Why CIOs should rethink their COVID-19 digital strategy

Many organizations moved quickly to invest in business technology that helped them deal with the pandemic. Now it's time to review whether those decisions were strategic.

Many CIOs accelerated investments in technology as a way to react early on to the COVID-19 pandemic. But what made sense in the early days of the pandemic may now need reexamination.

Investments in emerging technology -- from blockchain to AI to automation -- and digital transformations factored into many CIOs' decisions in the early days of the pandemic. Now CIOs should put these tech investments under the microscope and determine what will power their business success going forward.

Here are five steps CIOs can use to revisit their COVID-19 pandemic digital strategy.

1. Examine the pandemic's impact on digital transformation

So many leaders have been barreling ahead at full speed, they may not have truly stopped for long enough to consider the impact that COVID-19 had on their technology decisions and investments.

Take Tracy Barnes, CIO of the Indiana Office of Technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the state of Indiana CIO and his IT team to move faster than ever before. Barnes and his staff had to rapidly enable remote work for 30,000 employees. He had to dramatically expand call center volume and quickly deliver countless new digital capabilities. Now he's examining those choices.

Most CIOs experienced a similar need for speed and rapid modernization.

Sixty-nine percent of boards of directors accelerated their digital business initiatives in response to the pandemic, according to a 2020 survey from Gartner.

Info-Tech Research group has similar findings. CIOs have indicated that digital acceleration initiatives enabled their organizations to quickly pivot and, thus, to remain in business.

"Over the last 18 months it's fair to say that CIOs ended up in being a pretty reactive mode," said Brian Jackson, research director in the CIO practice at Info-Tech Research Group. "They responded in a way that kept things running, and productivity in many companies has been at an all-time high."

But that race to digital transformation came with costs. One of these was less time for the in-depth, thorough reviews that technology plans typically got.

"We didn't have that luxury," Barnes said.

Now, some CIOs are finding that the digital strategies they implemented in response to COVID-19 disruptions are not the best choices available or the right technologies to carry their organizations into a post-pandemic environment.

Consequently, CIOs are evaluating their pandemic-sparked digital transformations to determine what they will keep, what they will tweak and what they need to scrap.

"We had to make decisions with limited information, but now that we're in a bit more of a stable state, we're definitely taking a look back at the solutions and contracts and recalibrating with the vendors," Barnes said. "[We're] asking … whether it was the right solution at the right time and whether we need to transition to a more permanent technology."

2. Identify ineffective digital transformation efforts

As organizations experience more stability following the initial shock of the pandemic, CIOs should assess what COVID-19-prompted digital strategies have worked, which could work better and whether any have outlived their usefulness.

CIOs should evaluate the architecture, infrastructure and processes they implemented during the rush of the past 18 months to ensure that what they constructed is efficient, optimized and stable, said Michael Spires, principal and technology transformation practice lead at The Hackett Group, a business advisory and consulting firm. In addition, CIOs will need to determine whether data from pandemic-related implementations moves seamlessly to the other systems that need it.

Reviewing new technology's return on investment (ROI) is a key aspect of identifying what technologies are working.

"You should be advancing your maturity level and optimizing what you're doing," Jackson said.

For example, IT and business leaders should consider employee- and customer-focused technologies they adopted in response to the pandemic, said Thomas Phelps, senior vice president of corporate strategy and CIO at Laserfiche. Do the tools to enable digital engagements or remote work deliver the optimal customer and employee experience? If not, leaders need to focus on ways to make that happen.

Phelps spoke from experience. He and his IT team saw early in the pandemic that the company's telephony platform couldn't support the expected customer or employee experience. So they switched to a cloud-based one that integrates with the company's customer relationship management platform. It enables the company's newly remote or hybrid workers to access data they need to provide a customer experience that equals what they provided from the office.

"Conversations about technology should [now focus on] how to move ahead and help our business achieve outcomes," Phelps said.

3. Revisit business technology contracts

Many CIOs and their procurement colleagues felt rushed to choose and implement new tools to get through the pandemic.

"They didn't have time to go to the market to see what was available," Spires said.

Negotiating contracts also got short shrift.

CIOs are and should be looking back at decisions made over the past 18 months and asking whether they are the still the right decisions moving forward.
Tracy BarnesCIO, Indiana Office of Technology

Many CIOs signed contracts for IT products and services at a premium due to the urgency of their needs, he said.

Many organizations signed multiple contracts for different products or services with the same vendor or they engaged multiple vendors that have overlapping capabilities, Spires and Jackson both said.

Although striking such agreements may have been necessary during the moment, CIOs can't afford to carry contracts with premium costs or substandard service level agreements, they said. Nor can CIOs truly optimize their IT environment if they have multiple contracts and vendors providing the same services. As the frantic pandemic-induced pace wanes, CIOs should now take time to evaluate agreements and contracts for opportunities to reduce premiums, establish more competitive pricing and consolidate providers.

"This is an opportunity for leaders to revisit their contracts and to make sure they're optimized for growth," Phelps said.

IT leaders need to make sure that the services they onboarded quickly in response to the pandemic can accommodate growth and scale, he said. That includes examining vendor roadmaps and their innovation capabilities. As the frantic pandemic-induced pace wanes, CIOs may need to evaluate agreements and contracts for opportunities to reduce premiums, establish more competitive pricing and consolidate providers.

4. Consider employee experience improvements

Many employees logged extra hours or served multiple roles to help the company get through the height of the pandemic. But asking employees to continue burnout-inducing levels of work is not advisable long-term strategy. Mental health issues plague IT and the rest of the employee population.

"Many technology professionals have been running at full speed for the past 18 months and we're seeing turnover and burnout as a result of those demands," Spires said. "So you either have to backfill their old job or hire someone for their new one."

Similarly, CIOs should find ways to re-pace their teams, who have been working at a breakneck pace for much of the pandemic.

"A lot of organizations are still feeling the sprint nature of this, but you can only sprint for so long. You have to pace yourself differently for a marathon," Spires said.

5. Look to future digital transformation

CIOs need to consider whether the digital transformation efforts they implemented in reaction to the pandemic are capable of carrying them into the future.

"CIOs are and should be looking back at decisions made over the past 18 months and asking whether they are the still the right decisions moving forward," Barnes said.

Barnes, for example, said his IT department had to vastly expand the state's call center capabilities to handle a surge in demand for essential services, such as unemployment assistance, housing information and COVID-19 testing.

Barnes achieved that rapid center expansion by augmenting his existing on-premises call center system with contract services. He's now restarting a move the state to a cloud-based call center platform because that can more easily scale if needed in the future. He'd delayed that move because of the pandemic.

The cloud-based technology will deliver security features, such as anti-fraud capabilities, that he and his team have identified as key requirements moving forward, Barnes said.

"We learned a lot [during COVID-19] and we tried to make sure we pulled those lessons into this procurement," he added.

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