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8 ways CIOs can help companies emerge strong after COVID-19

We continue to navigate the choppy waters created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but here are eight ways companies can enable digital transformation and overcome an uncertain economy.

Thanks to a small bit of contagious RNA, what Nobel Prize-winning biologists poetically called "bad news wrapped in protein," CIOs have seen the foundations of digital transformation (managing data, building software for consumers, modernizing how employees work, etc.) go from elective to mandatory nearly overnight. The future of work we imagined five years out is now showing up next quarter.

The pandemic has triggered trillions of dollars of economic wreckage, and unknowns abound, but the path ahead for business leaders is clearing. Here are eight ways savvy tech and business leaders can surf the shockwaves of the global pandemic and emerge more relevant than ever.

1. Modernize data. For many companies, data is still more of a liability than an asset. Technology leaders who haven't gained control of their data are already behind, and the new economy will make it even harder to recover. Now is the time to make your organization's data secure, private, compliant, less costly and accessible to drive business value. A data audit -- figuring out what data is available, how it is accessed, and for what purpose -- was a no-regret decision six months ago. Now it's a condition for survival.

2. Unshackle from legacy applications. Business pressures from the pandemic now make it unsustainable for leaders to be confined by expensive legacy software applications. Many IT leaders feel trapped, but now there are new tools, processes, engineering methods and partners to help unlock value that is indeed trapped in data centers worldwide. The first step is to perform a complete software audit to understand which applications make the most sense to modernize, which should be left alone and which can be turned off.

3. Modernize how your employees work. Remember going into an office? Getting on a train? We'll do that again, but it will never be the same. Virtualizing work and collaborating across the street/block/state/globe are now core curricula as we enable a remote workforce. Old, slow, complicated interfaces and systems hinder how employees get work done. Seamless, secure connections across web, mobile, voice, collaboration systems, platforms and processes are part of the workplace. We aren't going backward, so now is the time to get ahead by designing your modern employee experience.

4. Modernize your consumer experience. Experience has always been fuel for value, but it is even more essential now that the pandemic has disrupted the demand side of nearly every business. In just a few painful months, elegant, secure, scalable online content and e-commerce went from critical to essential for every consumer-facing industry. In the U.S., e-commerce sales are worth $744 billion, estimated to grow 10.2% in 2021. Access that growth by profoundly understanding how human wants and needs are likely to unfold in line with your specific products and services.

5. Engineer software for the new economy. Regardless of industry, companies are defined by experiences that are delivered through software. You do not need to compete against tech giants, but every modern business needs software built quickly and scaled effectively to provide modern, human-first experiences across the value chain for employees, partners and customers. To get started, deploy a virtual pod for a planned upgrade or consumer-facing app to manage risk and get smart about new ways of building beautiful code, then easily flex scale up or down.

6. Virtualize core work. Middle- and back-office work that is slow, labor-intensive, expensive, opaque and done the same way for decades (or more) is no longer allowable. Nearly every organization in every sector can improve supply chain management, HR, finance and industry-specific process work. Automation, applied intelligence and worker-enhancement have all moved from "helpful" to "critical" in a few months. Now is the time to begin exploring which points on your value chain make the most sense to modernize.

7. Modernize your cloud foundation. The unprecedented economic downturn will shine a spotlight on how much more we can do. Traditional justifications for moving slowly will no longer be acceptable. We are pivoting from, "What can we move into the cloud?" to "What can't we move to the cloud?" Now is the time for reducing IT costs and moving into the cloud more aggressively, deploying cost-effective SaaS platforms and vastly reducing operating costs of non-core work.

8. Make every space smart (and safe). Accelerated by the pandemic, The internet of things is improving productivity, reducing downtime and paving the way for more "as-a-service" business models. In the post-pandemic economy, companies will need to quickly adopt the right technology and infuse every space with connectivity, instrumentation and analytics to make our spaces "smart" and ensure we lower the risk of infection. Applying instrumentation, analytics and software engineering to make every space intelligent is less expensive to manage, more comfortable and safer for us all.

Business is still happening. Every business leader today is now truly an explorer, among the first to navigate the unique and formidable shockwaves now facing us all. It is up to each of us to hammer the surrounding chaos into a catalyst for positive change. With imagination, courage and agency, leaders can take meaningful steps today to be stronger and more agile in the months and quarters ahead.

About the author

Paul Roehrig, Ph.D., is head of strategy and growth for Cognizant Digital Business. He is the founder and former global managing director of Cognizant's Center for The Future of Work. Along with Malcolm Frank and Ben Pring, he is a co-author of What To Do When Machines Do Everything, Code Halos and the forthcoming Monster: A Tough Love Letter About the Machines That Rule Our Jobs, Lives, and Future.

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