by Joanne Carew

Q&A: How to handle double disruption: COVID and digital transformation

Jul 19, 2020
Business ContinuityDigital TransformationIT Leadership

Warren Hero, CIO at "big five" South African law firm Webber Wentzel, talks about how he copes with steering digital transformation during the global pandemicrnrn

warren hero
Credit: Warren Hero

CIOs have to do double duty these days: They play a critical role in keeping their businesses operating safely during a global pandemic, while continuing to ensure adoption of emerging technology that will keep them competitive.

The legal field, like many other sectors, faces a fundamental, tech-driven shift in how it operates. For example, “lawbots” will handle a quarter of internal legal requests by 2023, according to Gartner. Legal departments will increasingly make use of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, natural language processing and virtual legal assistants (VLAs) to up their overall efficiency and offer a more responsive service to their clients, according to tech consultancy and market research firm.

Warren Hero, the CIO at Webber Wentzel, an African law firm headquartered in Johannesburg, is working closely with his fellow executives to build capabilities that ensure the firm stays ahead of the curve. We chatted to him about his work, handling change and what he and his team are doing to enable a distributed workforce during the pandemic.

Technology is set to transform your industry, how are you helping the organisation prepare for the change?

As enterprise architects, we focus on the current situation and the future situation. It’s our job to build the bridges required to make the transition from the one situation to the next and to help the organisation manage the change. Most organisations manage change by setting fire to a platform so that people will be forced to jump to the next platform. This might work for a bit but then people become fatigued. This is why it’s so important to rethink organisational change. We need to co-create a compelling vision of the future so that people can see themselves in that future reality. To do so, modern IT professionals must help our fellow executives understand that they are just as accountable for the organisation’s technology future as the IT director or CIO.

What technology initiatives are driving IT investment in your organisation? Has COVID-19 changed this?

Before COVID, we were focused on trying to improve employee productivity and client intimacy via our CRM platform. Obviously, we’ve had to revise various aspects our technology strategy given the pandemic. One of the early things we did was chat to suppliers about renegotiating our contracts so that we could better manage our liquidity. We created an integrated response team across the whole business so that we could develop a consolidated response to the crisis. As part of this collaboration strategy, we realised that we needed to identify what platforms would enable effective internal and external communication – coordinating internal conversations and then knitting these together so that we have the right external conversations with our clients. We also focussed our attention on improving the employee experience. Technology allowed us to increase the cadence of our communication while our teams work from home. If I look at the stats from our collaboration platforms, the frequency of contact between managers and teams has tripled since the lockdown began.

What strategies did you adopt to handle working from home?

We had three key priorities – employee safety, infrastructure resiliency and supply chain. We needed to make sure that our employees had the devices and connectivity they needed to successfully work remotely. From a resiliency perspective, it wasn’t just about infrastructure availability but also about recovery. We focused on our firewalls and our VPN. We made sure that we had IT monitoring capabilities in place to enable visibility. It’s not a “Big Brother” situation with a whip in hand; it’s about making everything as transparent as possible. Finally, with so many supply chains being disrupted, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to maintain supply chain integrity across our partners, clients and the consumers of our services.

How have you handled business continuity? 

Cloud has been a big one for us. Even though we had good disaster recovery – with a primary and a backup – our move to the cloud took us from two to three instances. From a business continuity perspective this offers greater security. We also embraced DevSecOps and APIs. We’ve had a flood of automation opportunities but our time frame between understanding what the organisation wanted and prototyping/delivery had to improve. We upped the frequency of our delivery to the organisation by shortening our systems development life cycle. For me, this situation has highlighted the importance of running frequent tests. You have to get people to actually rehearse everything so that they are ready to activate the business continuity plan if/when when they need to.

What have you learned through all this and anything you’d change going forward?

In situations like this, one of the mistakes we make is that we focus so much on the short term that we put ourselves in a position where we are actually destroying long term value. It’s important to prioritise both.

Did you have to offer any new services to customers/employees?

We shifted our innovation strategy by highlighting what would help us come out of this situation with greater momentum. We actually accelerated the delivery of our CRM platform so that we could maintain the client intimacy we’d been working on before the pandemic. As some lockdown restrictions have been eased, we put measures in place to make sure that people could work safely. Ensuring that they are screened when entering the building and that they understand what precautions they need to take to stay safe. From a technology perspective, we used different tracking and tracing tools to better understand the navigation of the building. Bluetooth sensors, NFC and passive RFID were brought together so that we could create risk profiles for each person based on how they’ve moved through our offices.

Do you have any advice for aspiring IT leaders?

Highly effective individuals have four characteristics – persistence, forethought, option thinking and an internal locus of control. Think about a professional golfer. Every time he or she steps up to play the ball, they’re not just acting habitually. They’ve thought about how to play the ball a million times based on different factors like the weather or the nature of the course. If something is important enough, you need to have that same level of forethought, you need to be persistent, you need to plan for unforeseen eventualities and you need to be humble enough to take responsibility should something go wrong.