COVID-19 has bulldozed the traditional barriers facing digital transformation efforts, while past digital projects have proven their worth as businesses rushed to enact continuity plans last month, according to a new survey of Australian business leaders. 

In the first two weeks of April, Adapt Research surveyed more than 200 c-level business and technology leaders about their response to Australia’s COVID-19 restrictions. 

The headline takeaway from the research is that Australia’s business continuity plans worked despite the nation’s reputation for lagging in enterprise technology adoption when compared to global counterparts. 

“As the coronavirus situation unfolded IT and business leaders really did rise to the challenge and generally proved their capability in managing the crisis with IT at the forefront of that,” said Matt Boon, director of Adapt Research Advisory. 

According to the survey, 61 per cent of IT and business leaders agreed existing business continuity plans were fit for purpose in tackling the COVID-19 challenges. 

However the CFO and COO had a less favourable view of the transition. 20 per cent of finance and operational leaders said their BCP was ineffective versus just 6 per cent of CIOs. 

One of the most important aspects of the BCP was to move employees to a work from home set-up in a very short time frame. Three quarters of respondents say they managed the transition well. 

Specifically, 78 per cent of the respondents were able to assign access to core applications to their employees and 77 per cent of respondents were able to provide access to communication and collaboration tools. 

74 per cent of respondents were able to provision, secure ID and access management and 67 per cent of respondents were able to provision data management and information access.  

The challenges in shifting workforces to a digital workplace included network access and information security, as well as the human challenges of working in an uncertain environment with the new tools and virtual collaboration for the first time. 

Areas for improvement 

The survey found the on-going nature of the crisis has revealed weaknesses in business continuity plans, which are designed to return to normal operations after a short period. 

The survey revealed businesses struggled to predict customer demand and customer behaviour and understand the repercussions of the lockdown in different countries that might impact them. 

According to the data, only 62 per cent of respondents said they delivered customer service and experience satisfaction. 

Pivoting from physical products to new digital delivery models was done successfully by 50 per cent of the respondents. 

And only 45 per cent of respondents were able to manage their supply chains and fulfil orders.

“What does this mean? It means that the existing BCPs are not really made for a long term crisis, they were made for a really short term flood or fire,” said Aparna Sundararajan, Senior Research Strategist at Adapt. 

“But right now we are living through this crisis. This is our new environment and we still have to maintain business as usual and also look at innovations. Which is why Aapt believes that if organisations want to survive and thrive from a crisis such as COVID-19 they have to underpin their BCPs with resilience.” 

Digital payoff 

Sundararajan said that many of the ongoing digital transformation projects businesses embarked on two years ago had proven their worth in the last six weeks. 

Digital transformation projects typically run for 4-5 years and are ongoing as they include modernising legacy, moving workloads to cloud, creating a unified data architecture at the back end and then adopting digital tools and technologies at the front-end (collaboration, communication, SaaS, analytics etc.).” 

“A part of the transformation related to moving on premise applications to cloud workloads and moving to SaaS have been completed for many organisations, which has helped them to transit employees to the new environment. If these were not present, the transition would be impossible.” 

The survey also revealed the urgency created by the crisis removed many of the traditional hurdles digital transformation projects face, including resistance to change, stakeholder engagement and executive buy-in. 

“In our other events [we heard] that it has always been difficult to execute on digital transformation, owing to the resistance to change from people. And during this crisis, the entire initiative has proven and shown the technology leaders that the employees were highly adaptive and accepting of all the changes that were required of them, because they saw it as essential to their work.”  

COVID-19 has also strengthened relationships across the organisation that have long struggled to engage and collaborate effectively. 

According to the research, 69 per cent of respondents said engagement with their CEO or organisational leader has improved since the crisis began. 

The research also found CIOs are taking a more strategic role,which has eluded some IT leaders through the transition to digital. 

80 per cent of respondents said they played a strategic part in problem solving, rather than waiting for orders.

Sundararajan explained, “This crisis has created a unique position for technology leaders who are usually brought to the business decision conversations very late. It’s created an absolute requirement for them to play from the front end.”

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