Accelerating to the new normal

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Challenged by the Pandemic, Organizations have come to deploy transformation technologies sooner than otherwise

2020 was the year of the Pandemic, bringing the world to its knees and yet humankind demonstrated resilience with Technology playing a helping hand. A new normal became the norm and unwittingly, the pandemic played the role of an accelerator, when it came to digital transformation.

Organizations scrambled to set up Remote working, collaboration and learning infrastructure, and the outcomes were more or less encouraging and successful. The world has adapted to the new normal in spite of significant challenges. Across several verticals, there have been success stories.

George Akhras, CIO at AMSI, one of the large Education groups in the region says, “Most of the companies and Institutions in the UAE, including schools and universities, have ample manpower and technical capability to work remotely. What was needed was a push; unfortunately, a pandemic provided it and within a short period of time everyone embraced the new situation and learned how to adapt. Today, almost a year later, many businesses trans- formed and prepared a better virtual workplace for their staff to be comfortable and productive.”

He adds, “At AMSI, we adopted distance learning and reinforced our beliefs that the success of any organization depends on the skills and strengths of the core team and the proper alignment of the staff to our ultimate goals and objectives. We created an online school environment that mimics a typical school day as best as could be and support- ed our teachers and staff to become more comfortable in the virtual environment.

Change was necessary across all verticals. In varying degrees, remote working was a necessity of the hour in all key verticals.

Khalid Rashid Moh’d Jalal, Senior Group ICT Manager, GARMCO, Kingdom of Bahrain says, “While Remote working is not a new concept, with the advancements and transformations in technology and communications, it had become easier but unfortunately the adoption rate was never satisfactory. The year 2020 forced all the businesses and institutions to adopt “Work from Home” as the new normal. Although, the initial period was tough for most to cope up with the new normal, everyone had to come out of their routine and com- fort zone to learn something new and busi- nesses were forced to implement the right solutions for their survival and existence.”

The hybrid model of working is now seen as a trend here to stay.

He adds, “The importance of remote work- ing is recognized by all already as the new normal and the hybrid plan is being worked out without eliminating remote-working. The curve of remote-working has gone up but with the hybrid working mode the curve is changing to sinusoidal.”

According to Ashith Piriyattiath, CEO, Guardian One Technologies, “Covid taught us a new norm, a total cultural transforma- tion across all sectors. In the initial stages, it was a partial lockdown where only work from home and online learning was possi- ble. We initially expected it to get over in 2 months but then we understood the new norm and it was necessary to get adapted to it. Then a cultural transformation hap- pened and most of the organizations and industries, especially the education and the healthcare sectors adopted the blended model. Education became a mix of online and on campus while work culture blended into work from home and in office format. Even in the healthcare sector, medical consultations were carried out through phone conversations and online appointments. Now even this cultural change is accepted very well and it has become a common practice across industries to adopt the blended model. Technologies and solutions are also fine-tuned to enhance the same. I believe this will continue for a longer period and we must utilize the technology advancements for the same.”

Delivering in the hour of crisis

In the midst of the pandemic, IT teams were called upon to deliver on an unprecedented scale because their organizations needed to enable the required systems in quick time. The challenges weren’t insignificant.

As George says, “Given the circumstances and the short period of time to react, IT decision makers had many challenges but mainly they were two-fold, technical and human. Firstly, IT had to ensure that their infrastructure and equipment have the capacity and scalability to accommodate for the new changes while preserving security and data integrity. Secondly, staff and stakeholders needed awareness, training and a versatile system to respond and resolve their requests. “

He lists three possible steps to keep stock of when managing the change.

“Build a strong IT team and invest in their continuous development as IT staff experience and skills are an integral factor for the success of the transformation of an organization and in tackling and responding to the challenges. Acquire the full support and endorsement of the shareholders and senior management to allow for a faster and smoother change. Finally, adopt an active and accurate communication strategy with all stakeholders.”

According to Ashith, the initial days of Covid 19 was a challenging time for the management/decision makers to shift the work culture from onsite to online.

He adds, “Within the short span of time they had to make the arrangements to accommodate the remote working culture.

The pain areas were Accessibility, Infrastructure availability, Security, Cloud readiness and a centralized access of in- formation. Over time we overcame all these challenges with the adoption of re- mote access, centralized cloud, audio-video communication solutions and AR/VR solutions.”

Not all verticals and not all Businesses were ideally poised to make rapid adjustments with legacy infrastructure in some instances being a challenge to cloud preparedness. Further, the challenge when faced with expecting a large workforce transitioning to a new hybrid model was also significant.

