2020 threw a curve ball to every business and IT organization on the planet the likes nobody has ever seen. In the first quarter, there was uncertainty as to how serious the pandemic would get and the impact to our companies. By March, it was painfully clear that we were quickly headed into the unknown. Companies started closing down physical operations and sending staff to work from home.

Reactive Stage

This is when the reactive stage started. CIOs and business leaders had no idea where things were headed. At the same time, CIOs were sending staff out to every big box, electronics, warehouse and office supply store to purchase every laptop, monitor, keyboard, mouse and webcam they could get their hands on. We needed to do something and quick.

It was all-hands on deck to ensure that staff had what they needed to get up and running at home. On the backend, VPN licensing was increased, and systems architectures quickly changed to accommodate the swing of staff working remotely. Working remotely was supported by companies prior to this, just not at this scale. 

Both of these efforts quick blew through planned 2020 budgets. At the same time, IT organizations were forced to bypass many cybersecurity norms. Non-standard equipment and configurations were now in use. Remote patching was increasingly more complicated…and risky. Sensitive data was now riding across non-managed home networks. Home network bandwidth was strained by the entire family trying to work and attend school which caused latency-sensitive apps to break. IT support staff were shifting into troubleshooting a diverse array of home network configurations to address the issues.

From a company financial perspective, the uncertainty caused companies to move into cash preservation mode. For IT, this meant cutting operational spending wherever possible. 

Post-Reactive Stage

Once the immediacy of getting staff up and running started to stabilize, CIOs began to evaluate where they were and what the new normal would entail. Any plans from 2019 and prior were immediately shelved. It was clearly apparent that we were not headed back to the normal of 2019 or prior. There was a new normal coming. What it was, however, was not clear.

This is where IT leaders started to diverge. Some hoped that the threat would pass, and they could resume operations post-pandemic. Unfortunately, this was a very dangerous decision as it left companies flat-footed in their response to change.

While other IT leaders recognized that the pandemic provided a unique opportunity to accelerate innovation efforts. For some, that mean accelerating their digital transformation efforts in support of their business transformation. For others, it meant moving spend toward more innovative efforts that put the company on stronger footing.

Preparing for the new normal

Fast forward to today. Putting a company on stronger footing means that there is a renewed focus on two aspects: customer experience and business operations. Our customers are changing as much as our companies. We need to be closer and more in tune with our customers. As they change, so do we. It also means we need to more clearly understand our customers. The combination of personalization and scale is only possible through the use of technology in meaningful ways.

At the same time, our business operations need to evolve. For some, this means closing down certain operations while expanding others. For others, it may mean a complete transformation of their business.

If there were sacred cows before, there are no longer.

Looking for guidance

Opening the aperture a bit wider, the world has been turned on its head. Back in May, I was asked for my perspective on the timeline for recovery? The answer I gave back then was not popular. My answer: Q3 or Q4. Of 2021. You can imagine I got some interesting reactions. But once I explained my reasoning, there was agreement that it was very plausible. Privately, I had hoped I was wrong, and it would be much sooner.

The uncertainty that we face economically is squarely based on uncertainty with the COVID-19 virus. Economics do not react well to uncertainty. To get certainty with the virus, we need to reach a vaccine stage that is in large-scale deployment. Just having a vaccine is not enough. It takes time to manufacture and distribute a vaccine to billions of people. Unfortunately, limiting community spread or hoping for herd immunity will not suffice. The timeline that I provided back in May stated that we would probably see a viable vaccine around the beginning of 2021. Then the mass production and deployment can start. Only then can we start to move in new directions.

Looking toward the new normal

Moving in new directions toward a new normal will start with customers. CIOs need to work with their colleagues to align business strategy with the changes customers bring. We do not know how this will play out. That is why we, as CIOs, need to take this opportunity to make the changes needed for the future.

Now, while demand for many companies is at its lowest, is the best time to make dramatic change? Why? The risk is lowest to both customers and the business. Plus, customers are generally understanding right now if something goes wrong. That will not be the case when business is humming along at a strong clip.

For the CIO, this means taking into account your organization, culture and architecture to build a flexible model that is able to scale and move as the company needs. We are past the days where a monolithic model suffices. Information systems need to be focused on data-centricity that is a) in-tune with customers and b) provides clear guidance for business operations. Flexibility and speed are key here. Any solution needs to deliver high-value with direct line-of-sight as to how it creates business value and addresses business outcomes.

Technology and data are the bedrock of today’s business. Using this model puts a company in the best position possible for the new normal…whatever that may be. One thing is likely. We may see a normal for the next 12 months and then an evolving new normal beyond that. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “change is the only constant in life.” We should expect that our new normal in life and in business will likely change over time as well.

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