Coronavirus crisis

14 ways CIOs can show leadership during the COVID-19 crisis

What steps should CIOs be taking to help their organizations immediately weather this crisis? Fourteen CIOs share their thoughts.

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Coronavirus crisis

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Last week, in an informal poll by analyst Dion Hinchcliffe, 71 percent of CIOs agreed that the impact of Coronavirus was top of mind. Les Ottolenghi, CIO of Caesars, said, “At the moment, my top two concerns are coronavirus and the possibility of economic downturn because of the virus.”

Stan Bush, CIO at VA Midwest Healthcare Network, said, “Unfortunately, all we are doing is trying to protect the most at risk and slow its rate of spread to not overcome medical infrastructure. Once it’s inside your borders it’s almost impossible to stop without truly draconian measures.” We’re clearly starting to see that happen in cities across the country. 

CIOs are thinking through the broader impacts of this crisis. “Once the worst is over, what shifts in strategy and priority need to occur? How do we prevent heading in the wrong direction in the emotional aftermath of this crisis?” says former MSU CIO Joanna Young. Former University of Texas CIO, Stephen diFilipo, adds that smart organizations should have “addressed this through prior planning, proactive engagement and a multi-modal communication plan. Comprehensive plan activated to support faculty for remote learning.”

However, CIO David Seidl, University of Miami CIO, is candid in revealing that his university is “thinking about what we do differently afterwards. There are services and processes we're adopting right now that we need to either choose to keep or try get rid of completely.”

 Universities and their students are clearly some of the most impacted by this crisis. Universities have announced suspended classes or cancelled the semester entirely. The prior option leaves the door open for less than complete refunds. The real challenge is financial aid. The federal regulations can be onerous, and we are now in unchartered waters.

To handle the situation, Boston College has transitioned to online learning beginning today. Meanwhile, as of last week, Tulsa University has the campus open, classes online three days. Its CIO is in meetings every day to discuss status and what-if scenarios. With this, it and Boston College are focused on supporting faculty and students in active completion. To do this, there needs to be alignment on what constitutes a technology question vs. an academic question vs. a safety question.

Cloud is easier to justify

Analyst Ray Wang said during this #CIOChat the ROI on cloud has become a lot easier to quantify. Brian Carberry, CIO of UPMC Whitfield Hospital, agreed and said, “The current situation has focused the conversation on Cloud as a business risk mitigation tool and not just a ‘nice to have’ or technology for technology’s sake. It has made cloud tangible.”

“Cloud is a key enabler. We have a lot to do in the quest for digitalization and digital transformation,” Wang said. “The good news is that this pandemic is showing us what we are not ready for.”

It's great to hear that cloud has found further relevance to CIOs. But what other steps should CIOs be taking to help their organizations immediately weather this crisis? I asked CIOs to share their thoughts:

14 topics CIOs should add to crisis battle plans

  1. “Keep your users working in this new normal. Any downtime? Revisit your organization structure and fine tune everything.” - Paige Francis, CIO, Tulsa University
  2. “Demonstrate calm and capable leadership. Be solution-oriented. Demonstrate patience; expectations have to change. Emphasize communications channels for constituents. The orbit of employees, clients and constituents are all in flux.” -Former CIO, Oakland University
  3. “CIOs should get into a time machine and go back 12 months and start deploying scalable and remote productivity software — Office 365 or GSuite. I can confirm that this has saved our bacon. We are stronger for this during this coronavirus situation. It's really been a positive force for us.” - Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville
  4. “Listen to local authorities. Be a part of the solution instead of the panic. Take a deep breath. Congratulate yourself for being prepared instead of worrying about what you might still lack. Remember that soap and water (super available!) beats hand sanitizer. Very proud of the City of Asheville for ceasing water cutoffs during this emergency.” - Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville
  5. “Enlightening the executive team regarding the value of technology and all the options around remote work.  I'm hearing already horror stories of executives who have not considering remote options.” - Stephen diFilipo, former CIO, University of Texas
  6. “Use your project and change management skills to support or lead planning and mitigation efforts. Think critically about essential business processes and the simplest path to maintain them using remote technologies. Remember that good enough is just fine.” - Raechelle Clemmons, former CIO, Texas Women’s University
  7. “Be available, flexible, and supportive. This is a time when leadership is more important than ever. Technology is only one part. Be visible to not only your team but your organization.” - Jason James, CIO, Net Health
  8. “Cut through the noise and hysteria quickly and be clear on your policies to support the company and team. We already have technology in place to work remote. The requirements coming to me are can you ship me a chair, monitor, standing disk. Ensure you have a consistent answer.” - Ben Haines, CIO, Verizon Media
  9. “Ask broad questions and step back to think about things to help your peers across your organization.” - David Seidl, CIO, University of Miami
  10. “Protecting your staff and business should be the CIO’s greatest priority. CIOs have a chance to become virtual leaders directing the business on key decisions during this time of fear and uncertainty. CIOs must set expectations. With key staff quarantined, working from home or cut off, it's paramount to help staff stay engaged and productive.” - Ryan Fay,  global head of high tech and global enterprises, Gartner
  11. “This is a time to: 1) accelerate your digital strategy to beat the competition when demand signals increase; 2) ask for more funding to develop better technology capabilities because the rules of the game have changed; 3) evaluate your technology partners and determine if they're still the best fit; 4) utilize data-driven models to place bigger bets on digital revenue sources including prioritizing ease of use for customers to consume digital products and services; and 5) use business acumen to study changes made in response to COVID-19 for new operational efficiencies, such as sourcing or process automation, and more digital products/services, such as self-serve and replenishment strategies.” - Ryan Fay,  global head of high tech and global enterprises, Gartner
  12. “Pause significant organizational changes. Increase learning and experimenting. Reset priorities and expectations with your C-Suite. Adjust strategy to new financial realities and customer needs. Stay healthy and remind others to do the same.” - Isaac Sacolick, former CIO, Business Week
  13. “Stay calm, stay low, be kind. Prioritize on needed services for customers, employees, partners. Plan for disrupted supply chain and people resources. Communicate carefully and often. Carefully assess the impact to your 2020 plans. What are new strategic realities of your vertical and how does it apply to your organization? Don't get too far over your skis though. Plan for what you can and what's most important.” - Joanna Young, former CIO, MSU
  14. “Prepare code and your IT teams to help with contact tracing if applicable. Kindly refocus. Networking and security teams may need to go into action to support/build access points very quickly to support triage sites as well as secure patient data. Also, quick build of call centers that are softphone based. Now that many of us are sending our main customer base home, it’ll be interesting to see how our cloud strategies work. To date, we’ve been focused on fat, fat pipes to and from our campuses—now the primary reason for that has evaporated overnight.” - Sharon Pitt, CIO, University of Delaware

Parting remarks on COVID-19 and CIOs

This is clearly uncharted waters for everyone. But the calm guidance above has inspired me. We can weather this crisis together by staying calm and sharing our wisdom. Today Geoffrey Moore wrote, “Target the most impactful change you can make within the time period and constraints of the current situation and get on with it right now.”