Continuity and control through COVID-19

As the news keeps on reminding us, COVID-19 is presenting a new kind of uncertainty to businesses across the globe. As Sandy Shen, (Gartner Research Director), recently said: “With such a dynamic situation like COVID-19, it has the potential to be as disruptive, or more, to an organisation’s continuity of operations as a cyber intrusion or natural disaster”. The combination of quarantine measures, travel restrictions, and potentially long-term social-distancing / remote-working poses a very real and present threat to businesses of all shapes and sizes.

As the virus continues to spread, the economic symptoms are now starting to emerge. Painful as it is to hear, it’s likely that many businesses will fall short of their financial goals for the upcoming quarter (and possibly longer) due to the combined impact of workforce inefficiencies, supply chain disruptions and stifled customer demand.

But this doesn’t have to be solely viewed under the lens of ‘risk’ or ‘threat’. Many of these things are “analogue” problems, (or challenges), to which there are “digital” solutions, (or opportunities) to be discussed. The impact on these traditional challenges and operations should be a wake-up call to the 21st century C-suite, who can often fall guilty of focussing too much on the operational day-to-day at the cost of valuable investment in digital and long-term resilience. If it isn’t already, the value of digital should be screaming in the face of organisations left, right, and centre, louder than the deafening silence of your local, now-quarantined public house.

As with many, (but not all), phenomenon of this nature, in the face of such adversity there will ultimately be winners and losers. How you choose to react and adapt, (and how quickly), will be the determining factor for which side of the fence you end up on. Those that take proactive steps now to not only maintain as much operational continuity as possible but take this as an opportunity to expand their capabilities, using digital technology to serve customer demand, will be the true victors of this novel climate, thus worthy of the title digital leader.

As market demand shrinks, and the world becomes more reliant on online and digital platforms for their goods and services, how resilient will your technology landscape prove to be? How well is your organisation set up to leverage digital to compensate for some of the inevitable demand loss? How nimble are your teams and how quickly can they adapt to create new products and services suited for distribution through digital channels?

So, what does this mean for the businesses, the C-suite, and the CIO / CTO? Broadly speaking, there are two high-priority categories of things you need to think about:

  1. Do you have the right collaboration tools to curate a “digital workplace” and do they have adequate security controls and network support?
  2. Are you able to leverage technology to continue to engage customers (and partners) and address demand through digital channels?

Creating a digital workplace

Let’s tackle the first one – the digital workplace. As recently announced by the government, we’re all being encouraged to work from home where possible as part of a range of stringent new measures to limit viral spread. But how do you make sure your teams stay productive through these uncertain times?

First, you need to fully understand the day-to-day workflow of your workforce so you can outline how they can do their job remotely, what systems they need access to, and what tools they’ll need to use. As a bespoke software supplier to businesses worldwide, as well as firm believers of Agile, we have years of experience in leveraging platforms that support meaningful collaboration and engagement for the remote digital worker, as well as create parity between all members of a distributed team to help integrate capability.

Of course, agile software development relies heavily on tight and continuous collaboration, which becomes a challenge when team members work at a distance. However, with the right communication platforms and collaboration tools it’s more than possible to facilitate remote work and maintain a fully operational and productive workforce. You can research the market for these new capabilities, but better still, solicit your suppliers to get the best up-to-date tips for how to approach general communication, instant messaging, file-sharing, videoconferencing, virtual meetings. Then it’s just a case of ensuring your teams have access to the appropriate enterprise applications, resources and data, (with the right security in place).

For example, on our recent work with a large central Government department, we used Slack channels which allowed all team members to be contacted at any time, while keeping a record of conversations accessible to all to promote knowledge-sharing. We held daily video stand-ups including client team members, to ensure that everyone was aware of progress and dependencies. We also made good use of ad-hoc video or phone calls whenever it was most effective to speak (sharing written minutes afterwards); in particular, for complex discussions to facilitate collaborative decision-making. Essentially, we know from experience it can work well – you just need the right tools, processes, and mindset to make it succeed for everyone.

Other considerations might include additional bandwidth and network capacity needs given the increasing number of users and volume of communications. This could involve sourcing flexible, short-term contracts, or renegotiating existing supplier relationships (based on increased user numbers or transaction volume). Either way, as CIO / CTO, it’ll be your job to accommodate the short (or potentially medium) term surge, so make sure this is part of your initial continuity plan.

What about security?

Security will also be a concern, and you’ll need to be confident you’ve done a thorough enough review of your existing security infrastructure to assess what people will need to work not just effectively, but safely too. There’s the hardware (can your teams use personal devices, or do they need to be company-issued?), and the networks they’ll be on (do these need to be private, or can they be public?). If you haven’t already, you might want to consider endpoint security for devices and robust identity and access management to allow secure sign-in to business systems. And then there’s everyone’s favourite topic – data. Simply put, you’ll want to make sure all your teams have had (or have access to) training on the rules around data protection and proper data use, including how to safely exchange documents or information electronically.

