Practically no one had even slightest intuition of the magnitude, pervasiveness and extent of the COVID-19 crisis that’s probably just begun to unfold. Best of the government apparatus, best of the healthcare systems, best of the financially-robust economies – all are under stress finding ways to deal with it. There’s absolutely no one who can predict the timelines. All of the world’s best technologies are put to test and use to develop models that can help understand the patterns, create a wider and deeper visibility of scenarios but they are all plain experiments at this stage.
Among many things this pandemic has also caught most businesses totally unawares as far as their business continuity planning (BCP) was concerned. While the businesses were quick to respond to the demand for equipping their workforce to meet the challenges of this unexpected crises, they were quite stunned with the difference between theoretical BCP and practical BCP. In particularly holds true for smaller and medium scale companies which are finding it difficult to draw up plans on the go along with their focus on the usual day-to-day operations. Large enterprises, due to being blessed with access to better resources may be better prepared however, many of them are also found off the guard.
Just to understand the perspective from a seasoned practitioner, I scheduled a call with Vijay Sethi, CIO, CHRO, and Head of CSR at Hero MotoCorp yesterday night at 9.00 PM. Due to obvious exigencies the call got pushed by over 12 hours. Although I had an option and a window of calling him just before midnight but I found it quite cumbersome and against my own work ethics.
Vijay Sethi, as always, was prepared with his crisp and convincing replies to the extempore conversation that had to revolve around the mayhem COVID-19 has created for businesses not to mention the collateral damage to the society as a whole.
“It’s an unheard-of scenario. As the head of Human Resources (HR), Information Technology (IT), and also the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the toughness multiplies manifold. My day begins at 8 AM and sometimes end at midnight – attending calls to fulfil duties in all the three domains. All three are crucial, important and essential from business, and social points of view. From family welfare issues to medical support to social welfare and also business continuity, we are pushed to the limit.”
This was enough to set the tone for the rest of the discussion.
Call it a self-discovery in COVID-19 situation or wisdom that prevails all the time, Vijay is of the opinion Business Continuity Planning (BCP), as we know is conventionally, has proved to be more theoretical than practical in this situation. And it is true to a large extent. No one would think of this unprecedented lockdown at a global scale. This doesn’t even find a mention in the exhaustive studies done by global agencies like World Economic Forum.
Vijay was one of those CIOs who were quick to respond to the developing scenario. “As the owner of IT function, I had a hunch of something unusual. A few days prior to the appeal for Janata Curfew by the Prime Minister, I anticipated the seriousness of the matter. That was the time we started planning for some unprecedented emergency measures,” he said.
Of course, the conventional BCP documents that run into 100s of pages were almost non-referenceable. As said earlier, they are, at best, good for predictable incidents. “This was a time for fresh BCP plan. I didn’t want a 200-pager document again. I wanted to keep it to-the-point and very practical. As a result, we drew a simple ‘9-point Scenario’, with all possible situations that could emerge in this context,” said Vijay.
“My first ask to the technology leadership team was to quickly come with 1-pager on each of those nine scenarios we discussed. We acted on it like a mission-mode project. Among other things those 9-points included activity of “Essential Staff”, which would be required to attend the systems physically for keeping the IT infra in order,” shares Vijay. At any given day the company has 6-7 people working in the offices to manage the entire IT infrastructure support. These people are equipped with all necessary government approvals and passes to commute. “The other important points in the COVID-19 BCP document were hypothetical scenarios where we wanted to ensure business continuity in case anyone – both office staff or supplier/service provider – catches COVID-19 infection. There should be a failover at every stage,” he said.
In least possible time a core group of about 10 senior IT professionals was formed at Hero MotoCorp IT, which has well over 200 people. Under each leader there were teams created and then there were redundancies built both at team and individual levels. “We not only ensured that employees were enabled to work from home in least possible time but also put together a mechanism for remote tech support that we cloud manage during such a time,” informed Vijay. This also included provisioning of secured VPN access to employees who were required to access confidential data.
It’s not that everything during the crisis has been a compromise. Certainly, the pressure of enabling a large workforce to produce their optimum output was always a challenge but there are good things to mention too. “I’d vouch that the productivity has gone up leaps and bounds. It’s unprecedented. For example, the entire development team was enabled in little time and is at work. Surprisingly, they developed an application in flat 3-days, which would otherwise take a long time to develop and be tested,” says Vijay.
During the past 7-10 days, another brilliant idea has come to fruition at the automotive giant. The company is using this opportunity to skill, re-skill and up-skill its workforce. “We have suggested that everyone across the organisation and function should undergo at least 30 online courses – including in-house and external (paid). To my surprise, seven executives have completed 100 courses each so far. This is the positive side of work from home and lockdown. The learning is for both white-collar and blue-collar professionals,” informs Vijay.
“As a routine. I do once-a-day morning review with the core IT team and once a week review with the entire IT team which has over 200 members across regions.”
However, there’s always some flip-flops that one has to accommodate and adjust with in critical times. The network downtime, though minimal, yet causes concern. “Services are certainly affected. Some service providers are able to provide required support but some are not,” says Vijay.
A turn-around of this nature will surely have its own set of challenges and downsides too. Good thing is the IT was not oblivious of the whole situation and was also clear about their priorities and could accomplish major stuff with minimum disruption.
That’s where my time ended.
I shall be reporting similar, interesting stories regularly. Watch for this space.