What We've Learned About Technology and Innovation in a Crisis

June 19, 2020 Myles Suer

CIOs have played a critical role in helping companies adjust to the realities of doing business during a global pandemic. This blog post offers the observations and insights of five technology veterans taken from the virtual #CIOChatLive 2.0 held in April. The panel included:

  1. Jay Brodsky: Chief Digital Officer at American Geophysical Union (AGU)
  2. David Chow: CIO of Newgate Medical Group and advisor to Fortune 500 companies
  3. Stephen diFilipo: Founder of Just Right Strategies and interim CIO for Millersville University
  4. Michael Fulton: Head of the Technology Innovation team at Nationwide
  5. Mark Thiele: CEO/Founder of Edgevana, a company focused on helping to lower the barriers to entry for edge development in the data center

Although during the panel all participants contributed on every issue, we’ve selected a representative sample of the conversation.

The Immediate Response to COVID-19

All the panelists agreed that COVID-19 had raised the stakes for the IT function in companies regardless of industry. And meeting the crisis caught many companies flat-footed.

Chow remarked, “I would say healthcare, like most other industries, has been slow to innovate. Much of our budget was tied to human capital with extraordinarily little left over to fund innovation. COVID[-19] pushed us to accelerate in two directions: telemedicine as part of the routine for delivering care, and scaling out the remote workforce to thousands of employees. We had to move past the incremental approach to innovation.”

Other panelists mentioned that the pandemic had accelerated the digital transformation journey already underway in their organizations. Fulton commented, “We’re reimagining how we engage all our customers. It’s the telemedicine approach to financial advisory.”

Higher education experienced a similar impact. For many teachers, the remote instruction model was unfamiliar. “Many of our instructors had never touched a learning management system,” said diFilipo. “So, we needed to offer training, support, and coaching for the faculty. The IT team did an amazing job, and they also had to start troubleshooting home networks for students spread around the globe.”

Join us July 22 at 10am PT for a frank discussion of CIO options for managing today’s economic uncertainty. Register here for "The CIOs Guide to Managing Today’s Economic Uncertainty."  

The Supply Chain Challenges of the All-Remote Workplace

Behind all this gearing up for remote working, there were serious supply chain issues. Many companies could simply not acquire enough resources for their employees. For example, the Nationwide technology team had to outfit 10,000 customer service representatives, so they could leave the office. Some had never had a laptop. Network architects had to navigate capacity challenges for VPN, Skype, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. “There was no blueprint for this,” emphasized Fulton.

Chow had a similar experience and pointed out that providing remote care in metropolitan regions was relatively straight forward while it was more of challenge in remote areas. “I foresee a lot of the telecom vendors stepping up to provide bandwidth. Because without that, there is no connectivity,” he said.

Technology as an Overarching Organizational Strategy

One concept the COVID-19 outbreak has made clear is that technology must be viewed as an organizational strategy, not a box on the org chart. “Stop thinking about IT as a box,” said diFilipo. “Engage all your constituencies to be part of the innovation, the excitement, and the imagination of technology. It’s amazing the innovation that comes forward from that shift in thinking.”

Fulton added, “That’s a mental model we ought to leverage. We must reimagine our organizations with technology at the heart of it.”

Of course, that shift in thinking is cultural and, as Thiele pointed out, culture boils down to leadership. “The leadership of the company drives the culture. If the leadership doesn't live and breathe the expected culture, the people underneath them won't.”

If technology is an overarching strategy for an organization, innovation will be recognized and rewarded. If it isn’t, there’s little chance it will thrive. “We’ve all heard about the companies that want to monitor employees as they work from home," said Thiele. "If that's the culture you live in, you've bled out innovation already; it's a dead animal.”

Building a Culture that Encourages Innovation

Among our CIOs, opinions varied on whether innovating was a skill that could be taught. But there was agreement that it was very feasible and necessary to build a culture that encouraged innovation.

