If there\u2019s one thing the pandemic has taught IT leaders, it\u2019s that their business continuity plans were not as hardened as they thought.\n\nAnd while no one can fault CIOs for not having anticipated the full extent of the COVID-19\u2019s impact on business, now that they have experienced such an event, many CIOs are getting strategic about planning for future unknown scenarios that may come to pass.\n\nBusiness continuity plans (BCPs) center in large part around possible known scenarios, such as a major disruption caused by a fire, flood, or malicious attack by cybercriminals. They outline procedures an organization must follow in the face of such disasters, but when the exact fallout of a business existential event cannot be fully anticipated, establishing an organization capable of riding through such a scenario may be just as \u2014 if not more important than \u2014 having explicit plans in place to marshal a response.\n\nThis topic was explored recently during a session at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. CIOs who participated in the session further fleshed out in subsequent interviews what they wish they had done differently before and during the pandemic, as well as the technologies and IT strategies they believe will be beneficial in weathering unknowns in the coming years.\n\nFollowing is a roundup of the common themes these IT leaders see as essential to ensuring future organizational resilience, as gleaned from their experiences throughout the pandemic. Consider it a continuity strategy that goes beyond the traditional BCP, focusing just as much on agility and flexibility and on positioning their organizations as a place where people want to work.\n\nToward a more proactive IT\n\n\u201cNo one had a playbook for COVID but taking time to integrate the lessons learned and exercise your plans will be worthwhile to prepare you for the next unknown,\u201d says Mona Bates, CIO of Collins Aerospace.\n\nThe Charlotte, N.C.-based aerospace and defense company has utilized lessons learned from the pandemic to establish a foundational focus on being proactive rather than reactive, especially when it comes to cybersecurity, Bates says.\n\n\u201cWe are taking proactive approaches to monitoring and measuring our critical [digital transformation] systems\u2019 performance,\u2019\u2019 Bates says. This includes predicting system failure and performance trends, as well as monitoring the user experience and data-driven processes for continuous improvement across digital services and self-service, she says.\n\n\u201cFrom an architecture perspective, we reevaluated the ways in which we develop and bring to the business our support and applications, enhancing the business value and cost savings.\u201d For example, Collins Aerospace is now taking a cloud-first approach and embracing the agile framework to design, develop, and deliver products faster, she says.\n\nNow is the time to rethink business continuity plans, Bates adds. \u201cSecurity and compliance [within] the enterprise is the ongoing, enduring work we\u2019re doing to plan ahead,\u201d she says. \u201cIt\u2019s something that keeps me up at night.\u201d\n\nThe good news is IT has good frameworks, practices, and talent in place, she says. But Bates still constantly asks herself whether the IT organization knows and understands its full architecture and whether they are doing enough tabletop exercises to be able to confidently respond and adjust.\n\nPushing what-if scenarios another step deeper\n\nGiven the nature of its business as a multinational electricity and gas utility company, National Grid is doubling down on business continuity and crisis management in the wake of COVID-19. Adriana Karaboutis, group chief information and digital officer at National Grid, says it\u2019s of paramount importance for IT leaders to think deeply about the future and conduct what-ifs simulations.\n\nIt is expected that utility officials will think about what will happen if there is an event that brings the phone network down. But it\u2019s not enough to say, \u201cwe\u2019ll use wireless,\u2019\u2019 she says. \u201cWhat if that goes down? We have to keep thinking about what-ifs and things you didn\u2019t imagine, so what we are doing within my organization is doubling down on the what-ifs because did anyone expect a pandemic for real? No. So now we have to assume they\u2019re real and let\u2019s play them through with different scenarios.\u201d\n\nIT spends a lot of time building resiliency, security, safety, and measuring into its scenario planning, she says.\n\nChange management as an organizational skill\n\nOf course, you can never imagine all the things you need to account for in scenarios. That\u2019s why it\u2019s important to build muscle and plan for how to manage a crisis, says Karaboutis, who adds that this was among the top lessons she learned as an IT leader throughout the pandemic.\n\n\u201cWe all think we\u2019re good at it and whether something like a political or geopolitical [event] or weather hits, we want to be leaders,\u201d she says, \u201cbut change management is such an overused phrase and so underappreciated. Change management internally is a skill\u2019\u2019 that includes technologies, processes, and the way in which people work.