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7 ways COVID-19 has changed IT forever

Things will never be the same. Here’s a look at what IT will look like as the COVID-19 threat recedes.

By John Edwards

CIO | MAR 1, 2021 2:00 AM PST

7 ways COVID-19 has changed IT forever
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COVID-19 struck IT like a tsunami in early 2020, sweeping away long-established operations and processes, forcing CIOs to quickly identify and deploy acceptable alternatives. Now, as the virus threat appears to be gradually receding, IT leaders are viewing a radically transformed landscape, wondering how essential operations and practices will fit into a “new normal” business world.

The pandemic reshaped enterprises in an almost endless number of ways. IT, too, has felt the impact, leaving CIOs to wonder how their departments will cope with and function in a post-virus world. With basic changes already appearing, here’s a look at seven ways that COVID-19 has permanently transformed IT.

1. Agility is now a necessity

COVID-19’s sudden and unexpected arrival shook enterprises to the core, forcing many to search for alternatives to long-established business operations.

On the bright side, the pandemic showed IT leaders that it’s possible to safely transform key operations and services at a previously unimaginable pace. “Workloads shifted in a short amount of time in all sorts of ways for different companies,” says Kirill Shoikhet, CTO at software-defined storage company Excelero. “The ability to scale up, scale down … while being very cost conscious has become key to IT.”

2. Digital transformation leaps forward

While many enterprises were already planning digital transformation initiatives in early 2020, COVID-19’s arrival placed pressure on them to pick up the pace.

“With social distancing, remote work, and restricted contact for any activity, some businesses had to adopt a digital presence they didn’t have before while others were forced to pivot in new ways,” notes Pieter VanIperen, managing partner at PWV Consultants, a technology business consulting firm. “Digital transformation is now on the radar of businesses worldwide.”

Driven by necessity, IT leaders began investigating formerly fringe technologies. Suddenly, promising tools — such as AI-based self-learning models — looked far more approachable. “With COVID-19, CIOs’ risk tolerance changed because they had to deploy more nascent technology to keep their businesses afloat,” says Raj Hazra, senior vice president of emerging products and corporate strategy at chipmaker Micron Technology.

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Even once relatively minor initiatives, such as automated project time entry and employee onboarding processes, suddenly became imperatives during the pandemic. IT organizations adjusted to the frequency and variety of automation requests by being creative, observes Bob Lamendola, vice president of infrastructure and engineering services at digital services and information management provider Ricoh USA. “Many organizations have proven they can transform, and do so under adverse conditions,” he says. “Now that it is known, the acceleration will only continue.”

3. Collaboration is now routine

The pandemic drove home the need for IT teams to deepen and strengthen their collaborative ecosystems. By joining with internal and external partners, IT staff can gain access to the knowledge and resources necessary to stay a step ahead of the competition.

“This is a permanent shift that was trending before COVID hit, and has significantly accelerated,” says Brian Moore, tech transformation and trusted intelligence leader at business and technology consulting firm EY Americas.

COVID-19 forced enterprises clinging to a “built here” IT philosophy to recognize the value inherent in partner collaboration. “Whether it’s for technology embedded in products or cloud-based production and collaboration tools, the ecosystem will continue to be important to companies as they innovate and protect their competitive position in the marketplace,” Moore explains.

As CIOs soak up the praise or take their lumps, they must now look to the horizon and define their approach and strategy in a post-pandemic world.

Shifting to an ecosystem approach requires IT leaders to work constructively with external counterparts. Vendor management, for example, demands an ability to clearly articulate needs and to accurately measure each vendor’s performance. “This is not something that has been historically performed by IT and requires specific attention to ensure success,” Moore observes.

4. Threat awareness is now enhanced and expanded

COVID-19’s sudden arrival, combined with its lack of predictability, caught most IT leaders off guard. Technology-rooted emerging threats, such as ransomware and denial of service attacks, generally give enterprises at least a few clues as to what to expect and how to prepare and react. But COVID-19 hit hard and suddenly, upending critical operations within a matter of days.

“There simply wasn’t time to do six-month assessments on different technology options, or to build a long-term roadmap for compliance,” says Jason Goth, CTO at technology consulting firm Credera.

Chastened by the experience, a growing number of IT leaders are now beginning to treat communicable threats, such as COVID-19, with the same level of importance as natural disasters, by including defined strategies within their business continuity/disaster recovery plans. “It’s something companies must be able to activate on demand,” Goth states. “It’s hard to imagine that we can put that genie back in the bottle.”

5. IT is accepted as a business solutions driver

When the pandemic crippled long-standing business operations, IT stepped forward to provide solutions. Enterprises possessing advanced technical capabilities were able to create new products and services, Goth says.

“For example, retailers like Home Depot and Costco added curbside pickup; restaurants like McDonald’s added curbside and new delivery options; telecommunications products, like Zoom or Teams, had to add orders of magnitude in terms of scale as well as new features,” he notes. “Businesses that were able to make the changes quickly and effectively were not only able to survive, but thrive.”

Yet COVID-19 also raised enterprise expectations. “Now that businesses know what’s possible there will be much less tolerance of long lead times, delays, and excuses for not being able to deliver,” Goth predicts.

6. IT is now viewed as a financial innovator

COVID-19 allowed IT to take the lead in financial innovation, particularly in tech-driven areas such as contactless commerce. “While the industry had been innovating contactless commerce technology for years … the pandemic accelerated the transformation and brought it to the forefront,” says Carol Juel, executive vice president and CIO of consumer financial services firm Synchrony.

The pandemic increased consumer demand for the ability to transact and process payments without touching cash, cards, or keypads. “What made this [development] so significant is what would have taken years, took … only a few short months,” Juel notes, adding that contactless payment use rose 150% in 2020.

7. A new IT workforce is appearing

Suddenly finding themselves managing dispersed teams and facing an array of unprecedented new challenges, many IT leaders began recognizing the need for a new type of IT expert.

“From a basic level, we need self-starters who can work with little supervision and engage and collaborate without standing next to someone,” explains Stephanie Nigh, vice president of IT at Transact Campus, a cashless campus technology company.

A shift in IT personnel and collaboration requirements opens the door to more flexible talent and value creation opportunities, says Marc Tanowitz, managing director at business and technology consulting firm West Monroe. “This also means that IT leaders need to be prepared to enable the entire business … to work with more agility,” he adds. “The implication is that IT will need to take an iterative product mindset, providing the bandwidth, tools, platforms, and so on to drive productivity in a remote workforce and within the complexities of hybrid remote/on-site work environments.”

Discover Financial Services used COVID-19 to launch a workforce evolution with the goal of creating smaller, product-focused, autonomous IT teams. “Seeing the speed at which we can operate, highlighted many of the inefficiencies that got built into processes over time,” says Amir Arooni, Discover Financial Services CIO and executive vice president. “This simplification mentality is a tenant of our technology evolution, as we want to create autonomous teams that can fly.”

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