By Pragati Verma, Contributing Editor, Straight Talk 

By now, it’s generally accepted that COVID-19 accelerated digital adoption over the past one and a half years. In a panel discussion at the MIT CIO Symposium 2021,three IT leaders shared critical leadership lessons they learned from the experience and looked forward to what further changes may be in the offing.  

Pandemic’s Weight on Utilities 

According to Harmeen Mehta, who joined British telecom company, BT Plc as Chief Digital and Innovation Officer, earlier this year, the pandemic has done more for driving digitization across consumers and companies than IT leaders did in the last couple of years. No amount of business continuity and disaster recovery work could have anticipated a world where “almost three and a half billion people were in lockdown at the same time,” she explained.” It has changed the basics, principles, and beliefs of how we live, how we work, and interact with each other massively.”  

It was a big challenge for almost every company. But for a communications company like BT, a “sense of responsibility that everything was running on telecom was very high,” she said. “It has restored a lot of public confidence in telecom and brought pride for those who work in the industry. [We were] the glue that kept the society together. It led to a lot of innovation and acceleration in digital as well.” To her, it led to a shift in mindset of every person who was skeptical. “Everybody now agrees that this is the future. And the future is here and now,” she added. 

BT was not alone. The same sense of responsibility seemed to resonate with Adriana Karaboutis, Group Chief Information and Digital Officer, National Grid, a British multinational electricity and gas utility company that operates in the UK and the Northeastern US. “As a company, it’s our mission at National Grid to bring energy to life, safely and securely. We rallied around that mission and said, What do we now need to do differently to continue to fulfill that? When everyone stayed home, we had to ensure that we were continuing to bring energy to life.” 

Tactically, they worked on getting their employees what they needed. For example, they bought trailers to isolate people working at their core national operations infrastructure centers to ensure that were safe from the virus and could continue to monitor for cybersecurity and continued flow of energy. “Firing on 360 degrees on all cylinders was the name of the game. It was a blend of technology, processes, and the way we deliver. And that’s the essence of digital,” she added. 

Reaping the Rewards 

For David Neitz, CIO, CDM Smith, an engineering and construction company that provides solutions in water, energy, and transportation, it was about seeing his company’s previous IT investments pay off as the pandemic hit. They faced a unique challenge: “Our clients need to have community outreach and engagement, whether they want to extend a highway system or introduce a waste treatment plant. Traditionally, we used to get together to collaborate and design, but that wasn’t practical.” So they used an immersive experience they had earlier designed with mixed reality smart-glasses, HoloLens, to upload their three dimensional designs to the cloud and enabled the remote participants to join as avatars from their house. “You could walk around, see them, their gaze and know what they are looking at and collaborate using technology,” he said.  

They went on to use the technology to design and collaborate for a project run by the United States Agency for International Development project to rebuild 12 schools and six hospitals after a major earthquake last autumn. “We couldn’t fly everyone there, despite being marked critical services,” he recalled. So, they used immersive technology to enable remote participants from USAID, CDM Smith, and their clients to walk through designs together. “It’s not enough to Facetime each other; holographic markups were an important part of it. Everyone could see what others were seeing and holographically markup areas of question or concern. Even if you looked away for a while, the markups would still be there and you could refer to them,” noting that the pandemic accelerated the adoption and use of technologies they had already invested in. 

Post-Pandemic Horizon 

The pandemic has clearly served as a catalyst for many businesses to accelerate their digital journey. But where will they land in a post-COVID world? Karaboutis sees a silver lining and expects an even greater push for digital. She explained, “We had to accelerate digital because there was a massive call to action, and we had no choice. It wasn’t about budget discussions, but it was about keeping the workforce home and keeping the world going.” To her, the next step is to align digital and data strategies on common protocols and methodologies. “Get us off the science experiments — ‘look at this great edge compute, this robotic dog, that digital twin.’  All of these disparate and good efforts need to crystalize and come together to achieve big initiatives.”  

Certainly, they learned a lot along the way. Neitz embarked on a new idea: the “do-not-do list” – that is, “challenge everything you do and say. If it’s not creating value, let’s not do it.” For Mehta, it was about pushing harder and disrupting existing ways of working. “No matter how much we think that we like to push boundaries, we never push them hard enough. Much more is possible than what we think. We just need to find different ways to get there,” she said.  

She also discovered the importance of prioritizing and becoming very outcome focused. “You don’t need half the things that you think you need to live.  We clutter our thinking and priorities and try to do 500 projects,” she said. “When you focus your organization on one or two goals, miracles happen.”  

Pragati Verma is a writer and editor focusing on new and emerging technologies. She has been a business journalist and managed technology sections at India’s The Economic Times and The Financial Express.