\n\n\u201cIf I could give any advice, it would be study it, learn it, understand the cycles,\u2019\u2019 Karaboutis says of change management. \u201cI\u2019d make it a more formal discipline and [incorporate] capabilities that many companies don\u2019t embrace.\u201d\n\nTo do this, IT must also \u201cbuild dexterity and bring in diversity of thought and experience to your teams.\u201d CIOs must also stay on top of tech cycles, the news, and the business of their business, Karaboutis says.\n\n\u201cThe best anticipators of change will be successful in the next unknown that comes to us,\u201d she says.\n\nAccelerating the transformation timetable\n\nWith so many organizations having to accelerate digital initiatives to survive the pandemic, IT leaders are also stressing the need to ensure their organizations are primed for continual transformation as a means for navigating future unknowns.\n\nUsed vehicle retailer CarMax, for example, was on a path to enable customers to fully buy and sell cars online with the goal of \u201cempowering customers to do everything on their own,\u201d says Shamim Mohammad, executive vice president and chief information and technology officer. In early 2020, the company had rolled out an omnichannel experience to half of the country, Mohammad says.\n\nWhat went well for CarMax\u2019s IT group when the pandemic hit was a focus on agility and nimbleness and preparing the company for rapid change, he says. What didn\u2019t work well was focusing too heavily on \u201cculture and adapting and mindset. We could have done a better job getting farther along in [our transformation] journey,\u201d Mohammad says. But this has \u201cchallenged us to move quicker.\u201d\n\nDuring the session at the symposium, Mohammad said IT\u2019s plan was to \u201crefocus on building agility and resiliency. Then we\u2019ll be fine. Unknowns don\u2019t have to always be bad.\u201d\n\nTo do this, Mohammad is hiring more engineers and investing more in technologies such as data science and AI to automate and increase the pace at which teams are innovating. More legacy systems are being moved to the cloud at an accelerated pace \u201cbecause cloud gives you a lot more agility than on-premises [systems].\u201d\n\nThis will empower CarMax\u2019s associates and customers and give them \u201cthe option and flexibility to do the work they\u2019d like to do where they can add the most value,\u2019\u2019 he says, adding that, when IT teams are empowered for transformation, unknowns can become opportunities.\n\n\u201cAs the unknowns become more known and we can see more clearly what\u2019s happening, our teams can really adapt and respond and create the type of experiences customers are expecting,\u2019\u2019 he says. \u201cWe can really take advantage of that market-changing or industry- or society-changing opportunities.\u201d\n\nMohammad credits CarMax IT\u2019s shift from being a traditional project-based organization to a product-based one as key to facilitating the company\u2019s ability to adapt to change, he says.\n\nBefore, there were large numbers of tech professionals who worked individually. Now there are cross-functional and small, mission-driven teams that understand the company goals and customer needs and are empowered to test and learn to understand changing customer behaviors, Mohammad says.\n\nImproving the people part of business continuity\n\nIT leaders have also been rethinking the people part of business continuity in the wake of a pandemic that exposed several holes in their plans.\n\nDue to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, like many other companies, Collins Aerospace, for example, did not have a plan for almost 75% of the organization to work from home, says Bates.\n\n\u201cOur digital organization was running very lean when it came to spare computer hardware and peripherals,\u2019\u2019 she says. \u201cWe had to quickly shift our asset and hardware management practices to put hardware in the hands of employees quickly to enable their safety and productivity.\u201d Today, the company is partnering and planning differently with key suppliers, Bates says.\n\nTechnology-wise, National Grid\u2019s IT group was prepared to keep its 23,000 employees connected and productive during the pandemic with laptops, video, and other collaboration tools, Karaboutis says, but the group CIDO is looking to go further.\n\nNow, \u201cwe\u2019re setting the bar really high and knowing the persona for each [employee]\u2019\u2019 to have a deeper knowledge of each individual\u2019s needs, she says. For example, IT learned about people\u2019s struggles during the pandemic, whether it was employees who were experiencing loneliness because they had no one at home \u2014 or those with three kids who now had to be home-tutored and they had no space for an office and needed headsets as opposed to just a laptop with a camera and microphone.\n\n\u201cKnowing those personas and being even more prepared is something I would say we could have done better\u201d during the pandemic, Karaboutis says.\n\nBuilding in better automation\n\nFor many organizations, automation and AI have proved key technologies for navigating the workplace and marketplace disruptions brought about by the pandemic, and many CIOs see both as strategic tools for making their organizations better positioned to deal with future unknowns.