“Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday,” said popular American actor of yesteryears, John Wayne. We have no option but to make our tomorrow hopeful. Never have we—in our lifetimes—seen such a short period teaching us so much, as we have seen in the pandemic-stricken 2020.
It is for us to make sense of the change.
Some changes were just accelerated. We were aware of those changes before COVID but were either not fully convinced or cautious; or were simply procrastinating. COVID just made our decisions easier by leaving us with no option. Digitization of business processes—which itself has so many manifestations—was one such example. It helped the proactive. It convinced the skeptical.
Some changes were absolutely necessary for the situation but may not remain in the long run. They had to be brought in somehow, but as things became more and more normal, companies decided to go back to the older practice. Of course, there were learnings. But by and large, there was a longing to go back to the older practice. Due diligence on security is the most glaring example of a practice that changed during the crisis—no matter what companies claim officially. But they are going back to a tougher stance on security—albeit with newer ways, newer tools to manage.
Some changes were unanticipated but now promise to stay. They came, we saw and they kind of conquered us. Remote working—and all that comes with it—is the most important example of this type of change. The concept was not new per se. But many industries never thought they would have any need to work remotely. Manufacturing, Airlines, Hotels, Insurance…all realized they could work remotely. And the whole world has woken up to the possibility of remote work. The economy, said a commentator, was making a shift to a remote work economy. Whether you agree with that or not, at least no one is saying work from home is a euphemism for leave!
Some changes did not come directly from business organizations’ immediate need to respond to the COVID situation, but from the need to address the changes in marketplace—that is the change in customer behavior, due to a change in lifestyle and spending behavior. Most businesses are still trying to figure out the extent of this change.
Whether it is basic changes like contactless payment methods—India, of course, had learnt a lot of that four years back during demonetization—or the change in demand—either way—for some products and services because the way COVID impacted our lives, these changes are not on-your-face but are more strategic shifts. Examples could include how travel services consumption changed on one end of the spectrum to how consumption of online education and entertainment services changed, on the other. There are the not-so-obvious ones like in manufacturing OT where OEMs wake up to the long-standing needs of opening up to address the security concerns raised by IT in automated plants. But that one demands a full story by itself.
A New Normal response plan, hence, must carefully evaluate all these changes—and we are not saying our classification is the most accurate—and the breadth and depth in which they would impact businesses.
This article goes into a few such changes and their impact on enterprise IT. Again, our claim on these observations is only on their relevance to Indian IT managers and not on the comprehensiveness of their coverage.
But before we get into those adjustments, let’s recapitulate some of the most visible changes that all of us have noticed.
More flexibility in workplace model
Greater security risks
Traditional Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity plans not being of much help
Cloud adding a huge use case to itself: that of an effective DR solution
Companies with greater digitization of business processes responding with far more effectiveness
Gaps in IT models/digitization getting exposed
We will revisit them when we get into the adjustments.
#1 Closing the digital gaps
Reliability of a digitized business process is only as strong as its weakest digital link. This was badly exposed during the pandemic time. Digitization in many organizations had been done in bits and pieces. Sometimes, it was a knee-jerk reaction to a teething problem. Sometimes, it was in accordance with the comfort level of the process owner. Sometimes—even though many would not admit it—it was because of a smart technology vendor managing to sell the solution it had. Whatever are the reasons, many realized the hard way that despite 70-80% digitization in some business process, things did not move during the lockdown days, because of the gaps.
Take, for example, supply chains in many manufacturing companies. A lot of it was already automated. But in many organizations, approvals were still manual. In such cases, thanks to people not coming to offices, and thanks to the fear of ‘contact’, small approvals help an entire chain. There are many other examples—in education, hospitality, even the highly tech-savvy banking sector.
Many scrambled to close those gaps overnight. Some succeeded, some did not. In one chemical manufacturer, the CEO himself mandated to identify such gaps and close them on a priority basis. Of course, many started with the low-hanging fruits—processes where the gaps are small. In 2021, we will see IT managers trying to close the gaps in existing automated processes and go end-to-end in the less automated processes. Expect this to be quite ubiquitous in many industries.
