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COVID-19 radically refocuses CIO agendas in 4 key areas

As a result of the COVID-19 virus, CIOs must shift their priorities and now focus on the impact the pandemic has on the economy, employee health, staffing and technology.

The escalating COVID-19 pandemic has moved to the top of CIO agendas in 2020, and perhaps beyond. Here, we'll examine the real-time pandemic implications and impacts for CIOs, with guidance on how to mitigate the risk it presents to employees, the economy, IT staffing and the delivery of crucial IT services. 

As most of us know, a pandemic doesn't infect IT and telecommunications -- it doesn't put software and networks, data and databases, laptops and workstations, information security and power supplies and data centers out of circulation. The machines that deliver data and information, AI, IoT, data protection and privacy, digital transformation and product development and delivery are likely to remain unchanged during the course of the new pandemic. 

What is not likely to remain unchanged are the people who manage IT organizations, manage lines of business (LoBs) in organizations and perform their duties as part of their company's overall business plan and objectives. CIO agendas must be structured to protect their people resources from the effects of the encroaching pandemic. While it's possible that most of us can avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus, if the number of people getting infected increases to dangerous levels, CIOs and other C-level executives will need to find ways to protect their human capital, with all other issues taking a lower priority.

Real impact of the pandemic

The event is still in a relatively early stage in the U.S., even as infection rates accelerate in New York City and other coastal cities -- and contrary, many health officials argue, to the view that the worst of COVID-19 will be over by Easter. 

What does that mean for CIOs and other IT professionals?

The immediate focus of IT leaders should be on the internal and external resources the IT organization requires, their supply chains and the people needed to ensure that hardware and software get made, delivered and installed. CIOs must also take a careful look at key internal IT employees and who will be prepared to stand in for them if they get sick. With a nod to current technology, CIO agendas must take a close look at remote access capabilities and ensure sufficient resources are available for mission-critical employees to work remotely.

As major U.S. cities increasingly initiate shelter-in-place advisories for their citizens, this poses some unique challenges to CIOs and their IT organizations, enumerated below.

Impact on the economy

CIOs must prepare for how the pandemic will impact the nation's economy. For example, entertainment and travel industries have already experienced big declines in attendance, and their revenues for the balance of 2020 may be among the worst in recent memory. Major cities are closing their doors, forcing people into unexpected unemployment. Considering how many IT devices, software and other assets are manufactured overseas, particularly in areas severely affected by the pandemic, CIOs must quickly rethink their supply chain strategies in case availability of overseas resources is curtailed. CIOs must also be prepared in case company management decides to reduce operations or initiate extended shutdowns due to the pandemic.

Impact on employee health

Medical professionals describe those with the greatest risk of severe symptoms or death from the virus as the elderly, while young people are less likely to have severe symptoms or die if they contract the virus. If younger people currently in the workforce are less likely to die from the virus, it should be somewhat of a relief for CIOs and other business leaders. Good healthcare management activities in organizations and for those working remotely ought to help reduce the spread of the virus. Managing health data will be increasingly important as more citizens contract the virus and must be quarantined and possibly hospitalized.

Impact on staffing

Despite all current and future efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, it appears that many more people will contract it. Assuming employees -- even those without the virus -- are placed into quarantine, remote access to company information system resources via VPNs or other methods will be an essential item on the CIO agenda. As the virus spreads, CIOs will need to ensure their remote access capabilities can expand as more people work remotely. They will also need to identify employees who can back up key subject matter experts (SMEs) and team leaders. What's even more important is to identify additional employees -- both in and outside of IT -- who can be trained to serve as operational backups to key staff. The IT department should also consider partnering with HR to create a succession plan that uses a skills matrix to identify current skillsets and who can be suitable candidate for further training. 

Impact on technology

While technology is not affected by the COVID-19 virus, lack of sufficient IT staff to manage and maintain IT infrastructure assets could be serious. Potential situations could include:

  1. System outages or glitches not being handled in a timely fashion;
  2. Security breaches occurring because firewall rules were not updated;
  3. Reduced productivity due to help desk requests, especially from remote workers, going unaddressed;
  4. System malfunctions caused by scheduled patches not being deployed and tested; and
  5. Business disruptions due to system, network and/or software malfunctions not addressed by the firm's disaster recovery plans.

Many data centers have "lights out" operations and can be managed remotely by system administrators, network administrators, programmers and other technicians. These kinds of operations must be closely monitored, perhaps even more closely than in normal times.

Overall impact on the organization

Assuming an organization has a business continuity plan in place to deal with the pandemic, the CIO and their team must remain healthy and be prepared to adapt to unanticipated twists and turns in the road as their senior management adapts to the pandemic. The organization's continued ability to function and serve its customers will depend on its employees and how well technology supports their activities. 

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