\n\nCarMax\u2019s Mohammad is one such IT leader. Mohammad\u2019s plans for AI include automating more capabilities that humans don\u2019t need to be involved with. For example, when global supply chain issues arose during the pandemic and demand for cars skyrocketed, within a few weeks, the company rolled out an AI-based capability through its omnichannel experience called Instant Offer, which gives customers the ability to quickly offer a car for sale without having to talk to anyone, by using the CarMax website or mobile app.\n\nCustomers answer a few questions and are given an offer within minutes without any human involvement, Mohammad says, adding that this will help ensure CarMax staff are free to tackle whatever comes next. \u201cIf my team can focus on where they can have the most value then I think they\u2019ll be much more open, much more able to change things happening.\u201d\n\nTaking stock of AI\n\nStill, further reliance on AI can also bring about greater risk of the very business existential unknowns for which IT leaders are now bracing their organizations.\n\nWhile many IT leaders say that cybersecurity keeps them up at night, privacy, risk, compliance, and ethics should be responsibilities that also worry them, Karaboutis says.\n\nAs she sees it, AI and machine learning are critical for an intelligent, connected utility, but \u201cthere has to be an envelope of ethics, compliance, and security, otherwise, anything good can turn out poorly.\u201d\n\nEven with the constructs and guardrails regulators and policymakers have put in place, organizations need \u201cmore belts and suspenders and policies that are commensurate with the data we\u2019re trying to pull together,\u201d Karaboutis says.\n\nFor example, smart meters have become somewhat mainstream. Reading them at someone\u2019s home can tell a field worker \u201cwhether the toaster or hairdryer is running because all [devices] have a different electrical pull\u201d and a fingerprint, Karaboutis says. But individuals may not want their utility knowing this information and their privacy has to be respected.\n\n\u201cYou have to give consent to the ethical portion of this,\u2019\u2019 she says. \u201cThat\u2019s why we as technologists as we continue to really leverage for good, frontier technologies like AI, ML, blockchain, and others, we also need to have a view of ethics, responsibility, citizenship, responsible charters and make sure we\u2019re living within the auspices of policy and creating policy as well.\u201d\n\nThis requires thinking \u201c360-degrees around the good and the potential risk for harm [with] technologies that are emerging,\u201d she says. Otherwise, organizations open themselves up to potential fallout down the line.\n\nThe most daunting challenge: Talent\n\nIndustry-wide, IT leaders say there remains a high attrition trend among IT professionals \u2014 and not enough people entering the workforce to fill the gaps. The CIOs we talked to all agree that a big part of planning for future unknowns requires talent.\n\n\u201cWe are focusing on pleasing the innovator innovating,\u2019\u2019 says Mohammad. \u201cThe talent shortage is the biggest uncertainty we all have to face.\u201d\n\nSimilarly, the other big challenge at CarMax is making sure the company culture continues to be a place where people will want to work. \u201cThat is something we cannot take for granted and we need to focus more and more on that,\u2019\u2019 Mohammad says.\n\n\u201cWithout exceptional talent, digital transformation cannot happen and readiness to tackle unknowns will be hindered,\u2019\u2019 says Bates. \u201cWe are focused on creative new ways to attract, develop, retain, and engage our employees to remain a preferred employer of choice and a place where people can work, grow, and belong.\u201d\n\nThere is no one-size approach to work that will fit all needs, she notes. A hybrid work environment is here to stay at Collins Aerospace, which has defined three personas for employees based on their roles: remote, hybrid, and on-site. Managers work with their employees to decide the best persona fit.\n\nThe power, Bates says, is with the employee. So Collins Aerospace is \u201ckeenly focused on employee engagement in this new normal, ensuring our employees have a tie to our purpose and mission as a company and fully understand the impact they make on the mission,\u201d she says.\n\nLowering the barrier to entry will help with the dearth of staff, Bates adds. \u201cGoing forward, we have to think differently about how we attract people and take the opportunity to develop them where there are gaps. AI could be a powerful technology to complement humans.\u201d This will require learning how to work in a human-machine world to supplement the workforce, she says.\n\nAs they plan for the next unknowns, the silver lining is the culture change brought about by the pandemic and the fact that companies now know people can work from anywhere, anytime, and be productive and safe, Bates says.\n\n\u201cWhile we learned a lot and it was hard on many of us there\u2019s always the nuggets. Let\u2019s learn from them and apply them to whatever the next unknown is,\u2019\u2019 she said during the CIO consortium. \u201cKnow where your critical assets are \u2014 not just products, but people \u2014 and how you create more resiliency around them\u201d in meaningful ways to keep businesses going.