It’s has been just over a month since our family, social, business and societal worlds changed to an unrecognisable degree and in a manner that may never return to its previous state. This isn’t the time to describe or discuss the broader implications of the outbreak, but it is the right forum to highlight the role of Information technology and the impact on everything we previously knew plus the greatly increased importance of IT in the “new normal”
There were no instant answers for the questions posed to both society and business when news of the crisis broke. Business disaster planning and continuity systems and processes previously effective in testing were initial challenged based on a new area of concern of an unexpected kind. Businesses stalling on mass and societies in turmoil was not an option but prompt action from corporates, government and society as a whole, working in a quickly amassed concert stabilised proceedings and signposted “the new normal”.
The societal and business road to full recovery is set to be a long one. However, one thing is certain, information technology has not only proved its worth to date, it continues to be a shining light through this crisis
Observations to date have highlight a number of waves.
- The first wave was for both families and organisations to ensure people remained calm and safe. It was more about human well-being, increasing levels of understanding and taking steps to protect people in the midst of unprecedented change. With cashless monetary ideals increasing, pervasive financial services organisations underpinned by IT platforms continued to function and deliver payments. Supplementary payments for income and the stability of financial systems helped instil confidence. Continuation of communication via any means necessary was imperative with the global IT networks delivering well under the strain of increased demand for home media, voice, instant messenger, voice and video engagement.
- The second wave was critical to success and drove the corporate agenda to ensure end user, client devices were available to employees at home in the shortest possible time frame. This delivered a layer of “known” by allowing work related activities to continue but from a different location – HOME. Local Wi-Fi network connectivity, performance, reliability underpinned the success of this wave with the broad consensus corporate networking and security teams plus carrier WANs, fared well at the start of a previously unthinkable event. Many lessons were learned from a device deployment and user on-boarding perspective, with knowledge continuing to evolve that may drive new architectures for user access and security in the future.
- The third wave that is easy to call the “collaboration wave” was the overnight acceptance of digital, visual collaboration tools as the new conversational engagement normal. It has surprised many the speed and validation across the board of video conferencing as a digital face-to-face engagement mode on par with human face to face or person to person face-to-face. This has been helped greatly by the vastly improved local broadband and Wi-FI network connectivity available in many homes (speaking about the UK) previously used for home media and social activities but now ideally positioned for “home working” connectivity.
- The fourth wave was to continue and where possible, increase the flow of validated information for all, available in any format where the population may choose to consume it. Daily TV briefings (at least in the UK), mobile devices, social media platforms, broad-line media outlets on the internet and paper based newsprint have continued to circulate up to the moment updates to communicate and increase understanding. Technology has helped to create and transport the continued stream of information and news to help everyone remain informed thus helping to reduce fear, deliver social and health guidance and to ensure the population remains safe.
- The fifth wave, potentially the current state and but definitely not the final wave, has been the increased importance of intentionally securing user and business outcomes for now and next. This statement doesn’t infer security was not inherent in the previous four waves but with the sheer speed required to shift people, organisations and social systems to a remote working at times a minimum layer of security was implemented to accelerate time to user benefit. Now is the time to evolve user and organisational information security to learn from the current normal and rethink the security for the new age.
Information Technology stood up to the plate and delivered at a time when humanity required a positive intervention of the magnitude far greater than anything previously considered. End to end IT platforms from user & client devices, through Wi-Fi & LANs, WANs, satellite networks¸ cloud computing to deliver on demand processing of workloads and storage for the mass of information created daily continue to deliver “country & world” impacting services every minute of every day. And we can’t forget information security is the mandatory thread running through every IT activity and outcome ensuring everything “remains “intentionally secure”.
There have been a number of IT solutions that have flipped the script, real game changing products and services that have delivered so well that they have reset any previous perceptions of value. The importance and resonance of client and end user devices, whether smartphones, tablets, laptops, internet enabled TVs cannot be overstated. Video conferencing isn’t only a norm for now, it is set to underpin a fundamental shift from work as an activity based on location to work as an “output” possible anywhere (within reason). The importance of the network as the digital umbilical cord for all cannot be higher with connectivity key to the success of the recent home working initiatives. Cloud platform and application delivery has come of age with organisations capitalising on the speed of access to “as a service” applications with the ability to deliver cloud resource based operational environments in vastly reduced timeframes. This is set to continue and grow.
