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The COVID-19 outbreak, first and foremost, is a profoundly tragic event. It has now affected millions of people around the world and the ensuing effects are likely to define much of 2020. The economy, for example, has been affected with stocks losing billions in value during the first two weeks of March alone.
Most organisations will be aware of the need to develop strategies that will help them navigate unstable fiscal terrain but few will consider how they will be affected from a technical standpoint and plan accordingly. With tech so often integral to success, though, this is likely to prove detrimental to their recoveries.
How is the coronavirus outbreak likely to affect businesses from a technological perspective and how can they prepare? Further, what practices can they adopt – whether existing or close to release – to be better prepared for such events in the future? The answers to both questions are likely to change as events play out and the picture becomes clearer, of course – and further insights will be released accordingly. These, though, reflect our current outlook (as of the 13th March 2020). This piece will also be updated as events unfold.
In recent weeks, vendors of video conferencing tech have ramped up their marketing efforts. Mindful of the fact that the widespread adoption of remote working practices will open up numerous possibilities, they have offered free trials, additional features at no extra cost and more.
Indeed, whilst the majority of stock prices have been adversely affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Zoom Video Communications share price stands at $109.47 at the time of writing (13th March 2020), an increase of $19.61 in one month.1
Vitally, collaboration technology – video conferencing solutions, in particular – will allow organisations to maintain personable relationships with their clients whilst still restricting travel. The benefits of such communications cannot be underplayed and are certain to play a big part in client retention rates.
A significant portion of devices and the components that are used to make them are manufactured within countries that have been acutely affected by the outbreak. This is likely to result in a shortage of various key tech resources and, as demand begins to outstrip supply, the cost of this technology is certain to rise.
Storage media is one essential that is likely to get more expensive. Samsung and Toshiba were collectively responsible for 38.7% of Solid-State Drive (SSD) shipments in the first quarter of 20192. Both produce the vast majority of their SSDs in China and South Korea. The former is, of course, where the outbreak began and, at the time of writing, has 80,932 confirmed cases. South Korea has 7,869 cases, the fourth-highest recorded total.
Hard Drive Disk (HDD) production could also be hindered. In 2018, 243 million HDDs were exported from Thailand, accounting for 82% of all shipped worldwide.3 Thailand have reported a relatively low number of confirmed cases (70) but the virus has adversely impacted tourism in the area which, according to figures collected in 2016, generates as much as 17.7% of the country’s GDP.4
In 2019, approximately 40 million tourists arrived in Thailand, with close to 11 million of these having come from China, totalling 27.6% of all arrivals. This is certain to have a considerable impact on the nation’s economy and, in turn, its production capacity. Again, this could lead to a scenario where fewer HDDs are produced and the cost of them growing as a result.
A significant portion of further resources such as desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones etc. are produced within China. Businesses would be wise to review their existing portfolio of tech resources and, wherever possible, prolong their usage rather than replace them at predetermined intervals. They should also consider a data audit to free up storage space wherever possible. Finally, virtual storage should be sought now and contracts signed prior to costs increasing.
Over the coming months, more and more people will be practising self-isolation. In turn, this will result in an increasingly large number of people working remotely – and subjecting their employers’ networks to additional strain.
With unprecedented levels of external users accessing networks, these resources will be pushed to their limits. It would be advisable that organisations stress test their networks as soon as possible in order to determine their capabilities and address deficiencies that may prevent their employees from performing remotely.
The European Central Bank recently recommended that banks review their cyber security solutions in anticipation of increased activity from cyber criminals looking to exploit the coronavirus outbreak.5 This advice is thoroughly sound as the practises organisations need to adopt to enable remote working open them up to potential attacks.
As more employees are asked to work from home and access networks remotely, cyber criminals will be able to target users – and devices – that are isolated. Personal devices are typically not as well maintained as those managed by professional organisations and, as a direct result, are usually less secure. When these devices join networks, they therefore create security deficiencies that cyber criminals can exploit.
Nefarious digital actors will do more than exploit technical paucities in employees’ personal devices, though. Phishing attacks that have seen cyber criminals mimic the World Health Organisation offering vital information on COVID-19 in order to install malware on devices have already been identified.6 Organisations would be wise to anticipate similar attacks in the future.
COVID-19 has affected manufacturing supply chains across all conceivable industries. Moving forward, organisations will need to learn from this and consider the numerous ways in which tech can reinforce supply networks.
Advanced analytics and big data can, for example, be used to develop feasible contingencies and alternate sources of raw materials that can be implemented rapidly when required. The findings that can be gleaned from considering large sets of salient data can reveal risks such as an over-reliance on a single supplier or provision and aid the development of more diversified practice.
Automation can be used to enable multiple processes that require little to no human involvement. Whilst this could potentially address manufacturing shortfalls, the task of moving products from one point to another remains one where human involvement is essential – but for how long?
Self-driving vehicles have been in development for several years and, whilst there have been setbacks and accidents, their use could be eminently practicable in a world where the majority of us opt to stay inside. Loughborough University’s Professor of Human Factors in Transport Safety Andrew Morris has noted that current autonomous vehicles are more than capable when operating outside of unpredictable urban environments.7 Under circumstances where human activity – and therefore the majority of unpredictable behaviour – was significantly diminished as a result of voluntary isolation, autonomous vehicles could operate efficiently. The fact that manufacturing hubs are typically located on the fringes of urban areas instead of within them makes their use even more feasible within such an environment.
Solutions for organisations whose models utilise transcontinental travel are also closer to fruition than you might expect. A joint paper produced by Rolls Royce Marine and the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative noted that the technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships already exist and that it is entirely reasonable to presume that they could be used in commercial settings shortly.8
The coronavirus outbreak has affected hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. Businesses, too, have been impacted by its emergence. The global economy stuttering – as exemplified by capricious markets – serves as a clear example.
Careful consideration and planning can provide the business community with the foundations required to catalyse economic recovery. Determining the digital challenges that they are likely to face and creating contingencies will aid a return to stability that can be leveraged to resume growth.
Furthermore, lessons must be learnt and change adopted to enable more flexible and robust practices, logistics models and supply chains that are more able to address such challenges in the future.