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Going all in on digital: How organisations can handle unexpected demand in the post-lockdown world

(Image credit: Image Credit: Wright Studio / Shutterstock)

It goes without saying that Covid-19 has transformed the way we live. One of the biggest effects of the global pandemic, and the resulting lockdown, is that we’ve been forced to shift many of our tasks and daily needs onto digital services – pretty much overnight. In fact, according to a survey from Accenture, almost a third of people are now doing all of their shopping online. Additionally, figures from the deVere Group show that the use of financial apps in Europe rose by 72 per cent in a single week when government-imposed lockdowns were first implemented.

As a result, organisations across all industries have had to quickly adapt their operations to support this exponential growth in online users. While demand may begin to fall again, as economies and high street businesses begin re-opening, there will undoubtedly be a lasting effect of people working, shopping, and socialising more online.

As we move into this digital-first future, sudden unexpected spikes in demand will likely become the new normal, as behaviour remains a little less predictable and people retain some of their newly adopted habits. It’s therefore imperative that organisations use their learnings and experience from the pandemic, and continuously review the way they work, to ensure IT systems can keep running and provide quality user experiences no matter what happens – all against the backdrop of limited resources, changing customer habits and rapidly evolving market conditions.

Ability to meet demand

The number of people accessing digital services at the height of the global lockdown is something we’ve never seen before, or likely will again. In Italy, for instance, within one month of Covid-19 lockdown orders being enforced, Microsoft recorded that there was a 775 per cent rise in users of its Teams platform. In some cases, this sudden surge in digital services led to some user experience problems, as critical services such as online grocery retailers and government benefits application portals came under extreme demand. However, the problems that caused these slowdowns, such as infrastructure capacity overload, or improperly configured database requests, are not unique to the current crisis.

Although these issues were undoubtedly magnified by the exceptional surge in online traffic, due to the pandemic, organisations can never truly know when they may experience increased demand. Therefore, they must be ready to deliver high-quality digital services and experiences for customers and users no matter what. With that in mind, here’s a three-step action plan that can help futureproof applications and infrastructure for the digital-first future.

Step 1: Determining patterns in traffic

Some organisations, such as retailers and supermarkets, are relatively well-equipped to prepare for increased demand, as they understand digital traffic patterns and can predict spikes during peak times of the year from past experience.

By contrast, other industries can be caught out by sharp increases in online activity when demand surges are caused by unforeseen events and circumstances. Whilst we can never truly know what’s around the corner, we can ensure we implement the foundations required to deal with the unknown and ensure success.

One way to achieve this is by rethinking team structures and aligning business and technical specialists more closely – a practice known as BizDevOps. This improves collaboration and encourages data to be shared between teams, to provide greater context to issues that arise. As a result, organisations can better prepare for the unexpected and ensure their teams can more effectively support the needs of the business when unusual situations arise.

Step 2: Understanding when and why systems break

After aligning your organisational structure to better predict and prepare for demand spikes, BizDevOps teams are still faced with the possibility that systems may sometimes be overloaded. While they may know demand is set to rise, the full extent to which the user experience will be impacted can be an unknown entity.

In order to be able to proactively optimise user experiences, you must fully understand the factors that influence IT service performance. The best strategy to achieve this is by conducting a stress test, to establish the limits of what the system can handle. This entails hitting infrastructure with an increasing amount of traffic until a negative impact is felt on response times or other errors start to occur.

Once this has been identified, BizDevOps teams should then look to understand why the system breaks at that level, using automated root-case analysis to identify which component broke and why. Once teams have the insights into what the problem is and why it occurred, they need to find a solution that can be deployed rapidly into the environment to optimise the user experience faster and improve outcomes for the business.

Step 3: Finding and automating the fix

When looking to find a solution, it’s important to focus on addressing one problem at a time, as remediating something in one place can cause issues elsewhere. Teams should constantly carry out checks to see how changes they make impact the overall health of the IT system and need to be prepared to roll them back if necessary.

Once IT teams have a list of the fixes to apply and have set up a repeatable process to implement them, the next stage is automating that process. This approach is helping US supermarket giant, Kroger through the current pandemic, as customers turn to online channels to buy groceries like never before. AI-assistance and automation have enabled the company to proactively address issues before they impact user experience. This method of running IT operations autonomously enables IT teams to focus their time on higher value activities, such as innovation.

A new digital age

The extraordinary circumstances created by Covid-19 – such as government lockdowns, new policies on furlough and stimulus schemes, and high street shops being forced to close – created an equally astonishing surge in digital service usage. Unexpected surges in web traffic are always going to be difficult to predict, but as we move back towards some semblance of ‘normal’ life, organisations should ensure they learn from this crisis and equip themselves to offer the same great user experience, whatever may come their way.

Michael Allen, VP & CTO EMEA, Dynatrace