Khalid says, “There are various challenges in such a scenario. These could be the current state of readiness due to legacy applications and infrastructure, the sudden and unplanned investment needed to bridge the gap, the challenge in terms of time to expedite the needful rollout or the resistance to accept the new normal and new methods of working. In addition, the sudden need to provide training to a large number of end users or the unavailability of resources due to lockdowns and being out of country with no or limited connectivity or coping with the uncertain and un- planned changes in operational procedures and compliance, make it quite daunting. The list is actually more exhaustive.”

To manage the challenges, he suggests that there is a need to prioritize objectives and re-align IT objectives with the changing business objectives. He suggests that it is best to invest only on high priority demands and critical needs and re-negotiate contracts where possible for better and suitable terms. Further, improving vendor-customer relationships must be a priority as both parties need each other’s support more than before. Adopting “Digital Transformation FIRST” policy along with “Cloud First” policy and enabling more teamwork at all levels as well hold the key to negotiating the challenges successfully.

Faced with the crisis of 2020, some of the key verticals were able to leverage technologies better, taking it as an opportunity to transform towards more effective methods and processes.

Ashith says, “Retail, Education and Healthcare sector have utilized more of online capabilities and especially in the retail sector where e-commerce uses Apps and platforms. As more and more apps and platforms were used, there was an increase in deployment of emerging digital transformation technologies especially AI/ML, cloud and IOT; Cloud mainly from the hosting and storing perspective, AI/ML for behavioral based solutions and IOT for geo tracking. And in the education sector, AR/VR based solutions have been introduced to bring school laboratory practicals to the comfort of home. This is going to be one of the biggest revolutions in the education sector.

The cloud clearly gaining

Cloud is seen as the gateway to digital transformation and 2020 was a great year for cloud adoption across all segments. With local datacentres of public cloud providers now available, there seemed to be an added momentum to cloud adoption rates. Further, the cloud made it simple to scale up your IT capabilities overnight and organizations needed that transformation like never before in the year of the pandemic.

George says, “The shift towards the cloud is happening faster than ever before. Organizations are seeking digital transformation to better serve their clients and staff. Today, IT must leverage the private cloud because it is trusted, controlled and reliable; and the public cloud because it is simpler, avail- able at lower cost and is flexible. At Amsi, we have taken big strides towards cloud adoption, both private and public. 86% of our applications are now on the cloud. We provide distance learning and virtual classrooms to more than 7000 students on our private cloud. Our student diplomas and transcripts are on the Blockchain in the cloud and some of our communication channels are on a public cloud.”

He adds “Moving to the cloud has a direct impact in education where revenue growth is limited; it offers cost savings by reducing the cost of hardware, improves productivity by decreasing downtime of hardware failure, and drives higher productivity.”

With lockdowns that went on for longer periods for a large part of the year and with uncertainty looming, organizations needed to look at solutions that worked and gave access to carry on from remote locations. Cloud was the viable alternative for most organizations to enable this.

Ashith says, “Cloud adoption rates have multiplied compared to the pre-covid times. As the key challenges of remote working were accessibility and centralized storage and retrieval of information with access rights, it became a big challenge within a short span of time, when offices were getting closed and operations had to be carried out from remote places. Initially everyone looked for a short-term solution but later it became apparent that we had to find a long-term solution. Cloud was the only effective option rather than depending on remote access solutions. There is great traction towards clouds from the SME sec- tor as most of them were previously operating from on-premise infrastructure. Many of the organizations utilized their DR & BCP environments for initial lockdown period. But later they had to migrate even the on-premise primary infrastructure to cloud to enhance complete operational access to everyone in the organization.”

It is worth mentioning that while cloud adoption saw a spurt because of Covid, it has been already seeing a steady climb in adoption and especially with regional datacentres of the public cloud providers set- ting up in recent years.

Khalid says, “Although the journey of cloud started with Ecommerce, it progressed slowly for various reasons. With time the trend of ecommerce started accelerating and likewise cloud computing too. With the introduction of AZURE and AWS in this region, the Cloud adoption rates started increasing rapidly. Bahrain has come with a Cloud First Policy when AWS started its data centre in Bahrain. Government entities, manufacturing and financial sectors were among the initial sectors to consider AWS, For example, GARMCO was the first manufacturing firm in Bahrain who went live with workloads on AWS.”

Rapid adoption

Emerging technologies like AI and IoT have seen wider adoption and will continue to see more applications, sooner than later.

George says, “Not a long time ago, AI, Blockchain, IoT and other new technologies were ambitious aspirations. Today they are embedded in many aspects of our business operations. Learning Management Systems are now smart and draw the students’ learning paths based on AI routines. Diplomas and other documents are published on Blockchain. Smart lighting and security systems are available. These technologies have streamlined the operational processes and enhanced productivity and efficiency. They are now embedded in our systems and will continue to develop and spread. In the near future, in IT developed countries like the UAE, almost all first lines of communication will be handled by bots, all important government and private official documents will be on Blockchain and AI will be in every system.”

