What lessons can CIOs learn from 2020 – and how can they apply those insights to 2021?

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So, how was 2020 for you? And how is 2021 going to be? Jean-Pierre Green, Executive Search Partner in Transformation, Digital & Technology Leadership at Eton Bridge Partners, hosted a round-table discussion of CIOs. He shares the insights from a wide-ranging and thought-provoking conversation.

For senior figures charged with the smooth operation of businesses, 2020 delivered a series of unprecedented challenges. It is fascinating to look back at the ways in which the world was forced to adapt to a much-changed business landscape – and in this context equally to look forward to the fresh challenges ahead in 2021.

What was the extent of digital transformation delivery in 2020? And what are the prospects for 2021?

 At the start of lockdown, with employees forced to work remotely, there was much made of the rapid adoption of digital technology to support working practice. In many instances, however, progress stalled once Zoom and Teams had been mastered, with a good number of organisations, having seen the feasibility and new importance of remote working, considering that they had embraced digital transformation. This isn’t necessarily true. If the new way of working does not drive a change in customer behaviour then it does not amount to a digital transformation; it is simply an IT, or systems change. Businesses that are truly transforming are doing so by increasing touchpoints with their customer base and deploying a variety of digital tools to create fresh value propositions and drive new revenue streams.  Some companies understood this in 2020 and kept up the pace of digital transformation because they could see it creating a longer-term opportunity. Many others put the brakes on investment as they cut costs to survive and focused on employee effectiveness as a priority.

The advent of Covid-19 threw a harsh light on business processes that relied on human interaction; literally, passing papers from desk to desk. In the new world, such businesses had to change quickly and automate their processes and there were strong examples of companies achieving organisational agility and operational automation through digital enablement.  Such rapid realignment has made digital transformation front of mind for many Boards. In 2021, we could see three years of progress in less than 12 months.

This need and appetite for innovation has led to the emergence of a plethora of business-ready SaaS platforms with highly interesting and new-found capability across the entire commercial spectrum. This presents the chance to adopt new low-code, low-cost, high-capability solutions at speed. For a leadership team with the right mindset, and organisational resource this is the precursor to serious commercial opportunity.  As a counter to this, digital detractors, and overall reticence can stem as much from culture, as cost, and this will be a significant consideration for any transformation journey embarked on in 2021. Similarly, increasing awareness of issues relating to cybersecurity ought to feature highly on 2021’s agenda. The heightened use of online platforms during 2020 means it is essential that cybersecurity is now seen as a mainstream business risk. It should be seen as a strategic, cultural, and behavioural challenge rather than simply a technological one.

How is the role of the CIO and their relationship with the board changing?

One legacy of 2020 is a greater appreciation of the CIO as critical to the business process. There is an increased awareness of the role of technology and how it can enable a business to overcome challenges. CIOs are shifting the agenda from keeping control of IT spend, towards considering the full spectrum of a business’s operating model costs and the impact technology can have on them. Now, it is time for CIOs to become part of a wider narrative and be business outcome and opportunity focused. Instead of going into board meetings with a purely technological agenda, they should carry an understanding of how they can contribute to the growth of a business and leverage the broader digital, data, and technology ecosystems, driving commercial value through demonstrating a vision for the art of the possible.

Indeed, CIOs can play a key role in identifying new opportunities. Covid-19 may have hugely increased cyber risks, but it has also increased the appetite of businesses to take risks more broadly. Boards of agile operations are looking at areas they have never explored before, and the CIO must be central in shaping a strategy and building resilience into it – and not just in delivering technological solutions.

It is often argued that a CIO probably knows its business better than anyone and knows how to drive change and transformation. This encourages the sense that CIOs, having been thrust into the limelight, should audition for a bigger part and spend more time in centre stage.

What challenges lie ahead in 2021?

Inevitably, as people begin returning to offices, there will be the need to create the right working environment – which will include both desk-based and remote staff – and this will present challenges. For all the success of home working, people are missing the social interaction and day-to-day human contact of being at work. As one CIO put it: “Zoom is the wedding photo, real life is the wedding reception.” The common view is that a hybrid working model will prevail. Some companies are already pressing ahead with significantly downsizing their office footprint and it was suggested some were planning to do away with offices altogether and choosing to invest in country retreats instead – with employee wellbeing featuring highly in the debate around work-life balance.

One positive trend that is set to continue is the acknowledgment of the importance of good leadership. Management training has increased hugely among senior figures who wanted to direct their teams remotely; now they will look to maintain and consolidate these better working practices through increased communication in person.

How well are businesses tackling Diversity & Inclusion?

Diversity & Inclusion is a major area of focus for many businesses. Some have appointed directors charged with driving forward in this area; others have boards dedicated to it. There is a key caveat to this; the adoption of D&I has to make a substantial difference to a business. It should not be simply a box-ticking exercise. In practical terms, instead of simply ensuring a certain quota of female leaders or those from minority backgrounds, businesses must ensure a diversity of thought to deliver better outcomes.

One material way in which 2020 opened up some intriguing possibilities is that both partners in a relationship will have been working from home. Should such working practices continue, it will massively empower the partner who had a less demanding job – so as to spend time with their children – to dedicate more focus to their career.

The D&I discussion was a fascinating one, clearly at the centre of each CIO’s agenda, which raised plenty of thought-provoking points. To give it the spotlight it warrants, we will explore this in full depth at a future CIO roundtable.