18/11/2020 | Nicolas Odet

This year’s lockdowns have placed immense strain on information systems, posing new challenges for operational excellence without seeking to build innovation on shifting sands. In just a few short months, circumstances have prompted organizations—and IT departments—to completely rethink their priorities.

Regaining growth or fighting for survival: the challenges of an unprecedented crisis 

In macro terms, the 2020 pandemic has sparked a global economic crisis that is as unprecedented as it is unpredictable. Yet drill down to the micro level and the consequences are very much a mixed bag. Some companies have seen sales slow dramatically or even come to an abrupt halt, with all the problems that entails—closing down stores, laying off staff, and even entering court-ordered recovery, administration or even liquidation proceedings. For others, however, the pandemic has given their business a shot in the arm.

There are all sorts of reasons why some businesses have done well and others have failed. Typical success factors including operating in the right sector or industry, selling context-appropriate products and services, having the agility and capacity to switch to functioning backup mode, overhauling distribution models, or even just being a resilient organization.

At first glance, it’s tempting to frame the 2020 crisis in terms of “winners” and “losers”. But again, the picture is more nuanced than that. The fact is that, for many businesses, it’s been an uncomfortable year. In one camp are those are fighting for their very survival—or at least trying to shield themselves from the worst effects of the crisis. In the other are those seeking to sustain this year’s growth by staying agile amid the ever-shifting sands of the pandemic and the global economy.

Information systems: back to basics

Either way, one thing’s for certain: some of the changes brought about by the crisis are irreversible. Even the most reluctant consumers have embraced e-commerce, with home delivery, click-and-collect and drive-through collection. The shift has even been widely felt in B2B commerce—including in sectors that, until recently, have been far removed from the world of ominichannel. In response businesses have been forced, wherever possible, to adapt their sales platforms and other information systems, and to make changes to their logistics. Likewise, organizations have been left with no choice but to move quickly to remote working—again, in sectors where this arrangement was both possible and appropriate. Some had never conceived of the idea or merely considered it as a possibility, while even the best prepared had only modest systems in place.

In every organization, the nature of IT projects has evolved beyond all recognition—during and since the crisis. Numerous innovative initiatives have been shelved or canceled altogether to make way for more urgent and pragmatic needs. The aim, in all of this, has been to maintain business continuity—and to keep data secure—by building on what’s already out there (e.g. legacy systems vs. latest-generation web and cloud applications). 

Since the most pressing needs have been to hold remote team meetings and keep employees connected, many businesses that didn’t already have these systems in place—or whose systems weren’t up to the task—opted for standard, off-the-shelf, standalone solutions that could be deployed quickly: think Microsoft Teams and Zoom for formal working, and Workplace by Facebook for information-sharing and team cohesion.

In terms of business processes and applications, the lockdown has forced many organizations to switch to backup mode, preferring what merely works over what works best. It’s been a busy time for IT departments, with teams having to find solutions to these challenges. In some cases, they’ve identified deeper problems—or even major structural weaknesses—in their information systems, such as outdated or unwieldy core (back-office) systems, impenetrable silos, or serious security flaws. Oftentimes, these weaknesses stem from digitization strategies that are either incomplete or disconnected from operational reality.

Focus on operational efficiency (innovation can wait)

Before the pandemic, many IT departments prioritized highly visible innovative projects. But the experience of managing through a crisis has caused most to think again about what really matters. Now, the focus has turned to making sure information systems are reliable and capable of delivering the basic services the organization needs to function and create value. Upgrades and innovation can wait until the day when systems are robust and back-offices fully consolidated. So what does this solid foundation include? The answer is simple: modern infrastructure tailored to business needs, a well-equipped, open-architecture and up-to-date CRM system, and populated, scalable product and service repositories.

Moreover, the current climate, with all the uncertainty it entails, makes it all the more important for IT departments to scale up and sustain the projects they implemented in the spring—many of which were improvised at the time. Put simply, organizations are currently focusing on improving processes, building agility, enhancing productivity and cutting costs, as part of their planning for the future—whatever it may hold: major IT projects (core business applications, infrastructure, etc.), robotic process automation (RPA), or supply-chain improvement and service delivery projects. 

In other words, for many organizations, innovation in its purest sense is a secondary consideration right now. Instead, the focus is on achieving operational excellence and preparing for the changes to come in their markets. Getting ready for the future necessarily means having well-equipped, secure information systems that are more open to the wider ecosystem—because therein lies the path to greater efficiency and flexibility all long the value chain. At the same time—and with the same operational excellence goal in mind—the next big trend in IT system modernization will involve integrating remote working tools into business and management applications, and breaking down silos between internal applications more generally