by Beth Stackpole

Rethinking IT strategy post-COVID-19

Jun 22, 2020
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

After a herculean effort to enable remote work at scale, IT organizations are ramping up innovation efforts to address the challenges and create new opportunities for doing business in a post-pandemic world.

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Credit: Demitrii Guzhanin / Getty Images

When the COVID-19 crisis bore down in mid-March, Avery Dennison’s IT department did what most shops did to prepare for working during the pandemic — they fortified networks, amped up bandwidth, and rolled out a regular cavalry of collaborative tools to enable a near-instantaneous shift to remote work.

Once resiliency of core systems was established, the Avery Dennison IT team veered off in a different direction. Recognizing the business world was facing a new normal, the IT department rolled up its sleeves to find ways technology could enable new ways of working, both internally and with customers and its supply chain during and after the pandemic. A flurry of brainstorming sessions sparked dozens of ideas and set a variety of projects in motion, including the deployment of virtual assistants to deliver 24/7 customer service, track and trace capabilities for monitoring the status of goods throughout the supply chain, and early efforts to bolster the now work-from-home sales team with virtual trade shows.

While the department was initially lauded for its quick efforts in getting employees working seamlessly from home, IT is now being sought out as a key innovation resource to help Avery Dennison chart a new course in the post-COVID era.

“We’re getting a lot of kudos for our flawless execution of networking services, but we really want to be remembered for what we did to create value outside of our services during this time,” says Nicholas Colisto, vice president and CIO at the global manufacturer of labeling and functional materials. “We’re certainly reducing spending, but not at the expense of innovation.”

Seizing the moment

After months of shutdowns and global quarantines, businesses are emerging from the hunker-down stage to reassess their markets and their strategic plans in the face of what is now being acknowledged as an economic recession. While cost-cutting remains at the top of everyone’s agenda, leading companies’ IT groups are pushing forward with new projects. Many firms, previously testing the waters in newer areas, such as automation, augmented reality, and collaboration, are reprioritizing and redirecting resources at those nascent efforts to address the myriad work-related challenges brought on by the global pandemic.

If there’s any upside to the COVID crisis, it’s this: The global shutdown and stay-at-home orders have provided IT with a stage to flex its muscle and help companies get back to business.

Most IT departments, including Colisto’s group at Avery Dennison, performed admirably under fire to get legions of employees up and running with the proper gear, secure connectivity, and collaboration tools that would help them work effectively from their homes. Even those companies previously slow to embrace the cloud, videoconferencing, and other tools that have fast become the staples of a work-from-anywhere environment have stepped up, accelerating the roll out of new infrastructure that would enable novel ways of working now, and likely well into the foreseeable future.

Throughout the process, all eyes are on IT and many are liking what they see. “It changes the nuance of how people view IT — it’s now viewed as a necessity, not a luxury,” contends Pradip Sitaram, senior vice president and CIO of Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit focused on bringing together parties to maximize the impact of local affordable housing developments.

While pockets of Enterprise Community Partners employees had already worked from home sporadically, before COVID-19 hit there was never a requirement to accommodate a universally-remote workforce, including a team based in India now on full lock down. Nevertheless, Sitaram’s early decision to embrace a cloud-first strategy helped the firm more easily transition to new ways of working, and for now, Enterprise Community Partners is soldiering on, executing on its five-year strategic plan with minimal changes.

“Right now, we’re chugging along and there’s been no impact to business operations or projects,” Sitaram says. “I imagine the last few months have done a great deal to validate the cloud-first strategy we’re executing on. One of the promises was resiliency, and what better test of that than the last few months.”

Being thrown into a new work reality has also forced previously tech-adverse employees to get on the bandwagon and enthusiastically embrace new tools. Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which had already been deployed, but not yet in widespread use, have become active staples of the community, and employees seem eager to expand their palette and experiment with new platforms. “The value of technology has been laid bare — we no longer have to keep telling people,” he says.

Adjusting the IT pipeline

IT organizations are also being tested in their ability to accommodate rapid changes and adjust priorities and projects on a dime. At Erickson Living Management, which develops and manages retirement communities, IT has rearranged its pipeline to accommodate the changing needs of its communities and customers with a completely different set of projects, according to Hans Keller, the company’s CIO.

For example, IT was slated to rollout a new point-of-sale system for the 100 restaurants serving Erickson Living Management’s communities, but now that dining out is in question due to COVID-19, the team has switched gears to focus on new digital experiences and virtual tours to aid sales and marketing when prospects are unable or unwilling to physically tour the retirement home sites.

