It comes as a surprise when something as unlikely as a worldwide pandemic happens. It’s the sort of event that you may prepare for, but will likely never experience. Instead, you think, “Not in my lifetime,” or perhaps “Not where I live.” COVID-19, however, showed us that low probability of an event doesn’t mean its occurrence is impossible.
While South State’s Enterprise Architecture (EA) team did not have individual tactical tasks in the company’s response implementation, the choices that we helped influence are being put to the test. A great deal of credit for the execution of our response goes to various groups within IT and the lines of business that worked together to ensure the safety of our employees and the availability of banking services for our customers. We are fortunate that South State leadership has empowered the EA function to influence the choices we make. These choices are centered on the ability to consistently deliver better technology-enabled outcomes for our customers and our employees. EA’s overarching goal is to ensure that South State continues to develop agility in order to survive and thrive.
The effects of COVID-19
Working from home
Like every financial institution, we had to react to this pandemic quickly. We began executing our business continuity plans to enable remote work for the majority of our non-branch staff. While South State had the capabilities in place to support this transition, several teams from information technology, risk management, and information security sprang into action to ensure continuity as work shifted from our facilities to working from home.
It’s unlikely that an enterprise architect in any organization would say their organization’s response to the event was perfect or seamless. There are tradeoffs to ensure that an architecture is reasonably fit for its purpose depending on the costs and requirements of any architecture. Additionally, there is a human reaction to change and disruption that is difficult to account for. That said, the challenges that we encountered serve as a learning opportunity. Every issue discovered that was not optimal has presented a path to understanding what went wrong, what could have been done better, and once solved, becomes a capability for the future.
Interestingly enough, the fact that we’d previously carried out a disaster recovery planning session under the oversight of our business continuity planning (BCP) team worked in our favor. The topic? A pandemic table-top exercise. Truthfully, I didn’t see much point to the activity at the time. The likelihood of a global pandemic that impacted a bank in the Southeastern United States was about as likely as a meteor wiping out Columbia, S.C. Or so I thought. The exercises our BCP group planned helped prepare us for our reaction to COVID-19 without having to start completely from scratch. The processes were there, and the technology was available. The table-top activities naturally assume that all technology capabilities will scale securely and respond to the needs of our customers and employees during a pandemic. We now had the opportunity to prove they would.
Impact to our customers
We are continually improving our digital capabilities at South State and pandemic or not, encourage our customers to use our digital channels. That said, our mission is to serve the financial needs of individuals and businesses. In times of the pandemic, our goal was to assure our customers that South State Bank was here to serve them in any capacity we could, and their bank, of all things, should not be on their list of worries. Our customers are able to check their balances, transfer funds, send P2P Payments with Zelle® or pay bills via our mobile or online applications from the safety of their homes. We’ve seen our customers continue to leverage our digital channels through this event, and have even experienced and uptick in the use our digital tools. During the pandemic, our mobile deposits have increased by 65% and we’ve also experienced a 30% increase in consumer loan applications online. However, we are also providing drive-thru services for our customers that visit our physical locations.
Life after the pandemic
This event will have a lasting impact across all organizations, including South State. Enterprise Architecture can play a key role in supporting the evolution of an organization in the context of this new normal. Moving forward, I think it’s imperative that EA teams, no matter the industry, are asking themselves these kinds of questions:
- Will this event dictate a yearly remote working window of 3-4 months, i.e., a yearly social distancing season like the flu season?
- What should we do to prepare for this possibility?
- How well do we understand our organization?
- What investments provide the most value for the remote workforce?
- What are the weaknesses of our internal processes?
- What are our key risks?
- How do we reasonably plan for the unknowns that come with the new normal?
EA was built to answer these questions. It’s my hope that EA teams approach this event with a renewed sense of opportunity and use whatever lessons learned from this experience to improve the posture of their enterprise.