By Pragati Verma, Contributing Editor, Straight Talk

CIOs need to gear up for a major shift this year, if recent predictions by analysts at research companies such as Gartner, Forrester and IDC are any indication. While the analysts’ reports mention familiar technology themes such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing and Internet of Things, the spotlight seems to be elsewhere—changing industry dynamics. Analysts expect economic conditions, new business models and people issues to frame CIO’s role and transformation agenda in 2020. 

Embrace Uncertainty

Forrester’s message to CIOs is to “expect the unexpected” this year. “The only thing for certain about 2020 is that nothing is for certain,” says Forrester VP and principal analyst Brian Hopkins in a blog post. “While that euphemism has been and will remain the CIO’s North Star, in 2020, their reaction must be different. Traditionally, IT leaders reacted to uncertain times by hunkering down and going into efficiency and cost-cutting mode. We think that is a recipe for failure in the current environment.”

Instead, he advises IT leaders to double down on automation, “stepping up to help their firms transform customer and employee experiences, leverage digital without becoming a slave to technology, and harness the explosive power of ecosystems for innovation, disruption, and growth.”

A similar warning comes from Gartner, which foresees “looming disruptions, such as economic recession or data breach,” in its report The 2020 CIO Agenda: Winning in the Turns.  “You can’t read much about business today without coming across the word ‘disruption,’ especially market, economic, trade and political,” says Andy Rowsell-Jones, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “Uncertainty has become the watch word for business leaders. Being digital is no longer enough to manage changing business conditions. We’re seeing most enterprises optimize existing business models for today’s environment, rather than thinking about preparing for the next turn, leaving them exposed when the next crisis hits. CIOs need to take specific actions to increase their organization’s fitness now if they want to grow stronger and more competitive after the coming turn.”

How to be Fit this Year

Ironically, three in every four enterprises are not yet fit enough to come out ahead of the turn, according to a 2020 CIO Gartner Agenda survey that gathered data from more than 1,000 CIO respondents in 64 countries and all major industries, representing about $3.5 trillion in revenue.

So, how can CIOs improve the fitness of their organization in 2020? According to Rowsell-Jones, enterprises should pro-actively align, anticipate and adapt to dynamic business scenarios and try to become fit before a crisis hits. “Although a downturn is not the likely scenario through 2020, the risk is high enough to warrant preparation and planning,” he says. “The research shows that those that prepare are better placed to win in a turn than those that do not. CIOs should actively search for emerging situations that require a change ahead of time and take measured risks in order to prepare if they want to outperform their reactive, fragile counterparts.”

And they might need to act fast, according to IDC’s report Worldwide CIO Agenda 2020 Predictions. It advises CIOs to act fast and move out of their siloed digital initiatives this year. “In this hyperspeed, hyperscale, and hyperconnected phase of digital transformation, CIOs must rapidly transform their organizations to become the Future IT,” says Serge Findling, vice president of Research for IDC's IT Executive Programs.

IDC expects IT organizations to transition from builders and operators to designers and integrators of digital solutions that come to define every product, process and service. Findling says that “while there has been no single 'year of reckoning' for CIOs in the digital era, time for action is growing short, as competitors are accelerating their digital efforts.” He expects 70 percent of organizations to transition in two years.

Spotlight on the Workforce

This new phase of digital transformation and automation will bring some far-reaching changes in technology jobs and teams, according to Forrester. Hopkins predicts three big shifts in how CIOs will “navigate through challenging waters” in 2020. First, he expects talent, culture and organizational issues to rise to the top of CIOs’ agenda. “Leadership teams will look to their CIOs for technology solutions that solve these workforce composition challenges,” he says.

Next, he advises CIOs to be ready for an explosion in data strategy scope. Warning that data programs have created bloated budgets, unmet expectations and program stagnation in the past, he says, “In 2020, we think the bubble will burst, finally, as leaders recognize that success takes effort from the entire company — and that means serious talent transformation across the board.”

Lastly, he expects automation to make some deep changes in their teams. “According to our research, the topics CIOs are most interested in include automation, robotic process automation, and AI technologies — and for good reason. When implemented in the right culture, with the right people and processes, these technologies can help firms unleash the power of their people by transferring monotonous tasks to robots,” Hopkins says. “In 2020, he says that CIOs will turn from planning to action with automation, starting with their own workforce. He expects robots to begin to take over Level 1 support and mundane infrastructure processes this year.

Align with the CEO

CIOs also need to be ready to become a strategic partner to their CEOs. Gartner has identified three major CEO concerns that CIOs must address over the next 12 to 18 months — reglobalization, economic slowdown and digital dithering. “Many boards are asking CEOs to get more returns from digital to counterbalance other difficult business issues,” says Kristian Steenstrup, distinguished analyst and Gartner Fellow. “CEOs think it’s time for digital initiatives to show value. They have been investing in digital for many years, and now expect it to ‘grow up’ and start delivering at scale. If CIOs understand what their CEO needs to achieve, they can shift their agenda to support them.”

As CIOs prepare for the looming uncertainty, one thing is absolutely certain. They have their work cut out for them in 2020—from changing leadership mindsets to guiding their company and its employees through the next stages of digital transformation.

Pragati Verma is a writer, editor, and storyteller exploring new and emerging technologies. She has been a business journalist and managed technology sections at India’s The Economic Times and The Financial Express. Today, she brings the same editorial thinking to thought leadership content designed to engage, entertain, and enlighten readers.