#2 Towards fuller and smoother collaboration
While collaboration tools like Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet or WebEx saved the day by ensuring that the bare minimum happens and the business ran somehow, by making people talk to each other in groups, the gaps were multiple—and glaring. For one, conferencing is not collaboration. Most of these tools did not have the basic features available in traditional desktop video conferencing like a shared whiteboard. Collaboration requires working together, not pausing to give a briefing or just discussing an idea. That requires smooth, secure and seamless access to applications, which was missing. Security concerns were given a slip, in many cases, just to make people work somehow. Last but not least, the experience on the conferencing tools were, often, less than adequate. If that sounds like a lot of gaps, then be it. But let us not forget that COVID made collaboration an everyday phrase in the workplace and senior executives, who had problem in accessing emails, now swear by collaboration.
So, there is no going back. The functionality, security, and overall experience have to be improved. That, it is a clear top priority for the enterprise IT managers is a no-brainer.
#3 Shift towards human-centric business continuity planning
Most large companies had some amount of business continuity planning in place. Some of them had very meticulous planning. But all of that was around protecting data and technology infrastructure.
When the pandemic struck, data centers were operating fine. There was no threat to the data either. Yet, we know what happened. People struggled to have secure and seamless access to enterprise systems from home. Right from accessing devices to securing enterprise access, everything was a challenge. If the access was secure, there was issue of authorization. Patchwork saved the day for many but created vulnerabilities, that could be—and in some cases were—exploited.
That the traditional business continuity and disaster recovery plans were clearly inadequate was realized soon after the pandemic struck and was a point of discussion. As the pandemic prolonged and most had figured out an ad-hoc solution to make the business running, the issue was forgotten.
“It is a very, very important issue but honestly, I am yet to come across any new and tangible approach,” said a CIO. While we have listed optimistically it on the agenda items for 2021, the jury is still out on what could be the approach. As we said in the beginning, it is the year of hope!
#4 Uniformizing IT usage experience
COVID also exposed another major gap. After the first few weeks, when employees were allowed to go to office, many companies decided to stick to work from home. Many of them still do.
But a few employees realized that they did not have remote access to system, while some of their colleagues in other department had. So, even though, work wise, there was no major need for them to be in office (as required for some functional workers), they had to go to office, just because their IT system did not allow them to access their system from home. In other words, they had to risk COVID to go to office while their colleagues stayed home. This less than uniform privilege created much heartache among employees.
This happened because the enterprise IT was not planned end-to-end and certainly not keeping in mind the users. Even as the senior managers, not used to tech so well, have become digital converts post pandemic, the backlash from ordinary employees has the potential to derail many new IT initiates.
This artificial digital divide within the organizations must be addressed immediately.
#5 Renewed interest in smart infrastructure and manageability
Almost every infrastructure and system software vendor has introduced smarter boxes and/or software that could provide a single-pane-of-glass view of the infrastructure for easier manageability. The use case has been managing and thus help in securing hybrid cloud/heterogenous infrastructure well. Not every user organization can identify fully with that.
Most organizations had invested in basic functional boxes that could do what it was basically built to do, without that management layer that would help them to be managed remotely. That is because, even today, the price differential between them and the smarter infra is significant.
COVID, by forcing people to work remotely, brought in a strong use case for intelligent infrastructure that can self-rectify and can be managed remotely smoothly.
Of course, we do not expect people to do a hardware refresh, just for this. But they would certainly be sensitized to realize the need for smarter infrastructure in the next refresh.
#6 More from cloud – catalyzing application modernization
While most large organizations had their tryst with cloud in some form or the other, the pandemic made them realize the value far more than any ROI calculations earlier would have given. As if a new use case of cloud as a business continuity enabler emerged overnight!
