Why CIOs should rethink their COVID-19 digital strategy

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By Jasper Thomas

Many CIOs accelerated technology investments to respond early to the COVID-19 pandemic. But what made sense in the early days of the pandemic may need to be reexamined now.

Investments in new technologies – from blockchain to AI to automation – and digital transformations played a role in many CIOs’ decisions in the early days of the pandemic. Now CIOs should examine these technology investments and figure out what will drive their future business success.

Here are five steps CIOs can take to rethink their digital strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Examine the impact of the pandemic on digital transformation

So many executives have moved forward at full speed that they may not have paused long enough to consider the impact of COVID-19 on their technology decisions and investments.

Take Tracy Barnes, CIO of the Indiana Office of Technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the State of Indiana CIO and his IT team to act faster than ever before. Barnes and his staff had to quickly enable 30,000 employees to work remotely. He needed to dramatically expand call center volume and quickly deploy countless new digital features. Now he is reviewing these decisions.

Most CIOs felt a similar need for speed and rapid modernization.

According to a 2020 Gartner survey, 69 percent of boards accelerated their digital business initiatives in response to the pandemic.

The Info-Tech Research Group has similar findings. CIOs have noted that digital acceleration initiatives have enabled their companies to pivot quickly to stay in business.

“It’s fair to say that CIOs have been pretty reactive over the last 18 months,” said Brian Jackson, research director in the CIO division at Info-Tech Research Group. “They responded in a way that kept everything running, and productivity in many companies was at an all-time high.”

But this race for digital transformation came with a cost. One was that we had less time for the detailed, in-depth reviews that technology plans typically receive.

“We didn’t have that luxury,” Barnes said.

Now, some CIOs are realizing that the digital strategies they implemented in response to COVID-19 disruptions are not the best options available or the right technologies to lead their organizations into a post-pandemic environment.

As a result, CIOs are assessing their pandemic-driven digital transformations to determine what to keep, what to optimize, and what to discard.

“We had to make decisions based on limited information, but now that we’re in a little more stable situation, we’re definitely taking a look back at the solutions and contracts and re-aligning with the vendors,” Barnes said. “[We’re] asking… whether it was the right solution at the right time and whether we need to move to a more permanent technology.”

2. Identify ineffective digital transformation efforts

As organizations experience greater stability following the initial shock of the pandemic, CIOs should evaluate which digital strategies triggered by COVID-19 worked, which could work better, and whether some have outlived their usefulness.

CIOs should evaluate the architecture, infrastructure and processes they have implemented during the hectic past 18 months to ensure what they have built is efficient, optimized and robust, said Michael Spiers, principal and technology transformation practice lead at The Hackett Group, a management consulting firm and advisory firm. Additionally, CIOs must determine whether data from pandemic-related deployments will seamlessly move into the other systems they need.

Verifying the return on investment (ROI) of new technologies is an important aspect of identifying technologies that work.

“You should improve your maturity level and optimize your work,” Jackson said.

For example, IT and business leaders should consider employee- and customer-focused technologies they have adopted in response to the pandemic, said Thomas Phelps, senior vice president of corporate strategy and CIO at Laserfiche. Do the tools to enable digital interactions or remote work provide the optimal customer and employee experience? If not, leaders need to focus on ways to make it happen.

Phelps spoke from experience. He and his IT team realized early in the pandemic that the company’s telephony platform wasn’t delivering the expected customer or employee experience. So they switched to a cloud-based system that integrates with the company’s customer relationship management platform. It allows the company’s new remote or hybrid workforce to access data they need to deliver a customer experience similar to what they provided from the office.

“Conversations about technology should [now focus on] how we can move forward and help our company achieve results,” Phelps said.

3. Review business technology contracts

Many CIOs and their purchasing colleagues felt compelled to select and implement new tools to address the pandemic.

“They didn’t have time to go to the market to see what was available,” Spiers said.

The contract negotiations also fell short.

CIOs should look back at the decisions made over the last 18 months and ask themselves whether they are still the right decisions going forward.

Tracy BarnesCIO, Indiana Office of Technology

Many CIOs have contracted for IT products and services at a premium because of the urgency of their needs, he said.

Many companies have multiple contracts for different products or services with the same vendor or have used multiple vendors with overlapping capabilities, Spiers and Jackson said.

While entering into such agreements may have been necessary at this time, CIOs cannot afford to enter into higher cost contracts or inferior service level agreements, they said. Also, CIOs cannot truly optimize their IT environment if they have multiple contracts and vendors offering the same services. As the pace of the pandemic eases, CIOs should now take the time to review agreements and contracts for opportunities to reduce premiums, introduce more competitive pricing, and consolidate vendors.

“This is an opportunity for leaders to rethink their contracts and ensure they are optimized for growth,” Phelps said.

IT leaders need to ensure that the services they rolled out quickly in response to the pandemic enable growth and scale, he said. This includes examining providers’ roadmaps and their innovation capabilities. As the hectic, pandemic-induced pace eases, CIOs may need to review agreements and contracts for opportunities to reduce premiums, set more competitive pricing and consolidate providers.

4. Consider employee experience improvements

Many employees worked overtime or took on multiple roles to help the company get through the height of the pandemic. However, requiring employees to continue burnout-inducing work performance is not a wise strategy in the long term. Mental health issues plague the IT department and the rest of the workforce.

“Many technology professionals have been working at full speed for the past 18 months, and we are experiencing turnover and burnout as a result of these demands,” Spiers said. “So you either have to fill the old job or hire someone for the new one.”

Likewise, CIOs should find ways to redirect their teams, which have been working at breakneck speeds throughout most of the pandemic.

“Many organizations still feel the sprint nature, but you can only sprint for so long. You have to pace yourself differently for a marathon,” said Spiers.

5. Look to future digital transformation

CIOs need to consider whether the digital transformation efforts they have implemented in response to the pandemic have the ability to carry them into the future.

“CIOs should look back at the decisions made over the last 18 months and ask themselves whether they are still the right decisions going forward,” said Barnes.

For example, Barnes said his IT department needed to significantly expand the state’s call center capacity to handle increasing demand for essential services such as unemployment assistance, housing information and COVID-19 testing.

Barnes achieved this rapid center expansion by adding contract services to its existing on-site call center system. He is now starting to transition the state to a cloud-based call center platform because it will be easier to scale if needed in the future. He had delayed this step because of the pandemic.

The cloud-based technology will provide security features such as anti-fraud capabilities, which he and his team have identified as key needs for the future, Barnes said.

“We learned a lot [during COVID-19] and we have tried to ensure that we incorporate those lessons into this procurement,” he added.

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