“Innovation isn't something you can demand,” said Thiele. “You can’t just turn it on or off. But you can make the environment around your teams fertile enough for them to grow. You can provide the opportunity.”

Fulton agreed, adding, “It takes more than a great idea. There's a process that takes the idea, fleshes it out, vets it, and proves that it's going to matter to a customer. The great idea is the spark that lights the fire, but it needs fuel.”

Freedom to fail is a phrase often associated with environments that encourage innovation. But it has to be more than lip service. Again, it’s cultural.

“I’ve seen how not having that freedom limits organizations,” said Brodsky. “When folks say, ‘Oh, yeah, feel free to innovate, but don't mess up.’”

That sentiment brought up the topic of measuring the ROI of innovation, which Chow felt was a losing proposition.

“Every time you go to a CFO to say, here's my ROI for innovation, you're going to fail. Look at the start-ups, most of them fail. I think we need to set the expectation that nine out of 10 times innovation efforts fail. But one will dramatically change how you operate. And there's the ROI. Unfortunately, most organizations want better than 1 out of 10. But the ROI on that one could be 10x or 20x."

Moreover, buying the shiny new tool is not innovation. “Let's say you get five million dollars for innovation,” Chow continued. “You buy a new app and call it innovation. But you didn't do anything except increase your maintenance and operating costs. That’s not innovation.”

Fulton also made the point that organizations need to be educated about innovation. “My team provides technology support for innovation across the enterprise. We also research and educate the organization on emerging technologies and help our employees better empathize with the customer of the future. So, we have a robust innovation structure, and it's been proving fruitful.”

How does a CIO eliminate the costs of technical debt while preserving the innovation required for digital transformation? Read our executive brief, "How to Cut IT Expense While Sustaining Business Growth and Innovation" to find out.

Crisis: Threat or Opportunity?

As a group, the panelists felt that, while not easy, it was important to view any crisis as an opportunity to make positive changes. Thiele elaborated, “So, you're already in pain — whether it’s from a financial meltdown, an acquisition, a change in leadership, or a global health crisis. Use that opportunity to do those things that under normal circumstances you wouldn’t. Where you wouldn’t rock the boat.”

Brodsky explained what he called a “neutral zone” between before and after a crisis. “All the classic business books talk about a neutral zone between the before and after. The future is unclear. So, take advantage of that time in the neutral zone to innovate.”

Fulton offered the example of rethinking how selling is done. “Who is largely funding the airline industry? It's companies all around the world that feel you must be face-to-face to make the big sale. Coming out the other side of this, people are going to reimagine how we do sales. And collaboration tools will be a big part of that.”

Thiele also cautioned organizations not to ignore the “little” things like communication. “When you plan for business continuity, innovation around supplementing and guaranteeing communication is really your minimal viable product for success.”

The Changing Role of the CIO

There’s no doubt that the crisis of a global pandemic has shone a spotlight on the role of the CIO. But the role has been continuously evolving ever since the title was first used in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, the stakes are higher now. All our panelists felt that the days of “kicking the traditional CIO can down the road are over.”

“The CIO role has become elevated, in perception and in funding,” said diFilipo. “Because organizations suddenly realize they really need all this infrastructure and the capabilities it provides.”

Along with more attention and more funding come greater expectations. CIOs must always be thinking about the business — how it makes money, spends money, and engages with customers.

Companies had a chance to learn from the 2008-2009 financial turmoil, a chance to shore up systems and processes that could make their organizations more resilient in a crisis. But many did not learn those lessons.

“A lot of CIOs will be exposed by this crisis,” Chow concluded. “So, if your house is not in order, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Join us July 22 at 10am PT for a frank discussion of CIO options for managing today’s economic uncertainty. Register here for "The CIOs Guide to Managing Today’s Economic Uncertainty."  

About the Author

Myles Suer is the head of global enterprise marketing for Boomi.

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