Reinventing Business in Extraordinary Times – CIO

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The pandemic has been the great disruptor, forcing companies of all sizes across the public and private sector to respond quickly to keep their businesses—and their people—up and running. All of it has required a degree of reinvention, which I define as occurring when an organization shifts responsibilities from traditional cost and complexity management to those that enable every company to become a tech-driven company while simultaneously running and reinventing the business.

As part of a recent CIO roundtable, IT leaders discussed how they pivoted, what’s important to their organizations now, and how their learnings have shaped their path forward.

Putting people first

For almost all of the attendees, people and culture were just as or more important than the tools and solutions they implemented to help their organizations adapt.

An investment firm’s CIO said employee buy-in is crucial to any reinvention. “It’s people more than anything else. It’s the culture. I think that’s the huge hurdle to overcome. It’s the team…and the leaders who are able to sell that new strategy, the new concept, the new philosophy, and make sure that it has the right ingredients…to be palatable to the wellbeing of the staff,” he pointed out.

A systems integrator for the federal government characterizes the pandemic as a great leveler, explaining, “The pandemic required everybody—HR, finance, the president, the employee—to be singularly focused on keeping the business running. You think about that and the power of the enterprise and what it can do, and the fact that they looked at their IT leader to guide and lead them through this. And then the IT leader [was able to] say, ‘I got you. This is what we’re going to do.’”

“That’s a really powerful thing. We can’t lose that opportunity as we go forward to accelerate all of these things that we want to do…as we reinvent IT. [Reinvention] truly takes place across your users—the way you think, the resiliency that you build into your organization, and the type of talent that you’re hiring. We want [our] team to upskill so that they can turn their attention from thinking about how cables and wires connect and if lights are green to, ‘What business problems am I trying to solve,’ which quickly became the pandemic, but there are other things that we need to solve, not for process and efficiency, but innovation.”

“We want [them] to have a curiosity [to] learn something new. That’s really important to keep that refresh on technology. There’s a reason to have diversity in your IT organization so that you have that diversity of thought. It does take a special set of talent that is willing to constantly be reinventing their own skillsets and moving on to something new. But once you find them…you really want to keep them.”

The CIO of a business solutions company adds that empowerment is also important. “Most technology people pick up on new capabilities pretty quickly. The key is organizationally empowering people and letting them be curious [and] understanding failure is only failure if you don’t learn from it,” he explained.

The CIO and CSO at a cloud communications company shared that change should include people at every level. “The CIO, in my mind, is a chief inspiration officer role,” he said. “How do I inspire our community and our employees [working remote] to stay connected and engaged above and beyond the work that we do through e-mails, Slack, and Zoom-like products?”

The CIO of a West Coast university is shifting the focus of his team. “The big purpose for the central IT shop is to convert data into information and information into a meaningful action,” he said. “I take a team knowledge-centric perspective to organizational structure versus a formal hierarchy. We need to have an adaptable, flexible organization that can crystallize and improve knowledge. We set the direction, we set where we’re going to go with skillsets. We provide the training opportunities for the staff to make the leap, and then we monitor.”

Leading from the top-down is also important. The CTO of a business solutions organization believes leaders need to establish the guardrails and finish line. “What we do as leaders is provide the timeframe, the commitment, and push. If people wait for change to occur when it feels comfortable, normal, and natural, they’ll never do it. So we put an end date and we work like mad across the enterprise to make the change happen to give it a sense of urgency,” he explained.

Capitalizing on investments and planning for the next disruption

As disruptive as the pandemic was, it wasn’t the only disruptor. Some of the panelists shared that their evolutions before and during the pandemic prepared them for the next hurdle. And in some cases, the IT leaders were ahead of the curve, but they’re not resting on those laurels.

“2020 had a global pandemic, we had five hurricanes come through the same exact path in the United States, then we had the ice age in Texas, we had Solorigate, and we had the Microsoft hack. They keep coming and you get up over one mountain and see that there’s another mountain range. So we have to continue to have that resiliency and agility to be able to keep moving,” said the systems integrator for the federal government.

The CTO of a business solutions organization that handles IT, finance, and HR capabilities was able to nimbly navigate the pandemic. “If you had decentralized your network and adopted cloud-native things, fully adopted DevOps, automation…and moved to that consumption-based financial model of technology, the pandemic would have been pretty easy for you,” he explained.

“Where we did those things, we found that it was relatively easy. Where we didn’t do those things well, it was a scramble. As long as we follow those macro trends and we move quickly, faster than we ever have before, [we’re OK]. We’ve got to move at the speed of business.”

The CIO of an integrated healthcare system said that technological preparedness is key. “What is that next thing that we think might come so that we can start prepping for it before it hits, as opposed to waiting for it to happen and then trying to [react] to it,” she said. “Overnight…patients weren’t able to come into the clinics to be seen. Telemedicine all of a sudden became incredibly important. We had already started down that path before the pandemic, so we accelerated [from] piloting telemedicine in some places [and] deployed right away to the rest of organization.”

The CIO of a West Coast university said its technology investments ahead of the pandemic meant it never hiccupped. “We’re moving from on-prem to cloud ridiculously fast. We’ll be on-prem within two years…100 percent of our systems. I’m going to do infrastructure better than people who’ve got football fields of infrastructure. Our response to COVID was enabled by our cloud dependency,” he pointed out. “We were able to scale out without missing a beat. We didn’t have any of the entanglements you get with having to scale out quickly with your on-prem environments.”

Looking within the organization

The CIO for a California university system said the pandemic triggered a reexamination of priorities. “The pandemic caused us to deprioritize things that really weren’t important to the organization, reprioritize things that were truly important, [and] deemphasize those things that weren’t working,” he shared.

“Going forward, how do we constantly do this and reinvent ourselves without having the external force…not needing a change in management or a change in leadership to move in this direction. How do we self-motivate to keep the energy and the decisions that we’re making so that we can continue on this journey?”

The CTO and CISO of a financial investment firm said it’s about leading the charge on change. Sometimes, when we make decisions, we fall in love with those decisions and keep that relationship going longer than it should. We need to learn how to say goodbye to some of the wonderful ideas that we had, or thought we had, quicker,” he explained. “Then…we can move on to other projects.”

Sometime reinvention means being open to completely new busines models. The digital CIO for a commercial property investment firm saw his industry brought to its knees when the pandemic emptied office buildings. “Nothing creates change in an organization [more] than when your company has an existential crisis. When [everyone] left the office, [they] stopped using my product overnight,” he said.

“There were a lot of conversation around what happens next. It’s about letting go of the things that we hold sacred. Destroying the things we [held] sacred actually has been a good thing because it’s causing us to look at things differently and talk to clients more closely. Because of the demand for flexibility, a better experience, and health and safety, we are completely rethinking the way we deliver technology, both inside and outside the company.”

Conclusion

Organizations that have survived and thrived during the pandemic did so in large part because they met the challenges it created by quickly capitalizing on new opportunities and growing their business with new products, services, and channels. The pandemic forced a realization by public and private organizations alike that IT is the glue holding everything together. That realization is now driving the technology investments that will empower them to stay ahead of the competition through business agility, customer centricity, and actionable insights.