by Bob Violino

8 key IT lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis

Jun 30, 202011 mins
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

IT's heroic response to the pandemic has highlighted the technologies, strategies and culture necessary to drive success going forward.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a jarring impact on virtually every facet of life and business — including IT. As lockdowns end and many businesses begin to reopen, at least on a limited basis, technology executives are looking for a return to some semblance of normalcy.

For sure, the worldwide health crisis has dramatically changed the way IT departments provide services to their organizations. That includes supporting the massive shift to a work-from-home model that few could have fathomed a few months ago.

As with any other event on this scale, there are lessons to be learned. Here are some of those, shared by IT leaders and other experts.

Organizational agility begins with culture

The past few months have reminded IT leaders that change is inevitable, and that culture plays a big role in adapting to change.

Over the past three years, MVP Health Care, a provider of regional health insurance, had been working to reinvent the culture of its IT operations to focus on agility, says Michael Della Villa, CIO and head of shared services.

“We have transformed our thinking as an organization from being resistant to change to embracing it, particularly as it relates to IT,” Della Villa says. “By challenging our IT team to think and act like a business, we’ve significantly upleveled the value we’re delivering to members.”

This mentality includes focusing on the value IT is providing for each customer, embracing change, asking “why” questions, and thinking and acting like a small company, among other things.

“Without the transition to this mentality, we wouldn’t have been able to as nimbly transition from working on premises to nearly the entire company working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Della Villa says. This feat was especially important for a company with more than 1,700 employees spread across New York and Vermont, he says.

Remote work is now a fact of life — and supporting it requires structure

Prior to the pandemic, many enterprises were experiencing a rise in the remote workforce, thanks in large part to increased use of mobile technology and the cloud. The health crisis made working from home the norm, and for many companies the shift might be long term if not permanent.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from the pandemic is about the need for leaders to establish a structure for working remote, including encouraging team members to set and indicate working hours in their calendaring systems, and then re-setting project timelines and help desk coverage times to accommodate this new availability matrix,” says Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at software company Nutanix.

“Without this structure, employees tend to continue to operate in ‘emergency’ mode, feeling the need to be available 24×7,” Pfeiffer says. “Just as staying online 24×7 isn’t good for our teenaged video gamers, it’s also not healthy for us.”

The mission of the CIO has now been expanded to enable employees to be productive in their home environment. “When we first went remote, we saw an initial decrease in productivity due to everyone getting adjusted,” Pfeiffer says. “But now that our employees are set up for success at home, we’ve actually seen an increase in productivity by 8 percent. We’ve learned that our employees will work hard no matter where they are, as long as we’re providing the tools and resources for them to thrive.”

The cloud and virtualization have become even more critical

Clearly cloud services have been taking on an increasingly important role at organizations over the past few years. But the pandemic raised the level of urgency to a new level, as companies scrambled to support legions of home workers, roll out and maintain collaboration tools, and more easily deliver applications, capacity, and storage to a far-flung workforce.

“Being a cloud-first company leapfrogged our business continuity capability and allowed us to quickly enable over 90 percent of our employees to work from home during the first week of pandemic,” Della Villa says.

After migrating to Microsoft Office 365 two years ago MVP Health Care also implemented the Microsoft Teams collaboration tool. “Had we stayed with an on-premise solution, we wouldn’t have benefited from Microsoft’s continuous upgrades and enhancements,” Della Villa says.

More important, the company wouldn’t have been able to swiftly send its workforce home without missing a beat in productivity. The cloud has helped accelerate the adoption of advanced technology across the organization, Della Villa says.

“We now regularly are working in ways that previously weren’t the standard, like collaborating over Teams on video in place of the now antiquated phone call,” Della Villa says. “We’re receiving extremely positive feedback across the company on this transition, much due in part to Microsoft’s technology and our move to cloud.”

At Pittsburgh Technical College (PTC), virtualization technology such as VMware’s virtual desktop tools helped the institution seamlessly shift to remote learning, and it provides internet hotspots to students and staff who don’t have access to high-speed access.

“Our IT team was able to transition professors, students, and staff quickly and smoothly to a remote work and learning environment,” says CIO William Showers. “A big part of our success was thanks to previous investments and efforts made to virtualize our underlying IT infrastructure.”

The campus infrastructure is about 95 percent virtualized, including servers and workstations. “When we had to make the switch to working remote, the only difference to the worker was that they were not working at their desk anymore,” Showers says. “They still had the same software and same standardized desktop image.”

That’s not to say the transition wasn’t without challenges. “A number of our students live in rural areas without access to high-speed internet,” Showers says. “In order to accommodate these connection challenges, our team shipped hotspots to these individuals so they can access their virtual learning environment and stay productive until campus is reopened.”

