As the novel coronavirus Covid-19 continues to spread around the world, the economic symptoms are emerging. More than a dozen global firms have announced they will miss their financial goals for the upcoming quarter due to the combined impact of supply chain disruptions and dampened customer demand.

“The value of digital channels, products and operations is immediately obvious to companies everywhere right now,” says Sandy Shen, senior director analyst at Gartner. “This is a wake-up call for organisations that have placed too much focus on daily operational needs at the expense of investing in digital business and long-term resilience.

“Businesses that can shift technology capacity and investments to digital platforms will mitigate the impact of the outbreak and keep their companies running smoothly now, and over the long term.”

Organisations around the world can take proactive steps now to maintain as much operational continuity as possible. CIOs in particular should immediately look to expand access and capabilities in two high-priority categories of tech: Digital workplace resources and digital technologies to serve customer demand.

Expand digital workplace resources and access

As the virus continues to spread across an increasing number of countries, company leaders and government representatives  will encourage people to avoid unnecessary travel or large gatherings. Businesses will ask more people to work from home even when they’re healthy to increase “social distance,” which can limit viral spread.

CIOs can take these steps to make sure people have the systems they need to stay productive:

* Inventory work use cases. Understand the typical workflow of people who are able to do their jobs remotely and identify the systems they need to access. These range from in-house communications platforms like email or messaging to CRM and ERP systems. Include interactions with customers and business partners as part of the use case analysis and document potential needs of external users.

* Identify security needs. Review existing security infrastructure and assess what people will need to work safely. Consider the hardware remote employees will use (company-issued or personal devices), and the networks they’ll be on (public or private). Consider endpoint security for devices and robust identity and access management to allow secure sign-in to corporate systems.

* Update policies, access and training. As companies expand the number of people working remotely, they will need to update their policies regarding who can do it, how often and for how long. IT will in turn need to update system access — sometimes to expand access and sometimes to limit it. All workers must undergo training on rules around data protection and proper data use, including how to safely exchange documents or information electronically.

* Provide new capabilities. Organisations may need to quickly acquire or scale their technology capabilities. Videoconferencing, messaging, collaboration tools and document sharing are just a few examples of technologies that facilitate remote work. Additional bandwidth and network capacity may also be needed, given the increasing number of users and volume of communications. CIOs will need a process to quickly assess the company’s needs and acquire access — ideally with flexible, short-term contracts. Even organisations that have existing vendor relationships may have to renegotiate the number of users or transaction volume to accommodate a short-term surge.

Leverage technology to address customer demand

Whether a business experiences surges or lulls in demand during the outbreak, the CIO needs to ensure IT systems are prepared for them.

Work with relevant members of the C-suite to provide technology-enabled experiences like:

* Expand capacity for self-service and digital sales. Companies will confront waves of customer questions, orders and even cancellations. Act now to prepare content and capacity for self-service web, email, IVR systems, chatbots, smartphone apps, etc. to handle the most common questions or purchases, freeing customer service reps to handle more complex or unusual issues.

* Enable remote experiences with a personal touch. Not every product or service is 100% suited to self-service delivery. Sometimes the human touch makes the difference to customers. Examples include B2B salespeople spending “face-to-face” time with their customers, public schools providing online classes so kids don’t fall behind, healthcare facilities expanding access to telemedicine or conference organisers holding remote events. IT will play a critical role in providing accessible, reliable and secure IT systems to deliver positive experiences in unfamiliar contexts.

* Embrace opportunities to adapt products or capacity for current demand. The Japanese electronics manufacturer Sharp has converted one of its factories to make face masks. Manufacturers Foxconn, BYD and GAC in China have likewise shifted some of their existing capacity away from their traditional products — in low demand due to the outbreak — to high-demand products like protective gear. Expand agile processes to enable fast shifts of physical and digital resources.

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