by Heath Muchena

African CIOs: 4 key IT leader tips for handling the coronavirus crisis

Apr 05, 2020
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

CIOs can leverage their knowledge of the enterprise to ensure business continuity as COVID-19 hits, and lay a path to recovery.

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The spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 disease has prompted many businesses in sub-Saharan Africa – often under government orders — to instruct their employees to work from home and restrict business travel. In this environment, enterprise IT leaders can, and should, exercise leadership that helps their businesses minimise disruption, according to tech executives polled by CIO Africa.

CIOs are expected to help ensure that productivity is maintained, disruption is minimised, and revenue losses are curbed. C-suite executives are more than ever reliant on IT leadership to ensure that the tools that allow employees to be productive are put in place and running optimally.

But IT leadership extends beyond ensuring that enterprise networks can handle the spikes in connections coming in over virtual private networks (VPNs) from remote workers.

CIO Africa spoke to said Sudhish Mohan, CIO and COO for TransUnion Africa, and Yoav Tchelet, Chief Technology Officer at Amrod, the corporate clothing and gifts company, and former CIO of Bayport Financial Services, on how leveraging technologies including cloud can be advantageous for remote working; best practices for leading virtual teams and meetings; and how to demonstrate good leadership in times of crisis.

Leverage your insight into the business

CIOs are well-positioned to help guide the C-suite through the current crisis, Mohan and Tchelet said.

“I think that the CIO is uniquely positioned to have a 360-degree view of the business and this view helps one position priorities and scenarios much better,” Mohan said.

Since administrative, production and supply chain operations all depend on IT infrastructure, CIOs regularly engage with business leaders in those areas and have a view into what aspects of their enterprises will be affected, and which will be hardest hit, by the cirrent crisis. This is crucial for business continuity planning.

“These are unprecedented times and it’s important to ensure that business continuity measures are in place to ensure operational continuity,” Tchelet says. In certain circumstances, though, IT is limited in what it can provide, and CIOs need to be aware of this.

“We are fortunate to have our office working staff fully enabled to work from home and be fully operational with all the tools and systems to collaborate and operate the business. But we also have production facilities that require human intervention on a labour level and that complicates the process,” Tchelet explained.

In crisis management, C-suite leaders need to know what is under their control and what is not. “Many businesses in similar industries that rely on a mix of administrative and production facilities will not be able to operate 100 percent in the event of forced shutdowns,” Tchelet said.

Engage business stakeholders

To ensure that IT is helping enterprises achieve their objectives during a crisis, CIOs need to communicate with business leadership and stakeholders within their organisations to help ensure optimal use of technology. This is especially important during crisis times since decisions taken can potentially be cost-saving or in worst-case scenarios lead to significant revenue losses. Navigating such complicated scenarios is never easy.

Even though most companies are encouraging staff to work from home, it is crucial to understand the over-all implications of such a policy in the long run, especially across African nations that already struggle with poor internet connectivity and power grid load-shedding.

It’s a massive challenge, especially for small and medium-size businesses (SMEs) in Africa, which don’t necessarily have the infrastructure, or which have not made investments in cloud technology, to support this.

“Small businesses that rely on human interaction can put some measures in place to deal with this crisis but technology will not help these businesses,” Tchelet said. “Companies that don’t rely on human interaction or have manufacturing/production facilities are in a much better place to continue operating but if they don’t have the technology infrastructure in place then they will struggle to survive; that’s not just an African but a global problem,”  he said.

CIO insights into the systems that keep enterprises up and running can help clarify communications. “We are driving decision-orientated meetings and on our communication side, we are ensuring that our messages are consistent and frequent. Nothing breeds uncertainty like a poor communication strategy,” TransUnion’s Mohan said. “I am giving direction and ensuring the stability of our systems; making sure that we have a plan to address potential scenarios.”

Ensure governance of critical infrastructure

 To deal with exploding online loads from people working remotely and to handle new cyberthreats effectively is a challenge, especially when you have people working with varying home connectivity methods. This means that every company has to put in place plans for user guidelines and support.

IT governance is central to the overall business in times of crisis. “A central plan that is concise and consistent in priorities and communications sets the right tone, although regional and local nuances are equally important to make everyone feel included,” Mohan said.

During disruptive times, CIOs face the challenge of managing supply chains for  hardware and software assets including VPN licenses that employees would use to log into servers. “Some of the challenges include vendor procurement, standardization, policy implementation and alignment and governance. It’s important to get the right standards, processes and maturity in the business to effectively deal with these challenges,” said Tchelet.

 “It is a critical component especially in times of crisis, as it’s easy to lose control if the right governance and controls are not in place both from a cybersecurity and overall governance perspective,” Tchelet added.

IT governance should include decision-making protocols and guidelines. “I think one needs to think through upgrading capacity to handle more traffic loads on consumer-facing services, rollout self-service tools and interactive-voice-response capabilities for customer-support needs,” Mohan said.

The availability of cloud and software as a service is making it easier to operate in times of crisis, helping to stabilize critical infrastructure, enable a shift in business processes, and  sustain remote work practices.

“My first priority is to ensure that business adapts to the new normal and ensuring that all services and critical infrastructure is available,” Mohan said. “Cloud migration provides the flexibility to manage the current spikes and changing employee and customer needs rapidly and cost effectively.”

Use the crisis to learn lessons

 The immediate goal in a disruptive crisis is to use IT to enable safe business continuity. But productivity tools and supporting systems put in place to do this can have lasting, beneficial impact and aid digital transformation efforts designed to optimize enterprise-wide  business processes. 

“Ensuring the safety of our people and their families is of the first priority. We are allowing all employees to work from home and providing them with the technology capabilities from tooling to systems to do that,” Mohan noted. It’s important, though, to measure how these tools aid productivity – this data can help drive optimal use and investments in tech going forward.

“Although tooling does not drive cultural change we have an opportunity to drive embedment using the data of the usage of these services,” Mohan.

 A crisis can result in a better understanding of how IT can support business in the future.

“We are on a cloud journey and have already put in place the core components of our strategy to enable the business. It’s a journey that will continue and it’s in times like these that we can even accelerate this journey due to the ability of our developers and IT staff to work remotely,” Tchelet said.

Lessons learned during a crisis can ultimately highlight the benefits of initiatives that have already been put into place, and further refine them.

“It’s important that any cloud strategy is focused on business enablement and clearly defined within a larger business strategy, that’s the only way to make cloud a business enabler and drive organizational value including continuity and the other benefits that can be derived through its implementation,” said Tchelet.

The pandemic will expose potential fault lines not only in IT infrastructure, but in various parts of a business.

“Currently, we are all experiencing a massive delay in services especially out of China. I think the future will hold a much more diversified supply chain portfolio, including planning for more capacity that currently exists,” Mohan said. “Ultimately, our work needs to continue but the lessons learnt from this pandemic and solutions will reshape the way we work in the future.”