COVID accelerated digital transformation and shifted CIO priorities

March 19, 2021
BY Brandon Metzger
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In 2020, CIOs took on an even greater strategic role amid a rapid shift to remote work. This trend will only accelerate in the years ahead.

Nearly a decade ago, Metis Strategy President Peter High coined the term “CIO-plus” to describe CIOs who were expanding beyond their core IT roles and taking on more customer-focused and strategic responsibilities. Fast forward to 2020, when a Deloitte study found that 40% of CEOs see their CIO and tech leaders as the primary partners in driving business strategy, more than all other C-suite roles combined. 

CIOs already played an essential role in transforming their organizations to compete in the digital age, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to alter their strategies and operating models practically overnight. A broad shift to remote work put CIOs even more in the spotlight, giving them a more prominent seat at the table as digital acceleration took hold.  

That acceleration shifted CIO priorities and changed the trends on technology leaders’ roadmaps. In conversations with nearly 100 CIOs and technology leaders in 2020 as part of our podcast, Technovation with Peter High, we observed an increased focus on collaboration tools. Technologies such as cloud, AI, and analytics remained top of mind for many executives, but conversations now focused on business and strategic implications. 

Source: Metis Strategy analysis of Technovation with Peter High podcast

Below, we take a closer look at the trends and insights behind the data and get a glimpse of what’s to come in 2021.

Digital transformation accelerates

Throughout our conversations with tech CXOs, one thing we heard consistently was that the pandemic accelerated the overall shift to digital. “We have seen a massive acceleration in trends we were already seeing,” said Ed Mclaughlin, President of Operations & Technology at Mastercard. “We felt we were about three years away from digital supremacy, [but] that actually happened this year.”

At MGM International, then-President of Commercial and Growth Atif Rafiq noted that efforts to develop a mobile check-in capability were accelerated by nine months. Meanwhile, at Domino’s, Chief Innovation Officer Dennis Maloney shared that the percentage of sales coming through digital channels rose from 65% to 75% as a result of a “massive movement [of] consumers into digital ordering platforms.” 

From internal efforts like the shift to a digital workforce or adoption of best-of-breed SaaS tools to external trends such as the explosion of e-commerce and changing customer expectations, it’s clear that COVID-19 massively accelerated the digital trends that have been gaining momentum for years. Technology executives who recognize that changes they thought were several years away are here today will be the ones best positioned to help their organizations thrive. 

Cloud-based collaboration tools explode

As mentioned above, cloud-based communication and collaboration tools exploded in 2020. Less than 4% of technology leaders mentioned tools like Zoom, Slack, or Microsoft Teams in 2019, but in 2020, nearly a quarter of interviewees discussed video conferencing, chat platforms, and similar capabilities. That was certainly the case at Ally Financial, which hit more than a million minutes per day on Zoom during the pandemic, according to Sathish Muthukrishnan, the company’s Chief Information, Data, and Digital Officer. 

As CIOs remain focused on empowering remote workforces, we expect to see companies accelerate adoption of cloud-based capabilities while strengthening fundamentals such as security, bandwidth, redundancy, and availability. As the “new normal” slowly emerges, CIOs and digital leaders who have successfully enabled employees to turn their homes into an office will then have an opportunity to help define how technology can differentiate the in-office experience and define the vision for a hybrid work experience.

Data, analytics & AI drive automation

Artificial intelligence continues to dominate the mindshare of CIOs and digital leaders. It was the top tech trend mentioned on the podcast for the third year in a row. At our Metis Strategy Digital Symposium in January, when asked which emerging technology holds the most promise for companies in 2021, 60% of the executives responded with “advanced AI.” 

At NetApp, CIO Bill Miller rolled out over 150 software bots to optimize workflows ranging from legal and procurement to HR, supply chain, and customer service. Meanwhile, at Intel, Global CIO Archana Deskus noted how the company is applying data, analytics, and AI to the domains of business outcome optimization, product and service design, and manufacturing optimization. 

As the volume of data continues to explode, opportunities around AI, analytics, and automation will only increase. While we encourage organizations to accelerate their shift to an AI-first business model, it is important to do so while considering the strategic, ethical, and societal implications. At Mars, for example, CDO Sandeep Dadlani is looking to leverage automation not to replace workers, but to reduce menial tasks and empower associates to focus on more meaningful activities. Meanwhile, Bank of America Chief Operations and Technology Officer Cathy Bessant led the formation of the Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence, in partnership with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to explore ethical and policy issues related to AI.

Looking to the future, CIOs and digital leaders who not only understand the technical aspects of data and AI, but also the broader business and societal implications, will be best positioned to lead their organizations’ AI transformation. 

We expect more companies to see results from AI initiatives in the year ahead. We are also seeing an increased focus on the underlying tools and technologies that enable these initiatives and increasing occurrences of companies developing data strategies.

Trends likely to rise in 2021

In addition to the major technology trends noted above, there are a few topics noted by CIOs that are worth mentioning, as they show signts of gaining importance in 2021:   

  • 5G is [almost] here. The wireless standard made our top-10 trends list for the first time as executives expect 5G to enable use cases from edge computing to autonomous vehicles. 
  • 5G is enabling IoT. As 5G becomes widely available, many executives expect the Internet of Things to finally come into its own. 
  • Renewed focus on cybersecurity: The pandemic has dramatically expanded the threat landscape and forced companies to rethink their approach to cybersecurity, with many shifting focus from building impenetrable defenses to using artificial intelligence to accelerate threat detection. 
  • Democratizing quantum computing: While it is not among the top 10 technology trends, a number of companies have begun offering Quantum Computing as a Service. As the barrier to entry for quantum continues to fall, we believe we expect more organizations ramp up experiments while digital leaders begin to identify game-changing capabilities.
  • Pandemic accelerates AR and VR use cases: During the pandemic, companies increasingly looked to AR and VR to provide immersive ways for people to interact with each other and with the digital world. As the technology matures, we expect companies to continue investing in new use cases long after the pandemic ends. 
March 16, 2021

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