Organizations need flexible software platforms and strategies

IT teams didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the monumental changes caused by the pandemic, so having a set of software platforms in place that could be quickly implemented and scaled to support operations was vital.

This is critical for two reasons, says Scott Mastellon, commissioner of the IT department at Suffolk County, N.Y., an area that was hit hard by coronavirus cases. First, it’s important to be able to quickly implement functionality. Second and more important, “it allows me to distribute the overall workload among my application staff so that one group is not totally overwhelmed,” he says.

This enabled certain staff members to remain “fresh” during the difficult times and continue to be highly productive, Mastellon says. “And to put things in perspective, when I say the difficult times, from March 9 through April 24, a total of 47 days, I worked every day and went into the office for 46 of those days — working an average of 13.5 hours per day,” he says. “Keeping resources fresh to handle demand was key.”

Without having platforms in place from vendors such as Salesforce, ServiceNow, Accela, and Infor, all application work for the county would have depended on its internal custom development staff.

“With our current application environment, we were able to distribute a lot of application demand across our commercial products, while leaving the more specialized application requirements to our custom development group,” Mastellon says. “In my experiences, many government agencies like to customize all applications as to avoid licensing and maintenance costs. While that may work for a smaller governments, it just doesn’t work for a county our size with 10,000 employees and 1.5 million residents.”

The demand for technology during the pandemic “was significant, and I have never experienced this high level in my 25-year career,” Mastellon says. “Having a balanced set of applications and skilled resources to support those applications and develop custom solutions as needed truly allowed us to meet the demand.”

Simplification and standardization are vital

Oftentimes the less complexity there is with IT, the better. That can certainly be the case in an emergency situation like the pandemic.

Prior to its standardization on Microsoft products, MVP Health Care had purchased and implemented hundreds of point products from a variety of vendors to support all kinds of business processes.

“Since then, we’ve spent a lot of energy and mindpower on the simplification and standardization of our technologies,” Della Villa says. “We’ve also evolved our relationship with Microsoft from a customer/vendor relationship to a true valued and trusted partner relationship.”

The company invested in Dynamics 365 for its customer relationship management (CRM) platform. “These investments in simplifying and standardizing have been essential to our ability to successfully and quickly transition employees to working from home,” Della Villa says.

A people-centric approach to IT security is necessary

Remote workers tend to abandon security procedures that interfere with their workflow and productivity, and as a result are often willing to bypass data protection checks if they can, says Vishal Salvi, CISO at Infosys, a digital services and consulting company.

“Enterprises have traditionally focused on creating security for systems,” Salvi says. “It’s time to pivot to focus on developing security for people.” Hackers are increasingly targeting remote workers, and it’s vital that these employees be able to work productively without being hindered by security processes, he says.

“When an incident occurs, the default reaction tends to be to blame the employee, even penalize the worker for not following the procedures,” Salvi says. “It’s valuable, however, to look at why that incident happened. What gaps existed in the defenses that exposed the employee to threat actors? What was it about the security solutions and processes that caused the employee to sidestep them and create additional risks?”

To prevent remote workers from taking security shortcuts, IT teams need to balance security with user experience and productivity, Salvi says. IT teams must provide a streamlined and hassle-free work experience while building transparent cyber security controls.

AI and machine learning can be game-changers

Even before the pandemic, many enterprises were grasping the potential of AI and machine learning (ML) tools as a way to draw unprecedented value from data and improve processes. For companies in industries such as healthcare, the technologies quickly opened new opportunities to advance data management.

“During the first few weeks of COVID-19, we witnessed five to six years [worth] of technology transformation across the industry,” Della Villa says. “Through AI and ML, we’re able to better understand where members are in their health journey, and add tremendous value with predictive analytics.”

Now, patients avoiding the hospital after suffering a stroke or not leaving their homes to pick up vital insulin prescriptions can be better served through AI and ML, Della Villa says. Powerful analytics tools can proactively predict and address health care needs.

“Additionally, as a result of the accelerated adoption of technology tools like telemedicine during the pandemic, we can expect our members and the general public to be more open to adopting other technologies into their healthcare in the future,” Della Villa says.

Technology innovation can be contagious

While it might be difficult to get employees who have a limited understanding of technology to embrace it, once they actually see the benefits they want more, Mastellon says.

Suffolk County in March 2020 deployed a robotic process automation (RPA) platform from UIPath to automate the processing of COVID-related lab results, saving a huge amount of time while improving this vital function for county residents.

Following the success of the RPA implementation, people who had worked for the county’s health department began to think about how they could apply the technology to other areas of their work, Mastellon says. “These are employees that would tend to be an obstacle in getting technology implemented in the past,” he says.

“One positive that we can take away [from the pandemic] is that it has opened up the eyes of many on what technology can do and how it can help improve our ability to complete our work,” Mastellon says. “Going forward, we now have people who understand the benefits of technology and will start to demand innovations.”