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Black swan events: IT considerations

Neil McClumpha

Black swan events such as Covid-19 have massive impacts on world economies, societies and businesses. During the pandemic, eyes fixed on the Chief Information Officer (CIO) community to quickly set up work processes and support users of IT services with the right tools to do their jobs. It wouldn't be unexpected for them to feel the weight of stares when (not if) another crisis arises. 

However, CIOs, chief technology officers (CTOs), chief security officers (CSOs) and heads of networks and infrastructure also need to think more broadly to: 

  • Enhance the effectiveness of remote working
  • Continue to secure the IT environment
  • Ensure supportability of new working practices.

Q. What is a black swan event?

A. A black swan event is one that is unexpected, has high impact and, though less relevant for our purposes here, can be rationalised as unsurprising in hindsight.”

Enhance the effectiveness of remote working 

Your organisation’s staff may have access to key systems and applications, but that doesn’t mean they’re working effectively. Access may be slow, for example, due to capacity challenges  on the VPN platforms you use. Or, it may be intermittent due to home or corporate broadband issues. Other issues may also occur as IT infrastructure is stretched. And if the estate is ageing, say, with out-of-support hardware and software, users may be plagued with failing systems when constant connectivity really matters. Finally, users may not have the hardware they need to work as effectively as they would in an office –  screens, headsets, printers and so on.

Here are some pointers to enhance your business’s remote working:

Monitor network capacity
Review and monitor daily VPN usage across the estate – whether it’s local, regional or global. Remember, options exist should you reach VPN capacity.  You could spread the load when gateways reach capacity. Consider consolidating networks to fewer VPN gateways, centrally controlled and managed, and have local assets available as backups.

And keep in mind that as governments reduce access to offices and other locations, it will become harder to maintain local hardware. Invest in medium-term projects now to cater for a continued increase in bandwidth demand.

Review third-party arrangements
Speak to your network and telephony providers. These companies will want to ensure customers are well catered for as demand increases, so discuss what options are available to increase capacity. Importantly, get transparency on the likely increase in costs.

Give infrastructure providers as much notice as possible for future orders – demand for ‘standard’ devices will remain high for a while, so shortages may occur.

Cater for the remote workforce
Invest in end users’ IT needs. Set up a system where you can quickly handle requests and prioritise investment decisions. Headsets to enable staff to attend meetings without all the background noise of home life, more powerful corporate devices to support remote working, a single printer to enable invoices to be printed and posted – all requests from staff matter and shouldn’t be underestimated in the drive to improve working from home.

Continue to secure the IT environment

Balancing business-critical priorities with IT security has become more important. With more and more people remote working, the stresses and strains on IT infrastructure provides a greater opportunity for outsiders to exploit possible holes in security and cause organisations harm. Malware attacks, malicious probing and phishing attempts – personal and corporate – will likely increase.

Corporate security policies and standards must be central to decision-making; it’s doubly important these are followed and enforced. There’s a balance to strike with business operations, of course, but security must be at the forefront. Make sure VPN access has multi-factor authentication; check administrative access to files, servers and systems is controlled and monitored; and see to it that security and data-handling specifications in client–supplier contracts are adhered to.

Consider the human factor to security as well. With more people at home, with new pressures on their work environment, mistakes are bound to happen. You should reiterate the need to follow online behaviour guidelines when dealing with suspicious emails, or when using home rather than corporate machines.

Ensure supportability of new working practices

The Covid-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on IT support's adaptability. Considering key questions to build on successful changes and make further improvements will strengthen resilience and create an enhanced user experience. 

Some activities may take longer than others, but here are a few examples to focus on:

Joiner, mover, leaver
Joiner, mover and leaver processes will be different. Getting configured laptops, phones and other devices to new joiners may prove difficult. So, could businesses use remote solutions to securely access a suite of services needed to start work (like Office 365 and others)? Leaver processes may need to change to make sure accounts are locked down immediately, even though the leaver may still have their laptops before returning them to the company.

Backup and restore
Backups that may need an on-site presence are also a factor. Many businesses use tapes to back up data, but without the ability to rotate tapes in the office, you need to explore other options. Can you deploy a cloud solution? Can you extend backup timelines?

Real-time reporting
In today’s virtual office, it’s paramount for leadership to agree on proactive monitoring of key metrics, KPIs and SLAs. Real-time reporting tools will need processes set up around them to react to network capacity issues, leavers’ account lockdowns, joiners’ account activations, as well as security alerts. It’s become more important to be proactive in support processes rather than reactive (to tickets and incidents, for example).

Again, communication is vital. It should be at the heart of how CIOs, CTOs, CSOs and their support organisations work together. And this communication should have its foundation in agreed measures and management information, to minimise confusion and different interpretations of progress. Clear management information will also help make prioritisation calls easier and more objective. If this information is jointly agreed between parties, it will be even more powerful.

Companies must move mountains during a black swan event to enable their workforces to work remotely in huge numbers, as have the organisations that support them. It’s clear that work must continue to assure the longevity of IT services provision to global workforces.