End user security awareness most notably email hygiene and phishing services are proving their worth daily as the volume of cyber attacks targeted at home working personas spirals upwards. The new wave of cyber-attacks is driving a rethink of cyber breach remediation services in a remote user dominated world. Network visibility and assurance services with the capability to determine state, manage and affect connectivity in remote, WAN and datacenter situations may be next on the operational IT deployment list if the current dynamic working mode is set to continue indefinitely. And lastly UEBA (user entity behavioural analysis) may rise from the ashes as a must have security control set as organisations try to understand security anomalies and user behavioural unknowns across a remote user landscape as early indicators of attack or compromise.
We are in the midst of a state of global and societal flux of the scale few of us ever believed we would experience in our lifetimes. The loss of life is truly heart-breaking and sadly is set to continue. Information Technology has shifted from a passive role to an assertively active agent of positive change at a time of unprecedented crisis for humanity. With a lifetime career in IT to date it has been highly rewarding to see this amazing technology industry play such an important role at a time of global need with business, humanitarian and societal impacts at time that are truly humbling to witness.
Until next time.
Be safe, stay safe.
Business Line CTO Networking and Security – Computacenter UK
Computacenter Blogs (note the views within are my own and cannot be deemed a Computacenter view or perspective): https://computacenterblogs.com/author/colinwilliamscc/
Does anybody remember the 23rd March 2020? Will that date become so profound in the future that we recall it with the same significance that we feel it now? Clearly that was the date the UK officially entered “lockdown”, 31 days ago. How has it felt for you?
My last post on 26th March spoke a lot about the personal (and to some extent my personal) impact of transitioning to a work from home “steady state”. Over the past 4 weeks I’ve had the opportunity to observe my own organisation’s response to this situation, alongside many of our customers and partners as we come to terms with huge disruption to our businesses. Even the most optimistic of us probably didn’t expect the lockdown to last just 3 weeks, but what has become apparent recently is that we are likely to be in this situation (or something very similar to it!) for the long haul. We now talk of social distancing as the new normal, with all the implications this holds for our lives and our work.
Whilst I spoke a lot about user and user experience impacts in my last blog post, followed by a post from Ashley, our Workplace CTO who addressed collaboration and security best practices. I wanted now to take the opportunity to share some wider observations.
From Workplace Enablement to Workplace Optimisation
Initially we saw a wave of activity as organisations looked to procure laptops, desktops, whatever they could get their hands on in order to assure themselves that they could equip their user for home working.
As this initial momentum has settled, the dynamic has changed. Beyond initial device provision, when you’re working from a fixed position 5 days a week, your desire or need for a premium device soon becomes secondary to: the need for an external mouse or keyboard for health and safety/RSI needs, the need for a quality headset to supress background noise and enable you to engage in video call and the need for an external display to provide access to a larger screen.
We are seeing these elements of the workplace environment become critical to supporting user performance and user health and wellbeing. In summary, for the short term, working at home on a laptop is fine . For the medium or long term you need to really think about your work space – technically and ergonomically and how you create a sustainable working environment.
Enhancing the Infrastructure Underpinnings
“There’s a problem with the network”
Everybody always says that! – Whether it’s the network’s fault or not, the network gets blamed. Its same with the internet at home when your favourite app won’t reload.
By the way, we’re all now dependant on the internet as the network – its our lifeline to the video calls we spend our working days on, our connectivity to corporate systems and in many instances to our customers.
The point I am making relates to my second trend. Once we’ve enabled people able to work, i.e. with a device in hand, we need to ensure that they can work. By this we need to ensure that the infrastructure that runs these services is online, available, performant and scaled for the new demands it faces.
Many of these infrastructures simply weren’t designed for this, and quick adaptations have been required to increase capacity. Whether it is Virtual Desktop platforms, storage infrastructure, or platforms for online services, everything has needed to be assessed, underpinned tactically, and then a more considered decision made as to how to scale these services for future needs.
Whether you are an end-user within an organisation, or a consumer of an organisation’s services, we know that patience and tolerance for poor performance is low, and therefore ensuring that platforms are performant and available is the current challenge. We’ve seen, anecdotally, huge pressures on public cloud platforms in response to this situation – as demand and consumption has scaled beyond any sort of projections of what was possible in such a short time period.
Evolving the Support Model
Technology, People and Process are the 3 classic dimensions of impact. I’ve spoken a lot about the technology dynamics, so the final area to cover blends People and Process.
When we step back and think about what has happened – thousands of people who typically work in an office IT environment have been asked to work from their homes. Distanced from both the peer and IT support they depend on to be effective in their roles and to resolve their issues – they’re now left to “fend for themselves” in an isolated environment. Service desk contacts have grown significantly as users come to terms with the new technology, a new “friction” they didn’t ask for.
