Thursday, April 18, 2024

2021 CIO Goals: What Forces Will Shape 2021?

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There are lots of questions for CIOs to consider as they enter 2021, including the impact of a new administration in the United States and the impacts of the COVID 19 vaccine release. These will have clear impact upon both business and IT planning. And these considerations naturally lead to questions.

Is this a moment to get back onto the original 2020 plan? Or have things changed fundamentally in the space time continuum? In otherwords, does 2021 need a fundamentally different game plan than planned for 2020? These were the questions that I posed to CIOs getting ready for 2021.

For CIOs Personally, What Should be Their Top Goal for 2021?

CIOs looked at this question from a number of different perspectives. For many, their answers focused on staying healthy and sane. This included getting vaccinated when appropriate and ensuring the health and safety of those around them (especially their team). It also involved finding new ways to connect with their team and their friends and family.

CIOs were clear about the importance of self-care. This means staying as mentally and physically healthy as possible. For these reasons, former CIO Ben Haines suggests that “2020 [and 2021] have been very much about survival.”

Beyond this, many CIOs are clear that it is important for CIOs to have personal goals especially for 2021. Raechelle Clemmons, Former CIO and CIO Consultant, said, “I advise CIOs regularly and when I first meet with them, I ask them what their goals are for the year — both organizational goals and personal goals. Most cannot answer the latter part.” Clearly, all of us need to think more about how we continue to develop ourselves as managers and leaders.

Digging in, former CIO Wayne Sadin, says that “2021 will be as unpredictable as 2020 was. As things open up, we’ll be moving even faster to seize opportunities.” CIO Deb Gildersleeve agrees with Wayne and says, “2020 was all about working through the disruption, but smart CIOs are not waiting for things to calm down before acting in 2021.” For this reason, CIO Paige Francis says, “CIOs need to embrace the need to continuously rebalance.”

As a part of this rebalancing, Clemmons says she would “love to see more CIOs have learning to lead in the new normal as a personal goal. I think we’ll have to learn how to lead differently moving forward.” In this process, CIO Sharon Pitt says, “CIOs need to start by remembering why they love IT; stay informed; relentlessly communicate; and lead with compassion and grit.”

With this said, management thought leader Tom Peters suggested that “CIOs obsessively focus on the human implications of every decision they make.” Tom went on to suggest that “CIOs ensure their staff includes art majors, theater majors, and other liberal arts representatives—and 50% women is a must. This is my advice to CIOs for 2021. Though it is arrogant to say this, the world would be a much better place if CIOs took this advice.”

What are the Top Three Business Challenges that Need to be Overcome in 2021?

Not surprising, at the top of the list is keeping people safe. For employees this means ensuring the safety of workers as they return to work. It also means protecting the mental health of workers as remote work continues. This will in the end enabling greater flexibility.

The goal should be to support teams with greater flexibility and not getting stuck in a business as unusual mentality. This involves creating a clear path to return to office at the same time as defining the tooling and resources needed for an effective hybrid work model. CIOs believe it is essential to reimagine a workforce environment built on flexibility, inclusiveness and the lessons learned over the last several months. For some, this means building a corporate culture that supports workers in the middle of disruption.

CIO also see the need to refocus upon the business’s customers. This means asking how we can improve the way the organization attracts and retains customers. This by necessity is about fixing things that prevent great customer experience. To do this, CIOs believe their organizations need to start by reconnecting with customers on their needs and how they have changed during the crisis. Personally, I would add fixing customer data issues that prevent the organization from delivering great customer experience.

CIOs see the need at the same time to sustain organizational continuity, which means cost containment and revenue generation. In some cases, this means reimagining the company business model. This can involve thinking and acting differently and improving digital capabilities across the enterprise. For many, including higher education, this can include adjusting the financial model. Higher education is under financial pressure like never before. CIOs there believe it is important to keep around some of the good things they did due to COVID and to not just revert to the way things used to be done.

Additionally, sustaining the business means considering the digital presence for workers and customers. This can include addressing things like generational technology debt. It means as well ensuring cyber security works. It also involves continuing to enable agility within the organization in a scalable way. Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe, concluded this discussion by saying that Constellation’s Research CIO Survey showed that CIOs must help lead the response to three business challenges:

1) Unmet worker needs (mental, physical, IT support, etc.)

2) Progressing at digital transformation of work/customer experience

3) Retention, business continuity and optimization, and safety

What Should be the Three Areas for Investment in 2021?

CIO Sharon Pitt asked, “what’s changed with existing plans. Many planned investments still need to be made. However, some need to be implemented at a faster pace and some need to be implemented at a slower pace. It’s mostly the safety items and the sheer amount of online capabilities that have dramatically changed.”

