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CIOs on the front line in the emergency

There’s no doubt about it: information technologies are providing a crucial contribution to managing continuity in the current situation as far as service provision for customers, patients, and people in general and at the same time, ensuring continuity of business, office work, and productive, logistical, and commercial activities.


Today the heads of ICT departments (be they CIOs, CTOs or CSOs) find themselves under tremendous pressure from customers, management, company personnel, commercial partners and suppliers. Obviously the intensity of this pressure depends on how deeply their company is involved in handling products and services that are more or less priority in the current emergency. It’s very high for food retailers, pharmaceutical distributors, banks, producers of personal protective equipment and health care products; lower for producers of luxury goods, machine tools or industrial machinery.


It’s often been said in the past that we only notice information systems, and the work of IT teams and their leaders, when something goes wrong. When systems are slow or offline, when an app hits a glitch, when there’s a security breach, and so on. The current coronavirus emergency is shining a light on a number of weak links in the system that have not been adequately addressed. The fragility of multichannel e-commerce systems, the decline in service level in product distribution and automatic delivery systems (for example, lockers for package pick-up or home delivery apps); limited internet connectivity, networks (fixed and mobile) and their finite band width; logistics and warehouse management systems that are rigid, incapable of rapid re-adaptation; improvisation in secure methods for remote work due to partial roll outs of communication, collaboration and resource-sharing systems (for data, presentations, documents, audio/video, etc.); a lack of essential data analysis systems to support today’s critical decisions, more or less based on big or small data and AI technologies.


Today’s challenge is dealing with the unexpected explosion of the emergency, which in just a few weeks has changed the general situation, work methods and market relationships. Organization have had to quickly come up with emergency response plans, actioning a series of resources and implementing operational choices tied to ICT management. In this regard, here is a description of ENEL’s experience, in the words of Global CIO Carlo Bozzoli. In a recent interview he discusses new operational models based on the combination of totally cloud-based digital infrastructures and smart working, along with people’s attitudes and sense of belonging


In facing the current crisis, CIOs as well as CTOs and CDOs are playing a vital role in various ways:


  • Providing continuity for services and businesses, to contain the fallout from the emergency using more monitoring and shoring up customer and user support systems, either directly or via ICT providers (e.g. contact centers, help desks, interactive voice response systems, internal and external trouble ticketing, etc.); and continuity for ICT infrastructure, data processing systems and communication networks. All this to deal with rising numbers of customers who are remotely accessing e-commerce sites or employees smart working from home who are accessing corporate IT systems.
  • Expanding and stabilizing new possibilities for more or less ‘smart’ remote working (that is, modifying the work culture and work processes, if need be) for their IT collaborators, and for all company personnel, partners and IT service providers. This has led to purchasing mobile devices and more office collaboration licenses, managing secure systems for remote access of company applications, rapidly redesigning work methods and streamlining corporate processes where possible, among other things.
  • Upgrading or reinforcing the company’s information system to make it more resilient; using tactical action for cybersecurity risk mitigation, and leaving decisions on more general strategies to calmer times (this risk not only comes web “looters” but also from the number of people working from home); paying more attention to disaster recovery procedures (to include terrorist plots, natural disasters, and now pandemics too!). Another aspect of the emergency is the temporary loss of key IT personnel (due to illness, not turnover), and figuring out how to respond to the need for greater flexibility in contracts with ICT providers. Lastly, efforts are being made to guarantee greater redundancy in ICT resources (networks and data processing systems, more cloud-based storage services, the number of suppliers of the same resource, greater supplier substitutability) as well as the design and launch of new analytics systems for analysis-control-decision on key corporate processes. One final point ties into digital innovation agile test & learn practices to activate tools and applications for managing behaviors and critical resources during the emergency.
  • Implementing effective crisis management and IT leadership in relationships and communication with the entire management team, and with IT collaborators. This gives rise to greater transparency in personal relationships, which in turn encourages people to find more dynamic and timely ways to handle the countless unexpected circumstances that can come up in a constantly changing crisis scenario. Beyond ‘what to do,’ is the question of ‘how to behave’ – right now these are the critical questions in organizations, and informal channels count as much as official ones do in reassuring all employees and giving them clear, precise direction.


CIOs, CTOs and CDOs are deeply involved in all of this. In all the ways listed above, they are playing a vital role. Irrespective of the different forms of accountability at a company level, these experts must draw up intervention scenarios and priorities, to include extreme use cases, while collaborating with all the CXOs in the company. The motto is: “Keep calm and look forward for the ‘new normal’”!


But what will the new normal look like for people who work in IT/digital management in these companies? It’s still too soon to say, until we can see the results of our slow recovery from the emergency. Certainly the volumes and intensity of certain strategies implemented at this time will fall to new levels, higher than before but much lower than the spikes that are happening today in the heat of the crisis. (Consider the amount of e-commerce, or the number of employees who are smart working from home.) There is no doubt that new practices and new methods for certain IT processes will be reformulated, factoring in the requirements that have emerged these past few weeks (customer support or IT risk management, for example). And of course, contracts with partners and IT providers will be renewed and reinforced, as will IT security systems. And lastly, relationships among people, cross-functional collaboration, the capacity for training mixed teams and having them work toward a shared goal: all these aspects of business will change, probably for the better, after the exasperation we’ve experienced during this crisis. Aspects which constitute the pillars of the profession as a service function, which is the role that IT plays in companies today.