In his latest guest blog, OC Tanner CIO, Niel Nickolaisen, looks to apply the lessons learned in 2020 to the future.

2020! What a year! COVID-19, work-from-home, economic slow-down, stay at home orders, virtual meetings, Zoom becoming a verb, heated political debates (but no real political conversations), protest marches, social-distancing, and on-line everything.

While I am hopeful for the potential of the year 2021, I am still reflecting on the many things I learned as a technology executive in 2020. I just hope that some of these lessons transfer to the future. If not . . . what was the point of 2020?!

1. Even IT People Need Social Interaction

When the COVID restrictions started, I figured that my team – composed of a range of personalities, but mostly humans who are comfortable living in the absence of social interaction – would be fine working from home and higher levels of isolation. And in the beginning, that seemed to be true. But as a few weeks of working from home became months, and then more months, the isolation became a bigger issue. I could see the strain in the faces and hear the stress in the voices during our online meetings. And so, we decided to get creative.

  • We launched affinity groups that met virtually during the day to talk hobbies and learn from each other (I taught a cooking class).
  • We encouraged everyone to block out time during the day to do something besides work – get out of the house, go for a walk, ride a bike, tend a garden, something  - anything! - to break the routine of sitting in a chair in front of a laptop for an entire work day.
  • We emphasized our new flexibility. As our people became home school monitors, we focused less on schedules and more on outcomes. If someone needed to spend a few hours during normal working hours helping children with their online classes, we told them it was no problem at all.
  • We engaged in “safe” activities, like socially-distanced bring-your-own-lunch to the park.

And we experimented with many other ideas. If we tried something and it worked, we kept it. If it failed – we stopped it.

2. Do ‘Unallowed’ Things

Historically, our company has held to a strict "no work-from-home" policy that we, in IT, found ways to bend. In doing this, we were not prescient about the pandemic; we were just trying to make our teams’ lives better and be more adaptable. In hindsight, this turned out to be the right thing to do.

When our executive team met on a Thursday last March to make the work-from-home decision, the CEO asked me what it would take to move the entire company home. I told him we had the mechanism in place (because we had bent the no-work-from-home policy) but we needed to stress-test our ability to connect and support everyone remotely.

I volunteered to move the entire IT home that day. If the IT team could work from home, we would move everyone else home on the very next day, Friday. When we met again on Friday morning, I was comfortable reporting that we could all work from home, and that afternoon, after everyone went home for the weekend, they never came back.

That experience has taught me to consider what other capabilities we should have that we have never thought we would ever need, and start experimenting with those.

3. There Is a Difference Between Correlation and Cause

One of the biggest mistakes people can make when doing any type of data analytics is to confuse correlation with cause. If we want to make real improvements in our decision-making, we need to connect cause and effect. We cannot do predictive / prescriptive analytics unless we understand cause and effect. 

This has become apparent as I consume the research about COVID. For example, some early COVID research indicated that those with type O blood were less susceptible to COVID. But, did those doing the research isolate the variables enough to know that this is a causal rather than correlated relationship?

In the world of advanced analytics, we need to be able to have enough of the right data sources that we can screen cause from correlation. One of the popular mottos during COVID has been to trust the science. I prefer to trust the valid, correctly-sourced, comprehensive-enough data. Science can change its mind (in fact, it should, otherwise we would still believe that an atom consists only of a neutron, proton and electron) but data should be more solid and lasting – as long as we are analyzing the correct data and using it correctly.

At OC Tanner we are in the employee engagement and recognition business. One of our goals has been to use data to show a cause and effect relationship between employee recognition and employee retention. We have taken a number of approaches to show, with data, the cost benefits of a quality employee recognition program. Each time we ran into the same problem – the data we have is not comprehensive enough to get to cause and effect. There are too many variables whose data we cannot gather – even from our clients (they do not have the data either). So rather than defining some lame, will-not-stand-much-scrutiny analysis, we backed off of our goal to deliver the solid, demonstrable link between employee recognition and retention, and instead, successfully created a more subjective, understandable analysis.

3. There Is a Difference Between Activity and Accomplishment

We used to have a huge backlog of requests for IT services, so we had to get good at prioritization and working only on what is essential. One of the filters we use to define what we will get done is whether the work represents accomplishment or activity. In IT it is easy to be busy any not get anything meaningful done. That is activity. Getting meaningful things done is accomplishment.

What makes something meaningful? Those things that advance the goals of the organization in a substantial way. To know that, we need to be immersed in the processes and strategy of the organization so that we are aligned as to what matters most. Accomplishment matters so much to us that it is one of the primary filters we use to determine what ends up in our portfolio of projects. Unless we can clearly see – and explain to anyone else – how our work advances the cause of the organization, that work should not be on our list.

During COVID, this became real for us in a very personal way. As our sales and profits slowed, we looked for ways to cut costs. But as our project portfolio was reviewed, the company decided that everything we were doing was something that mattered. Thus, we did not cut or slow down any of our IT projects even in the face of budget cuts. If a project is on our list, it is a project the company must have.

I am sure you have all had a range of good and bad experiences and lessons-learned in 2020. I feel wiser for what happened in 2020, but moving forward, I hope that I gain my wisdom in a different, easier way.

CIO lessons from 2020 Covid

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