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Covid-19: Three technology areas that CIOs must address

CIOs will need to consider the IT measures that will be needed to support their organisations as the government ramps up its response to the coronavirus

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Making home working work – a guide for IT leaders

With employees working from home to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, analyst Gartner has urged CIOs to ensure that everyone who can work from home is able to do so.

The Gartner report, Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak: short- and long-term actions for CIOs, recommends that IT departments ensure remote working is fully supported.

In the report, Gartner said that in organisations where remote working capabilities have not yet been established, CIOs need to work out interim solutions, including identifying use-case requirements such as instant messaging for general communication, file sharing/meeting solutions, and access to enterprise applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM), while reviewing all security arrangements to ensure access to applications and data is secure.

This level of remote access may put existing enterprise systems under considerable strain.

And as the UK government moves to the next phase of controlling the spread of the virus, analytics will be increasingly important in managing its impact on business and society. Some organisations may find they are called on to support public health initiatives, while others will need to collaborate to keep supply chains running and manage limited resources efficiently.

Can we use data?

“Data and analytics can play a big role in containing the spread of Covid-19, if we can identify confirmed cases, their close contacts and the spread paths,” said Gartner research director Sandy Shen.

She added the need for such data may involve businesses such as telecommunications companies, payment providers and transportation firms sharing data to help citizens and the government identify potential risks in their surroundings and take preventive measures more quickly.

Given that Covid-19 is affecting the global supply chain, businesses face disruption in manufacturing activities when their suppliers cannot deliver as planned.

For instance, Dell has asked its customers wanting to order more than five laptops to provide details of their deployment plans and timeline of implementation. “This ensures we can work together and make sure that we stick as close as possible to your companies’ go-live date and keep productivity at an all-time high,” the company said in an email.

Data and analytics will have a big role to play in mitigating the Covid-19 impact,” said Shen, adding that businesses will need to collaborate closely with suppliers to enable them to have a level of transparency in the supply chain, which would enable them to adjust production schedules quickly, as well as identify suppliers in their local markets that have the capacity and material that can be used as interim supply sources.

“Data such as energy consumption, tax payment and invoice data can all be used to identify potential partners,” she said.

Will our systems overload?

But existing enterprise IT systems may not be flexible enough to cope if businesses are asked to provide more support to the government, such as if they are asked to manufacture ventilators, or if the situation arises where private hospitals and hotels are mobilised to make space to care for the sick.

“Most systems of records, like ERP and CRM systems, cannot accommodate major changes in a short time, but simple changes to rules or policies can be made very quickly,” said Shen.

More broadly, she warned that a major challenge companies face is the capacity issue.

For example, following a week of panic buying, on the evening of 13 March, Ocado posted on Facebook that it would be prioritising deliveries. “In this time of unusual demand, we have made the call to temporarily prioritise deliveries for you, our existing customers,” Ocado said in its Facebook update. “This means that after today, we will not be processing new customer bookings for the time being.”

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Shen said: “When a large number of customers, employees and partners are trying to use those systems, the applications or network may not have the capacity or bandwidth to support such large traffic.

“So if the system isn’t designed for scalability, they will face bottleneck challenges. Then they will have to restrict access to the most essential use and a limited number of users to ensure availability.”

Should I throttle bandwidth?

The Gartner report recommended that CIOs support multiple endpoint devices such as PCs, phones and tablets, and allow staff to use their own devices. If certain enterprise software is not available remotely, in the short term, the analyst firm recommended that CIOs consider using locally available, alternative software-as-a-service (SaaS) products that are easy to implement. 

The report also advised CIOs to look at workplace collaboration, video conferencing and live streaming, which can serve various customer engagement and selling scenarios. 

However, network contention, which causes the internet to slow down, may start to become a problem as more offices close, and people work from home and use IP-based video conferencing.

Shen urged CIOs to work with internet service providers to secure bandwidth and network capacity. She said they should be prepared to pay a high price for connectivity as network capacity would become a scarce resource during the outbreak.

But CIOs should also prioritise the use of less bandwidth-intensive applications, said Shen. “Limit systems and application use to customer-facing or a limited number of people,” she said.

To keep in contact with employees working remotely, Shen recommended that CIOs also consider dialling down the use of bandwidth-hungry collaboration tools such as video conferencing and use audio instead.

“This can reduce the effectiveness of the interaction in some cases, but at least people will have a working system, which is better than nothing at all,” she said.

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