CIOs Brace for 2021: A Bumpy Ride With Lots of Opportunity

How can CIOs help their organizations compete in 2021? Here's a look at the challenges ahead and the traits you need to succeed during what will be a bumpy year that is filled with opportunity.

Jessica Davis, Senior Editor

October 28, 2020

5 Min Read
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While 2020 won't likely rank on the list of best years ever, for IT leaders there really have been some silver linings. Maybe that's because the huge unexpected disruption of the year -- a pandemic that changed market demand, supply chain, and where and how we all work -- shined a spotlight on how technology and IT are engines that keep an organization functioning, even in the worst of times.

At this point so many CIOs can talk about how they moved entire workforces to home technology setups over the course of a day or two. They fortified their VPNs, acquired laptops and other equipment, and put together remote collaboration strategies.

Still others focused on the customer. For instance, consumer-facing businesses had to shift their sales operations from storefronts to online electronic commerce.

Those that had invested in digital transformation and the cloud found themselves ahead of the game. All things considered, 2020 was a year that showcased the CIO as a hero of the enterprise.

For more on how CIOs can succeed in 2021 read:

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Now as we get set to leave 2020 behind and head into 2021, will IT leaders continue on the same path? What surprises will this new year have in store for CIOs?

There may be some bumpy patches ahead for some organizations, according to a new CIO-focused study from Forrester Research. Yes, CIOs helped their organizations pivot to work from home and digitized things that had never been digitized before, VP Research Director Matthew Guarini told InformationWeek.


"The challenge is that it's only going to take companies so far," he said. "You will start to see the holes emerge over the next 6 to 9 months. That's why we think some companies in the Fortune 500 are going to have to adapt or they will lose market share, divest certain business lines, and some businesses may even just shut down."

The new Forrester study, Your Future Fit Technology Strategy: Adaptive, Create, And Resilient, looks at the organizations that emerged successful from three different major crises -- the dot-com crisis, the financial crisis, and now the pandemic.

"That is the foundation of where we started," Guarini said. "What happened in the dot-com crisis? Certain companies came out of that just fine...What is it that helped people come through and be successful?"

Forrester examined those successful companies and found three big traits they shared. They are being adaptive, creative, and resilient.

Some companies that start to notice those holes in their strategy are likely those that had a limited focus during the crisis and were just trying to get through to the next day, Guarini said.

"They weren't really thinking about how to be adaptive and creative and to seize the next opportunity," he said.

Another big trend for 2021 is that the CIO role is increasingly fractured. Over the years, new roles have been carved out, including the chief information security officer, the chief digital officer, the chief data officer, and the chief technology officer, to name a few.

"We continue to see a fragmentation of the CIO role," Guarini said. However, there may be some companies that look to pull together the business and technical side of things from an operational standpoint, he added.

CIOs will also put more of a focus on customer experience and employee experience. The pandemic has changed the way companies reach their customers and improving that experience will be an important priority.

There will be a similar focus on employees, too, according to Guarini.

"When things settle down you will have 3-times the number of home workers that you had pre-pandemic," he said. That means everything has shifted. It used to be that the people in the office had an advantage over the people dialing into a conference call.

"Now, with more people working from home, things have evened out," he said. "Extroverts no longer have the advantage. People who are working from home have seized the opportunity."

One potential development that may come toward the end of 2021 is the idea of a virtual office, similar to a Second Life kind of setup. It may make sense for existing office collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack to offer this kind of functionality as an extension to the suite of tools they already provide.

Common threads for 2021

Forrester also offered the following predictions in its CIO study:

  • Future fit tech will spark innovation and spawn new startups. The company said that more adaptive and creative companies will be able to automate more of their everyday work, which will free workers from routine tasks so they have more time to help their organizations differentiate.

  • Open source will accelerate innovation around platforms. Expect the creation of ecosystems of vendors that will help customers specialize and customize around verticals.

  • Upstart vendors will upend the market with new pricing models and industry focus. Forrester predicts an emergence of upstarts focused around verticals such as financial services, healthcare, and life sciences. These companies will disrupt the market for dominant players that move to slowly to compete.

  • Late adopter firms will outsource entire business functions and strategies to partners. Forrester predicts that up to a third of companies will outsource or create new joint ventures in sectors lagging in SaaS adoption, such as retail and insurance.

  • A tech trade war will force firms to leverage hybrid ecosystems. Geopolitical trends will complicate ecosystem partnerships, relationships, and deep integrations. That means tech leaders will need hybrid global and regional ecosystems.

All these trends point to a bumpy 2021, but one that is also full of opportunity for CIOs and IT leaders who are prepared to seize the opportunities provided by these significant changes and disruptions.

About the Author(s)

Jessica Davis

Senior Editor

Jessica Davis is a Senior Editor at InformationWeek. She covers enterprise IT leadership, careers, artificial intelligence, data and analytics, and enterprise software. She has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology. Follow her on twitter: @jessicadavis.

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