by James Henderson

Luzon on lockdown: How Filipino tech leaders are responding

Apr 05, 2020
Business ContinuityDisaster RecoveryIT Leadership

Three technology leaders outline COVID-19 response efforts following government-mandated lockdown measures in the Philippines, sharing key challenges and best practices.

Makati skyline, Metro Manila, Philippines > financial hub / business district
Credit: Nikada / Getty Images

With more than 55 million citizens quarantined on the island of Luzon, home to capital city Manila, the Philippines is operating in a ‘state of calamity’. Designed to halt the spread of COVID-19, the decision by President Rodrigo Duterte to place over half of the country’s entire population on lockdown until 12 April — which may be extended — triggering a ripple effect on business and the economy.

On the one hand, the rise of remote working has kick-started plans to build out business continuity, collaboration and security strategies, underpinned by a digital transformation agenda.

But COVID-19 has also placed CIOs at the centre of survival efforts, tasked with responding to the challenge with both short-term and long-term actions to increase resilience and prepare for future.

Concepcion Industrial adapted quickly due to employees’ personal internet access

As CIO of Filipino air conditioning and refrigerator provider Concepcion Industrial, Richard Parcia said the initial lockdown of Manila affected business operations on two fronts.

“First, we moved our network utilisation from enterprise to personal,” Parcia told CIO ASEAN. “But aside from the utilisation, there was nothing out of the ordinary because the majority of our users have access to the internet in a personal capacity. The quality differs but we have many other communication options and the users naturally utilise the more appropriate option for them, depending on the situation.”

Secondly, Parcia said Concepcion reported a sharp increase in the utilisation of unified communication tools, with more employees leveraging collaboration platforms and systems. “Following the lockdown, our employees were encouraged to use our collaboration tools to keep in touch with our business partners,” he added. “The use of these tools is our primary option to attend to the ongoing projects and keep the business rolling. It was a bit jarring at first for some, but the learning curve is neither steep nor long. People were able to adjust right away meaning they can be productive and at the same time, tend to their families and for some, their communities.”

From an IT operations standpoint, however, Parcia acknowledged that support model tweaking is still required to allow the business to fully maximise remote working capabilities. “While we are not new to remote client operational support, there was still a high-touch approach to solving customer requirements prior to this pandemic,” he said. “It’s not a significant tweak because we have the technology and the processes in place, and most of all, we have dedicated people to execute. The fundamentals of IT service management haven’t really changed, but our role has expanded to cover a much wider scope given the lockdown scenario.”

As an example, Parcia said the IT department is now required to further collaborate with other groups across the organisation, such as shared services and corporate communications. “Our responsibilities have evolved because we are no longer simply talking about infrastructure and technology,” he said. “We are now responsible for providing support to accommodate the requirements of the COVID-19 response team’s daily remote meetings. We also have to ensure that support is ready 24/7 for employees working from home and more critically, that our unified communications system is seamlessly working to allow important management announcements and guidelines to reach all employees.”

For Parcia, the main responsibilities of a CIO during this period involves balancing front- and back-end business priorities, starting with user communications. This is followed by under the surface considerations, such as vendor management, remote client operations support, security and licensing. “Our goal is that none of the systems will break,” he added. “Readiness is key but aside from that, IT is playing a vital role by leading the development of setting up special communication lines and creating a disclosure system for employees.”

With employee health and safety naturally shaping wider organisational priorities, Parcia has also set up procedures that enable the response team to monitor the health of all the employees, and if urgent needs arise, provide management support. “We have two-way communication channels that go directly to top management,” he said. “However, there is a higher calling that the corporation is responding to and that is to be a partner to the community’s efforts in tackling the overall challenge. This involves a different kind of collaboration.”

An example of this is WeCare, created by subsidiary Cortex Technologies to connect frontline employees to a wider community to help resource immediate needs and concerns. “This was concocted while everyone was 100 per cent working remotely,” Parcia outlined. “It’s amazing how people’s creative juices and humanitarian nature are on display during this hour of great need. Our technology resources are now being channelled to support this platform. As a primary objective, we need to help the community get up on its feet.”

SwapooLabs focuses on reliable, safe work-from-home access — and productivity

At SwapooLabs — a software development specialist based in Taguig City in metro Manila — employees have been working remotely since the second week of March, in compliance with government mandates.

“Because most of our production infrastructure is in the cloud, the only thing that our information security team is worried about is the connection of our users at home and whether they are secure enough,” said Benjie Brian Zamora, CISO of SwapooLabs, who is also head of consulting at Sophie’s IT Services, a local security specialist.

“As a compensating control, we have provided VPN solutions to our users. Providing a secure and reliable connection to our users is our main responsibility. However, because we don’t have control over home user connectivity, the reliability issue becomes a challenge.”

At this stage, Zamora said the biggest roadblock facing SwapooLabs — which services parent company Swapoo, a European-based blockchain business — has centred around employee productivity, rather than technical concerns. “We were not practicing telecommuting before this pandemic, meaning people might not be able to have the same output as working at the office,” he assessed. “The individual leads and project managers are closely monitoring staff to ensure that project timelines are met.”

Air Device Solution bolstered its business-continuity efforts

According to Garrick Ang — co-founder and CEO of Air Device Solution — the lockdown triggered a series of immediate responses at the Manila-based smart technology specialist, which serves customers in retail, healthcare and enterprise sectors. “We use the cloud for our application and communication tools,” said Ang, recently inducted into the inaugural CIO50 ASEAN awards after spearheading transformation efforts as CIO of Generika, a pharmaceutical-retail specialist in the Philippines.

“When the government declared a metro-wide lockdown, and everyone was required to work from home, we freed up the corporate internal network usage given that users connect using home internet or phone data. Our local telecommunications provider increased backhaul capacity and we also increased additional capacity through a cloud on-demand basis.”

Since February, the business cancelled all overseas travel and quarantined those returning from abroad, in addition to advancing salaries to allow employees to stock up on food and medicine.

From a technology standpoint, Ang has reviewed and briefed the organisation on business continuity and disaster recovery procedures, outlining a worst-case scenario framework. “We ensured that we have a single source of information,” he added. “We have a daily teleconference call on the situation and monitor the event regularly to react accordingly. Our technology support team also regularly updates the group with regards to remote access support and open tickets. We’re also participating in a national IT professional group which details how businesses, even our competitors, are dealing with the lockdown which has proved productive and helpful.”