Digital transformation: 3 expectations CIOs can't falter on in 2021

Thinking on your organization's digital transformation goals for 2021? Focus on expectations in these three areas now - to ensure IT shines  at a critical moment
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Rocket coming out of computer to represent moving faster in digital transformation

Expectations have never been higher for CIOs. If you didn’t have the attention of your peers in the business before the pandemic, you do now. This is the moment for CIOs to shine and demonstrate the powerful role IT can play in the future of organizations. 

The challenge and the opportunity is that we must capitalize on the acceleration of our organization’s digital transformation goals while also delivering on all of our other commitments. We must build new business models while also operating our businesses efficiently and effectively in this new virtual environment. We must define new success metrics while doubling down on backup plans. And depending on how the pandemic has impacted our businesses, we may be doing all of this with fewer resources. 

Regardless of what industry you’re in, here are three areas where CIOs must be meeting expectations now to ensure their IT organizations continue to play a prominent role in the year ahead. These goals must also be shared by other executive technology leaders in your organization, including your CTO, CDO, etc. 

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

1. Grow revenue through digital channels

In recent years, IT has played an increasing role in generating revenue for their businesses. Many CIOs have been hungry for the opportunity to move IT from a cost center to a profit center. They have been working hand-in-hand with their business partners to make it happen. Those who haven’t are now finding themselves with the opportunity to step into this advanced role. 

Digital channels were important prior to the pandemic, but for some industries and businesses, CIOs could skate by so long as they were ahead of their competition. Even if that meant your approach to digital was mediocre – you could be perceived at doing just fine. That all changed this year. 

The drastic and rapid shift in consumer and employee habits has shifted expectations for IT overnight.

The drastic and rapid shift in consumer and employee habits has shifted expectations for IT overnight. The reason digital transformation is accelerating so quickly right now for so many organizations is because CIOs no longer need to go around delivering stump speeches about why change needs to happen. We’ve been granted buy-in at every level of the organization. 

[ Read also: Digital transformation: 5 ways COVID-19 is forcing positive changes. ]

This buy-in is shifting expectations in favor of IT and the art of the possible. For CIOs, the opportunity is bigger than getting the green light to enhance digital commerce, enable new systems, or provide new tools to the organization. The focus must be on how we can use technology to enhance our core business capabilities and mapping outcomes to business goals. For example, are you working to grow revenue 5 percent through digital? Then, that’s the outcome you’re driving toward, and everything you do – your people, processes, and technologies – should be tying back to that goal. 

2. Optimize cost

Optimizing costs can mean many things today. Footprint consolidation, for example, includes people, processes, and technology. It could also mean consolidating your showrooms, or even your back-end systems and fulfillment processes. The latter isn’t customer-facing, but it’s still extremely critical to do cost-effectively while keeping quality top-notch. 

While we would have focused on this before the pandemic, today we need to learn to do it more efficiently and as a leaner team.

You, the IT team, the business, and the CEO need to define and agree on what success means at the end of this journey, and in terms of KPIs and metrics. Second is understanding the organizational capacity, ensuring that you have realistic goals, and aligning on the timeline and process upfront with management. 

While we would have focused on this before the pandemic, today we need to learn to do it more efficiently and as a leaner team. Many companies have suffered workforce reductions and we’re distributed across the world with many of us working from home. Many of these conversations aren’t happening in person. These new conditions make alignment and buy-in a little more challenging.

3. Rethink business continuity

Business continuity has always been mission critical for CIOs. Today, however, many IT organizations are operating on back-up plans for our back-up plans. We need a new Plan B in case another unexpected event – such as a cyberattack – were to happen, and we need a new Plan C as a backup to that.

It’s critical that CIOs ensure redundancy across the organization for people, technology, and cybersecurity. You can build the best customer experience, for example, but one cyberattack could cost you your brand’s identity, image, and value. Because we’re all working from home and using various devices, we’re a lot more susceptible to breaches than we were before.

Network segmentation is key in limiting the breadth of a cyberattack, as is education – you’re only as strong as your weakest link. You can have the best security tools in place, but if an employee opens a ransomware or phishing email, your organization is in trouble. While no organization is completely bulletproof, educating the user community and your employees is paramount.

The pandemic was a curveball for everyone; no one imagined it would impact us in the way that it did. It has, however, given us an opportunity to accelerate our digital transformation five or ten years into the future — all in a span of a few months. Living up to these new expectations in our new normal is something CIOs are capable of. Now it’s time to execute.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Usman Waheed is Chief Information & Technology Officer at Knoll, where he is responsible for all aspects of Information Technology, including digital business transformation, IT operations and cybersecurity. Prior to stepping into the CIO role in 2018, Waheed served as Knoll's vice president of Business Transformation.