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How can CIOs prepare for 12 months of uncertainty ahead?

Just 12 months ago, nobody could have predicted where we are now. So how can CIOs prepare for the future amid such uncertainty? We asked five IT leaders for their expert advice

We will always remember 2020 – a year like no other for CIOs. From moving thousands of employees to remote working to finding new ways to serve customers in extreme circumstances, IT leaders have fast-forwarded digital transformation and proved their value to the business.

Yet their work is far from done. CIOs who want their organisations to emerge on a strong footing in the post-Covid age must continue to push digitalisation in the coming months.

So, what will things be like in 12 months’ time and what should CIOs be doing now to prepare for the changes ahead? Five IT leaders give Computer Weekly their views.

Embrace the opportunity for change

While Covid-19 has presented a huge challenge in terms of business operations, Trainline CTO Mark Holt says it’s important digital leaders recognise that running a successful tech operation often necessitates an ability to absorb and even exploit change.

“Industry goes on these rollercoasters and you need a bit of an externality to come in and puncture the equilibrium; something comes along and disturbs the equilibrium and it forces you to do things in a different way,” he says, referring to the huge changes in 2020.

“I’ve spoken to people who’ve accelerated and done three years of innovation in three months, particularly around e-commerce. That’s been the one area that has really moved forward – and that shift has been amazing,” says Holt, pointing to research that suggests the UK went from 20% e-commerce penetration to more than 30% in the two months after lockdown.

Holt expects his organisation to continue its push into new areas during the next 12 to 18 months. “We’re continuing to build our businesses across Europe, and that’s actually going really well – we’ve seen great recovery across Europe, and a lot of that comes down to government rhetoric in a lot of different countries,” he says.

“We’ve got a really cool pipeline of bits of tech that we’re sitting on now. We built them during lockdown and now we’re just waiting for the right moment to launch them. So we’ve got at least four or five quite sizeable things that are sitting in the locker, and we’re continuing to reiterate them. What we need now is real customer feedback to get them out the door.”

Context is everything

Steve Bates, principal at consultant KPMG, agrees that Covid-19 provided a huge impetus for change in terms of digital leadership: “It really took people off the fence and it made transformation a case of, ‘We now must do this now’.”

His firm’s recently released IT leadership survey alongside recruiter Harvey Nash suggests companies spent the equivalent of around $15bn extra per week on technology during the first three months of the crisis. What’s more, almost half (47%) of senior technology executives say the pandemic has permanently accelerated digital transformation.

Bates says the transformative efforts of CIOs have stunned and amazed other C-suite executives. Technology delivered on its promise when the business needed it most. When it comes to what happens now, Bates says the answer depends on the kind of economic recovery pattern your company is facing.

“Our research suggests around half of organisations are already saying they’re going to see continued investment in the digitisation of the business. There are companies that are surging – we see firms that are experiencing massive growth due to the change of behaviours caused by Covid,” he says.

For these companies, such as those that have successfully boosted e-commerce operations, the challenge during the next 12 months will be around providing business insights on customer behaviours and market conditions, streamlining supply chains, and accelerating the time to market for new products and services.

On the opposite side of that coin are companies that have struggled to cope with the challenges presented through the pandemic. These businesses, says Bates, are “in hard reset mode” – and the next 12 months will be tough as they remain capitally constrained.

”Those CIOs are going to have to focus on continuously taking out costs, streamlining operations and modernising the core, so that they can emerge competitively. It’s a different story for each CIO and I think it largely depends on what that pattern you’re facing,” he says.

Find new ways to make the most of your existing capability

Richard Gifford, CIO at logistics giant Wincanton, is another technology leader who recognises that coronavirus has been a burning platform for change. He’s used technology to help the business cope with the spread of Covid-19 – but he’s also had one eye on the future, especially in terms of how digital services can help the business grow.

Gifford has plans to potentially expand his firm’s OneVASTwarehouse initiative, a platform that matches buyers with sellers of warehouse space, into other operational areas. Wincanton and its customers would then be able to use the cross-resources platform to plot spare capacity across not just warehouses, but also transportation and human resources.

“We’ve got a desire, but it’s not progressed yet,” he says. “There’s a gig economy out there. There’s very skilled people that move from one warehouse to another within a locality. We’re looking at the opportunity for us and our customers to start to move those people around to best effect.”

Gifford says the plans for human resources would help his organisation and its customers to having a much clearer idea of scheduling and the people who might be available at certain times, such as peak seasons for a fashion business. The platform would allow Wincanton to help its clients find people that it already trusts for forthcoming projects.

“We know the people who work for us, we’ll say they’re good people and they’ve become available on these time slots. We’re not trying to eliminate an agency, for example. It’s just that with the data we’ve got and the people we’ve got, we can put that all together with a customer and make a proposition, but it’s early days,” he says.

Think about how people can use their time effectively

During the first three weeks of lockdown, UK e-commerce at beauty firm Avon International – which traditionally relies on door-to-door sales techniques – grew six-fold. Nick Burton, chief information and digital officer at Avon International, says his business is reflecting on that transition and considering its next steps.

“We’re taking the opportunity to think about the future direction of the business. One example of this is we’re moving to a monthly campaign cycle, so that means one brochure every month; much easier to understand, much simpler, and it gives representatives more time to sell, so it’s better for everyone. Normally, that would be a really hard thing to decide to do, because when you do it, you have a dip as you go through that change,” he says.

“We’ve got a dip anyway, so we’re just doing it. And we’re not just doing that in one place, we’re doing it in all of our markets. For the first time ever, we’ll all be using the same campaign cycle, which will make it much easier for us to forecast demands for different products. That will make it much more efficient in a number of areas, such as printing. We’re trying to use the situation to relaunch ourselves as we come out of the pandemic.”

Over the next 12 to 18 months, Burton says he would like between 20% and 25% of Avon’s business to come through digital channels, either via e-commerce or digital brochures. So more than the rise of e-commerce being just a response to a crisis, he wants the firm’s digital transformation to become “the new normal”.

“I want our representatives to spend more of their time finding new customers, providing advice to their customers to help them buy products that are great for them, and less of their time delivering packages to people and picking up. They can use their time much more effectively if we’re working in that way,” he says.

Be clear about your purpose as a business

Jamie Broadbent, head of digital and innovation at RBS International, says blue-chip organisations have had “a million and one things to do at once” during the pandemic. Yet what Covid-19 did, almost overnight, was crystallise the things that really mattered most.

“It made us accelerate those important things and stop the elements that didn’t matter. In fact, the things that benefit the customer are the things that matter most. That’s been a great exercise and I hope that we never go back,” says Broadbent, who spoke at the recent DTX: NOW virtual event.

Going forward, he says all organisations must be clear about their purpose. Oftentimes, that purpose is not just to line the pockets of the shareholders, but to serve a meaningful role in society, particularly in the post-Covid age.

“For organisations like ours to thrive, that increasingly means working with partners. The nature of financial services is changing – customers expect and demand the ability to connect seamlessly with other organisations,” says Broadbent.

“And so the bank is focusing on understanding what are the things that we do really well and what are the things where partners can come in and work with us and show us a better way. That’s been great for everybody. It’s been a cultural shift for the bank to open up and work with other people.”

Broadbent says the ultimate benefit of that joined-up thinking is faster innovation for the consumer in the future. “And when we get that right, everybody wins,” he says.

“Banks historically thought of themselves as castles, where you have to build the kingdom and keep people out. Putting up the walls and being siloed right now is the beginning of the end. The banks that do well will be the banks that really recognise that shift and embrace it wholeheartedly.”

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