Board level executives across world are more focussed than ever on maintaining business continuity and improving agility in the face of a year marked by unpredictability and uncertainty. Prospering in the ‘new normal’ will be all about innovation, added to the deployment of outstanding technology. It is a time for leaders and business visionaries to stand up and be counted.
When it comes to adopting new technology to help manage change, Tim Banting Senior Principal Analyst, Workspace Services, with independent consultancy Omdia has much useful useful experience. He has seen what innovation should look like, particularly in the fields of unified communications and collaboration, thanks to hands-on experience with Microsoft, NexitraOne, Cisco, Rockwell and GlobalData. He spoke to us about business continuity, innovation and cultivating agility – both within an organization and externally with partners, channels and customers.
“We are at an amazing moment in history where three billion global workers have found themselves working from home,” says Banting. “At Omdia we’ve been considering how this all affects the technology adoption lifecycle.”
“There are the early adopters that try out the technology first,” he explains. “Then there are the pragmatists who are risk averse and want to buy from established market leaders. Next we have the late majority with a conservative bias, who invest when the technology is mature. And then we get laggards that adopt when they’re forced to.”
Communications and collaboration solutions have proved popular with organisations looking to manage large numbers of remote workers, and this has been reflected in adoption of relevant solutions, argues Banting.
“What we’ve seen in the past is not a great deal of integration between the front office and the back office,” he says. “A lot of communications solutions have looked at desk bound workers, and occasionally those working remotely, but not so much those with a smartphone.”
COVID, he notes, has been a technology accelerator, and trends that were taking place pre-pandemic have been compressed into a short period of time as people struggle to adapt their businesses: “The benefits of unified communications and collaboration have been brought to the fore with people looking at platforms that enable that as a vital strategic asset for business continuity.”
On the subject of business continuity, and the role of technology, Omdia recently polled 1,000 companies worldwide, examining how prepared they were for employees to work remotely. It found that 80% of organisations that didn’t have up to date business continuity plans in place found themselves completely unprepared for the COVID crisis and remote working at scale.
“Only 17% of those that we surveyed said that they were fully prepared and had been able to make the transition to remote work as part of their business continuity plans,” notes Banting. “Looking ahead, a staggering 30% will now make it mandatory for all employees to work remotely. A lot of people have seen the business benefits in terms of reduced costs, others are more results-orientated rather than just paying for employees time between nine and five in the office. Perhaps those are the sorts of cultural shifts that we need to make.”
Cloud migration, observes Banting, can feel less risky than other forms of transformation because it can be subscribed to like any other online service: “You can try cloud services, find out what works best for you, rather than signing on to a 10 year deal with some premise-based equipment.”
To help understand more about continuity and technology, Banting chaired a session of CIOs from major corporate names from across a variety of verticals. One of these was Thomas Wölker, CIO with Rehau, a Swiss-based construction and automotive giant. A global company, it has more than 20,000 employees spread over more than 170 locations worldwide.
“We’re a typical manufacturing company,” says Wölker. “In late March, as we saw what was happening with our business in China, and we immediately set up a task force consisting of top management, financial people, health care people, security and environmental people, and really started thinking about the impact and about how to preserve cash flow from the financial perspective. We looked at working with our partners, at contracts, and at securing supply chain – planning for the worst but working towards the better. If sales were to drop dramatically, how could we survive, and pay our salaries.”
Wölker says a lot of work also went into the IT perspective: “We had a lot of cloud tools we had a social intranet already in place,” he explains. “Technology is our backbone, but our main focus was how to preserve the business. I think now we have to prepare for a second wave, and think about what is to come.”
Graham Budd is President and Chief Operating Officer with ARM, a developer of Internet of Things solutions. He says his big take away from the crisis is the importance of communicating and the value of a personal connection to the leadership of the company in a time of crisis: “The technology that we’ve been able to use includes collaboration tools, with a weekly video from our CEO to everyone in the company and numerous all hands meetings,” he explains. “This has had the unexpected side effect of helping people to feel connected into the whole. At a very difficult time people can relate to senior leaders in the organization in a way that they never did before – seeing inside each other’s houses, getting interrupted by our kids or pets and getting an insight into each other’s lives, reminding us that we’re all human beings as well as co-workers. Video is an incredibly useful collaboration tool. With everybody on video, it’s much more inclusive.”
One of the things that David Whalley noted, as Chief Information Officer with software consultancy Thoughtworks, was an increase in asynchronous communication across the operation: “There is, as has been noted, an element of Zoom fatigue,” he observes. “It makes all the newspapers, and it’s a reality. For us, we were always heavily into video conferencing. But I think we’ve increased the ability to asynchronously communicate through podcasts or video recordings. The other thing that we’ve experienced and we’re still struggling with the answer to this question is the blurring between, between work and non-work. I get emails from people at 11pm, midnight, 1am. This kind of thing can increase the stress on people and I think one of the things we’ve got to figure out is how do we help people maintain boundaries between different elements of work.”
