by Heath Muchena

Q&A: Is the coronavirus the real Chief Digital Officer?

May 20, 2020
Cloud ComputingIT LeadershipIT Strategy

IT veteran and academic Josef Langerman, head of engineering capability and ways of working at Standard Bank Group, explores how organisational change helps businesses deal with crises.

super computers 3 data center coronavirus covid 19 romolotavani vladimirtimofeev by getty images
Credit: RomoloTavani / VladimirTimofeev / Getty Images

With the business landscape evolving as a result of COVID-19, organisational change is becoming more important as a way of helping businesses adopt new strategies and modes of working.

We discussed why transformational charge is so hard, and technologies that support remote work during the current crisis, in this Q&A with Josef Langerman, a 16-year veteran at Standard Bank and a professor of practice at the University of Johannesburg. Langerman has occupied several roles during his career, including head of development, group head of engineering transformation, acting CTO, and group head of IT strategy, enterprise architecture and organisational change. Excerpts follow:

Can you give some insight into what your dynamic role as head of engineering capabilities and ways of working entails?

josef langerman profile pic Josef Langerman

Josef Langerman is head of engineering capability and ways of working at Standard Bank Group.

Getting the technology right is the easy part. Culture is what moves the technology forward. However, culture is always resisting change. In my role, I have to think about the way we work in this new world and that’s where Agile and DevOps come into play. To make those aspects work you need culture, and to implement shifts in work culture I engage stakeholders including the board of the organisations, the executive committees (ExCos) and people in the work force to drive change through that entire process. In essence, my job is basically that of a change agent.

What are some of the hurdles that make the journey to digital so challenging for many organisations?

Technology can only bring about transformation if it’s embraced by the adopters in a meaningful way. You’ll find that in many large corporations advanced technology is already in place but corporate cultures and legacy silos prevent these tools from creating the impact or bringing about the efficiencies intended. For example, if one runs a branch and brings about digitisation, there’s the view that people will lose their jobs, so in most instances, the initial reaction is to resist the change associated with adoption of that technology. In addition, if you have two departments with two different systems and there’s a lack of communication between them, then you’re likely going to encounter issues.

Pre-crisis, remote work was largely viewed as being mostly relevant to those working in the gig economy. Do you think the COVID-19 crisis has been instrumental in speeding up the move to remote working for organisations that hadn’t previously made such considerations?

 Ultimately, the move to digital was accelerated by COVID-19 because it was forced and we had to quickly react to the situation. So in my opinion, COVID-19 has been the real chief digital officer. For example, at Standard Bank, we already had all the tools to enable staff to work from home before the crisis forced us into lockdown. The important question is why hadn’t we done so sooner since there were no infrastructure issues inhibiting that transition? We had all the cloud-based tools already!

The answer in my opinion is that most organisations have legacy habits in their ways of working which often impede change. Many organisations in a similar position as ours are now contemplating whether it’s necessary to return to working on-premise and what to do with the billions worth of office space.

How are you approaching creating either a compelling digital vision or driving appropriate synergies to improve ways of working especially in the wake of the current crisis?

I have a different view of digital. In fact, I’m not sure what digital means. I always thought IT was about digitisation. I believe we are still in the ICT revolution that started in the late 1960s or as it is sometimes called: late stage industrial revoution  – with a focus on IT. I consider the widespread use of Microsoft Office for example as digitisation. Now we just have a lot of buzz words which imply that digital means AI, machine learning, or automation. In my opinion those are simply just “hype cycles”. It’s the pace of change that has accelerated. Think of it as Moore’s Law.

I’m aware some academics will have a different view of digital or digitisation for instance, but I think it’s just an evolution. What has truly changed however, is the way we work, which is very different from the past. In the past we had project management, which is a remnant of the big Manhattan Project. This meant that everything in IT entailed doing requirements, coding, and deployment but now what we see more often is project management being pushed to the side in software development and the introduction of Agile. Culture has moved from top-down authoritarian management to more collaborative servant based leadership.

In addition, the IT operating model is changing since in the past you always had developers and operations working almost independent of each other. The developers wrote software and operations deployed and ran it. These days those two functions are more integrated and cloud is the big enabler. So expect to see more opportunities and growth for cloud engineers and not so much infrastructure specialists. Such perspectives help inform how I look at digital and new ways of working.

What are some of the tools you’re using to enable employees to work remotely?

We provided all our staff with uncapped 3G cards since we were not certain that all employees had connectivity in their homes. We’re even considering providing backup solar panels for  a few critical staff so that they can have uninterrupted access even when there is load shedding because that’s an ongoing concern in South Africa.

As far as tools, we use Microsoft 365 across the organisation. We use Citrix if people need direct access to some of the bank’s applications and there was a bit more investment made into this but nothing major. We didn’t have to buy much else except extra bandwidth. Our project management tools like Atlassian software have always been available. We are also moving towards more output based measurements but of course those can also bring about resistance. The culture in some organisations means that some traditional top down managers may resist such an approach in favour of more micro-management techniques. They may still want to track how many times employees logged in on a daily basis for instance. These attitudes are more common in older organisations with older style management.

 What approach should IT leadership take to navigating times of crisis on a limited IT budget?

Investing in great connectivity such as fibre is essential since ADSL speeds are slower. If I was running a small business, I’d ensure that I have everything on cloud. Tools like Dropbox and Google Drive give you access to data on the go. Even Office applications are all online. There is free, cloud-based software for accounting and invoicing that small businesses can utilise.

What cloud providers are you using?

Our aim is to have all our applications on the Cloud by 2025. We are currently moving away from physical data centers to Cloud. We didn’t choose a hybrid cloud strategy to avoid having some data on-premise and other data on Cloud. The guidance from the Reserve Bank of South Africa is that organisations should always have two providers so we’ve split across certain types of applications – some are AWS specific and others are more Azure.

 What are some of the lessons learned from navigating the corona crisis?

I found that more people need interaction. You get introverts and extroverts in teams but as a leader you need to create more opportunities to connect with your team. Because you’re out of sight this can sometimes create a sense of isolation. As a leader it’s important to have check-in sessions with your team to make sure people feel connected and don’t get depressed. We’ve also found that online meetings are more tiring than in-person meetings so we try to limit the duration of meetings to under 45 minutes to allow people to have breaks in between meetings, especially senior teams who can sometimes have up to 12 hours of meetings daily. The biggest take away from this crisis is that it was a catalyst to push us to do things differently. It gave us an opportunity to reinvent our business models because there’s pressure on the system now.