He adds, “At AMSI, we understood the value of those technologies and their impact and held our first annual AI Symposium in 2017. We published our first diplo- ma on the Blockchain in 2018. We shall continue to take steps to integrate new and emerging technologies into the mainstream education.”

Emerging technologies are enhancing customer experience and also providing more insights into consumer behaviour.

According to Ashith, “To enhance user experience, new technologies like AI/ML, Clouds, IOT etc are embedded behind the platforms. AI/ML engines analyze the behavior and make predictions, thereby helping to enhance customer experience and satisfaction. Similarly, IOT also plays a vital role as each movement of individuals/ things creates valid information and data which was utilized mostly by industries like healthcare, retail and logistics sector for extracting insights. Further, a revolution in the education industry is coming with the utilization of AR/VR capabilities to bring school laboratory practicals to the comfort of home.”

While there were perhaps some greater investments into IT over the past year, IT managed to reduce the cost of business operations significantly. Optimizing costs has to be one of the key mandates that IT will need to meet this year and further ahead.

George says, “IT systems, when deployed correctly, improve efficiencies and save time; thus, reducing costs of operation. The size of the cost reduction depends on the needs and the proper scale of the implementation. If the proposed solutions do not match the needs or are in excess, the cost reduction will be minimal and the return on investment very long or nonexistent. Cost reduction was and will remain a key mandate of paramount importance to all IT decision makers specifically in verticals where revenue is limited, like education.”

It is an undeniable fact that IT is now very much in the forefront as a key enabler of Businesses. And with cloud being seen as a preferred delivery model, the costs were also considerably lower from an investments and even operational point of view.

Khalid says, “Just like the other essential elements, IT is one of the non-negotiable element of any business. Digitalization and automation along with 24×7 availability are key factors for business success with efficiency, productivity, and availability. IT investments are crucial to improve the business performance and reduce future recurring costs for better profitability. As per current trends, the shift is happening from CAPEX model to OPEX model with cloud adoption, but this change is still not satisfactory as most of license costs are CAPEX based which is becoming a bottleneck.”

He adds, “With all the budget challenges, IT has been delivering to its maximum while reducing the recurring costs and even CAPEX. This will continue in the current year as well. IT has always come up with more innovative ideas to transform the business. The right bond between IT and business surely can bring the costs down further with similar or better outcomes.” Even organizations that were laggards previously when it came to adopting standard IT processes, were forced during the lockdowns to ensure they got some of the basics right to adopt collaboration technologies and make them secure as well.

“The pandemic compelled even those organizations, which were not following structured standard IT operations, to invest slightly more to implement the blended working culture of onsite and online. Security was also a major concern for the industries to address during the adoption of remote working solutions. Post the implementation of standard structures, the overall cost significantly reduced as the service providers were offering majority of the support requirements and the hassles of managing on premise infrastructure also became less. I believe most of the organization have made it mandatory to the IT department to control the costs with utmost flexibility and security, ” says Khalid.

The role of the IT decision maker has become more challenging from the perspective of choosing the solutions that suits the organization best. This is especially so when IT decision makers need to decide from a multitude of solutions available in the cloud.

George says, “Finding and implementing the best solution was always a challenge especially with the fast rate of development and change that takes place. The increase in number of sensible options made it even harder. It is very difficult to find one solution to match the requirement and some mixing and matching is always required.”

Further, the cloud service provider eco- system is rapidly growing in the region and therefore Businesses will need to pick carefully from the wide range of options.

According to Ashith, “Cloud has become the primary source of infrastructure solution. There are many service providers now, who have started their business in the region with different capabilities and features. It is really challenging for decision makers to evaluate different service providers in terms of costs, capabilities, security and conformance with industry wise data protection laws, compliance requirements as well as risk management. This can be overcome if you have a clear understanding about the business requirements in terms of expectations from the solution, costs and regional guidelines set by authorities.”

 

Khalid opines that it has always been the case even before the cloud, when it came to making a choice from solutions avail- able and the fact that there are so many choices, makes it in fact easier to choose which fits the business objectives better.

He says, “Well, this is not something new. There always have been multitude of solutions available even before the cloud, where IT decision makers had to make wise and long-term investment decisions. A lot more solutions are avail- able on cloud and so it is easier to pick and choose as per the Business require-ments. The core business solutions might still remain the same for a decade more but the decision of having the solutions on premise or on cloud or hybrid, might be taken depending on their nature and sensitivity of business.”

Indeed, every Business will have separate decisions to make based on how they are poised in their industry at the present point of time in terms of core competencies and in comparison, to their competition. But for sure, being digitally enabled is now clearly a need of the hour, irrespective of the vertical and size of the business.

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