When your company's resiliency is put to the test, how will you manage? Do you have a game plan that keeps the ball in your hands throughout the game? Or if there's a turnover, can you quickly regain control and execute a strong offense? How much of your resiliency playbook have you written? Are you prepared to win the game?

Resiliency is a critical component of any business. But getting it right isn't as simple as implementing new technology or creating a new department (although both steps may be part of your overall plan). Quantifying the return on resiliency investments may be challenging until you need to exercise the plan, so necessary spending may be challenging to justify in the moment.

When we started on our path to increased resiliency at SAS, we could not have foreseen the test our decisions would eventually face.

I became CIO at SAS in the middle of 2019, just months before the pandemic and the global move to work from home. My role initially covered traditional IT responsibilities, but in late 2019, I was also asked to oversee our SAS® Cloud business. It was a logical addition to my responsibilities. We were already making great strides toward a digital transformation that included moving our Enterprise workloads to the cloud. Even in the early days, we saw benefits from this move. The cloud provides agility, enhances speed and enables innovation – key ingredients to a resilient company.

Back then, we were already working to globalize and standardize our systems. We knew it was time to get them out of on-premises data centers and into the cloud to remove connectivity barriers and give our workloads access to the near-limitless elasticity of cloud infrastructure. No matter where our employees were in the world, we wanted them to be able to keep working regardless of how and when they worked. And we wanted to optimize the runtime experience for all our workloads while balancing price versus performance.

By February 2020, we were aware of COVID-19 and its possible threats to our ability to maintain business as usual. As a leadership team, we spent time asking ourselves:

  • "Do we have the infrastructure to send all our global employees home?"
  • "Can we support our employees and enable them to keep performing at high levels if they're at their homes instead of our global offices?"
  • "How do we keep our employees safe amid the pandemic concerns?"
  • "How do we continue to serve our customers without interruption during very uncertain times?"

Through those conversations, we realized that we had a lot of confidence in our ability to send our international workforce home if needed. We were optimistic. We knew the connectivity would be there. Our systems would work regardless of the demand. It didn't matter where people lived or worked or when they chose to work.

As time passed and we realized COVID-19 was going to force a sea change for all of us, we decided to do a pilot test.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, we sent our Research and Development employees home. That test included 2,000 people based at our Cary worldwide headquarters.

We already had resiliency built into our business, and we believed this plan could succeed. At the end of the first day, it went great. By Monday, we sent the entire company home because we had proof our resiliency plan worked.

Resiliency is easy to see, harder to quantify

What was great about that experience? It validated the work we had been doing to get our IT systems out of local data centers and into the cloud. Those investments fueled our ability to act in an agile way in the face of a global pandemic, and we had evidence the preparation we had already done would pay dividends during good times and times of uncertainty.

We saw our industry peers struggling around us. They wrestled with how to send their employees home to work. Businesses stopped because they couldn't connect. They hit connectivity thresholds, infrastructure capacity limits or experienced security issues. They had to rotate people from offices to home offices. We didn't have those challenges. Neither did our customers. When our customers chose SAS Cloud, they were building in business resiliency whether they realized it or not. Because SAS Cloud service was uninterrupted, our customers' work carried on without missing a beat. Other customers noticed and came to us to learn more about operating in the cloud. "Can you get me and my on-premises analytic systems to the cloud faster? How can you help us be more agile in times of change?" We already knew SAS Cloud provided what they needed. All we had to do was quickly help them in their time of need.

Even with the emotional rollercoaster of isolation, SAS employee satisfaction scores were high because we made it a priority to enable them and their work. We don't have official, corporatewide  productivity metrics, but I believe we enabled our employees to be productive when and where they wanted to work. Flexibility and work-life balance have always been key values at SAS, and the pandemic-induced changes we made gave us one more way to honor and empower our employees to do their best work on their terms. They aren't constrained to the physical office from 9 to 5. And our tools are accessible and perform just as well whether an employee sits at a desk in Cary or works from home in Dubai.

Bottom line: We pivoted to help our customers when they needed us most because we had already fortified our own resiliency. That meant we could swiftly pivot to help others.

How to close your resiliency gap

The pandemic represents a proving ground for both the value of the cloud and building organizational resiliency. We're still experiencing the aftershocks of the pandemic. It's reflected in lasting changes to the ways we shop, travel, socialize and work. That's why CIOs must always ask: "What's coming next? How do I insulate my business from sudden change? What innovation do I need today to give my organization resiliency tomorrow?

