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Why digital maturity turned out to be businesses' smartest bet against a pandemic

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

On the morning of September 11, 2001, while the world was reeling, US Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Roger W. Ferguson Junior was alone at his office in Washington (his boss Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Fed, along with William J. McDonough, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York were both in Zurich - soon to be stranded - at a meeting of central bankers).

Within minutes of the second plane hitting the tower, Ferguson swung his emergency plans into action. He knew as events unfolded that it was his responsibility alone to prevent a terrible human tragedy being exacerbated by a crippling economic one.

Over the next few days Ferguson's heroic efforts and those of his team kept financial systems running in the face of extraordinary challenges, where any single failure may have caused a financial meltdown, the consequences of which we'd still be dealing with today.

Not least among these challenges was the point when Seven World Trade Centre fell and steel beams sliced through a major Verizon communications hub. 40 per cent of the land lines in lower Manhattan and 20 per cent of the lines for the NYSE were severed.

Nevertheless, emergency-trained IT staff kept the Federal Bank of New York running and systems working.

The response was aided immeasurably by the fact that key staff were mandated to carry two cell phones on different networks loaded with a master contacts list, including co-workers, customers, regulators and utility providers. Essential people were able to reach one another and respond in real time.

That these processes worked so effectively was a testament to meticulous planning. The planning, however, was not for a terrorist incident, but for a completely different scenario: the Y2K bug.

No one could have prepared for a nightmare like 9/11, because, until it happened, it was (except for those inside government agencies tasked with imagining the unimaginable) inconceivable.

Dangerously biased

The fact that Ferguson himself had led the Y2K training program, and implemented many of the recommendations, must represent one of the more serendipitous outcomes in the history of disaster preparation.

It's a well documented fact that human beings are dangerously biased towards the belief that extreme, low likelihood, high impact events will not happen to them. At the time of Y2K, even though the risks were well-rehearsed and measurable, the prevailing narrative was that the dangers were overhyped and the reaction overdone.

Even now this view persists, along with the argument  that the fact the predicted negative outcomes did not come to pass is not a function of the response, but proof that the risk was exaggerated.

We see this now playing out all around us, as evidence begins to emerge that simulations and training exercises did indeed predict many of the shortcomings of governments' coronavirus response, from low stocks of PPE and vulnerable supply chains, to healthcare capacity issues.

It's one of the reasons that a number of commentators have dubbed the patchy response from nation to nation, not as a failure of preparedness or of information - but as a failure of imagination. It turns out we're just not very good at accepting that the kind of bad things that happen to other people might actually happen to us.

This failing becomes particularly acute where money is involved. On one level it's entirely rational. Ask a CEO or a mid-term politician to invest now to mitigate a risk which, in all probability, will occur when someone else is in charge; it takes a level of foresight and altruism that's beyond most of our leaders to agree.

But Ferguson's contribution to the 9/11 response teaches us that it doesn't only make long-term sense to invest to mitigate the low-likelihood events we can imagine. By preparing ahead of the curve, you'll be better positioned to meet the challenges you've never even thought of, too.

Today's crisis provides us with a case in point:

How many companies, as they pushed ahead with their digital maturity programs, gave any thought to the fact that shifting to a cloud-based operation and shared internet services would set them up to be able to meet the challenges of working during a global pandemic?

The helicopter-view that our global network relationships give us reveals an unambiguous relationship between a company's digital maturity (measured by the extent to which it has migrated operation from private “MPLS” to “internet-based” public networks) and its ability to respond to the Covid crisis.

A digitally mature business is able to continue operations, share and collaborate on documentation, retain the integrity of its systems and processes, stay in continual contact with staff and provide customers with uninterrupted access to services from any connected location, no matter how dispersed the team.

Those businesses that have considered this process to be a low priority, perhaps because they don't see themselves as a digital business, or because they've prioritised investment elsewhere, are now counting the cost.

The Covid crisis has been a wake up call to the business community, that no matter what you do for a living, in today's world you are an online business. And it's provided a further lesson to all of us, that no matter what calamity you prepare for, there is always the potential for something unimaginable to take us by surprise.

That's why, like Ferguson in Washington in 2001, it makes sense to prepare for the challenges you know are coming, if only to armour you against the ones you don't.

Kees Bos, CEO, Globalinternet