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The Great Digital Opportunity: Technology Officers in the Age of COVID-19

COVID-19 presents enormous challenges for all businesses – but for technology leaders, the crisis has also created an unexpected and undeniable opportunity.

Thrust into the critical role of moving work online and preserving global business continuity, technology leaders say they see an additional task for their ranks in the weeks and months ahead: keep business thinking digital.

Egon Zehnder gathered two-dozen CIOs and other technology officers from around the world for two separate conference calls to hear their thoughts and experiences around adapting companies to business during the COVID outbreak. The potential advancement of digital transformation emerged as an important theme. Whatever business leaders may have thought about it before COVID-19, technology leaders say now is the time to help them embrace it as a strategy for success – even after the virus is tamed and the crisis is past.

The enormity of the crisis is so great – and the role technology plays is so critical – no leader can look away from the change taking place at all levels of business and society. “We moved into the 21st Century this week,” said one technology officer. “This is not just an economic and financial crisis. It is a complete change in society and the way people behave.”

The impact is already being felt. “Things I thought were impossible a few weeks ago are now becoming a reality,” said a CIO. “The universe of the possible is quite large. Everyone expected financial crisis and economic downturn. But having the whole world locked down is something different.”

This reality is breaking down previous barriers to digital change. The crisis has pushed past the resistance, said one CIO. “In two weeks, an organization that is highly regulated can become agile,” he said.

Another noted the change in tone around technology discussions. “You can push things through and roll them out because people are not pushing back so much,” he said. “There are fewer tensions associated with change right now.”
 

Leadership in the COVID-19 Crisis

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For technology officers who have long promoted digital transformation, the shift is dramatic. One technology officer described a cartoon he’d seen making the rounds in his social media feed: You have a CEO, CIO and COVID. Who is driving digital transformation? The answer is the virus. And that may lead to a permanent change in how technology is viewed in corporate circles. “Crisis creates collaboration across countries and corners of the world to make remote work – to make it a positive working example,” he said. In earlier days, company officials might have said it was not a model for the future and advocated for traditional work methods. But that has changed. Now, as offline sales channels decline, companies are pivoting to digital.

In short, said one CIO, “Infrastructure has become sexy.”

The change is not just technical. CIOs say the shift to remote work is changing the attitudes and behaviors of senior leaders. It will open the eyes of executives who may have been cocooned. “The most positive impact is not on everyday employees but instead on boards, CEOs and executive committees,” said one CIO. ‘Now they are forced to be home, like the employees. Now they are actually living the life of their everyday employees. The learning curve for them is so important for us and the future of their companies.”

It has also given corporate leaders inspiration to use technology in new ways. One CIO related a story in which employees were reporting stress due to the move from office to remote work. Faced with this, several high-ranking executives took the opportunity to send emails, thanking the staff for their hard work during the crisis. “There were 300+ responses to those emails,” she said. It reduced the stress and created a more positive atmosphere.

Going forward, the participants offered these suggestions for technology officers managing the crisis:

  • Be a coach. Remember that your job is not only to manage the current challenge, but to train the next generation of leaders to responds to the next crisis. Help those around you learn from what they’re going through.

  • Promote the value of preparedness. Visionary thinking that pushed businesses to prepare for work in the technology cloud is paying off now. Be a voice for continued forward thinking and advance planning.

  • Look for ways to support personal connections. Without face-to-face contact, everyone will need to engage differently in order to be successful. Look for ways to increase productivity and focus that may be impacted by the new remote work process.

Ultimately, technology officers should work to ensure they keep their voices heard, now and in the future. “This is an opportunity for CIOs to be more recognized as contributors,” said one technology officer. “They need to take this opportunity to stand up as business managers with critical information – demystifying technology and working for the purpose of the company.”

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