“Our priorities have shifted and we’re looking at things to focus on in the second half of the year that are slightly different than what we imagined in February,” Keller says. “We are reallocating resources to meet new priorities rather than scaling up or scaling back,” he adds, noting that the firm is continuing to hire and fill some key open positions.

At Central Minnesota Credit Union (CMCU), the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have increased use of the institution’s digital banking capabilities so much so that the IT department is actively looking for ways to expand its digital footprint, according to Neal Kaderabek, CMCU’s senior vice president of digital and IT.

“It is creating more of an acclimation to the digital world that some of our customers were not inclined to or not comfortable with,” Kaderabek says. Now, customers are enlisting the bank’s services to pay bills with credit cards rather than ACH transactions and are gravitating to online banking instead of flooding the customer support center with calls.

Kaderabek and his team plan to keep the digital banking momentum going by adding nine new products and functions to its e-banking capabilities over the next six months. “I need to keep feeding the beast when they are excited about the services,” he says. “Otherwise they will revert back to their old habits of getting in the car and driving to the branch.”

Spurred by the changes brought by COVID-19, Jabil, a provider of manufacturing services, has been experimenting with new technologies such as augmented reality and videoconferencing to keep eyes on its customers’ production sites and to complete some of the integrations and setups even when there is no travel.

While it took some time to work out the kinks and get employees up to speed, the video tools have helped the Jabil team more easily spread its domain knowledge across the workforce and keep its customers’ production going. Even post-pandemic, the technology will ensure there will be far less travel in employees’ future, according to Gary Cantrell, Jabil’s CIO and senior vice president for information technology.

“We’ll spend some time figuring out how to leverage the tools we have and another round of innovation will come so we’ll have more tools to help us do more remotely,” he explains. “We won’t have to get on a plane as much and that’s a very big shift.”

Embracing an evolving ‘new reality’

As businesses start the phased transition to reopening, IT leaders are girding for a new normal. At many companies, employees will continue to work remotely for some time, which is already unleashing an effort to enhance processes with additional tools. At a series of roundtable discussions hosted by the CIO Executive Council for its executive members, CIOs talked about a range of endeavors, including greenlighting more use of cloud-based collaboration tools such as Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams; tackling long-deferred projects to reduce technical debt; instituting best practices involving digital tools that organizations have been slow to adopt; and creating staggered teams for critical operations.

Cox Enterprises is looking to augment its extensive use of videoconferencing with new whiteboarding capabilities and it’s continuing full steam ahead with its automation program. In the post-COVID world, there were concerns about how automation might impact people’s roles — today, employees view it as a necessity, notes Scott Leazer, assistant vice president, IT business solutions at Cox Enterprises. “COVID really forces us to take a step back and work on the most important things,” he says. “If it’s not absolutely critical and if it’s not transforming the future, it’s probably something that’s not high priority.” Case in point: A time and expense application upgrade in the pipeline has been delayed while a network transformation initiative is now top priority.

In addition to doubling down on business-critical efforts, Altimetrik, which helps companies with digital transformation, sees the post-COVID era as an opportunity to build a trust culture in IT. As the lockdowns shifted Altimetrik’s model from centralized and co-located teams to a decentralized group, the company has opted to move away from an emphasis on tasks in favor of outcome-based metrics.

“People are worrying about how their team is spending their eight hours, and there are all these expensive productivity proctor tools emerging, but they tell you more about engagement with the computer and don’t give you any real sense of achieving outcomes,” says Shubhabrata Mohanty, Altimetrik’s CIO. “At the end of the day, trust will slowly get built if we focus on outcomes.”

Back at Enterprise Community Partners, Sitaram is also preparing for the IT group to continue remote work, even going as far as to offer a one-time allowance for employees to purchase equipment to make their home workspace more comfortable. Sitaram is also placing a greater emphasis on the soft skills of his talent bench, including pushing managers to demonstrate greater empathy.

One surprising benefit from the COVID-induced separation: Greater engagement and more time spent working together, Sitaram says. “The first two weeks were a nightmare because I lost control of my calendar, but now we have regular catch-ups and I feel so much more connected,” he says. “I’ve been here 10 years and in the last few months, I’ve had more face-to-face meetings with my team than I’ve had in the last few years.”

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