Surprising new competencies for CIOs in the new normal

Terry White, Netsurit, Executive Consultant

Johannesburg, 14 Jul 2020
Read time 4min 20sec

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages our people and our economy, businesses are discovering that it is not enough to be efficient and effective.

This is because the new normal for the pandemic means constant changes in business and market conditions, and rapid (sometimes overnight) shifts in operating rules. Today you may be able to sell a product, and tomorrow you may not, and vice versa. Today your staff may have to work from home or not work at all. Tomorrow you may be setting up your factory and offices for socially distanced and sanitised work. Being efficient at something that is no longer useful or even required is a waste of energy. And being effective at producing products that you cannot sell turns our concept of competence on its head.

The pandemic new normal requires new competencies. So far, I think there are four of them, but remember that this is likely to change too. Organisations need flexibility, innovation, agility and resilience if they are to survive or even thrive during the pandemic. These new competencies are not trivial to develop and nurture, neither are they just buzzwords that have little real meaning. And here’s why:

Flexibility means bending without breaking: This ability has long been known in the natural world, of course, but now it must move to the business world. Yeah, yeah, you might say, heard it before. But if you think about it, being flexible means undoing many of the ways of work that administrators, managers and executives hold dear. It means that decision-making centres must shift to people who do not usually make decisions. It means the time to make decisions must be dramatically shortened. It means the executive team must lead and not manage. (They must do more thinking, analysing, deciding and communicating, and less doing, implementing, controlling and correcting.) And if decisions must be taken far from the centre of power, it means the culture of the organisation is one of the most important flexibility and competitive tools they have.

Innovation means doing something that has never been done before. The creation of something new, either for customers or inside the organisation, will inevitably cause problems and upset apple carts. Either the new idea does not fit with our current way of doing things or with our current products, or it upsets the status quo and power structures. People with something to lose will hate it and will undermine it. (Organisations have a wonderful immune system – but it kills new ideas as if they were a virus.)

True innovation requires organisational tolerance, which has cultural, governance, leadership and command and control implications. True innovation cannot be instructed to happen. Ask yourself how many innovations have been implemented in your organisation recently. Then ask how long they took. Then ask if it was only the COVID-19 crisis that allowed them to happen. If the answer is that you need a crisis before you can innovate, then perhaps innovation is not a cultural norm.

Agility means doing it quickly. We’re not talking about the agile development method here – we’re talking about organisational agility. Most organisations are not agile. They require the strategy to identify the need for something, a plan to formalise the idea, the budget to allow that idea to happen, and quality control, and marketing departments to approve the idea, the resources to be made available to develop and implement the idea. Finally, they need on-site people to change so that the idea can succeed. This is a cynical view certainly, but look at your organisation and ask if it is true or false. So to be agile needs organisations to change their strategy, planning, funding, marketing and many other departments. Each of these departments may resist this change.

Resilience is the ability to absorb disruptions and changes and carry on. It is a complex-adaptive concept. A complex-adaptive system is comprised of many independent parts that can identify a change or need and respond independently to accommodate the change or need. This, in turn, will cause other independent parts to change as well. There is no central control – it is a self-organising system. This is the modern definition of organisational resilience, and some organisations call these independent parts self-managed teams. Resilience is not about having rigid processes and controls or having a heavy bureaucracy – these are the things that kill resilience by reducing the ability to respond independently and quickly.

If you’re a skilled thinker, you will realise that the competencies of flexibility, innovation, agility and resilience mean deep changes to the organisation.

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