by Clint Boulton

CIOs cultivate political capital in response to pandemic

Oct 15, 2020
CIOIT Leadership

IT leaders who have gained clout among C-suite peers during the pandemic must target high-impact initiatives to extend their political capital in 2021, but challenges remain.

A glowing blue arrow speeds ahead of a pack of black arrows [lead / compete / momentum / growth]
Credit: Gremlin / Getty Images

Tell any CIO they have 48 hours to enable thousands of employees to work from home and they’ll likely laugh you off. Yet that is exactly the situation FedEx CIO Rob Carter faced in March, when the coronavirus broadsided the business world, forcing the shipping company’s 105,000 employees to work remotely worldwide.

“This is a unique time for all of us and it has been a huge challenge for our business, for the technology and for the world,” said Carter in a keynote speech during the Interop Digital conference on Oct. 1. “[9-11] is the only thing that pops into my head that was so dramatic and so fast and really kind of had a big impact on how we were operating at the time — but this is clearly unique.”

Digital transformation work left FedEx well positioned for the pandemic. The IT team had spent the past decade revamping the company’s IT architecture with cloud software and microservices, which helped it handle the explosive demand for shipping as more consumers shopped online rather than brave retail stores, Carter says.

Demonstrating the ability to execute rapidly has helped IT leaders gain clout and political capital during the COVID-19 outbreak. Sixty-one percent of more than 4,200 IT leaders surveyed by the 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey said that the pandemic has permanently increased the influence of the technology leader. CIOs can extend the goodwill they’ve engendered from their C-suite peers by helping the business deliver on other high-impact initiatives required during the recovery.

An analytics effort takes precedence

Golden State Foods (GSF), a $5 billion provider of hamburger patties, sauces, produce and other food products for quick-service restaurants, has prevailed during the pandemic because it has adapted on the fly, including reprioritizing projects, says CIO Carol Fawcett.

Since the outbreak, GSF had twice put off a major migration to Microsoft Dynamics 365 in 2020 as IT worked to ensure that employees could work from home without compromising corporate data security. But with the pandemic heightening the urgency to access insights from manufacturing all the way to the consumer, Fawcett restarted and accelerated the move, which includes connecting Dynamics 365 to GSF’s data warehouse, running in Amazon Web Services.

“This data became the Holy Grail during the pandemic,” Fawcett says. “We are now feeding from our international sites and non-integrated divisions the key KPIs for executive review so overall we have the transparency needed to see the entire business.”

The analytics initiative is burnishing Fawcett’s reputation among a range of GSF stakeholders, a theme that is playing out among IT leaders worldwide.

IT and business make fine pandemic partners

Seventy percent of IT leaders surveyed by Harvey Nash/KPMG said that the COVID-19 crisis has enhanced the collaboration between business and IT, says Sean Gilligan, president of technology recruitment, North America, Harvey Nash USA.

The collaboration continues in earnest at FedEx, where Carter doesn’t allow IT staff to call business stakeholders “customers,” which implies that IT exists to take orders. Rather, business and IT are equals, he says. This collaborative culture is propelling FedEx through the pandemic.

“Sales, marketing, finance, IT, customer service have done an incredible job keeping customers in business,” Carter says. “All I have to do is get out of the way and watch great things happen.”

Meanwhile, FedEx is buoying high-impact initiatives by leveraging emerging technologies. The company is using sensors to track packages and robots to assist with deliveries, and it is exploring the role blockchain will play in helping businesses track the provenance of goods from manufacturing to consumption, Carter says.

CIOs are spending like crazy – for now

Such innovation costs money and most CIOs have had no shortage of it in recent months as they scrambled to maintain business continuity. Entering 2020, 55 percent of technology leaders had received a budget increase, driven by the need for operational efficiencies, customer engagement and developing new products and services, according to Harvey Nash/KPMG Survey.

But with the onset of the pandemic, most CIOs had an open checkbook, especially for cloud and workforce enablement tools. IT leaders spent $15 billion extra a week on technology during the pandemic’s first wave to ensure that people could work from home. “Companies had no choice,” Gilligan says. “They had to spend money to get everybody up and running.”

But tightening of the corporate coffers seems inevitable in 2021. CIOs may be looking for more funding to maintain and extend the remote structure and there is no certainty their requests will be granted the way they were in 2020, Gilligan says.

Challenges in ‘The Next Normal’

Beyond uncertainty around the budget (among other things), IT leaders will have to contend with the following challenges in 2021, not the least of which is continuing to support remote workforces, as 43 percent of CIOs say more than half of their employees will continue to work from home post-pandemic, according to the Harvey Nash/KPMG survey.

Predicting the future is hard. Most businesses lean on their last three months of historical data, so the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the use of analytics in strategic planning. Fifty-nine percent of respondents say they cannot accurately forecast for long-term planning decisions for at least three months. Tech leaders will have to figure out how to forge ahead.

Cyber threats on the rise. With millions of employees relocating from the protection of corporate networks to home studies, bedrooms and kitchen tables, the attack surface has increased. IT leaders are seeing an 83 percent increase in spear phishing attacks and 62 percent hike in malware. Education employees about secure data practices has never been more critical.

Managing mental health. Eighty-four percent of CIOs said that they were very concerned about the mental health of employees adjusting to remote work, which includes juggling work and family duties, Gilligan says. The good news: 58 percent said they had put a program in place post-COVID. IT must look to partner with HR to address these issues, Gilligan says.

Targeting tech talent. Demand for technology practitioners is robust, but supply is wanting, as 54 percent of those surveyed said a skill shortage is holding them back. Thirty-five percent cited cybersecurity skills as being the most scarce, followed by organizational change management at 26 percent. With physical location no longer a prime asset, IT leaders must rethink how they lure employees.