Before the tectonic shifts caused by COVID-19, many companies were executing on their multi-year digital transformation plans. But the pandemic has raised the stakes overnight on digital experiences, underscoring that applications are now the most important asset of modern organizations.
Many of those digital initiatives quickly became make or break—for example restaurants, cafes, and retailers enabling digital orders and connecting seamlessly with delivery services. And many more must now be re-envisioned for a changed world—such as complex sales requiring orchestration across many stakeholders, customer engagement events, and new employee hiring and onboarding.
Some organizations are thriving in this environment, but many more are struggling. The difference between the former and the latter is an organization’s ability to rapidly adapt, especially through the use of technology. This playbook outlines the core components that I’ve observed among those who are thriving.
The playbook for thriving has four distinct phases, which I’ve heard consistently from both customers and industry observers. These aren’t just reference points for getting back to business and accommodating the immediate disruption from COVID-19. Several organizations are applying this playbook to enhance their operations with new digital processes that will drive ongoing differentiation.
The first phase of responding to the pandemic has been about triage. What are the top priorities to mitigate the negative business impact from COVID-19 (e.g., sheltering in place, illnesses and care-taking responsibilities, the economic fallout, and other issues related to the coronavirus)? What technologies or solutions can quickly restore productivity (i.e., within hours or days, not months)?
For most organizations, the critical first step has been safeguarding employees by enabling them to work remotely. This often entails a rapid shift in focus to scale up a remote workforce, expanding from hundreds of remote connections to thousands, or even tens of thousands. Programs and projects that would typically extend over several months had to get done in days or even hours.
In March and April, F5 helped several organizations achieve this. Many were healthcare institutions and government agencies where it was critical for employees to be effective working remotely right away.
From the customer perspective, what distinguishes true partners from vendors in this time of triage is flexibility. Provisioning and deployment often came before the formal procurement process. On top of commercial flexibility, software, SaaS, and hybrid deployment models further enabled customers to rapidly scale capability without having teams physically onsite.
The second phase is ensuring sufficient capacity to serve the increased volume of traffic flowing through digital channels. Many F5 customers are building out new infrastructure capacity to accommodate the flood of people and processes moving online. One F5 customer, a provider of web-based collaboration tools, experienced a surge in demand from all of the newly remote workers and had to rapidly build out new infrastructure capacity to ensure availability.
This transition to digital channels will likely continue beyond the current health crisis as customers and organizations adopt fundamentally different ways of working. Twitter for example has declared that remote working will be the norm for their organization going forward. And Twitter isn’t the only company that is rethinking remote work—research from IDC indicates that the percentage of companies expecting over 25% of workers working remotely increased from 8% pre-COVID to 60% in 2021.
This capacity build-out has taken many forms beyond physical infrastructure deployment. In many cases, it has pushed organizations to adopt different architectural solutions for expansion, such as cloud bursting and augmenting on-premises deployments with virtual appliances and software-based deployments in the public cloud.
The third phase is around securing the applications through which so much value is now flowing. When millions of people migrate to online applications so quickly, security challenges grow commensurately.
We’ve seen many cases where bad actors have worked to exploit new and changing systems. The State of Washington was recently attacked by a cybercriminal group called Scattered Canary, which used thousands of stolen Social Security numbers to fraudulently apply for benefits. Other groups have targeted the Small Business Administration and other assistance programs—attempting to tap into the huge new flow of dollars that had quickly been distributed (via online applications) to shore up the economy.
The private sector also experienced new attacks. Amid a surge in online food delivery, several major chains are under attack by fencing operations that sell discounted coupons for online orders, which are then paid on the back-end with stolen credit cards and gift cards. For one such food provider, this fraudulent activity was on course to be a $10 million loss annually had the chain not deployed advanced anti-fraud technology.
An additional factor driving increased focus on application security is the macro-economic environment. In times of economic downturn, organizations tend to become more sensitive to risk and want to address gaps to ensure that their situation doesn’t further deteriorate. Industry analysts are reporting spending increases in several cyber-security related areas due to the impact of COVID-19, including secure connectivity and secure application delivery.
What makes security in the new environment so tricky is the fact that attackers are exploiting vulnerabilities that weren't fixed during normal deployment processes. Many of those targets will become more hardened as businesses continue to work on phase three.
In the fourth phase, organizations start exploring different ways to operate, deliver innovative customer experiences, and create value in the new normal. For example, restaurants enabling entirely new in-home dining experiences, telemedicine becoming more of a norm, and different ways to shop with ubiquitous curbside pick-up.
In many of these instances, COVID-19 has changed the equation around trade-offs that were previously unpalatable and created an opening for re-thinking the way we work and live. In the case of telemedicine, for example, HIPAA rules were temporarily suspended to allow broader access to healthcare consultations for individuals sheltering in place. The goal is to enable new digital experiences and operational efficiencies, or to reevaluate existing strategies.
Some organizations are already overhauling fundamental parts of their operation. When COVID-19 hit, one bank in the Asia Pacific region had to quickly equip thousands of employees in India to work productively from home. Demand for these workers’ services was increasing rapidly due to the crisis, but their capacity was hindered by inconsistent workspaces and a lack of reliable connectivity. Though the bank had been offshoring those roles to India for many years, much of the capability had to be brought back onshore in a matter of weeks. The company rapidly scaled up an ad hoc work force through temporary assignments to cover the demand, and the situation continues to force reprioritization, acceleration, and aggressive automation of those processes.
These changes can be dramatic and will irreversibly alter the competitive dynamics of industries, increasing the divide between those organizations that are effective at managing their application capital and those that are not.
When we talk about digital transformation, what we're really talking about is organizations driving value creation and differentiation through their applications. Six months into this global pandemic, it’s clear that the acceleration and amplification of digital initiatives will be one of the many lasting impacts of COVID-19.
While the four phases here represent a playbook for organizations to navigate through this period of intense change, adaptation is not as simple as walking through phases one through four and reverting to “normal.” To thrive in the post-COVID world, organizations will need to adopt an ongoing cycle of transformation involving experimentation, testing, hardening, and scaling in an agile fashion. The pace of change is only accelerating and business agility is critical for survival.