emergency remote learning.” Synthesizing, the broader lesson from the crisis, is “perhaps the investment in digitization of services that positioned many companies to continue operations,” Landry said.

Related Article: Techies, Fuzzies and the All-Remote Workplace

Smart CIOs Had Strong Relationships Across Their Organizations

"Institutions that had strong, communicating leadership teams with trusted internal and external relationships, have done better through the crisis," said CIO Sharon Pitt. CIO Paige Francis agreed: “Organizations with the confidence to empower the communicative, have allowed collaborative change leaders to steer the ship for a spell. Hopeful folks exhausted by buzzword overuse of change leadership are now able to respect the value. It’s a skill often eye-rolled.”

Clearly, managing the change requires leadership from the top as much as technology. For this reason, Mark Thiele said, “companies that are knowledge-focused with a strong remote work culture are doing the best. Clearly, not all companies can do remote work. Many of these companies have employees out of work or on the front line. When Marissa Mayer took the reins at Yahoo, she almost immediately forced remote folks to come back into the office. At that time, I said her effort was a failure in leadership. It is definitely true today.”

Former Yahoo CIO Mike Kail added that those who already had comprehensive disaster resiliency plans in place, and leadership that clearly and effectively communicated across whatever medium proved available, were in the best place to succeed. Healthcare CIO Michael Archuleta said, “the COVID-19 crisis has fully displayed the value of telecommuting, IT and digital transformation. I believe this unprecedented pandemic puts us in a position to be more progressive and open to learning from it.”

Related Article: Has Digital Transformation Left Your Business Continuity Plans Behind?

Accelerating the Move to Digital

In general, CIOs believe that once things are under control we should put the gas on digital. Ryan Fay, CIO of ACI Specialty Benefits, said CIOs should be thinking now about “1) accelerating their digital strategy to beat the competition when demand signals increase; 2) asking for more funding to develop better technology capabilities because the rules of the game have just changed; 3) evaluating their technology partners and determining if they're still the best fit; 4) utilizing data-driven models to place bigger bets on digital revenue sources including prioritizing ease of use for customers to consume digital products and services; and 5) use business acumen to study changes made in response to COVID-19 for new operational efficiencies, such as sourcing or process automation, and more digital products/services, such as self-serve and replenishment strategies.”

“Healthcare organizations should be intensifying their focus on strategic planning for a digital future and preparing themselves to launch new initiatives when the crisis passes. I believe this unprecedented pandemic puts us in a position to be more progressive and open to learning from it,” Archuleta said. “If we can take the experience gained from this unique challenge, we can evolve our practices and continue to invest in digital transformation and improve our business continuity plans. The biggest changes that need to happen are focusing on digital transformation and incorporating IT as a core component to our organizations strategy which will take us to a much better space. We must be open to learning from this crisis.” One area of change will clearly involve the cloud. Brian Carberry, CIO of UPMC Whitfield Hospital, said, “the current situation has focused the conversation on cloud as a business risk mitigation tool and not just a nice to have technology for technology’s sake. It has made the cloud tangible.”

Related Article: Why Enterprises Are Turning to Hybrid Cloud

Parting Remarks

Clearly certain organizations were better prepared than others for the crisis that is in front of us. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. It is the CIO's moment to deliver and then power the digital strategies that will make their organizations more prepared and more future ready. Stand up and deliver and hear more at the free, virtual #CIOChatLive 2.0 on April 15.