The CIO Playbook for 2021

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As CIOs work through 2021 planning, it is time to move from playing defense to playing offense. The CIO Playbook for 2021 addresses these core areas for CIOs to support this shift. Note that I fully expect this to evolve in the coming year as business uncertainty starts to subside and wrote about this in more detail in ‘As CIO, Preparing for the New Normal’.

The core of the playbook centers around maintaining flexibility while preparing for the next normal. Note that I did not say new normal. The playbook starts with focusing on the business objectives and branching out from there. Technology plays a central role but is not the driving factor.

Now is the time like no other

Before considering the top seven areas in the CIO Playbook for 2021, consider this: There will never be a better time to make dramatic changes to your organization and technology landscape. With revenue down and customers understanding that companies are doing the best they can at the moment, hiccups are often forgiven more than ever. Consider that companies can get a ‘hall pass’ from customers now more than ever. If changes are made and things go sideways, there is an opportunity for recovery. Nobody ever wants that to happen, but it is often a key factor that prevents many leaders from even trying due to the risk. Right now, the risk is relatively low.

The CIO Playbook for 2021: Top seven areas

I have outlined the top seven areas of focus for the CIO along with specific actions to take as part of the playbook.

Preserve Cash: The continued economic uncertainty is leading companies to consider where they can cut costs to preserve cash and/ or redirect funds toward investment in innovation. Areas that are ripe center around data and customer engagement. More on that in a minute.

Action: Review capital and operational budget line items to identify areas that do not directly support core business objectives. Look for areas to delay or eliminate costs. Consider realignment of headcount to support these changes.

Accelerate Digital Innovation: To be clear, this is not a rally call for digital transformation. I dig into the reasons why in ‘Is it time to move beyond the concept of digital transformation’? Look for opportunities to leverage technology to address data through the use of cloud, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Action: Map business objectives to technology initiatives. Identify opportunities to support data and customer engagement.

Focus on Data: Everything is about data. Customer engagement, business operations, projections, ecosystem engagement, the list goes on. At the core of customer engagement and business operations alike is data. CIOs need to center around the business focus and understand how data fits in. From there, how should they refocus technology to support this growing requirement?

Action: Look beyond managing data. Understand business objectives and map data requirements. These often center around two areas: Customer engagement and business operations.

Work Environment: It is clear that 2021 will staff will continue to work from home at least through the first half of the year if not the entire year and beyond. Many organizations have delayed upgrades and some patching due to the risk and complexity of doing so in a remote fashion. At this point, organizations need to engage processes to ensure that remote systems and setups are stable and productive for staff while still protecting the enterprise.

In addition, as we start to exit the pandemic, understand the changed in-office requirements. Organizations are already taking action to cancel leases and reconfigure existing office space to accommodate a work environment that looks nothing like past years. Organizations are already moving away from dedicated office and cubical desks by breaking down existing office space to create smaller offices and more collaborative workspaces. In addition, putting in place scheduling systems to manage office and collaboration space reservations. Essentially, this moves away from dedicated workspaces for staff and more to a ‘hoteling’ process for those times they visit the office and need either a private workspace or collaboration space. 

Action: Plan for a post-pandemic work environment that fully supports remote workers. Consider how office space will change and technology required to support those reconfigurations.

Customer Engagement: The name of the game is customer engagement. In 2018, I wrote about the CIO Ternion Concept and how customer engagement was one of the three focuses for the CIO. The customer is the key to success for any business. Technology plays a central role in that engagement…whether through mobile apps, websites or backend processes. Good customer experiences lead to increased revenue and a champion for your business outside of your own marketing engine. The best marketing and sales for a company is a happy customer.

Action: Understand how the company engages with customers today and in the future. What business objectives are changing this dynamic and how can technology assist?

High Performance Computing: With customer experience and the focus on data, companies need to consider how to analyze the deluge of data. Traditional systems simply cannot keep up with the oncoming data tsunami. I was writing about the data tsunami back in 2014 in ‘Are enterprises prepared for the data tsunami’. New sources of data and telemetry from business operations, mobile, edge and customer engagement are the key drivers to this change. Historically, high performance computing was relegated to academic and research organizations. Those days are behind us and I talk about this in more detail in ‘The case for HPC in the enterprise’. Enterprises will need to consider how to leverage HPC in their core to address the data analytics requirements.

Action: Develop a plan to engage HPC as part of the core to support the data tsunami. This may start with cloud-based services and branch out from there.

Technical Debt and Modernization: This topic is hotly contested. There *are* good reasons to keep older technology in operation. However, over time, it will become more complicated to integrate older technology into more modern architectures. In the past, it was okay to keep these older silos isolated to support a specific process or application. The pressure to modernize and move to more flexible architectures is growing. With the added economic pressures in 2021, enterprises will need to take inventory of their IT estate and seriously consider what makes sense moving forward.

Action: Take inventory of existing IT estate and understand what support core business objectives. Identify opportunities to modernize where it makes sense. Engage a plan to revisit this on a regular basis to reassess. If older systems and architectures are being maintained, clearly articulate why and what the triggers would be to change that direction.

2021 will continue where 2020 left off with little change. CIOs, on the other hand, need to shift strategies from defense to offense. It starts with planning for continued uncertainty while charting a path as uncertainty wanes. Business uncertainty centers squarely on the pandemic. As we get certainty with the pandemic and start to turn that corner, the business certainty will start to follow. CIOs must be prepared to shift as customers and their business does.

Addressing the core issues outlined in the CIO Playbook for 2021 shift the CIO from playing defense to playing offense and puts the CIO (and organization) on solid footing to bob and weave as needed as we all navigate through 2021. 


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