A professor teaches an online class for Thai university students
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As businesses struggle to adapt to an unprecedented set of challenges, CIOs and their C-suite counterparts are under pressure to develop new ways of doing business. The temptation will be to create ambitious blueprints and strategies. But, in many cases, the foundations for doing things very differently—and very quickly—are already there to be tapped.
Think, instead, like the Internet Engineering Task Force, which was charged with rapidly developing standards for the fledgling internet. In 1992, it adopted the motto, “We believe in rough consensus and running code,” embodying a value system and culture often called the hacker ethos.
The motto urges a focus on practical solutions that have been shown to work and can be quickly deployed, while rejecting top-down multi-layered approaches and over-designed solutions. This bias towards rapid implementation provides much-needed experience that in turn generates critical feedback essential to developing better solutions.
To succeed in the current crisis triggered by COVID-19, companies and tech leaders need to adopt the hacker ethos.
Necessity is the mother of invention
In higher education, universities have been planning for online offerings for over a decade, but all the talk hasn’t translated into rapid action. Task forces and committees have been debating the pros and cons, with proposals to offer online degrees subject to cautious pilot initiatives and multi-year reviews.
The coronavirus’s impact has swept away the barriers to change. At the University of California, Irvine, where I teach, campus leaders announced just two weeks before Spring Quarter began that students would be asked to return to their homes and all classes would be offered online. It took a massive deployment of tech resources. Software platforms, including learning-management systems, live-streaming apps and videoconferencing solutions, were rolled out university-wide. Tech teams and instructional designers worked alongside faculty to migrate courses to the new modality. In the week of March 30, every class went live.
The university’s business school was in the process of implementing a phased rollout of an online undergraduate business major. Today, the major is effectively being offered online.
Will it all work? Hopefully, well enough—and we’ll certainly get better.
It’s not just my university. Online delivery has become the new normal for universities across the globe. By the end of this academic year, a majority of faculty in many parts of the world will have acquired experience in delivering online education. Ordinarily, it would have taken us a decade or longer to get to this level of adoption.
Now consider a pharmaceutical company testing a new medication. Patients have been enrolled in a randomized clinical trial. The company is mid-way through the trial. But now, patients may not be able to visit the testing site to have labs drawn, valuable clinical data collected, their safety monitored, progress tracked and receive the next round of medication. Executives can’t just shut down the trial. If they do, the company will have lost a lot of money and time and will also have to find a path for enrolled patients to receive substitute medications. Instead, they are looking at potentially switching mid-stream to a virtual trial.
The CIO has a big role to play here. Digital teams must figure out in short order if they can build a tech-enabled solution that integrates home health provider visits, remote monitoring, telemedicine and shipment of medications to the home. Virtual trials won’t work for all medications, but they will work for some.
Such trials have been in the business plans of pharmaceutical companies for a long time. Like in higher education, their executives were gingerly wading in. Now they are speeding up.
Hacking grocery shopping
Another example of making the most of an existing, but under-appreciated, digital opportunity is grocery delivery and curbside pickup. With customers anxious about in-person shopping, online grocery spending has grown exponentially. Today, Walmart Grocery is the most downloaded app in the shopping category on the iPhone App Store. Its average daily traffic in the first three weeks of March was up 55% over the corresponding figure for the prior two months.
Here too, tech is instrumental. From apps for customers and professional shoppers, supply chain management systems and workforce management, CIOs must invest in software to facilitate the shift to grocery delivery and pickup.
While Walmart has excelled at this, others are transforming fast too. For example, Albertsons had already made moves towards delivery and curbside pickup and is now accelerating its efforts.
Reinvention is happening before our very eyes
Now that all organizations are having to get used to rough consensus and running code, there’s no going back. To quote Milton Friedman, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
Companies already have good ideas to digitally transform their companies to become more productive and more resilient. Yet, by choosing perfection over practicality and caution over progress, many have been slow to move. CIOs, who are often penalized for failure, tend to favor meticulous design and design-review before moving to implementation. It’s time to think differently.
Follow the hacker ethos (the good kind, of course).