Meanwhile, former CIO Joanna Young suggests that “CIOs need to be more knowledgeable and be more forceful with colleagues about focusing investment dollars. CIOs know what the capacity is and what priorities are. CIOs should stop planning and start doing top things that matter.”

CIOs felt in total that there were four areas that should make most organizations IT investment lists in 2020.

1) Enabling the hybrid work environment. CIOs say a hybrid work environment requires more of a focus on employee experience. This means better collaboration tools and training in remote collaboration techniques/etiquette. It, finally, involves considering return to work and return to work tooling.

2) Focusing upon customer experience. CIO say this includes putting in place AI/ML solutions for automating customer and employee experiences. And of course, this starts by fixing customer data issues.

3) Modernizing IT. CIOs suggest this involves technical debt elimination, modernization, and improvement. Doing this well often requires the streamlining of services and solutions for effectiveness, ruthless negotiating, and better data security. Meanwhile, security and identity efforts need to move to protecting at edge. Finally, it includes just in time provisioning and of course, moving more and more to the public cloud.

4) Enabling Real Digital Transformation. CIOs believe that doing this involves enabling citizen developers in low code and data to make delivery of value faster to the business.

Hinchcliffe says that delivering upon these requires CIOs to lean into twin shifts. “Workers have moved at the same time as customers have changed their behavior. Responding requires an immediate focus upon digital transformation or there won’t be any business to protect.”

How Does this Year’s Investment Process Differ?

For CIO Deb Gildersleeve, “the process hasn’t changed much but this is different in that it isn’t just a continuation of the previous year. We have to relook at all of our projects and priorities and almost start from scratch.” Hinchcliffe agrees and claims that “everyone has been forced to stop and re-evaluate everything. IT needs to now more than ever be an active strategic partner.”

For this reason, Clemmons thinks CIOs need to embark on a sifting process. This requires that two questions  be asked of every investment: “1) does it solve an urgent pandemic-related or business need? Or 2) is there a demonstratable ROI? Before, it was much more of a ‘everyone gets a small slice of the pie’ method.”

For former CIO Isaac Sacolick, “with my clients, many are still working through too many priorities. Hinchcliffe suggests, “the forced digital transformation of work and customer experience in 2020 remade budgets and priorities across the board. While some are still going in hot on 2021, we’re back to having some control over the process. Digital transformation, data, automation now burning issues.”

What Guidance Would you Provide CIOs Starting Their Planning for 2021?

Joanna Young suggested an important idea. “Planning should not be a point in time or an annual exercise. CIOs should set top 3-5 things that need to be done. And they should get something delivered and move onto the next priority. They should only plan as far as they can see then get on with it.”

Isaac Sacolick agrees with Joanna and suggests “CIOs narrow to one and only one overarching transformational priority and then prioritize MVPs, pilots, and POCs that can shape this initiative.” Here, CIOs should look for ways to deliver smaller wins early which support the larger strategic direction they are trying to accomplish.”

For CIO Martin Davis, this means “being afraid of what could happen, planning as best you can”. In this process, he says, “CIOs should focus on their customers’ needs and drive those. This includes looking for opportunities to deal with technical debt.” At the same time, CIO Dennis Klemenz suggests it is important to “re-evaluate your long-term plan not just for 2021. CIOs should pivot and accelerate if they need but the long-term plan should still be drive budgeting and projects.”

In this process, Gildersleeve says “take stock of what you were able to accomplish in 2020 and how the business has changed, and then invest in continued digital transformation to support these changes.”

Hinchcliffe finds in his research that “many CIOs are now just getting their arms around 2021, given the constant, ongoing operational issues of this year. It is time in this authors opinion for CIOs to heed the advice of futurist Russell Ackoff who said that “planning should consist of the design of a desirable future and the invention of ways to bring that future about. As well, planning should be continuous.”

Parting Words

Former CIO Tim McBreen says that “hopefully, CIO’s did not waste 2020 and are ready to move forward versus restarting their IT department. I have seen too many companies that hunkered down with minimum IT and did nothing to be ready to take off again.” To succeed in 2021, CIOs need personal improvement objectives and organizational objectives that build a corporate future in which their organizations succeed. For many this will be a big change but for the vanguard of CIOs that I work with, they are readying to succeed in 2021. Watch out!


Myles Suer is Head of Global Enterprise Marketing at Dell Boomi. He is also facilitator of the #CIOChat, and is the #1 influencer of CIOs, according to LeadTails. He is a top 100 digital influencer. Among other career highlights, he has led a data and analytics organization.

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