CIOs and IT leaders need to lead by re-skilling, re-strategizing and upgrading themselves in this New Normal, post the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic
Once upon a time, we all lived in another world - a world pre COVID, pre-March 2020. And then the pandemic hit and suddenly everything just changed. A new culture of work from home started. While there were a few organizations who had experience managing work from home, there were many others who never imagined that they would have to do it – or simply they could do it. Most of their employees had never been allowed to formally work from home earlier (not considering the after office hours work that employees would be doing from home); there was no work from home policy. Suddenly, a few new terms emerged. Lockdown, Work From Home, Remote Working – they are now part of common vocabulary.
It fell on IT leaders and their teams to ensure that they meet the requirements of the organizations.
The Business Continuity Plan was more discussed than practiced. It existed only in very few cases. And in many cases, it was last updated at the time of ISO-27001 or any other audits. That suddenly became one of the most sought-after documents as management and boards started focusing on business continuity and business resilience. CIOs and their teams scrambled to ensure laptops and access to systems and data to employees were in place so that they could work from home. Now once the basic Work from Home issues were kind of sorted, companies needed to ensure people work efficiently and systematically, and so they graduated to developing more systems, contactless approaches, and other things.
As IT leaders now look back, after almost two years of living in this “No Normal”, they realize that the amount of automation that has been done in most organizations in the last two years is much more than what was done in years before March 2020. The key reason as I see here is that suddenly there was a business exigency and business need. There was a huge pull from the business as it was a question of survival, in many cases.
On the positive side, the IT teams and business managers could collaborate much more as people were available almost at all times as they saved a lot of commuting time (and because of external conditions, no one ventured out). The reality is that efficiency and productivity went up significantly and so did innovation, as companies came up with some innovative solutions.
There was one negative side too. Lots of IT leaders and teams could not follow a plan or strategy as to what projects they have to do, what kind of IT architecture they should have, what platforms they should or should not use as everywhere, there was a lot of pressure and the situation was so uncertain that the mindset and first objective was to ensure delivery at a fast pace, somehow.
Now, we are all reading and hearing that despite wave 3 or 4, hopefully, we are either at the end of the COVID or people will have to live with this situation and the “No Normal” could transition into “New Normal”: In this New Normal, the reality is that the world has changed from March 2020 to Feb 2022. It’s a different world. And in this new world, CIOs and IT leaders need very different kinds of leadership skills. In the last two years, CIOs used their leadership and technical skills to ensure that their organizations flourish or at least survive. However, moving forward in this New Normal, CIOs need a new set of traits to sustain this change. If I was to give 5 things that CIOs need to focus on, these will be as follows:
Focus on Upskilling: It is not just the companies that have changed. The entire ecosystem has changed. We are now living in a completely new environment where it is a digital-first thought process for our customers, partners, stakeholders, employees, or government. Recently in the budget speech, we all heard about virtual digital assets, cryptocurrency, 5G, drone as a service, Blockchain, etc. Words that one could not imagine a few months back are now part of the national agenda. So suddenly, everyone is talking about them. In this entire scheme of things, IT leaders need to focus on learning about emerging technologies, how they will impact their businesses (not just in the short term but in the medium and long-term too), and upskilling themselves and their teams before they go to end-users. End users also need to be reskilled so that companies can derive greater value from the adoption of digital technologies.
Focus on Architecture: It is not just about digitizing and implementing IT solutions, it is about implementing them right and in a manner that is scalable, secure, interoperable, cost-effective, and easy to manage. Several initiatives that might have been taken in an ad hoc manner in the last 2 years might have to be redone (or even stopped) considering the overall vision going forward. CIOs need to relook at their IT landscape and their digital strategy.
Focus on Agility: Speed is the name of the game in today’s times. It is very important to be agile. The days of IT projects or developments running into months may be over. There could be times when IT teams may have to deliver projects in days if not hours. For this, the CIOs will need to focus on processes, structure, culture, empowerment, and a customer focussed delivery mindset.
Focus on Collaboration: Collaborative working has been a pillar of success for CIOs and IT teams, However, in the New Normal, where a large number of IT professionals want to work at their terms and work from home (or with flexible schedules) and a large number of startups coming up with excellent IT solutions and a huge manpower shortage that companies are facing, CIOs and their teams have to take their collaborative working to a different level - working collaboratively in this fast-emerging gig economy and with startup founders and their teams.
Focus on Information Security: We all know that 2021 saw a huge surge in hacking and ransomware attacks. Reports are indicating that 2022 could be even worse in terms of cyber-attacks. While CIOs and their teams need to continue to strengthen their technology, processes, policies, and monitoring and threat intelligence mechanisms, at the same time, a major focus has to be given on the “weakest link” viz. human factor and get to a situation where it goes beyond regular awareness and training sessions to cyber security and safe practices becoming a part of the DNA of the organization.
Is there a Choice for CIOs and their Teams?
The reality of the world today is that it is not just the CIOs and their teams that are aware of the power of technology but the entire organization and the other CXOs. A lot of CXOs today are very IT savvy and focus on the digitalization of their functions. In such a scenario, if the CIOs and their teams don’t show agility, collaboration, or upskill themselves, there will be the birth (or shall I say increase) of shadow IT – say for example HR head could say that if I am not getting the kind of response that I want, let me just go to some cloud service provider or start-up and put up my HR system; sales team could say, let us put up our CRM system; someone else would say, let me put my own system and role of CIO and IT team would be highly diminished – shall I say just keeping the lights on- managing servers, email, internet, legacy systems, etc.
The author is Chairman (Advisory Board), MentorKart & Former CIO & CHRO, Hero MotoCorp