IT leadership: Lessons from the early days of the pandemic

By establishing flexibility, cost-effectiveness, business partnerships, and a culture of ownership and accountability, we successfully dealt with great change
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We didn’t explicitly plan for a global pandemic at Ellucian, but when it hit, we were prepared. 

As an element of our IT strategy, we had been working for several years to consolidate and shift our services out of our data centers. We had a single sign-on solution that worked well and scaled effectively for us, our multi-factor authentication solution was broadly deployed, our VPN requirements were modest, and we were relying on a portfolio of trusted partners to provide many of our business services to a global and in many cases already remote workforce.

When the pandemic arrived, we didn’t have to make many changes. In fact, we were able to accelerate some IT projects, like moving our call center technology to the cloud. We made some straightforward improvements to our VPN and time recording solutions. Our IT team was able to take on more work to help the company because we didn’t have to scramble to reimplement basic services.

Our transition to remote work

Our workplace culture embraced remote work long before the pandemic forced everyone home. Some employees worked on our customer’s campuses. Some people worked from home periodically while others were remote all the time. A very large percentage had at least some experience working remotely. 

[ Read More: Lee Congdon recently retired. Here he shares advice for the next generation of IT leaders ]

When we were faced with the challenges of the pandemic, we made a few adjustments to support the new reality, but we weren’t racing to reconfigure our infrastructure. We were always serious about protecting the organization, so we were already equipped with strong security for people outside the office. Our flexible work policies meant that most employees were familiar with using our solutions remotely. Much of the new work in IT involved keeping our team engaged and helping our business partners do the same.

Shifting our focus

Because the organization was well-positioned when the pandemic hit, we were able to turn our focus to better serve both our businesses customers and our internal customers. Instead of clamoring to get into a data center that was locked down, we were able to respond to the business’s needs.

Instead of clamoring to get into a data center that was locked down, we were able to respond to the business’s needs.

We helped produce a series of all hands video meetings for our employees and we gave them chat tools to ask questions of the leadership team. We provided monitors for some employees, since a 13-inch laptop screen isn’t optimal for doing work on spreadsheets or for software development. One of our flexible benefits allowed employees to secure other items needed to work at home and we made product recommendations. IT assisted in turning an in-person event, for which 7,500 people had originally registered, into a virtual event that ultimately drew 17,500 people. To make the online event more professional, we provisioned and provided recommendations for cameras, lighting, and microphone setups for our presenters.

Lessons learned

I am very pleased and proud that we had positioned ourselves well for the unknowable. We weren’t caught rushing to change our infrastructure, lock down systems, or procure new applications because we had the foresight to know that flexibility is essential in modern technology environments.

In planning for flexibility and an efficient use of resources, know that your business will change. Consider optimizing for flexibility, security, and scalability when you make investments. Find a way to make investments even when resources are scarce. Realize that a low cost, inflexible solution may result in additional cost and disruption when changes are inevitably required. 

Realize that a low cost, inflexible solution may result in additional cost and disruption when changes are inevitably required. 

Try to architect for the future. When the unexpected happens, you will be building off a foundation in a disciplined fashion, rather than requiring excess resources, rework, and extraordinary efforts.

Not everything is predictable, of course, but you can anticipate that new business functions will be added, that security will continue to grow in importance, that cloud solutions will become a bigger part of your portfolio, that long term changes toward a remote workforce are likely, and that mobile devices will continue to grow in importance. Assume that those things are going to happen. Even if cost is your primary business driver, make decisions that give you flexibility in these domains.

Even if cost is your primary business driver, make decisions that give you flexibility in these domains.

It’s also incredibly important to build a strong partnership with your business before a crisis occurs. Because we had done that, our business partners came to us early in the transition and said, “Ok, here are the problems we’re facing. How can you help us solve them?” We worked together to develop our plans. We did not have to deal with a rush of incomplete solution requests, and that was a real advantage. Ideally, your business partners will also be able to share their vision for the future, at a minimum for the next budget cycle.

We had worked hard to establish a culture of ownership and accountability in our IT organization prior to the pandemic. As a result, our team was able to work independently and make good decisions as we learned to manage the new environment. We used chat and video to keep in touch and to manage situations as they arose, but we also relied on the team to understand what was happening and take the right actions. That worked very well for us, and was particularly evident in the leadership demonstrated by our team in Bangalore. Although separated by time and distance, they stepped up and supported our large site there very effectively.

Initial outcome

After a few months the enterprise had largely adjusted. Our executive leadership worked hard to establish communications with employees and customers using video and chat and email. We did the same in IT. Ellucian worked hard to help our customers through their own challenging transitions in a constantly changing environment. We surveyed our employees to understand what they needed and listened to their feedback.

We were fortunate that we were able to respond well to the early challenges posed by the pandemic. By establishing flexibility, cost-effectiveness, business partnerships, ownership, and an understanding within our IT group that they are business consultants and problem solvers, we were able to quickly and successfully deal with a very unexpected business situation. It was a success enabled by years of preparation for the unpredictable.

[ Will your organization thrive in 2021? Learn the four priorities top CIOs are focusing on now. Download: IT Leadership in the Next Normal. ]

Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics.