Lessons in Agility – How the Pandemic Made CIOs and Their Organizations More Resilient

When COVID hit, Lenovo focused on rapid IT innovation to support employees safely working remotely and to keep supply chains running as demand for PC products spiked.

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By: Art Hu, CIO

Pre-pandemic, many CIOs had “digital transformation” on their list of projects to implement in the coming years. But starting last March, companies quickly realized the urgency of transforming their IT delivery models, with some even using them to pivot their business model in order to survive. Within a matter of weeks, IT became a central, strategic partner, working closely with the business along with HR, facilities management, legal, and other operational teams.

Keeping the Lights On and Building for the Long Term

At Lenovo, we’ve been working on Intelligent Transformation for a while now. When COVID hit, we reprioritized to focus on two critical areas for business continuity: supporting the majority of our employees in working remotely and keeping our supply chain running as demand for PC products spiked around the world. Each of these efforts came with its own challenges.

One of our first priorities was cybersecurity. As we started enabling remote work across the globe, Lenovo saw cyberattacks jump 300%. We immediately strengthened our defenses. We targeted malware and phishing attacks and improved our ability to identify and isolate threats. We also increased automation and compliance adherence to ensure we could prevent or quickly remediate security issues as we detected them. 

Addressing security, however, was just the beginning. To support remote work on such a massive scale, we had to transform our entire approach. For the past several years, working from home was considered a fairly limited logistical challenge, to be met mostly through technical solutions. Once it became a large-scale, business-critical capability, it required a comprehensive solution that addressed a wide range of needs and issues. Take, for example, work practices. Our senior leaders had to revisit policies regarding how employees work off site, while also addressing how sites could reopen safely.

For the best technical solutions, we tapped into Lenovo’s industry-leading expertise to help us mitigate the myriad risks that come with virtual work, such as the increased use of collaboration tools. We also leveraged our external capabilities to help us baseline the level of security needed to keep employees safe as some returned to the office. But equally important to the technology was the role of leadership, with support from HR, in determining how sustained remote work fits into our company culture, and what changes are needed to facilitate our new normal.

Meeting a Surge in Customer Demand

Prior to COVID-19, Lenovo had already been working to make how we do business smarter. One area of focus was improving our forecasting ability by leveraging machine learning and data models. We found that using artificial intelligence (AI) to augment human judgment at the right time isn’t intuitive. We got it right after understanding what artificial and human intelligence each do best, and then leveraging the best of both to forecast demand. This knowledge allowed us to deliver on the unprecedented demand for PCs that we saw in the past two quarters. By successfully working with teams around the world to match supply with demand, Lenovo was able to fulfill up to 99% of customer preference by pairing sales with available inventory.

Where We are Investing

Like many of you, Lenovo has been reevaluating how we allocate our IT investments and resources. We’ve gained a clearer delineation between short-term projects that are responsive to the immediate environment and long-term ones that will help us build our resiliency to continued shifts. The middle area, with projects that fit between these axes, is flattening out. The projects here, often promising marginal return, are being tabled or cut.

As we deliver on the key remaining projects, we are increasingly turning to emerging technologies such as AI, Internet of Things (IoT), and Edge computing. In addition, as 5G reaches its potential, we plan to leverage it to advance our goal of “democratizing digitization.” For example, we want to create ways for non-tech employees to become their own “data scientists,” by providing user-friendly tools and access to pertinent data. Employees can then follow a self-service type of model to get the analytics they need to drive business results and improve their organizations.

What’s Next for Tech Professionals

With technology leading the way in solving the challenges around the corner, the core competencies of domain and technical excellence remain as important as ever. The pandemic, however, has elevated the need for related “soft skills,” as well, particularly the ability to build trust through flexible, agile communication.

Actively listening, conveying messages that land, and creating a meaningful connection with others has always been a critical—and sometimes elusive—competency. Achieving all this while working largely online takes the degree of difficulty up several notches. Leaders must build new relationships or maintain current ones without the benefit of in-person interactions. This is no easy feat. But those who can meet this challenge and build trust through virtual venues are the ones who will flourish.

I have found that challenging times reveal the most resilient leaders. Great managers are the ones who redirect their energies towards what they can control and who find ways to steadily continue delivering on their strategies. They view unexpected challenges as an opportunity to quickly grasp shifting problems, unleash their teams’ creativity, and find innovative solutions. As a result, they dramatically improve the energy and morale of their entire teams, while also delivering for the business.

All of us are currently operating in a volatile environment. I believe the key to succeeding, whether in IT or elsewhere, lies in our ability to adopt a growth mindset and respond in a flexible, agile way. Doing so will help us steer us through whatever “new normal” we face, whether it is pandemic-related or the next huge, unexpected event. I have no doubt that many motivated leaders will succeed, with tech professionals being at the forefront.

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