How CIOs can emerge from the pandemic with a competitive advantage

University of Alabama at Birmingham CIO Curt Carver shares his team's three-step process, from triaging to transforming operations with an eye to student success and revenue 
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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the way organizations operate across the world, leaving many scrambling to stand up new technologies and develop new procedures. At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, we’re using this unfortunate event as an opportunity to emerge with a competitive advantage.

We’re doing this through a three-step process of triaging, stabilizing, and transforming. In an emergency room, for example, a doctor will first determine the priority of the patient’s treatments based on the severity of their condition. Then, they’ll work to prevent the patient from deteriorating in the future, until finally the patient is recovered and feeling better than ever.

That’s the approach we’re taken with our IT systems and operating procedures. We triaged the emerging issues, moved to stabilizing operations, and are now looking at how to transform those operations into something that will generate the student success and revenue at the university.

Here’s a peek into how we’ve done this.

Phase 1: Triage

The triage phase is all about prioritizing your biggest issues. When the pandemic hit and students and faculty were sent home, the university and hospital leadership teams met daily to coordinate, prioritize, and make informed decisions for the university and the hospital. 

[ Read Also: How we're turning disruption into innovation at UAB. ] 

During these meetings we discussed and prioritized the pain points and issues we were seeing. At the university, for example, our VPN was problematic. We had too many people trying to VPN in when it wasn’t necessary. We also had too many people forwarding their telephones, which had the potential to overload our trunk capability. 

We triaged those issues first, giving people options like listing their cell phone number in their office voicemail instead of forwarding calls. We promoted our VoIP client – a technology that we had planned to deploy in a couple of months that now needed to be deployed overnight.

In the triage phase, you’re doing a lot of reacting, which is necessary before you’re able to move into the stabilization phase. 

Phase 2: Stabilize

As we entered into the stabilize phase, ee reduced our daily meetings with the president to three days a week. The intent here is not to slow down our efforts, but to stabilize the operations.

Once you’ve caught your breath, think about how you can do really well over the next 30 days – or whatever period of time works for you.

Once you’ve caught your breath, think about how you can do really well over the next 30 days – or whatever period of time works for you. For us, this has meant thinking about how we stabilize and strengthen our opportunities.

For example, we had some students who had computers that weren’t powerful enough for e-learning and video chat capabilities. We pushed out virtual device interfaces, which allowed us to take a machine without a lot of processing power and use it as a display while performing the processing in the cloud.

Other decisions might include identifying that you have a cash flow problem. The question is, do you raid your reserves? Do you take temporary actions to get through this blip? Or maybe you use this as an opportunity to rethink what the optimal organization of the future might be, knowing that life will not be the same as we emerge on the other side of this. 

Work will fundamentally change – there’s no doubt about that. But what will those changes be, and how do we address that? I suspect there will be more telework. We’ll probably have more automated workflow processing, a greater focus on revenue growth, and more online classes.

This stabilization phase is when you look long-term at the decisions you need to make to transform.

This stabilization phase is when you look long-term at the decisions you need to make to transform. We had a solid foundation thanks to decisions we previously made, but not all organizations will have that.

In the Army, when you jump out of an airplane and land, the first thing you do is dig a small foxhole. In a few weeks, that foxhole transforms into an underground bunker complete with an ever increasing number of defense enhancements. You don’t stop after building that small foxhole the same way you can’t just react to COVID-19. 

Instead, you want to optimize for that new reality. For us, that new reality creates new opportunities to educate and inspire students in better ways.

Phase 3: Transform

When you’re done putting out fires and you’ve stabilized, you can think strategically about how to move forward. You not only want to persist through this remote work environment in a rapidly-changing world, you want to anticipate and respond effectively to the long-term effect. 

[ Now's the time to develop your skill as an innovative anticipator. Read Also: 3 types of IT leaders emerge from the pandemic. ]

These opportunities to transform build upon the technology infrastructure that you put in place. Now is the time to partner with the business on the road forward and reimagine the best possible mechanisms to grow revenue to ensure long-term financial stability.

That’s where we are right now. We’ve triaged, stabilized, and now we’re determining how to strengthen the university so that we are stronger and more impactful than ever before. 

Don't miss the opportunity to transform

As you embark on this process, it’s important to note that you can’t move from triage straight to transformation. CIOs often run into situations where we know we have a solution that will help transform the organization, but the business units are like hamsters running on a wheel. They don’t have time to test the solution or understand how it will transform the organization.

What COVID-19 has done is remove that hamster wheel. Everyone is working remotely, and none of the rules apply. Grease has been applied to the agility of every organization and suddenly we’re moving a lot faster. We’re not stuck in the old ways of doing things, and this opens up a window of opportunity to rethink how things are done. This is what creates the opportunity to transform.

The way we work will not return to normal when the pandemic is over. Those who think it will are putting themselves at a strategic disadvantage. Triage, stabilize, and then transform to emerge from this strong and more successful.

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

Curtis A. Carver Jr., Ph.D. is the Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this role servant leader and enabler of others, he leads a team of dedicated professionals focused on providing solution to the UAB through world-class IT with a focus on innovation, agility and cost efficiency.