Leveraging digital to maintain customer engagement

You might be one of the few businesses or industries experiencing a healthy surge in demand as a result of the current climate. For example, Amazon are reported to be on a hiring spree for hundreds of thousands of new distribution workers, in an effort to keep up with the surge in online shopping spurred on by coronavirus. For most businesses, however, the more likely result of this pandemic is going to be a slight downturn in your financial outlook. Regardless, how do you make sure that both your technology estate, digital talent, and innovation practices are set up to work with the C-suite and continue to provide digital-first experiences for your customers?

The most prominent consideration that springs to mind is how can you expand capacity for self-service and digital sales. There are several industry giants who’ve already started to crumble in the face of huge surges in customer queries, applications, orders, and even cancellations. The big question mark however is, what does this do for their brand, and more importantly, customer loyalty? Those who can deliver on world-class customer experience, in spite of the current climate, will reap the rewards of steadfast, and unwavering loyalty of their consumer base. Well, maybe not quite, but depending on their heritage, they’ll at least protect themselves against brand switching that could prove costly in the long-term. So with that longer-term horizon in mind, arguably now is the time to potentially test drive that prototype, or to run that pilot / MVP around self-service, chatbots, mobile apps, to handle the most common questions or purchases, easing some of the pressure of customer service agents, reps, and employees alike. This can allow them more time to deal with the more complex and unusual tasks and issues the business will now likely be facing as a result of these unprecedented times.

How resilient is your IT estate?

But before you embark on that journey, perhaps your first step is to simply undertake an application or architecture review (and what better a time to do one than now!). We understand that even with the best intentions, it can sometimes be hard to maintain the confidence that current requirements can be met, let alone supporting plans. The current pandemic has brought a harsh light to this reality, but executing a full-stack review of either your overall environment (including any of your current codebase, infrastructure, solution architecture, and adherence to general development best-practice), or additionally performing a detailed review of specific areas can be a particularly useful starting point for future proofing your business against the next unforeseen business challenge (and trust us, there’s always a bigger one!).

This kind of review is something we’ve been asked to do for a lot of our clients over the last 20yrs, across multiple different industries and verticals, helping them identify and resolve potential areas of risk (including reliability, scalability, performance, and resilience) and giving them the confidence they needed in their ability to continue to meet their client’s existing and future needs.

Is this a climate ripe for innovation?

Back to my earlier point though, the self-service delivery approach won’t work for all products and services, and there are some things that will ultimately always demand that ‘human touch’ to keep customers bought in. However, just as with the digital workplace and remote collaboration, video conferencing and live-streaming solutions can provide opportunities for ‘virtual’ selling and customer engagement with such a seamless and frictionless experience in some cases that it’s definitely worth considering. Take the health and fitness industry for example. The boom in virtual riding systems like Peloton and Zwift has already had people swapping the road for a room at home for almost a year now. This is a great example of a business delivering positive experiences in unfamiliar contexts; enabling a remote experience, but with a personal touch.

Don’t mistake my flippancy for ignorance; embracing opportunities to adapt products, services or capacity for current demand isn’t easy. In fact, it can sometimes feel so overwhelming once a CIO / CTO starts looking into it that you end up succumbing to ‘paralysis by analysis’. Regardless, there’s two things COVID-19 should trigger in your business and continuity strategy around this tenet. The first is to expand agile processes to enable fast shifts of physical and digital resources. Shift some of your capacity away from traditional products and services that are in low demand as a result of where we’re at globally and move them towards high-demand products and services that can help mitigate the economic problem. The second is to engage in innovation now. Literally right now. Sure, it might seem counter-intuitive to be investing capital expenditure at a time when you’re projecting potential financial downturns. However, now is the time to bridge the gap between “analogue problems” and “digital solutions”. It’s what’s been holding back the rapid deployment and realisation of huge ROI in multiple industries and the ones that come out victorious are going to be the ones that seize the current climate as an opportunity to steal as much market share, customer base, and industry leadership, by creating new service and revenue models.

And let’s face it, in today’s landscape you certainly don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of suppliers out there with the skills and experience to help you figure out how technology can address specific challenges in your industries. They’re the experts, and can help you identify and understand the big problems you’re trying to solve, break them down into specific technology use cases, rapidly prototype and test them with users, and ultimately build and scale them out into production to help propel your business beyond this pandemic. And we should know, we’re one of them!

Hopefully these thoughts have been somewhat useful. I’d be really interested to hear how the Coronavirus has been affecting your businesses and what you’re currently doing, or think others should be doing, to mitigate against it so, assuming it’s not top secret, I’d love for you to share in the comments section below. After all, community is what we’re going to need to get us all through the next while.

So, stay safe and remember to wash your hands!