The cloud continues to be the great enabler, and SAS Cloud continues to be an increasingly popular choice for executives who want to build resiliency into their operations. Here are a few examples:

  • Auxmoney: Fintech company's rapid growth leads to consistent cloud strategy.
  • Lockheed Martin: IoT and machine learning keep aircraft mission-ready.
  • CNG Holdings: Identity management is key to preventing credit fraud.

SAS surveyed more than 2,400 senior executives from around the globe to get their perspectives on business resilience. It surprised me that fewer than half (47%) see their organizations as resilient. Thankfully the majority (88%) are confident that, with guidance, they can increase their companies' resiliency and potentially close the gap in the future.

I wish I could tell you that we had a pandemic contingency plan in place before 2020. We didn't. But I won't say that it was just dumb luck, either. We were ready for disruptions because we took the steps to build resiliency into our business strategy.

You don't have to start big to make a difference in your company's ability to pivot when the market demands. Here are three easy ways CIOs can get started.

Close the resiliency gap – Limit your tech debt

SAS is a 46-year-old company. Low-hanging fruit for us included breaking down silos and cleaning up tech debt. Vintage companies – those not born in the digital age – often carry years of technical debt that limits their ability to keep pace with digitally native industry peers. It also hampers their recruiting capabilities. Top talent wants to work at a place where they can become experts in modern tools.

Just because your company was born in the digital age, it doesn't mean you can skip resolving tech debt. It's not unusual for companies to take shortcuts in their rush to get their products and services to market. Just because you've always ignored tech debt doesn't mean you should keep ignoring it. That's a recipe for disaster.

Close the resiliency gap – Lean into your technology

Speaking of top talent, it's important to understand that resilient companies are not dependent on heroes to operate. Twenty years ago, companies had heroes roaming the halls. They talked over the water cooler and solved business problems in break rooms.

That's not how a resilient company operates today. A resilient company today has freedom for its employees. It empowers them to work where and when they want to. And the knowledge of today's resilient company resides in its technology, not in the individual heads of heroes.

When we started thinking about building resiliency into our business, our first acknowledgment was that we had wonderful people who had been with our company for decades. We knew we needed to extract their expertise and enable it through the technology we deployed to run the business.

Close the resiliency gap – Define your critical pillars and prioritize innovation

My last and best advice for executives looking to embed resiliency into an organization is to establish pillars of technology. What are the core technologies that run your business? Is it time to embrace a new solution that pushes your organization forward? Some companies have siloed systems, tech debt, or integration and data transfer challenges. Stepping back to identify the critical technology pillars that run your business helps.

We standardized some technology and continued consolidating legacy systems and bespoke technologies into our big pillars. After consolidating, we elevated those global systems into the cloud to make them accessible and secure for all. It helped remove our dependency on individual heroes and enabled the business to interact freely.

The cloud promotes resiliency

Those are a few of the things the SAS IT division did to support our resiliency. Now, we do the same thing for our customers.

Think for a second about data and analytics. If an individual keeps their models locally on their machine, those insights are only available to that person. No matter how potentially valuable the data is, if it never gets surfaced to a decision maker, the value of that data is zero.

The SAS® Viya® analytics platform creates a commercial enterprise system for the collaboration of all users regardless of their role – business analyst, data engineer, information technologist or data scientist. The Viya platform allows customers to manage their analytic lifecycle. They can see what models have been developed, explain them, and understand the data underneath them.

That's how we help customers get data analytics out of the hands of individual heroes and into the enterprise for all to interact with. And that means that our customers can harness the power of data and analytics to help them outpace whatever market changes are beyond the horizon.

In uncertain times, humans get distracted. But data and analytics help keep humans focused, scale our decision making and move us forward without interruptions. Further enhance your resiliency and build a more data-driven company by ensuring data is available to everyone.

It's not enough to have a disaster recovery or business continuity plan anymore. You need a game plan that ensures your business is future-proofed for tomorrow. Today, the questions are: "Are you prepared to react in the moment? Can you pivot and change the play when you must? Is your business truly resilient?"

How resilient is your organization? I invite fellow CIOs and other leaders to take our resiliency assessment and read our new Resiliency Rules Report.



About Author

Jay Upchurch

Chief Information Officer

As Chief Information Officer, Jay Upchurch is dedicated to helping customers and partners address today’s increasingly complex software and hardware infrastructure challenges. Leading a global IT organization, his charter is to deliver efficient and consistent operations support across all business functions to help accelerate how companies can unlock value from data and analytics. Prior to joining SAS Upchurch was Vice President of Hospitality and Retail Cloud, overseeing the design, delivery and ongoing operations of Oracle’s global Hospitality and Retail Cloud.

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