Yet not everything was hunky-dory. There were challenges of access, of gaps, and of course, of management and security. And most of those challenges were not because of some inherent problems in public cloud offerings. They were due to the way they were set up.
Cloud made it to most enterprises’ hot investment agenda, initially because of the financial advantages that the CFO saw in it—and the conveniences that the CIO saw in it. Those were the low hanging fruits.
As many organizations realized the full potential of the cloud and moved up the value chain, many others were stuck there. For the CIOs, it was not as easy to justify application modernization to the CFO, as it was for infrastructure migration. The comparison was far more tangible and understandable to a finance person for infra migration. So, many applications were migrated in a lift-and-shift manner, the limitations of which were exposed during the extraordinary situation in COVID time.
This, and the new-found acceptance of technology among the conservative corporate honchos, means that we may see application modernization happen faster this year. Though these are often significant decisions, we believe application modernization will actually take off in a big way, thanks to the ecosystem readiness, unlike in case of some of the other adjustments we have talked about.
#7 IT optimization for decentralized operations
One of the clear visible changes brought about by the pandemic is the confidence on remote working. This confidence, coupled with the new reach achieved by many businesses such as education through online, is prompting them to seek a middle path – decentralized workplace, smaller offices in newer locations and hybrid (online + offline) delivery of services.
All these are leading to distributed operations with either mesh or hub-and-spoke model—or a combination of the two. In short, it means the ability to not just establish newer small offices, almost on demand, but to ensure that they are managed centrally with seamless and standardized experience for customers, employees and partners.
In 2021, needless to say, that would essentially be achieved by leveraging technology. It could mean various things. First and foremost, more and more usage of cloud. Second, with local internet access becoming better, thanks to the fiber connectivity becoming widely available even in smaller locations, means, allowing the smaller offices to connect to cloud using local Internet. This, though convenient and cost-effective, has its challenges. That brings us to security and SD-WAN kind of connectivity. Finally, it is the need for manageability, not just that of IT infrastructure but of overall operations, using technology. All these are very real needs and are not rocket science (unlike say reinventing a new DR/BC model, as discussed above). We expect this to happen in a major way this year.
While this is the reactive part, if the experiment works out, businesses would like to make it proactive, by creating a model that would enable plug-and-play enablement of smaller offices.
#8 Readjustment based on strategic business shifts
Apart from the horizontal changes like usage of cloud, shifting to decentralization, more collaboration and better digital processes, which are changes across industries, different businesses have strategic needs based on the market shifts. Many of those needs will have to be fulfilled by leveraging technology. That will, of course, vary from industry to industry but may have lessons for others too.
And now for some wishful thinking: more holistic UX
While technology has removed many a barrier like distance and the limitation of memory and hence has made many things possible, thought to be impossible earlier, it is nowhere close to perfect when it comes to social interactions. That was not really a need in corporate life, as it was taken for granted in an office environment. The pandemic forced us to work in isolation and even showed us many tangible, measurable short-term benefits of remote work, raising the expectations from it.
But the more we work remotely and digitally, the more will machines come in the way of our interacting with each other, noticeability of which will have to be minimized. That would require a different approach to User Experience (UX). UX has traditionally been fairly narrowly defined and has been reduced to a very limited set of metrics. The UX for the New Normal has to be much broader. Some organizations, for example, have introduced a virtual commuting time, for people working from home. This is based on findings that the commuting time acts as a buffer between home environment and office environment and helps the worker switch off gradually from home environment to office environment.
It is not just about redefining UX. By some of the traditional measures of digital user experience, such as low latency, intuitive interfaces, etc., many IT setups still have a long way to go. Those should ideally be taken up this year.
We are yet to comprehend the long-term changes that may take place because of the learnings from the extraordinary situation we faced last year. Of course, every business change will have implications for technology strategies and for CIOs.
While we have identified some adjustments based on what we have observed, it will be presumptuous on our part to call it a definite or a comprehensive list.
But if we do observe something new, we will share with you, right here.