This is the new normal. We need to provide innovative and flexible ways to support users, and augment the support capability to cater for “unknowns” in the home setup – home printing, spurious WiFi setups etc. We’ve adapted to provide home deployment services for users and have introduced virtual support services so that we can provide the “Tech Bar” experience that users were becoming accustomed to in the office, now over Microsoft Teams, Skype or Zoom. We always spoke of a “future workplace” where people worked more remotely, and now we’ve been forced to deliver that promise – it’s now our reality and we must re-gear our services to cater to users wherever they are – literally!
I’ve touched on 3 major trends and dynamics I have observed. There’s far more detail than be covered in a single blog post. The situation will continue to evolve – and its important that IT continues to adapt to cater for the needs of users and optimise the services to enable businesses to continue.
But equally, look at what has been achieved in the past few weeks. A product of circumstance, of a “can-do” attitude and a rapid acceleration of digital strategies. There’s lots more to come over the coming weeks and months to ensure we stay ahead and support users and leverage technology to help guide businesses through these unprecedented times.
Take care of yourselves and your families,
As we find ourselves in lockdown and for those for whom it’s possible working from home, the use of communication and collaboration tools have become invaluable in enabling us to do our jobs successfully. In fact, for many who are not used to working this way, it may have been and maybe still is a learning curve. Both as individuals and organisations we have had to enable at pace; enable our people to do their best work in difficult circumstances, enable our infrastructure to support increased demand and enable our business to support both employees and customers alike.
With this enabling at pace comes the inevitability of increased vulnerability, and the need to secure the wider workplace as this extends into the home. More than ever before with services and solutions being extended, increased, adapted or adopted; ensuring that security is not forgotten is key.
Supporting your people
As an organisation, it is understandable that enabling your users to communicate and collaborate and access information and data securely is of utmost importance. The number and scale of collaboration tools being downloaded and used across multiple device types has increased exponentially in the last few weeks. As such, the number of those who wish to exploit any vulnerabilities in such platforms has increased also.
Enabling at pace should not negate the requirement of choosing the right platform(s) and solutions, from an operational, useability and security perspective, nor should it be an excuse for people to eschew company policy and procedures. I encourage both individuals and organisations to examine the privacy and security policies of any platform or solution you are considering using, especially if it isn’t one you have used before.
Good practice and user training are also key to ensuring that your workforce can work productively and securely whilst working from home or other remote locations. These should be an extension or adaption of any existing remote working policies previously employed. Given that for some, this way of working may be new to them, ensuring they have support of those more adept at using these platforms is paramount.
As an example, we host 30-minute drop in sessions several times per week remotely, to ensure that others have the opportunity and safe environment to ask questions or watch demonstrations of productive and secure methods of working. In addition to this, we have created a network of champions, that via multi-channel engagement methods, across several business lines are always able to support those who require it.
To a more personal note, there is much as individuals we can do to keep ourselves, our data and our businesses safe and secure at this time, here are a few tips that might help:
- If you are creating an online meeting for others to connect to, ensure that you make use of the security functions available to you. As an example, if a meeting gives you the option of using a password to secure the meeting, use this function. If you are inviting people outside of your organisation, turn on the lobby feature. This will keep people in a virtual holding room in which you have to allow them in. This will prevent people from simply obtaining a link to your meeting and joining. If the person you are inviting is external make sure you know who the person is that you are admitting, and if the person isn’t who you were expecting and without good reason, remove them from the meeting.
- If the tool you are using allows you to restrict certain options such as people unmuting themselves, or people sharing their screen (and the context is one where you are presenting rather than collaborating) enable these restrictions to reduce interruptions or possible subversive behaviour.
- Be wary of sharing information of a sensitive nature across collaboration platforms, especially with external participants. Information can be screen captured in an online meeting without your knowledge. If you wouldn’t hand out this information to the people on the call in a real face-to-face meeting, then don’t share it in an online meeting.
- If you are sharing documents, ensure that you apply the necessary protections. As an example, you might be able to make the document read-only, or only accessible by people within your company, or even prevent download. Always share only what is necessary, especially to those outside the organisation
Most importantly, read and become familiar with the security and acceptable use policies that your organisation provides, these are put in place to protect you and the company, and adherence to these will help you work in a safe, productive manner. If you are unsure of what you should do, which given the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in is a distinct possibility; reach out for help within your organisation to ensure you protect yourselves, your family and the company that you work for.
There are of course many other ways to enable at pace whilst securing the workspace, and I’d love to hear how you are supporting your friends, family, your businesses and each other in these unprecedented times. Feel free to reach out if I can help or support in any way.