Inside the new ‘tech normal’: How coronavirus reshaped technology providers’ role

Technology providers were suddenly thrust to the forefront last year as businesses across the world moved online at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cloud technologies, cybersecurity and digital communication became cornerstone buzzwords of remote working, and companies that provided them had to adapt rapidly to businesses’ evolving needs and increased demand.

In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, as part of the Expo Talks’ Travel and Connectivity series, CTO of Cisco Middle East and Africa Osama Al-Zoubi talked about the main challenges businesses faced in adapting to the new ‘tech normal’ and the role of regulators and providers in easing those difficulties.

Osama Al-Zoubi, CTO of Cisco Middle East and Africa.

Expo 2020’s Travel and Connectivity Week is the latest in a series of Expo-led thematic weeks that seek to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

How has coronavirus impacted the region’s reliance on technology?

The pandemic was a hugely challenging experience, but digitisation in this region has played a vital role in helping organisations and individuals navigate through the crisis. The first few months of the pandemic have given us a glimpse into the future. Despite some initial disruption, the situation has not had a negative impact on the Internet. In fact, it is the opposite. It has highlighted the speed at which technology can respond to disruption and the critical importance of a highly resilient, globally scalable infrastructure to keep the world running.

Regionally, there have been have many different interpretations and impacts for each sector of the economy, for governments and for society at large. New experiences have been created for customers, consumers, and employees as well as new priorities for organisations in terms of focus, investments and allocation of resources.

The majority of the region’s companies have included ‘remote work’ in their plans. Apps like Cisco Webex will continue to be an integral collaboration platform for governments to continue to lead remotely, doctors to meet with patients safely, and educators to teach students at a distance. It is clear that the future of work and smart workplaces in the region will involve a combination of remote and on-site interactions, known as hybrid-work.

Digital infrastructures have been strengthened too. We, at Cisco, have been working with our regional partners and customers to establish intuitive network platforms that can respond quickly to any circumstances, enable new operating models and digital services, integrate with IT processes, and safeguard their employees, core activities, customers, and brand.

Cloud businesses have dominated the scene. The unprecedented IT change has accelerated adoption of digital solutions, including cloud technology. The cloud has enabled organisations to quickly adapt in the early months of the pandemic. Ten months later and the applications at the heart of many businesses are highly distributed. Workforces are more mobile than ever before placing unprecedented demand on systems.

The more you expose your company to digitisation, the more cybersecurity tools [are] needed to thrive.

More than ever, cybersecurity has become at the forefront and the awareness about cybersecurity has grown immeasurably in the region. Therefore, Cisco’s focus has been on exploring the ongoing complexity and evolution of cyber threats, to further inform and educate organisations from all sectors on how they need to be secured.

What are the major challenges and concerns posed by this unprecedented adoption of technology for the region’s businesses?

One of the main challenges is cybersecurity. The more you expose your company to digitisation, the more cybersecurity tools [are] needed to thrive. Last year, businesses saw a huge increase in cyberattacks, according to many studies and reports published by Cisco. As more and more networks are being accessed by employees working from home, as well as the challenges from adopting new technologies, cybersecurity becomes increasingly difficult and important.

Data privacy is another challenge. At a time of disruption and uncertainty due to the pandemic, people have been suddenly expected, and at times required, to share their personal information to help curtail the spread of Covid-19.

At the same time, people have shifted much of their lives online, accelerating a trend that normally would have taken years. These mass-scale shifts in human interaction and digital engagement presented many challenging data privacy issues for organisations who aim to follow the law, stop the spread of the pandemic, while also respecting individual rights. Consumers and the general public are growing increasingly concerned about how their personal data is being used.

Finally, there is the challenge of the skills-gap. Business leaders are affected by skill shortages and talent gaps that hinder the rapid adoption of the modern IT architectures needed for agility. Skills that were in demand before are now a lifeline for many organisations and there is a need to address the problem through investing more in enabling their workforce to reskill.

How do you get consumers and businesses to believe that their data is safe when using tech?

According to Cisco’s 2021 Data Privacy Benchmark Study, Europe Middle East and Africa Region (EMEAR) organisations’ budgets continue to grow, hitting $2.2 million this year. The business value associated with these investments also remained high with 71 percent of EMEAR organisations saying privacy investment creates significant benefits in “enabling innovation”. Moreover, privacy legislation in EMEAR has been well received, with the vast majority (88 percent) saying external privacy certifications are a buying factor when selecting a vendor or product to validate personal data properly.

Consumers and the general public are growing increasingly concerned about how their personal data is being used.

Therefore, ensuring data privacy is a collective mission, and one which businesses of all sizes are working towards. Collectively, we need to work together to emphasise that privacy is much more than just a compliance issue and we should look at it as a fundamental human right and a mission-critical C-suite priority. The same can be said for consumers, as our lives become increasingly intertwined with the devices we use, the general public are also becoming more aware of the need to be safe, and this means that they too are considering the credibility of an organisation or device before investing.

What is the role of regulators when it comes to access to technological innovations?

Regulators in the region have been exploring as well as implementing business-led innovation that can help them achieve their core objectives. Competitiveness, the desire for leadership and ambitious visions are the main engine.

With that being said, we at Cisco advise regulators to support the experimentation and testing of innovations, as well as streamlining regulatory approvals for innovators. Since regional regulators have been shaping their objectives definably and measurably, we encourage them to set regulatory challenges to drive and stimulate innovation towards a specific challenge or outcome.


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