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Understanding the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on IT

COVID and ITMuch has changed for IT since COVID-19 grabbed the world’s attention in mid-March. Millions of employees now work from home (and likely will be for the foreseeable future and beyond). Companies that were only dipping their toes in the digital transformation (DX) waters have gone all in, meaning more, not less, enterprise tech will be needed to support the business. Poor corporate earnings reports and a global recession mean budget cuts will likely remain in place for many business cycles to come ... to name just a few.

Because all organizations today rely on technology for almost everything they do, the trick for CIOs will be figuring out which of the many COVID-19-induced changes are temporary and which will have staying power. This is no academic exercise. Organizations will have to live with the technology choices they make today for many years to come -- technical debt is a costly drag on agility that many can no longer afford to make.

“The need for innovation is greater than ever, driven by new challenges that are more disruptive than most [organizations] have ever faced,” writes Accentrue. “ ... [o]pportunities that businesses expected to have years to prepare for are quickly approaching. To meet these challenges, organizations will need to innovate, invent, and redefine themselves.”

While some changes are net-new, some pre-COVID-19 trends are likely to continue at a more or less robust pace. The move to mobile will accelerate as millimeter-wave 5G roll-outs, somewhat slowed by COVID-19 in North America, pick up steam and devices makers’ next gen products include 5G radios. The internet of things (IoT) in all its varied permutations will likely see continued wide-spread and even accelerated adoption (depending on industry) based on where it fits into an organization's DX planning. The adoption of AI-based platforms to assist in everything from customer service (think chatbots) to business intelligence and robotic process automation (RPA) will likely accelerate due to COVID-19.

According to Accenture, employee resistance was a barrier to AI adoption pre-COVID-19. “But the pandemic could push us past this. If enterprises invest in explainable AI and other tools that support and enable true human-AI partnership—people will experience the technology at its best. Success today could open new possibilities for businesses to reimagine their enterprise and workforce in the future.”

Another likely long-term shift is the adoption of Agile and Dev/Ops. Already well underway prior to Covid, these two operational approaches allow organizations to roll out new digital products, improvements, and services faster with less risk—both important business considerations in a digital-first world.

“If organizations want to remain competitive ... CIOs are going to have to be prepared to drive a department that’s agile enough to keep up with the rapid innovation that’s on the way,” said Todd Ramlin, manager of Cable Compare and a former CIO.

Perhaps the biggest change facing CIOs long-term is the WFH phenomenon. Pre-COVID-19 about five percent of the US workforce (freelancers and gig workers excluded) worked from home full time. Now it’s over 60%. Millions of these employees are not going back to the office. These newly untethered workers will require a different type of support than organizations are used to delivering, said Rise Huffman, president of StratoCumulus Technologies.

“I believe that the biggest change that CIO's will have to address is the shift from IT departments' people serving the business' technology to creating an environment where technology will be serving people,” he said. “Because of the COVID pandemic, those employees that have not learned technology skills are heavily relying on the IT help desks and IT staff to get them through this crisis. IT specialists will need to learn people skills and IT generalists will need to become more specialized. There is training needed both ways so that each can adapt to whatever the ‘new normal’ ends up looking like.”

Aside from soft skills and shifting roles within IT, the tech remote workers across the organization need will differ significantly. Unable to travel or attend face-to-face meetings in the office, cloud-based teleconferencing and collaboration platforms will be critical to keep these employees connected, focused, and engaged. Because traditional metrics like time spent in the office will no longer be relevant, managers will need new tools and methods to track productivity. There are a lot more virtual private network (VPN) licenses to track and pay for these days, as well.

Cyber security is another area that is fundamentally changed by the WFH dynamic. Pre-COVID-19 cyber efforts were often focused on dealing with a manageable number of mobile devices, shoring up the network perimeter, and protecting high-risk data. With WFH, the already porous network edge has been obliterated. Today, millions of employees, partners, vendors, consultants, and suppliers are accessing the corporate network and cloud-based solutions on phones, laptops, and PCs from remote locations. Many will be using their own WiFi routers, which, as often as not, do not have even basic security enhancements like changing the default username and password. Even when devices are corporate-owned, they too are often insecure, having been set up for maximum usability instead of security.

Also, WFH employees are being newly targeted by hackers eager to exploit new opportunities for all manner of social engineering and phishing emails.

These security holes will have to be addressed though things like the adoption of Zero Trust architectures, encrypted network micro-segmentation, virtual private network (VPN) connections, two-factor authentication, robust identity and access management (IAM), network based intrusion prevention/detection (IPS/IDS), mobile device management (MDM), and data loss prevention (DLP) applications.

Many organizations already have some (or all) of these cyber security defenses, like security information and event management (SIEM) systems, in place. The key will be linking them together into a single, manageable entity that stops threats before they escalate into full-blown attacks or data breaches.

While no one yet knows what the “new normal” will look like after COVID-19 is a chapter in the history books, one thing, at least for IT, that is set in stone is tomorrow will not look anything like yesterday.

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