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By Pragati Verma, Contributing Editor, Straight Talk

2020, a year of unprecedented challenges for almost every business leader, brought CIOs under the spotlight. They have captured their CEO’s attention like never before, whether the topic was supporting a remote workforce or speeding up digital commerce.   

Almost two-third (61 percent) of CIOs say that their influence has increased as a result of the pandemic, according to the Harvey Nash/KPMG 2020 CIO survey that polled 4,200 IT leaders across 83 countries.   

There’s no Going Back  

IT leaders will continue to play a transformational role in addressing strategic business priorities if the 2021 Gartner Board of Directors Survey is any indication. Digital technology initiatives emerged as the top strategic business priority for the board of directors over the next two years in the survey conducted across the US, EMEA, and APAC.  

“They now have the attention of the CEO, they have convinced senior business leaders of the need to modernize technology, and they have prompted boards of directors to accelerate enterprise digital business initiatives. CIOs must seize this moment, because they may never get another opportunity like it,” says Andy Rowsell-Jones, distinguished research vice president at Gartner in its report 2021 CIO Agenda: Seize This Opportunity for Digital Business Acceleration.  

In a webcast, IDC’s vice president of research Serge Findling agrees that CIOs need to build on the momentum and continue to be involved in higher-value, more strategic initiatives. “If you think that the last year was too fast,” he says, “fasten your seat belts — the next five will be even more disruptive.”   

And as CIOs run faster to digital in 2021, Rowsell-Jones advises them to get ready for a new phase of the race this year. In a podcast detailing the 2021 CIO agenda report, he compares IT implementation to a track and field event. “2020 was like an obstacle course, where you had to cross tough and unexpected barriers. And once you jumped over a hurdle, you have another one set up for you,” he said. Although 2021 should be “a little flatter,” it won’t be without barriers: “It’s more a story of looking ahead and setting yourself up for future hurdles, rather than just looking at the finish line and racing for it.”     

The New IT Imperative  

Unsurprisingly, CIOs need to adapt and change their strategy for the new landscape. Gartner research vice president Brian Burke offers simple advice in a special report, Top Strategic Trends for 2021: ”Focus on the three main areas that form the themes of this year’s trends: people centricity, location independence, and resilient delivery.” In the same report, Gartner has identified the Top 9 technology trends that it predicts will shape enterprise innovation in 2021 and beyond:  

Internet of Behaviors captures the “digital dust” of people’s lives from a variety of sources such as facial recognition and location tracking, and then connects that information with associated behavioral events, such as cash purchases or device usage.  

Total Experience combines traditionally siloed disciplines such as employee experience and user experience, and links them to improve the experience of multiple constituents.    

Privacy-Enhancing Computation, unlike common data-at-rest security controls, protects sensitive data in use while maintaining secrecy or privacy.  

Distributed Cloud is the distribution of public cloud services to different physical locations, while the operation, governance, and evolution of the services remain the responsibility of the public cloud provider.  

Anywhere Operations is an IT operating model designed to support customers everywhere, enable employees everywhere, and manage the deployment of business services across distributed infrastructures.  

Cybersecurity Mesh enables anyone to access any digital asset securely, no matter where the asset or person is located.  

Intelligent Composable Business radically re-engineers decision-making by accessing better information and responding more nimbly to it.  

AI Engineering will facilitate the performance, scalability, interpretability, and reliability of AI models while delivering the full value of AI investments.  

Hyperautomation is a disciplined approach to rapidly identify, vet, and automate as many approved business and IT processes as possible.   

The Winning Formula  

Obviously, not all technology leaders will be able to thrive or even survive in the new landscape. In a blogpost, Forrester VP and research director Matthew Guarini predicts that 20% of the Fortune 500 companies are not going to make it through 2021 whole. “The pandemic revealed the flaws in many companies’ technology and their lack of adaptivity and resilience,” he warns. “Panicked by the pandemic, these companies and their tech leaders were found mired in Band-Aids like tech modernization, simplification, and consolidation. And, because of it, the end game will not be pretty — for some, their assets will be dissolved or purchased; others will just go out of business,” he warns.   

According to Guarini, three traits will separate winners from losers. First is their “ability to continually adapt to changing conditions and reconfigure their companies to capture new opportunities.” The second is their resilience. And lastly, they will creatively combine humans and machines to unlock new opportunities. “We call the combination of adaptive, resilient, and creative a future-fit technology strategy.”  

Whether that is the precise formula, a “future-fit technology strategy” is a goal that should inform even day-to-day decisions that CIOs make throughout 2021. 

Pragati Verma is a writer and editor exploring new and emerging technologies. She has managed technology sections at India’s The Economic Times and The Financial Express.