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The Acceleration of Digitisation as a Result of COVID-19

It is well known that COVID-19 pandemic rapidly sent millions of people to work from home (WFH), which created an immediate challenge for many organisations – providing secure system access to employees. However, the less visible and more challenging transformation that also occurred was the sudden requirement to digitise processes, including previously paper-based transactions, in-person meetings, business travel, and other “normal” day-to-day operations.

Rapid digital transformation has enabled organisations to respond and thrive during the pandemic. A May 2020 blog post by the World Economic Forum stated “the transition to a new model for supply chains will be underpinned by a rapid and wholesale digitisation of the paperwork that accompanies global trade.” However, this transformation has also introduced new risk into business operations – and it is important for organisations to understand and mitigate those risk as we enter into the “Next Normal.”

The Impact of Digitisation in COVID-19 response

Some organisations had already begun the digitisation journey before the pandemic hit, providing them with a head start. For example, companies that were already focussed on collaboration technologies before COVID-19 were in the strongest position to maintain steady business operations when social separation and work-from-home (WFH) became new realities. Likewise, those with robust security mechanisms in place, such as sufficient VPN licenses and multifactor authentication, were better positioned to transition to virtual working while protecting sensitive information. And organisations that increased their internet and network capacity before the pandemic found it easier to connect to remote employees, customers, suppliers, partners and other stakeholders.

As one might expect, companies with bandwidth constraints prior to the coronavirus pandemic had a difficult time in the WFH environment, as did those with inflexible legacy systems and processes that could not keep up with user demand. For example, old government systems running COBOL had severe capacity problems as millions of citizens filed claims for social assistance. These older systems can’t be migrated to the cloud quickly, so IT departments were stressed finding “workarounds” to the problem. Other problems arose in cases where there was no pre-existing mobile strategy. For example, most call centers operate out of a central location with employees using desktop computers. Due to a shortage of available laptops, some call centers had no choice but to send desktop computers home with employees so they could work remotely, which led to implementation delays and interrupted operations.

Digitisation Focus Areas that were critical to COVID-19 response

Companies that fared better in the pandemic had a few consistent attributes:

Technology Preparedness - This includes the adoption of virtualisation and cloud technology. Whether it’s servers, networks or desktops, virtualisation enables organisations to dynamically scale their IT resources up or down as needed, while also providing centralised management and control. Virtualisation can also enable more efficient use of existing IT resources, which generates greater return on investment.

While this has been an IT trend for several years, the increasingly widespread adoption of cloud continues to generate strong results. Migrating data to the cloud gives companies the scale, flexibility and redundancy to keep IT systems running effectively, even during massively disruptive events like a pandemic. It helps reduce the costs of hardware, power, firmware upgrades and on-site support, because these become the responsibility of the cloud provider. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is a great example of how moving applications to the cloud gives simplified, scalable and more reliable access.

Improved Cyber Security including Identity and Access Management (IAM) – WFH has obliterated many remnants of the traditional network perimeter, and with it the concept of perimeter security, where virtual “fences” keep the bad guys out. Identity has become the new paradigm of enterprise security – if you can ensure that only the right resources are accessed by the right people doing the right things, then you have a more secure environment. Modern IAM systems provide flexible authentication that enables people to work from home or anywhere else. And, with many companies announcing they plan to maintain expanded WFH policies beyond the pandemic, IAM has become the foundation in the modern secure working environment.

COVID-19 can be thought of as a harbinger indicating where organisations need to focus in order to thrive in the future with far more agile and resilient business processes.

What is Needed to Maintain the Momentum?

Technologists alone cannot make digitisation initiatives successful. Organisations can take a holistic view and consider many aspects of digitisation, including:

  • Re-envisioning controls and testing – As more processes become digitised, it is logical to concurrently consider how control processes can also be digitised and automated. Building in more automated control processes at the beginning will allow companies to more efficiently and effectively monitor digitisation risk while potentially reducing costs and time associated with compliance activities.
  • The ability to re-engineer processes – Before digitising a process, it is important to evaluate that process to determine if it can be reorganised and re-engineered to deliver a better business result. Otherwise organisations risk digitising flawed processes. This requires much broader thinking than simply ramping up bandwidth or installing new software.
  • Proper funding – While investment is needed to get digitisation projects underway, investments will be under scrutiny during the current uncertain business climate. Executives will likely need to show the projected value of a digitisation initiative when stating their case for more funding, pointing out both short-term and long-term benefits.
  • The right talent – Effective digital transformation requires expertise that spans both technology and business. These qualified professionals should be able to understand the functionality that was valuable in old processes, the benefits of creating new processes, and how technology can make it happen.
  • Flexibility – Certain digital controls may have been relaxed during COVID-19 in order to speed up implementations and get WFH employees online quickly. This can open up new risks, so these controls may need to be re-applied over time to their proper levels. However, any process controls should be flexible enough to accommodate unforeseen requirements in the Next Normal, to avoid the fire drills caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Finally, to thrive in the Next Normal, organisations should consider conducting risk assessments of digitised processes and take appropriate actions to remediate any identified security gaps. These assessments should also be a foundational element of future digital transformation initiatives, so the proper controls can be implemented from the beginning.

Digitisation is Upon Us

COVID-19 has turned digitisation from a “nice to have” to a “must have” for many organisations, forcing them to adapt and modernise quickly in order to keep their operations running. While digitisation may seem like a daunting task for some organisations, the pandemic has made it clear that sound business strategy demands identifying digital transformation opportunities and getting those initiatives underway quickly.

However, speed of transformation cannot come at the expense of risk, or the entire initiative can cause more harm than good. It is critical that cybersecurity and other risk factors be considered in the design stage of digital transformation initiatives, so the new digitised process does not weaken the overall risk profile of the organisation. The good news is, all of this is readily achievable, and when done properly, it will make organisations much better positioned to thrive as they emerge from the pandemic into the Next Normal.

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