There's a joke that's been making the rounds recently that goes like this: Who accelerated your digital transformation -- your chief digital officer, your chief information officer, or was it COVID-19.
The answer, of course, is COVID-19. Rashmi Kumar, SVP and CIO at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, recounted the joke during a virtual panel discussion of women tech executives at the recent HPE Discover virtual event.
"We have proven now through this crisis that digitalization is a must do for most of the companies across our business processes," she said. "Every cross section of our employee base has quickly pivoted to be a digital native...Each and every person in the companies has stepped up, collaborated and quickly transitioned to a digital workplace and a digital ecosystem."
That's been the story of many enterprises in a year of surprises that have required quick response, agility, and leadership. These 2020 challenges and responses were the theme of the panel discussion, titled Women Leaders in Technology: Leading Through Recovery, moderated by journalist Soledad O'Brien, and a panel of women executives.
Kumar was joined on the panel by Myra Davis, chief innovation officer and chief information officer for Texas Children's Hospital, as well as Jennifer Temple, chief communications officer at HPE, and Maggie Wilderotter, a member of HPE's board of directors and the CEO of Grand Reserve Inn.
The response to COVID-19 required quick action among leaders. The IT team at Texas Children's Hospital had planned to do a major upgrade of their electronic medical record system in March. But when the pandemic hit, the team put that upgrade on hold. Instead, the team implemented an incident command structure -- what they typically do during hurricane season to respond to a crisis. Then, like many other enterprises, Texas Children's Hospital moved a significant portion of its employee base to work remotely, equipping them with laptops and teleconferencing solutions, Davis said.
"A lot of juggling happened immediately among the leadership team with decisions we needed to make in terms of how do we keep our workforce safe and then how do we deploy solutions that would keep our patients safe," Davis said.
Even as the pandemic continued, along with its impact on the economy and working conditions around the world, the US was headed for yet another crisis starting at the end of May when police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, a Black man, which sparked ongoing nationwide protests of systemic racism and police brutality in the US.
Davis said that this new crisis, while not related to technology, was still important to address.
"I personally think leadership plays a significant role," she said. "I personally advocate for dialog. I think silence is very painful and also concerning, particularly in this world of uncertainty. I don't know why we can talk about COVID-19 and not talk about what's happening with racism."
Wilderotter, who has served on several corporate boards over the years and has worked on gender diversity issues for a long time said the fix will not come overnight.
"It's going to take time," she said. "No matter when you start the journey it's going to take time."
But she is encouraged to see what is happening today, and believes that it's different this time than it has been in the past.
"One of the things that heartens me on this entire equality issue is that the leaders of corporate America are starting to step up with measurable programs that will deliver results," she said. "It's not just about what we say as leaders. It's about what we do as leaders, and what we have to do is to be able to hire people of all different races as well as genders into roles and train them and help them grow and help them try new things. I think that we are starting to see that."
A crisis is a great time to listen to different voices about potential new solutions to the challenges we face, according to Temple.
"One of the things I've really enjoyed about this tough time [with COVID-19] is that you'll get ideas from different people, different members of your team," she said. "...A crisis helps us think differently, use different skills, and I really hope that sticks."
Yet, with all that we've learned already in 2020 about working from home, teleconferencing, cybersecurity, network security, working in the midst of multiple crises, and how to lead through it all, the lessons learned may not be quite enough to prepare us for the next challenges ahead. O'Brien asked Davis whether there were any guiding principles learned from the first wave of the pandemic that would help during the second round.
"There's no playbook for how to lead during a time of uncertainty," Davis said. But certain approaches are important, like having a level of resiliency and allowing yourself to be vulnerable amid ambiguity.
"There are a lot of unknowns here, but the ability to pivot and have an agile demeanor is really critical."