by John Belden

A CIO’s checklist for executing the COVID pivot

Apr 22, 2020
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

Simultaneously adjusting to new realities and developing forward-looking plans is near-impossible. This checklist will help you focus your efforts.

Strategy  >  Moving chess pieces as abstract data overlays the game
Credit: WhyFrameStudio / Getty Images

In a previous blog post, I discussed the less evident short-term impact of COVID-19 on your digital transformation programs, but there are so many longer-term implications.  Will the current economic crisis have an impact beyond 2020?  I believe the answer is yes, and it could be significant.

To understand the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the IT market, one needs to look no further than the systemic shock of the virus.  It has changed economies, social systems, and consumer behaviors and disrupted supply chains.  COVID-19 has become a shock for every company around the world.  All of these forces colliding at the same time will materially change the way we do business, a shock that will extend well beyond 2020.  

One thing that is clear is that pandemics like COVID-19 can and will happen again.  While the world appears to have been caught by surprise, corporate boards and government regulators will likely now view pandemics as inevitable, putting CEOs and CIOs on notice to be prepared.  Much like Y2K could be clearly seen on the horizon, boards will now have a vivid image to recall of the havoc a pandemic can wreak and the long-term damage it can cause.   And while CEOs and CIOs will see this as a call to action, IT vendors (those that survive the short-term) are likely to view this systemic shock as an opportunity to develop new revenue streams not previously accessible.  I will refer to this systemic inflection point as the “COVID pivot.”

The COVID pivot agenda

As enterprises gain control and recover from the immediate short-term effects of COVID-19, CEOs will be pushed to establish a comprehensive agenda to mitigate the risks of future pandemics and adapt to the new realities of the world.

I expect these four stipulations to be on every CEO’s COVID pivot agenda:

  1. Take care of our people — If this is not the top line item of your agenda, you’re doing it wrong. While COVID-19 will have a significant impact on the corporate bottom line, it is likely to have a much longer-lasting impact on the psychology of the workforce.  Given the new realities required to retain a high quality workforce, be sure to include work-from-home strategies and policies, new benefits plans that consider the potential impacts of pandemics, and new workplace configurations that balance the need for collaboration and the benefits of social distancing.  
  2. Enable sustainable demand and service — COVID-19 will be a wake-up call for any organization that was not on the digital transformation train.  For those companies that survive the short-term shock, chief product officers will be challenged to develop services that can be delivered virtually (think virtual experiences, content, and educational platforms), low-touch access and delivery methods for existing products, and the ability to develop and market new products at the speed required to address pandemic demand curves.  This is also likely to include the ability to deploy more automated customer service (chatbots, smartphone apps, and a more distributed customer service organization).
  3. Design for resiliency of supply — Supply chains depend on people; people are susceptible to pandemics. Thus, supply chains are susceptible to pandemics.  To mitigate these risks, supply chain leaders will look to leverage a more diverse supply base that takes advantage of geographic dispersion, increased leverage on additive manufacturing, and protections for the front line workers necessary to manufacture, warehouse, and distribute the product. 
  4. Have a capable, secure infrastructure/platform To advance the first three items on the pandemic agenda, CIOs will be asked to do the impossible:  Address all these priorities simultaneously with a technology and application infrastructure that is dependable and secure with variable capacity.  

IT vendor response to the COVID pivot

Vendors of application software and implementation services are likely to be under extreme financial stress over the next six months, as companies put major projects and software acquisitions on hold.    Companies will look to position themselves to be the solution providers for clients to achieve their COVID pivot agendas.

Each vendor’s response will likely include these tactics in some form:

  • Revising the product roadmap — Software vendors will look to accelerate capabilities in their current products and new products that are aligned with the COVID agenda. This may mean putting a delay on capabilities that were forecasted for late 2020 or 2021.  Current software users should pay close attention over the next few months to confirm that capabilities that were anticipated are still on the docket for delivery. 
  • Lowering switching costsAs companies consider their current application platform’s readiness for the new realities, software vendors and service providers will look for opportunities to reduce switching costs to make their products more attractive. Software companies that are entrenched with clients and are often viewed as an anchor vs. an enabler will come under threat. (Are you listening SAP?)
  • Putting on new lipstickCompanies will look to take current offerings and current product lines and rebrand or remarket them as COVID pivot-enabling. Look for the phrase “digitization transformation” to slowly fade away with something new to fill the void that feels more like a compliance term — one that forces a different conversation with CIOs and enterprise risk managers.
  • Locking in longer-term agreementsSoftware and service providers without well-defined pivot strategies will look to lock their clients into attractive long-term agreements to defend against the lowering of switching costs. One can easily draw parallels to the cell phone industry to see this in a microcosm.

Recommendations for CIOs

There is clearly a lot on the CIO’s plate in solving the short-term issues related to COVID-19 and the associated economic impact.  However, developing a long-term view will pay dividends in executing the COVID pivot. 

My CIO to-do checklist: 

  • Take the leadCIOs can win back the seat at the management table that they enjoyed during the Y2K era. By proactively reaching out to work with counterparts in HR, marketing and supply chain, CIOs can shift from order-taker to problem-solver.
  • Determine road-mapping approachThere are likely to be three different strategies to road mapping and navigating the COVID pivot:
    • Reinvent — This approach establishes a clean sheet of paper and takes a more traditional approach. Companies that could never get the cash or attention to build a roadmap might have this work thrust upon them if corporate boards demand a pandemic risk mitigation plan.
    • Revise — This would involve shuffling the existing portfolio, some reprioritization, and a confirmation of direction from the various vendors’ strategies.
    • Accelerate — Some companies may have already charted a course that accounts for assumptions of a new world order. In these cases, it is likely that CIOs will be asked to accelerate to either leapfrog competitors or solidify their competitive position.
  • Transform vendor engagement strategy The onslaught of vendor marketing initiatives and client targeting strategies could end up being like the wild west with cloud providers bypassing traditional IT channels to market their wares. CIOs need to work proactively with their business counterparts to set the ground rules for engagement and craft a strategy that motivates suppliers to assist clients in developing their own strategies that can be realized quickly and efficiently.

These are just some of many actions to take today to help position your organization to deal with those outcomes that we can predict as well as those that are yet unknown.  Companies that are able to take effective and decisive action now to stabilize their business while also strategizing and implementing plans that take on the COVID pivot head-on will emerge stronger.