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Unravelling digital complexity through the pandemic


Industry Voice

Responses to the pandemic have provided valuable lessons on how to deal with a crisis, writes Rhys Sharp, public sector solutions director at Rackspace

Covid-19 has triggered a major shift in how the public sector works, forcing it to think afresh about its digital systems and networks, and confronting organisations with complex challenges as they implement the change.

The subject came up for discussion at a recent UKA Live, in which I took part with Owen Powell, ICT director of Central and North West London NHS Trust (CNWL), Kurt Frary, deputy director IM&T at Norfolk County Council, Amit Patel, director of technology design and engineering at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), and Helen Olsen, publisher of UKAuthority. It also features in the Managing Digital Complexity in a Crisis briefing note produced by UKAuthority with Rackspace.

It was no surprise that the organisations had managed a big migration to home working, supported by remote access to systems, video conferencing and other collaboration tools. This was reinforced by an audience poll during the debate in which 42% said their organisations had moved seamlessly to home working and 32% that they had achieved it within a few days.

The move to video was relatively smooth, with Zoom a popular choice as people have found it easy to use and it does what it is meant to do. It was free of the complexity that often stands in the way of adopting new systems.

Increasing the use of cloud services has also been a big factor. Powell reported how a move to a private cloud platform late last year, in which Rackspace took on its management, effectively dealt with one of the challenges for CNWL in advance. Patel said a move to Azure took the pressure off the BHF’s website and helpline. Frary described how a cloud based soft telephony solution had quickly supported home working, and added that it proved best to adopt cloud solutions early to prepare for a response to a crisis.

This was backed by an audience poll revealing that 67% already had cloud solutions in place which helped to keep operations going, and that 11% had to roll some out quickly.

Demands on VPN

Other factors, however, have proved more complex. One example has been encountered by a local authority customer of Rackspace that has had to extend its virtual private network much wider to support people working at home.

This put a big strain on the VPN concentrators in its internal infrastructure, triggering a shift to a cloud service that could handle to big increase in traffic. It is a difficult change to manage and one that demands specialist skills that many organisations do not have in-house.

Another challenge derives from legacy applications, often for core lines of business, which may not sit easily within a cloud infrastructure. Sometimes the best approach is to leave them where they are and allow other solutions to gain access to the data where necessary, a move that also requires an expertise to carry off successfully.

Remote access to legacy applications has also created challenges, largely in ensuring there is a good user experience for employees while maintaining high levels of security. This has especially been the case for financial systems, which are often run as legacy and contain sensitive information.

For some organisations it has required a re-architecting of systems and reaching out to suppliers for help – although it became clear from the discussion that in some cases the suppliers did not wait to be asked but quickly offered assistance.

Security protocols

Security has also featured in the surge in video conferencing, with the need to ensure the right protocols for running sessions are in place and properly understood, especially by the people running the meetings. When this is extended to dealing with outsiders or the public it becomes more complex, and needs an understanding not just of the protocols and etiquette but of how to guide people through using the platforms.

Perhaps the most demanding issue has been around the changing needs for software licences. A poll showed that all the respondents had run into problems, with 68% describing it as ‘a puzzle’ and 32% as a ‘dark art’.

This becomes more complex when managing the use of cloud services, which can be most effective when scaled up and down or shifted to meeting changing requirements. This is further complicated when organisations use different services from different providers, with the danger of not being sure which of their employees needs access to which platforms.

Organisations have had to react quickly over the past few months and many will only get the full picture of their use of cloud, and all the costs, as we become free of the lockdown. But it provides further evidence of the need for a full understanding of the market and an expertise in how to use it, which is where a specialist partner can provide valuable assistance.

Other lessons to emerge from the pandemic include the need to keep business continuity plans up to date, including requirements for a pandemic in which almost everyone will be required to work from home. This has to involve thinking of the organisation as a digital operation and regularly reviewing and updating the plans as needed.

Increasing options

Increasing use of the cloud is likely to provide more scope for this, especially with a distribution of services and back-up plans in place. This can give an organisation more options when parts of its operations are severely disrupted, but again needs the understanding of how these options could fit within its digital estate and processes.

Another is the need for agility within the organisation. The pandemic has thrown up problems that had not been anticipated, and it needs a structure and mindset that encourages quick responses, and the ability to identify possible dangers not included in existing plans.

This can be encouraged through rationalised governance arrangements and a more rapid and nimble decision-making process, emphasising stand-ups every few days rather than issues going to committee once a month.

There is also a need to consider the behavioural factors, helping people to feel more comfortable with working remotely, and supporting those who come to feel disconnected or lonely. It goes beyond the technical requirements and is likely to involve a big role for the HR team.

All this may seem to be a catalogue of demands, but the experience of recent months shows it can be a great opportunity. Owen Powell commented that CNWL achieved a transformation expected to take three years in six weeks, with the pandemic sharpening focus and releasing a lot of energy.

That energy is likely to be less intense after a while, but the challenge is to develop a culture and plans that make it possible to release it again in the event of another crisis.

Catch up below with the UKA Live expert panel

UKAuthority and Rackspace have worked together on a new report, Managing Digital Complexity in a Crisis, that explores further some of the themes in this webcast. You can register below to receive your copy:

You can also now download here a pdf of the UKAuthority and Rackspace report from earlier this year 'Smart Sourcing Insight'

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