Rob Greig is Chief Information Officer with design and engineering firm Arup. He says the organisation was experimenting with flexible working before the COVID crisis started, albeit in just a couple of offices: “The concept was that the number of hours you do a week is measured as an average over a month, and you can work wherever you want, whenever you want,” he explains. “It was so successful and so popular that people didn’t want to go back. The technology challenges included things like flexible timesheet systems. A lot of the out of the box products don’t really support our kind of flexibility, so we had to do a lot of integration to make it work. Now with COVID, there’s a completely different way of working for a large percentage of the workforce. The last few months have shown what people really can do if they’re focused and there’s a crisis.”
Arup enjoyed a couple of test runs before the crisis hit, adds Grieg: “We’ve got a very large office in Hong Kong, and the protests there caused us to initiate some of our business continuity plans,” he explains. “So we’d done some live preparation at a smaller scale. But it’s all very well having a business continuity plan and strategy in place, but what about our suppliers and our clients? I don’t think we’d fully considered the impact of that. The whole ecosystem of connectivity goes beyond your own organization.”
The cross border nature of Rehau’s European business echoes Arup’s experience, reports Wölker: “We had to figure out what we needed to do to increase remote working in our sales offices, providing laptops even though borders were closed,” he says. “We have also dealt with changes in the social aspect of the business. Nobody was really prepared for that. It was a shock when we had our first meeting after four months with everyone saying how great it was to be back with the team, talking face-to-face, seeing reactions and behaviours and interacting. Now we have to judge the right mix moving forward.”
As Vice President Europe with carrier TATA Communications, Steve Jenkins noted the struggle to adapt from having a very interactive workforce that met in an office: “I think a lot of people missed that,” he says. “Interactions with the customer were missed all the more. For TATA, as a heavily geared sales organization, face-to-face interaction with our customers, where we’d meet them on a regular basis, was gone overnight. How do you adapt to that?”
Being a technology company, he says TATA adapted quite quickly: “Within two weeks, we had 98% of the workforce working from home,” he recalls. “We then focused our attention purely on the customers and ensuring that they were in good shape. As for the social aspect, we’ve had parts of the organization invite people for a drink online. At five o’clock on a Friday people can drop in and have a glass of wine and some snacks. There’s a fitness class that happens at seven o’clock every morning. I think that going forward, that should actually be part of the business continuity program.”
Ryder Cup Europe is a very different kind of business, and with its focus on delivering entertainment through sport has been affected in particular ways. Michael Cole, CTO, PGA European Tour with Ryder Cup Europe observes that those with a technical focus can sometimes struggle to push innovation through their organizations: “I’ve heard references to shifting culture and mindsets,” he says. “But I think we realize that necessity is the mother of innovation. Vulnerability has become more significant with the added risk of malicious cyber-attacks. We’ve invested a lot of time in this, introducing multi-factor authentication and really tightening up on VPN access, particularly for critical services.”
Cole says he is pleased with how the industry is collaborating in ways that it has never had to before, whether that’s with suppliers, or even competitors: “I now sit on forums where I’m engaging with and learning from my competitors on what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked well,” he adds.
“During this period everyone has suddenly become reliant on technology in a way that perhaps we didn’t before,” agrees Budd of Arm. “It has demonstrated the critical importance of reliability and service quality and the user interfaces of the tools, particularly collaboration tools.”
Whalley of Thoughtworks believes the crisis has sparked a lot more discussion around agility, speed of change and transformation: “For a lot of people it’s brought home to them that it just isn’t possible without the right IT,” he says. “And I think it’s moved IT to be much more at the core of the business for a lot of organizations who realize that they can’t achieve what they want without agility being accelerated massively.”
But for Rehau’s Wölker, it’s not only about new technology and new tools: “The question is how do you adapt those tools,” he claims. “We have already seen the younger generation use collaborative tools and cloud services. Now I see the middle aged and older guys saying ‘Oh, that’s cool. How can I do whiteboarding?’”
Budd of ARM detects a new post-crisis appetite for innovation: “We live in a data-driven world and data is enabling new products, new services, new business models,” he argues. “But I think it’s also going enable different approaches to thinking about business continuity. Just think about the some of the technologies that we have coming down the pipe with AI and 5G connectivity and the Internet of Things, and the ability through those to be able to monitor and really understand what is going on in your broader business environment, both inside the company and outside the company. That is going to lead to opportunities in business continuity to be to be able to be more predictive to use data to understand when things are going to potentially go wrong.”
Cole of Ryder Cup Europe clearly sees his organisation as something of a front runner in innovation: “Our strategy over the last few years has been based upon cloud-based delivery and a mobile first architecture,” he explains. “And it’s that combination that really ensures that our data and our systems are fully accessible. It doesn’t matter whether our staff are working from the office or whether they’re on a greenfield site. Wherever they are in the world is simply an extension of the office.”
The challenge of continuity is about so much more, then, than just keeping the lights on. For those with an eye to the future, it is also about seeking ways to innovate through technology and thus stay proactive and not simply reactive. In times of crisis, those with a C-level appetite for transformational change are already a step ahead.
By Guy Matthews, Editor, NetReporter