How CIOs should prepare for a challenging year ahead

Insights from veteran IT leader and author Mark Settle

Just as thousands of businesses are welcoming workers back to the office, they face the real possibility of future lockdowns and other uncertainties in 2021.

How can CIOs apply their learnings from 2020 for the year ahead? We sat down with Mark Settle, a seven-time corporate CIO and author of two IT management books (“Truth from the Trenches” and “Truth from the Valley”) to see how IT leaders can get ahead of the next wave of challenges.

What types of organizations did the best job at responding to the crisis?

Software companies were surprisingly adept at transitioning to work-from-home conditions. They’re almost wholly composed of knowledge workers, and most of their employees had the technology they needed to work remotely. They were surprisingly capable of transitioning their sales, marketing, and customer support activities to home offices, as evidenced by the strong stock market performance of many of these firms.

Industries with large field operations such as construction, retailing, and hospitality struggled to adapt due to the difficulty or impossibility of virtualizing their operations, or due to severe reductions in customer demand.

What have been the biggest lessons for CIOs?

One aspect of their routine operations that was consistently the most difficult to transition was their call center operations. Many call center agents required new equipment to perform their jobs from home, call routing systems needed to be drastically reconfigured, and home network connections were frequently unreliable.

These problems have largely been resolved by now, but most companies simply weren’t prepared for them.

How has the pandemic changed the way companies approach IT strategy?

The crisis has accelerated execution of strategies that already were in place. Expanded use of SaaS applications and cloud-based computing resources are a good case in point. Many companies have expanded adoption of cloud apps and infrastructure, accelerating plans that they’ve had for a long time. Investments in robotic process automation and low-code development platforms have also become popular as a means of automating business processes and improving operational efficiency.

How can CIOs manage potential pendulum swings between people returning to work and future lockdowns? Are there steady-state scenarios they can build around?

I’m skeptical about our ability to predict how people will work after the pandemic. Whenever I hear people proclaim that offices will never be the same again, I seriously question whether we know enough about human behavior and future conditions to make such claims. I don’t think IT leaders can identify steady-state working conditions in 2025 or 2030 based on our collective experience during the past nine months.

With respect to IT spending, you can become better prepared to deal with swings in customer demand by expanding your use of subscription-based services such as virtual desktops, SaaS applications, and serverless computing, along with negotiating contracts with suppliers that ensure you only pay for what you use.

How should companies prepare for the possibility of a second wave of lockdowns?

I would look at the stress test the company experienced during the initial lockdowns and characterize the performance of business operations along four dimensions: How resilient were our core internal processes such as procurement, manufacturing, distribution, retailing, etc.? How efficient were staff members working in different business functions? Were we able to re-engineer our interactions with paying customers on the fly in ways that addressed their needs and concerns? Were we able to provide our business execs with the information they needed to navigate the crisis?

If stress cracks appeared along any of these dimensions, I’d propose IT investments that could bolster operational resiliency and efficiency, maintain customer intimacy, and aid executive decision-making in the event that a second wave occurred.

How should CIOs prioritize those additional investments?

The first question I would ask is, “What needs fixing?” Are there known gaps in IT’s ability to deliver standard services to internal customers? Second, I would look at past investments in new capabilities such as cloud infrastructure, automation, or predictive analytics and ask if IT could produce greater business benefits by scaling out new capabilities that are showing promise.

Many companies fail to realize anticipated benefits from new technologies simply because they don’t scale the implementation of those technologies quickly enough—they spend too much time prototyping and performing proof-of-concept exercises.

Finally, I’d ask myself if I wanted to place a bet on some type of new capability that had long-term promise. In each case, funds could be used to recruit new skills, develop new processes, or buy new tools. But I would challenge my team to fix things first and double down on recent successes before experimenting with one or two shiny new toys.