Digital transformation: What CIOs are accelerating during the pandemic

Digital transformation: What CIOs are accelerating during the pandemic

While many aspects of life remain on hold, many organizations are charging full steam ahead on digital transformation efforts – even giving some pieces a speed boost

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As the pandemic stretches on and companies get used to their new “normal,” many are thinking about how their plans will evolve for the long term. What will start, stop, or continue after the crisis eases?

With plenty of unknowns ahead, it might make sense to take a step back and reassess goals and timelines in some areas. However, the speed at which IT has had to adapt during the pandemic, and the need for laser focus, provided exactly the boost many leaders needed to fast-track certain digital transformation objectives, experts say.

Organizations that build change into their DNA will succeed with digital transformation.

“Both the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11 may seem like ancient history to some, but the lessons from that era are coming around again during this pandemic,” says Vaclav Vincalek, partner with executive resource firm Future Infinitive. “These events forced businesses to focus on what’s really important: providing value to customers and investing in projects with measurable impact on revenue and cash flow. The current situation will be no different. Businesses will have to adapt to a new environment and adapt quickly. The ones who build change into their DNA will continue to succeed.”

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

How are these change-ready businesses adjusting plans? We asked IT leaders to share the aspects of their digital transformations that they are now accelerating. The goal: Better position their business for the new digital normal, post-pandemic. From remote work to digital payments, let’s take a look:

1. Preparing for more work to stay remote

"Large portions of the workforce will not return to a traditional office and traditional office hours post-pandemic."

“There will be large portions of the workforce that will not return to a traditional office and traditional office hours post-pandemic,” says Jason James, CIO of Net Health. “COVID-19 has been the largest experiment of testing the need for a flexible, remote-ready workforce. Post-crisis, many workers will continue to embrace remote work, rather than long commutes. Digital transformation projects post-pandemic will focus on improving the remote work experience.” This will include moves as simple as moving away from traditional PBX phone systems in favor of Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS), or as complex as migrating from legacy to cloud solutions, James says.

“In addition, organizations will look at increasing security-related projects as data will no longer be confined to corporate offices,” James continues. “This may include improving VPN capability and speed, ensuring data is encrypted in-flight and at-rest, and that systems accessing the environments are also encrypted. Traditional network monitoring will evolve into more endpoint monitoring, regardless of device or location, to ensure protection and have better control over off-premise devices that access corporate environments. COVID-19 will end up being the greatest accelerator of digital transformation projects.”

Some companies were further along than others on this remote journey before the crisis hit, and they are now seeing their preparedness pay off.

“Our company was fortunate enough to have a contingency plan in place and we quickly took needed action in order to accommodate our workforce. I suspect some of what we implemented might become a ‘new normal’ way for us, as it will be for many other companies,” says Jeff Fields, CIO of Servpro, which moved 95 percent of its workforce remote in a short period of time.  “We realize that this pandemic will serve as a catalyst for more remote opportunities, and we believe the world could be forever impacted in a way that these technologies will be critical for any part of a business.”

Once the technical side of work-from-home is handled, it’s time to think about what makes remote work more efficient and enjoyable, says Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile.

“As employers see that productivity can be maintained outside of a physical office, working remotely will be extremely popular for the foreseeable future," he says. "With this in mind, I’ve been dedicated to investing in resources that accelerate the speed at which Clearbridge Mobile adopts digital communication technologies to adequately allow staff to stay connected, engage in company culture, and most importantly, ensure they can do their job as efficiently as they would be able to in our physical office.”

2. Optimizing digital payments 

When Peabody Essex Museum closed its doors on March 12, the organization quickly made moves to share its collection digitally, says Sean Pyburn, director of information systems and technology for the museum, based in Salem, Massachusetts. Accounts payable played a big part in this move, Pyburn adds.

“We knew cash flow would inevitably become a difficult situation for everyone, and supporting our vendors was very important to us. Luckily, the museum had already automated its AP process, so we’ve been able to continue to receive, approve, and pay invoices within payment terms,” says Pyburn.

“We receive an average of 650 invoices per month, so having an automated system in place was a very important element of business continuity as we all had to work remotely with no time to prepare. Now, we’re looking at continuing our digital transformation and implementing tighter purchase order modules to gain greater visibility and control ahead of the ordering process. This will help us stay prepared for the financial and economic implications that remain ahead.” The museum will also migrate its collection management system to a fully hosted service, Pyburn adds, to improve access to collections information for both staff and the public.

3. Making online education part of long-term plans

Just as employees are learning how to work efficiently at home, students are adapting to remote education. While nothing replaces the in-class experience, some online education may become part of the curriculum even after the crisis eases, says Rhiannon Little, CEO of WP Code Camp, a WordPress-based coding boot camp.

“The success we’re seeing with our online learning students is making us rethink the teaching model we’ve been using. We have been thinking of our in-person classroom program as the ideal learning environment and our online program as secondary. But with the COVID lockdown, we’ve seen a jump in our online program enrollment,” says Little.

“Enrollment has almost doubled, and the vast majority of these students are hitting and exceeding our success indicators,” Little continues. “There are probably a lot of reasons for this. People are becoming more familiar with the technology (Zoom, etc.). They’re also building the skill set needed to keep oneself productive while working at home. And let’s face it: We’ve all discovered that it requires a unique skill set. This might just turn out to be a cultural shift. If it is, our team will consider blending the two programs, so some of the time is in the classroom but some of the learning happens at home.”

At universities, great change happened almost overnight. As Paige Francis, vice president for information technology and chief information officer for the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma, notes, “Within a 12-hour period, we went from saying, ‘What if we need to close the university in two weeks?’ to ‘We’re going all-online tomorrow morning.’”

For IT leaders in all fields experiencing this level of change, Francis says there is an upside: “It may seem opportunistic, but we would be remiss to not use every second of the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to learn and grow.”

[ Read more from Paige Francis: What the pandemic has taught me already: A CIO's perspective. ]

4. Prioritizing agility

Well beyond the pandemic, many businesses will focus digital transformation efforts on the people, processes, and technology that make them more resilient and adaptable to future changes.

“We’ve never been more grateful for our investment into business agility,” says Melissa Boggs, chief scrum master of Scrum Alliance. “Because we had spent time, intention, and hard work on our structure, culture, and ability to pivot as an organization, we have been able to adjust to our global circumstances with grace in recent weeks."

"As an example, our certified scrum trainers – who have always done only-in-person certification courses – were able to adapt and offer live online courses in a two-week period," Boggs says. "In that same timeframe, we updated our website back-end to support their efforts. Mostly, we are accelerating our abundance mindset and allowing our processes and tools to follow suit.”

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

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Carla Rudder is a writer and content manager on The Enterprisers Project.

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