Editor’s note: This story is part of the CIO Dive Outlook on 2021, a series on the trends that will shape the industry in 2021. For a look at the business trends affecting other industries, see the Dive Outlook on 2021.
CIOs spent 2020 responding to urgent calls for operations support.
They led expedited tech stack transformations to meet surges in website traffic. They guided the rapid adoption of automation in the call center. They upheld the technologies that supported simultaneous work from home at an unprecedented scale.
But what companies need from their CIOs has changed since the start of the pandemic. In 2021, tech leaders will need to shepherd their companies through the known unknowns ahead. Companies will entrust technology leaders with more of the business, and closely tracking business success metrics.
Tech spend contracted in 2020 and Forrester expects a 0.4% contraction in IT spend for the year ahead. IT organizations are still expected to do more with less.
While it's impossible to predict the exact impact 2020 will have on the CIO role, here are five predictions on the changes CIOs face in the year ahead:
An ambassador for collaboration
Digital maturity will determine whether businesses sink or swim. At the core of the changes needed to happen throughout the organization en route to a technologically competent business is the CIO.
In the year ahead, organizations will need to rethink the architecture of the business with the technology capability in mind, according to Irving Tyler, research VP at Gartner.
"The CIO is going to have to take on more leadership responsibilities," weighing in on major business and strategy decisions, Tyler said.
With the spotlight on the capabilities they can enable, CIOs will need to "step up their leadership as they did during COVID-19," said Tyler, alerting leaders to the importance of enabling technology throughout the organizations in a collaborative way.
"We're going to have to think about different ways of working together," he said. "And if we do that, we can really take advantage of technology."
CIO inches closer to the customer
From the pandemic arose a greater company imperative for delivering on customer experiences. Consumers expect more flexibility and a quality experience from businesses.
"So many companies have had to change the way that they deliver," said Matthew Guarini, VP and research director at Forrester. "Because of that, they need to have new approaches to be able to deliver what we call hybrid experiences."
Retailers scrambled to adjust to contactless transactions during the pandemic, from curbside pickup to delivery or in-store pick-up. This trend put new pressures on the existing tech stack, and for some organizations it meant launching those capabilities from scratch.
"A lot of companies just haven't been prepared for that," said Guarini. In 2021, more companies will look to their tech leadership to help enhance that customer experience.
"As those experiences start to change, if you're not able to deliver on them, you're gonna be in trouble," Guarini said.
The WFH enabler
Remote work is likely to comprise at least part of the work week for entire swaths of the workforce, even after the pandemic subsides and vaccines become available.
While a post-pandemic CIO must contend with business and customer pressures, they must also play a role in how organizations codify their remote, on-site and hybrid work models, according to Amy Loomis, research director, Future of Work, at IDC.
"In addition to gaining secure access to technical resources, [CIOs] will also play a key role in supporting technologies that enable employees to navigate between applications," said Loomis.
For organizations gradually bringing their workforce back to physical offices, CIOs will steer the technology that powers initiatives such as advanced employee screening, badging, scheduling, proximity monitoring and contact tracing.
"They will also broaden to far more instrumented buildings with interconnected systems that direct employees to safe workspaces or AI enabled conference rooms," said Loomis. "Hybrid work models will require CIOs to focus on the dynamics between physical and virtual workspaces."
The CIO as a change agent
Change was the keyword for IT in 2020 and there's upside in sustaining that flexibility in 2021, according to Brian Jackson, research director at Info-Tech Research Group.
"CIOs helped their organizations innovate their way to survival during 2020, either shifting huge amounts of business to digital delivery or creating an entirely new business model to generate revenue with current and new customers," said Jackson. "The path ahead remains rife with uncertainty, but the forced experimentation of the pandemic is one opportunity that CIOs should seize on."
As CIOs measure how new digital approaches drive business results, they may not always find good news. "When that's the case they must be ready to pivot to try another new approach," Jackson said.
CIOs grapple with risk
When the pandemic hit, companies scrambled to get their WFH scenarios all set up, said Pete Lindstrom, VP of security research at IDC, speaking on a webinar.
"VPNs were installed, licenses were increased and BYOD programs were set up," Lindstrom. "The forward looking companies also recognized that they're part of a bigger ecosystem. Building trust with partners, suppliers and customers becomes that next crucial step to succeed in times of crisis."
Despite efforts, 30% of CIOs will fail in protecting trust next year as executives fail to find adaptive ways to counter escalating cyberattacks, unrest, trade wars and sudden collapses, IDC predicts.
"It's important for CIOs to recognize that trust is fickle," he said. "It can change on a dime and the goal is to move further into providing a form of resilience. Business resilience ensures that not only are your systems trust worthy, but you'll be there in times of crisis."