by Clint Boulton

The pandemic pivot: IT leaders innovate on the fly

Aug 13, 2020
Digital TransformationInnovationIT Leadership

Already accustomed to moving quickly, CIOs are testing and scrapping new solutions to accommodate customers. Their work could provide blueprints for future innovation.

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Credit: ipopba / Getty Images

As the coronavirus forced Aspen Dental Management to shutter its offices in March, the company quickly moved to connect patients with doctors virtually.

But a problem cropped up: Many patients didn’t care for Aspen’s self-service telemedicine portal. “For the most part, they abandoned it, so we said this is not going to work,” says Yogish Suvarna, CIO of Aspen Dental Management, which provides business services for more than 830 offices.

The solution? Aspen quickly added call center representatives to broker virtual care sessions between patients and doctors. Problem solved.

Pivots such as Aspen’s are playing out all over the world as the coronavirus roils industries forcing organizations to adapt more quickly to satisfy customer preferences, as well as technical and business hurdles.

Rapid-fire digital solutions built in sprints provides a schema for how IT organizations operate going forward, says David Clarke, digital strategy and innovation leader at PwC, adding that IT leaders should view the pandemic as a digital accelerator rather than a deterrent. Seventy-eight percent of CFOs PwC polled in July said they cut investments, though only 17 percent say those cuts extend to digital transformation, Clarke says.

The virtual-care pivot

Aspen, for instance, stood up a virtual care system in just 8 days. But patients, frustrated by the experience of inputting their personal and credit card information before connecting to their doctors via a video conference, quickly exited the portal. Aspen’s call service reps were added to accept patient information before they met virtually with their dentists, who would determine whether treatment was required in the office.

The new process, akin to digital technology that consumers have become accustomed to using in banking and retail, helped patients gain confidence in the user experience, Suvarna says. It was a simple solution, but one that underscores the importance of identifying how a customer wants to conduct business with a company and adjusting to accommodate them.

Suvarna’s rapid-fire digital work continued into June, as Aspen digitized the check-in process to serve more than 4,500 patients daily. Previously, patients spent several minutes filling out paperwork in the waiting room, after which care representatives would manually input the data. Today, an Aspen representative scans their driver’s license and insurance card at check-in, auto-populating the data into the patient management system. The patient reviews their personal information and the needed consent forms on an iPad before providing an electronic signature.

The contactless solution cut average check-in time in half to as little as 15 minutes. Aspen estimates the tool could eliminate more than 1,000 hours of non-patient support time per office per year. “There’s no need to sit and fill out paperwork, which eliminated huge time in the front of the office,” Suvarna says.

Ordering up a contactless solution

The restaurant industry faced massive disruption due to social distancing. Few chains felt this pain more than Friendly’s Restaurants, which shuttered 160 locations around the country in March. CIO Pete Gibson is actively evaluating contactless technologies that will help consumers safely engage the business. “We are working hard to go contactless,” Gibson says.

A key piece of this strategy entails creating a digital menu that customers can easily access from any connected device. Yet after landing on a solution that would enable customers to scan a QR code to view a menu online from their phones, Friendly’s abandoned this approach because it was patented. So Gibson is endeavoring to make the menu available via a short URL. Gibson, who envisions Friendly’s one day displaying menus on digital placemats, is also exploring mobile ordering and tap-to-pay solutions.

While Gibson is scrambling to go contactless, earlier digital work is helping the company stay afloat. Under Gibson’s direction, Friendly’s in 2019 inked partnerships with UberEats, DoorDash, Grubhub and other delivery services, creating new revenue streams that helped offset the huge hit the chain took when its store couldn’t host patrons.

Gibson attributed his team’s success to the organizational culture, which he says has risen to the occasion since the outbreak’s inception. He’s also bullish because technological advancements are providing CIOs with more opportunities to deliver business value. “It’s about how we apply our practice to add value and benefit the company,” Gibson says.

Overhauling the sales forecast

The COVID-19 outbreak threatened to disrupt Jaguar Land Rover’s (JLR) supply chain, a global network comprising hundreds of suppliers.

The automotive company typically relies on sales forecasts cultivated years in advance to orchestrate its production lines, a delicate dance that required it to manage thousands of combinations of parts made by myriad manufacturers, says Harry Powell, director of data and analytics. Accuracy is paramount, as minimum buy volumes of parts are committed with penalties for not meeting the agreed upon volume.

Recognizing that JLR’s careful choreography wouldn’t hold during the pandemic, Powell told business leaders that they could not longer rely on sales forecasts to which they were accustomed. “I went around telling everybody that we were looking at this [challenge] through the wrong end of the telescope,” Powell says. “You have to be more flexible in how you make things and have the ability to react to new information.”

The analytics team needed to provide more timely analysis of the impact changes to the forecast orders would have on JLR’s supply chain. Powell’s team revved up its use of graph database software, which analyzes the relationships of entities — in this case parts and suppliers — to provide its business with more accurate analytics.

The software, from TigerGraph, detected when suppliers would fail to meet quota demands.

“We used the graph to re-sequence how our vehicle orders were to be built in our factory in response to a supplier failure,” Powell says. Queries across the supply chain model now take 30 to 45 minutes compared to weeks using SQL relational database software.

The bottom line: Key to all of these quick pivots is a high-quality culture that is comfortable with sustained change, PwC’s Clarke says. CIOs have to be “inclusive of the entire organization,” bringing all employees along for the journey.