by Clint Boulton

CIOs seek digital momentum coming out of crisis mode

Jun 26, 2020
CIODigital TransformationInnovation

CIOs who scrambled to support remote workforces during the COVID-19 pandemic are padding their digital operating models with practices and tools geared for digital transformation.

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Credit: yogysic / Getty Images

Enterprise IT leaders have taken the necessary steps to keep their businesses humming during the coronavirus pandemic, but they also know they can’t sleep on their corporate IT strategies. Intent on emerging from the COVID-19 outbreak stronger than ever, many IT leaders are fleshing out their future-proofing efforts, accelerating new development models and reskilling even as they shore up gaps in their IT portfolios.

Since COVID-19 shuttered businesses in the United States in March, changes in buying behaviors have companies competing for digital sales as much now as ever before. Accordingly, CIOs keen on keeping as much momentum going as possible before any potential budget cuts come for IT are embracing a move fast and build things approach.

If a recent PwC poll of 330 CFOs is any indication, they needn’t worry: Thirty-two percent expect their tech-related spend will be driven by growth, including ecommerce and new products and services for the next 12 months, according to a study conducted in early June.

Reskilling bolsters the digital operating model

Even so, CIOs are seizing the moment to augment existing capabilities. After executing its work-from-home (WFH) strategies, Lincoln Financial Group’s IT department took a breath to refocus its digital strategy and “push learning across the organization,” CIO Ken Solon tells

Ken Solon, CIO, Lincoln Financial Group

Ken Solon, CIO, Lincoln Financial Group

Lincoln recently launched an educational program in which subject matter experts provide instruction on cloud and digital architecture, analytics, agile/DevOps, cybersecurity and other skills that are core to the insurance company’s digital operating model, says Solon, who greenlit the program. Called LeanIn and LearnIt, the reskilling opportunity offers Lincoln’s 1,200 IT workers virtual sessions via Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx that run through October.

In these efforts, Solon is fortifying Lincoln for the long haul, Solon says, adding that he is working with Deloitte on optimizing a talent and leadership model as the company finalizes its return-to-office plans. “It will be very different from how we left,” Solon says. “We need to get it right.”

The strategy appears sound. CIOs who have completed phase one business continuity plans. After boosting network capacity, shipping workstations to employees’ homes and building remote call center operations, IT leaders must augment existing skill sets, prioritize the right projects and focus on business outcomes, wrote Mark Settle, former CIO of Okta, in a recent Forbes column.

Project management in the cloud

Achieving quality business outcomes is at the center of Roy Varghese’s digital strategy at federal agency NOAA Fisheries, which manages 50 local fisheries. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Varghese, the agency’s CIO, has been conducting gap analysis for operations, including securing the right baseline for how IT products and services are built and consumed.

Roy Varghese, CIO, NOAA Fisheries

Roy Varghese, CIO, NOAA Fisheries

On that front, the organization is leaning more on cloud software to centralize the management of IT projects, an emphasis that Varghese says has helped his organization complete projects on time and under budget. NOAA currently has 30 projects in its SmartSheet pipeline, which helps prioritize and identify risks rapidly. SmartSheet helps Varghese review three or four projects within 30 minutes; previously, it took the same time to review one.

The app “democratizes project management with all of the rigor and none of the weight” of previous project management apps the company has used, and it has helped NOAA become more data-driven, which Varghese says is critical during these uncertain times. “We only know where gaps exist and where we are today and where we want to go in the future with data,” he adds.

Using data to establish and maintain business continuity is important, though some fear overemphasis in these areas will leech resources from innovation as companies weigh cutting costs, gauging productivity and implementing safety measures, McKinsey says in a recent report. The consultancy advises companies to respond nimbly to shifting customer needs, pursue new opportunities for growth and re-evaluate their innovation portfolios to ensure resources are allocated appropriately.

Time to prioritize innovation

Facilitating innovation during the pandemic is a big part of Darren Dworkin’s job as the CIO of Cedars-Sinai, which has built custom algorithms to help the Los Angeles hospital system track the dispersal of N95 masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment.

Darren Dworkin, CIO, Cedars-Sinai

Darren Dworkin, CIO, Cedars-Sinai

The hospital system is also using AI to keep a census of how many beds and equipment it has available at any given time, as well as projections of available beds and equipment for different days. The tools, used by the hospital’s data science team and sitting on a large data lake, take into account historical data on average length of stay for patients post-surgery, as well as what equipment is required for each procedure. 

“It helps us understand how much capacity we have and whether we will need to ramp up” resources, Dworkin says, adding that CIOs can make the argument that “we never needed innovation more than right now.”

Dworkin may be onto something.

CIOs who have spent the past few months sprinting through WFH implementations are now buckling in for what they say is going to be a transformation marathon blending back-to-office tech deployments with the current remote-work scenarios, says Nirva Fereshetian, CIO of architectural design firm CBT.

When CBT’s Boston headquarters and other offices shuttered, Fereshetian saw adoption of Microsoft Teams soar among the staff of 230-plus designers, some of whom had previously declined to use the collaboration tool.

Nirva Fereshetian, CIO, CBT

Nirva Fereshetian, CIO, CBT

More challenging is figuring out the right mix of technologies to support employees returning to work and those who opt to continue to work from home, as well as how CBT can serve clients a high-quality experience. For instance, designers used virtual reality and augmented reality headsets such as Microsoft HoloLens and Google Glass to demonstrate designs to clients pre-pandemic. With both shared VR/AR headsets and on-site consultations no longer an option, Fereshetian is exploring how she might enable a software-based mixed reality solution. 

Challenges remain, though Fereshetian is proud of how CBT transformed more in the past three months than it could previously in 12 to 18 months. Still, she frets about sustaining the momentum: “We don’t want to go backwards in our thought processes and remarkable achievements,” she adds.