IT Leaders in 2021: Great Expectations

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

During times of great uncertainty, leaders are always tested in ways they never imagined. Can they effectively surmount the external threats to the organization while keeping people committed and engaged with priorities? Back in March 2020, leaders were reacting — as swiftly as they could. Many were positive that the pandemic would disappear as quickly as it appeared and business and personal life would go back to normal.

In early July, when it became apparent that this was not going to happen, leaders had to come to terms with the fact that we would all need to adapt to a new way of living and working with the virus for the foreseeable future. Now, progressive IT leaders are moving beyond acceptance and coping to taking positive action.

Whether it's early, mid or late 2021, there will be a recovery and IT leaders are expected to play a pivotal role in preparing businesses and organizations to come back strongly from 2020.

Take initiative now to recover later

Whether it's early, mid or late 2021, there will be a recovery and IT leaders are expected to play a pivotal role in preparing businesses and organizations to come back strongly from 2020. IT leaders will need to choose carefully where to invest in the coming months to help their organizations bring value to customers now and accelerate growth in a post-pandemic world.

Here are the broad initiatives that business leaders should embrace and that IT leaders need to align with immediately:

  • Support and enable revenue-driving activities
  • Maintain employee productivity and corporate security during ongoing remote work.
  • Retain necessary operating budget without affecting profitability and the bottom line.
  • Reduce technical debt which may be hampering the bottom line and future grow
 

2020: The Year That Changed Everything (including IT)

Digital transformation is no longer optional with remote work becoming a long-term trend:

  • Recent research from PWC indicates that "most office workers (83%) want to work from home at least one day a week, and half of employers (55%) anticipate that most of their workers will do so long after COVID-19 is not a concern." The pandemic has also amplified the criticality of superior digital processes, with recent surveys showing correlations between sophistication in digital processes and customer satisfaction. 
  • These are times of great expectations for IT leaders. Some will have only one chance to get it right. But how can you ensure high productivity and excellent customer experiences with cost conservation a top priority? Most CIOs (86%) report that they will maintain and even increase IT spending, given current demands for automation, collaboration tools and cybersecurity, according to a recent survey by Sapphire Ventures.

Below, I've laid out some ideas for IT leaders in any industry to manage confidently through the pandemic and beyond.

Adapt to survive and grow.

If you take a look across different sectors, the pandemic has had divergent impacts. For those industries that have borne the brunt of the pandemic, such as hospitality, travel and retail, the way products and services are delivered and managed for customers has changed dramatically. Online experiences have overtaken physical ones, and safety and health for both employees and customers are center stage. 

For instance, we're seeing rapid growth in contactless technologies for payments, restaurant ordering and food pickup. In sectors that have not been as negatively affected by Covid-19, such as telecom, technology, life sciences and financial services, business and IT leaders have faced declining market demand as budgets have tightened and customer needs have changed. This has resulted in a focus on operational efficiency as well as the creation of new offerings to maintain revenues.

Let's take remote work, which has created a plunge in demand for office space. Property owners and operators could invest in smart building management capabilities to encourage businesses to renew leases. In another example, one of my company's customers, LifeSouth, introduced a new service for antibody testing to encourage nervous blood donors to keep visiting its donation centers.

Cleaning house is an important initiative which all IT organizations should be doing right now to align with changing priorities and in many cases, smaller or static budgets.


Clean house to move forward.

Technical debt is a real problem, and one which I've written about previously. Technical debt makes it difficult to accomplish many of the above initiatives — it impedes flexibility and agility. Shadow IT has made this problem more difficult. In other cases, companies have a lot of tools because, well, IT people and developers like them. Yet having lots of tools when all cannot be rationalized is expensive. People must be able to maintain them and use them regularly to get ROI. And with too many tools and legacy applications, enterprise IT organizations have too much data to normalize, cleanse and integrate. Cleaning house is an important initiative which all IT organizations should be doing right now to align with changing priorities and in many cases, smaller or static budgets. Get the right IT infrastructure in place, and the best tools to manage it, so you don’t have to say no to the business when new, revenue-generating needs arise.

Take care of your people.

During times of ongoing stress and uncertainty, leaders must keep a regular pulse on employee morale. Meaningful and empathetic communications is table stakes. All-hands meetings are empowering, but so are smaller forums where teams can share information and concerns casually or collaborate effectively in remote working sessions. My company instituted wellness holidays during the summer to give employees an opportunity to relax and get off the grid. Another popular idea that we instituted is "virtual open office hours," where people can drop in to share ideas and updates across departments. The year 2020 will be one we'll never forget: leaders have an opportunity now to make lemonade from this basket of lemons. Staying positive, compassionate and future-looking with sharp attention to costs and outcomes are the ingredients for success in 2021.

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