COVID-19: A turning point for technology?

30th March

Willis Tower Watson

The global COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak is shifting patterns of work and putting added strain on organizational IT infrastructure as more people are forced to work remotely. Along with this, fresh concerns about technology resilience and the threat of attacks from malware and ransomware are surfacing. These issues demonstrate how societal disruptors can impact operational health and IT architecture, but also illustrate how organizations with a strategic approach to technology use the role of technology as an enabler of resilience and competitive advantage.

Responding to expanded technology needs

As worldwide measures are being put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the working effectiveness of many companies is being tested in unprecedented ways. At the heart of many responses is a huge work-from-home campaign that has put the corporate technology operational framework at the center of the strategic response to the crisis. The simple step of allowing employees to dial in to their companies’ networks en masse has led to unprecedented levels of traffic across networks.

Many companies have a structure in place that has enabled working from home to be a relatively smooth transition for the majority of their workforce. The approach has, however, brought with it new risk, with central agencies such as the European Central Bank urging banks to be prepared for a surge in attacks against a potentially reduced technical workforce available to maintain operational capabilities. Sobering, when considering a recent U.K. Government report highlights that as many as half of U.K. companies are suffering from a lack of basic cybersecurity skills in areas such as configuring firewalls and tackling malware. And already, reports of hackers preying on coronavirus fears and the weaponization of coronavirus outbreak data are stoking data-security fears.

The importance of strategic approach

So how do companies move their IT infrastructure effectiveness from reaction to action? Studies show that cybersecurity should be seen as central to business continuity and resilience rather than simply mitigation against anonymous hacktivists and cyber-punks. Companies with a strategic, rather than operational, approach to cyber are more resilient to withstand stresses caused by cyber threats.

Work supported by the Willis Research Network has been examining the cybersecurity resilience of organizations to understand how to better place cyber at the top level of an organization’s business thinking. The research indicates that the most resilient enterprises are those where the top-level executives view cybersecurity as a strategic opportunity for the enterprise as a whole, rather than as an operational cost in the domain of backroom IT risk management. We can see competitive advantage and business strategy being delivered far more robustly when an organization’s approach and response in the wake of a cyberattack can be linked to the role technology plays in the strategic thinking of the company.

Implications for work – today and tomorrow

This is undoubtedly a time for organizations to remain alert to cyber risks given the increased opportunities for hackers and due to work-from-home policies being stretched to unplanned levels. Secure networks and strong cyber hygiene are, as always, key for helping to mitigate cyber risk.

It is also a time to consider that the unprecedented shift to a mobile workforce, and the abrupt and profound demand for technical skills to deal with new cyber threats are sowing the seeds for a longer-term trend in the future of work.

The resilience of companies depends on how quickly they can redeploy and reskill talent, and how effectively they can blend technology with a plurality of work options (full-time employees, part-time employees, contractors, gig talent, staffing agencies, consultants and so on). The pace of change and the evolution and emergence of new technology offerings is a point of pride for many. The pandemic is reconfirming the need for data security and the necessity of artificial intelligence (AI) for many organizations.

The technology opportunity and the size of the challenge also motivate new forms of collaboration. For example, the news that five organizations agreed to release a dataset of over 29,000 scientific journals relating to the coronavirus to help stimulate developments in data mining techniques and AI shows the power that strategically positioned technology can have in developing both direct responses to COVID-19 and resilience more generally.

Over the coming months, technological solutions for keeping services running, business working and people healthy will be key to our collective response. Technology’s ability to provide innovative solutions quickly and efficiently is at the heart of many operational plans across the business landscape. However, those companies with a strategic view on the role of technology may well find themselves with a bigger advantage in the challenging times ahead as we navigate new ways of working.


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