Massive Operational and ERP Risks in the COVID-19 Crisis

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by Keith Fowlkes, M.A., M.B.A.
Vice President, E&I Technology E&I Cooperative Services – Jericho, NY.
Executive Director & Co-founder, The HESS Consortium
Written for Campus Technology Magazine on 3/26/2020

I know we are all on overload with COVID-19 communications, preparation meetings, remote work planning and, of course, periodic trips to the grocery stores to clean out their supply of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Seriously, it is a time that can take your eyes off your systems and the risks this new crisis introduces to our ERP systems and services.

As you know, this is not business as usual. The developing risks and challenges are plentiful during these unsettling times. In thinking about a shift from an on-site to remote workforce is going to affect many of our institutions. I would like to offer my insights on some of the challenges you may be dealing with in your own operations. If you are not facing these issues today, I believe you will be facing them soon.

Remote workforce equipment and software
As many companies and institutions do, many functional office professionals are using desktop computers for most of their daily work. For those that allow staff people to work from home, the need for work computer equipment is crucial. For those who allow staff to work from home using their own personal home computers, the risks are rampant. Computer viruses, intrusion kits and unencrypted connections introduces a risk to administrative systems like no other time in history. The need for vetted and controlled computer equipment and software environments is paramount in our organization’s remote workplace. A controlled remote computing environment is one of the most important keys to a successful shift to a remote workforce so, as resources allow, provide your people (and students) with protection and resources that assist in their work and protect your systems and networks. It may cost money up-front, but the benefits far outweigh the potential consequences.

Encryption and VPN for remote workers
The need for strong, encrypted connections to organizational networks and systems is more important than ever before. For most of those using cloud-based systems, security and encryption tools are already available to your remote workforce. For many higher education, K12 schools and small businesses who have on-site administrative systems, the risks are massive. Many organizations have no reliable plan for 100% of their staff professionals to work from home. This increased load puts a huge strain on hardware and software systems for SSL and VPN encryption services. For education, many schools are just not equipped to handle the increased load on on-site systems for all of their faculty, administrators and, most concerning, students.
Controlling and managing the encrypted traffic coming into networks and systems should be a concern for every organization today to keep online resources safe. Those organizations with major ERP cloud-based systems should monitor and stay in close contact with their service providers to ensure steps are taken to protect your data and privacy, especially during this time of crisis. Dust off those service level agreements (SLAs) and ask to see up-to-date data privacy and business continuity plans from your solution providers to make sure they have a course of action in case of reduced technical and support staff levels due to illness.
Increased loads on crucial systems

One of the most prevalent questions that I am hearing is – Will my on-premise systems handle the full load of our remote workforce as well as all of our students? One example is educational institutions with open source and on-site learning management software. These types of systems will be seeing the most concurrent use traffic. Others are asking if their cloud-based environment is robust and scalable enough to handle the massive concurrent loads of 100% remote use. D2L (formerly Desire2Learn) is an example of a company offering what they call a “Quick Start Care Package” for K-12 and higher education institutions that have limited or no learning management systems.. This type of outreach is a real community effort that will help so many schools in crisis. Moving resources to cloud-based systems will give institutions more scalability in quickly serving the needs in this historic shift in our workforce and student populations.

Enormous Risks to ERP operations
Many large and small institutions have on-site ERP and other administrative systems. While there are many threats to administrative systems that I’ve outlined previously, there is no greater risk than one – your own people. While there are controls within the workplace to guard against internal and external security and
privacy risks, the remote workplace for many organizations is the wild west. Threats from software viruses, phishing schemes, software conflicts, unauthorized access, confidential file storage on local drives and the ever-present challenge of “my child needed to print their assignment from my computer” are the things that keep IT professionals and leadership up at night. This is the time to take out your policy and procedures documentation, recommunicate it to your users and have strict guidelines on use of equipment, software and systems for your remote workforce. If you are one of the many institutions that do not have one, start one
now! Having clear guidelines and expectations for remote workers and students may be the difference between a safe and smooth transition to remote work and a monumental and public data breach.

Support Services are Key
Lastly, with many institutions going to a 100% remote workforce as well as 100% online learning virtually overnight, support services will be crucial to organizational success over the coming months. Making sure that communication is done well and often as well as making online training and support resources available to everyone is crucial. For many operations where students were being used for general IT call-in support, it is now all-hands-on-deck for IT professionals in all functional areas. Fast, efficient and effective support services with professionals who have the resources at hand to help faculty, students and administrators will be what makes organizations successful in this “new normal.” For many institutions, student technical support will be of the utmost importance, not only to student success but also student retention. 

Remember, IT support may become one of the few links between your institution and your student body during this crisis. It will be important to monitor and quickly assess whether support services can be done with current resources or if outsourcing will be needed to make sure everyone is quickly given the best
technical support.

IT Audits can be helpful
Audit documentation is important but never so important as now. If you have deficiencies in your operational resources, document them and report them in the audit process. Make them known to your colleagues as well as clearly communicating the possible risks to the institution. This is a historic and milestone event in our society that I believe could bring about a paradigm change in the way we do our work. Document the challenges and take copious notes on needs for equipment, software and policies and learn through the change. While this virus will dissipate, the lessons learned may help us all be better prepared to weather the storms in the future.