How do CIOs prepare business for the unknown?

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Preparing for the unknown can help enterprises compete in the good times, and survive when a crisis comes along. Successful CIOs are learning how to prepare for and manage change.

Whether it’s regulatory change, security scares or a global pandemic, CIOs are under pressure to ensure that – whatever happens – the business is prepared to cope. IT is no longer simply core to business operations, but a means for business to continue, survive and thrive in extraordinary conditions.

The CIOs managing this most successfully are those most adept at quickly changing course. In the words of Richard Corbridge, the former healthcare CIO who recently became director of innovation at Boots UK, “Change is what we do.”

Successful CIOs are increasingly doing what Gartner’s Andy Rowsell-Jones calls “winning in the turns,” handling disruption like a speed skater handles the icy track, trusting in their core capabilities, preparing for the future and taking calculated risks. A recent Gartner study found that 90% of enterprises had experienced a disruptive turn in the past four years, and while 23% had come out on top, 24% had struggled. Rowsell-Jones warned that while “most enterprises optimize business models for today’s environment” this left them “exposed when the next crisis hits.”

Now the global crisis has hit, and those companies that prepared for the unknown are better equipped to survive it. Of those “fit” companies in the 23%, 75% had central funding for innovation, making them more responsive, and showed a more adaptable, resilient corporate culture.

This is an area where CIOs need to show leadership and flexibility themselves, aligning IT and business objectives to ensure that work continues, no matter what. CIO.com editor in chief, Eric Knorr, has described how companies have had to quickly pivot from ambitious projects to “desperately determining how to use its arsenal of technology to combat the stunningly severe disruption.”

...it pays to have an agile team culture and a resilient business continuity plan...

Here, it pays to have an agile team culture and a resilient business continuity plan – as Karl Hoods, CDIO of the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has said.

“There’s something about the culture you build in a team and the expectations you set from the outset which allows you to cope. Then, you get into the mechanics of what you’re delivering and really implementing in your DR/BCP activity. If you’ve got it half right, you can continue to function. If not, it highlights the really weak points in a heartbeat.”

Angelic Gibson, CIO of SaaS accounts specialist, AvidXchange, would seemingly agree. As the global pandemic unfolded, she stepped up role-playing activities designed to test that remote teams had the proper hardware and software tools – including Microsoft Teams and virtual meetings software – to work effectively outside the office, and that they would still know how to do their jobs. This left her feeling “well prepared to run our business and support our customers through various scenarios.”

At Johnson & Johnson, CIO Jim Swanson took a similar tack, forming an IT crisis management group to focus on how the company could address the challenges of remote working, internal communications and cybersecurity, then moving on to scenario planning and resiliency testing. The team focused first on its Chinese business, then applied what it learnt there to other groups around the globe. As a result, when India locked down on March 21, the company was able to switch dynamically from on-premises to remote working without disruption.

Business transformation initiatives have also proven their value during the crisis. At the Stockholm-based SaaS provider Snow Software, CIO Alistair Pooley was able to switch all employees to remote working, helped by the fact that 95% of Snow’s 120-plus applications now run in the cloud. While some workers still have to access legacy systems through a VPN, the technical challenges have been minimized.

This kind of change takes work; not just a shift in technology but a shift in company culture, while paying close attention to risk, security, governance and compliance. A global pandemic might be the biggest crisis we face, but it hasn’t meant the end of data protection or cybersecurity risks. Yet a recent CIO impact study found IT leaders still focused on transformation, redesigning business processes and business strategies to ensure their organizations are fit for whatever turn comes next. As Knorr puts it, “IT leaders are already thinking ahead and, in some cases, using the crisis as a pivot point to modernize operations and put an end to wasteful practices and projects.”