Digital transformation teams in 2021: 9 key roles

Defining your organization's digital transformation team for 2021 will be especially important as companies speed up work amid the pandemic. Data, cloud, and security expertise are hot – but don't shortchange UX.
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Digital transformation 2021

A number of factors are converging to supercharge the enterprise drive toward digital transformation in the year ahead. First, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the speed of work and adoption of cloud-based and remote work solutions. Second, organizations face increased pressure to improve customer and employee experiences. Finally, emerging technologies ranging from AI to AR are moving into production use in more organizations.

As a result, there will be increased focus on digital transformation in 2021, with specific focus on digitizing core processes and systems; building resilient operations, applications, and infrastructure; driving data-driven decision-making and culture; and cybersecurity, says Nisha Krishnan, senior analyst with management consultancy and research firm Everest Group. “There will also be a strong focus on driving personalization to understand fast-changing customer expectations.”

Data analytics and cloud figure prominently in digital transformation plans in 2021.

Data analytics, cloud, and platforms will be the major areas of focus for IT groups in 2021, says Steve Hall, partner and president of global technology research and advisory firm ISG. “Data-driven strategies (API-first) will lead the investment areas in 2021, followed closely by projects to accelerate workloads to the cloud,” Hall explains. “Cost optimization and cost reductions will continue to be drivers for many enterprises, but we are already sensing increased optimism as vaccines come to market.”

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

Those priorities will demand certain skill sets and capabilities going into the new year. Defining the key digital transformation roles for the year ahead will be especially important since the acceleration of digitization comes with complications as well.

“While technology will continue to transform most industries, there will be challenges pertaining to changing customer expectations, change management (people, process, and technology), the regulatory environment, and talent availability and readiness,” Krishnan says.

9 key digital transformation roles for 2021

Experts call out nine roles that will be critical for digital transformation efforts in 2021. (For more on some other important DT talent, check out Digital transformation: 9 emerging roles you need on your team.)

1. The enterprise data architect or chief data officer

“Data analytics is a good place to start with any transformation, to make sound decisions and design the proper solutions,” says Carol Lynn Thistle, managing director at CIO executive recruiting firm Heller Search Associates. One foundational IT position is the enterprise data architect or (in some cases) a chief data officer. These highly skilled professionals can look at blueprints, align IT tooling with information assets, and connect to the business strategy, Thistle explains.

“Architecting an API-first strategy that includes defining internal and external APIs and microservices will require better integration between multiple organizations within large enterprises and a strategy to rapidly expose data to internal and external uses,” says Hall of ISG.

“Data scientists who understand how to connect the dots and unlock actionable insights will continue to be in high demand,” Hall adds. Those organizations without a key data leader may “turn to the gig economy to develop complex data algorithms and develop partnerships with niche firms focused on industry-specific solutions.” 

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

2. The database administrator

“Data migration is happening right now and at a large scale,” says Marc Caruso, chief architect at managed cloud provider Syntax. As organizations embrace increasing platform-as-a-service, the good old database admin will be clutch. “While PaaS solutions provide some great benefits, the database admins will still be needed in 2021 to monitor and manage those systems and work with application teams to drive efficiencies in performance, availability, and security,” Caruso says.

3. The business process expert

“Digital transformation is about automation of business processes using relevant technologies such AI, machine learning, robotics, and distributed ledger,” says Fay Arjomandi, founder and CEO of mimik Technology, a cloud-edge platform provider. “Individuals with business knowledge that can define the business process in excruciating detail. This is an important role, and we see a huge shortage in the market.”

COVID-19 has cemented the need for agile systems available from anywhere. Thus, analysts who can document the current workflow of data and operations in a business and design a new workflow based on remote collaboration tools will be in high demand, says Keith Sims, president of Integrity Resource Management and a member of executive recruiting network Sanford Rose Associates. They can help free the company from the need to share physical space and even the same time zones to deliver for customers and major corporate initiatives, Sim says.

4. The chief digital officer

“[Organizations need] a digitally savvy person at the CXO level who will help other executives buy into the culture change that will be required to truly transform the organization into one that is digital-first,” says Mike Buob, vice president of customer experience and innovation for Sogeti, the technology and engineering services division of Capgemini.

Chief digital officers lead digital initiatives from the front, says Thistle of Heller Search. The preference is to have these leaders report not to the CIO, but the CEO, adds Thistle, noting that some CIOs are taking on concurrent roles as the CDO as a progressive career opportunity.

5. The cloud architect

“As businesses try to accelerate their digital transformations, enterprise IT will continue moving applications to the public cloud,” Nutanix CTO Rajiv Mirani says. “But the costs of refactoring and rewriting applications will be larger than many enterprises anticipated. Enterprises will look to technologies that enable phased approaches, rather than big-bang style projects.”

[ Learn the non-negotiable skills, technologies, and processes CIOs are leaning on to build resilience and agility in this HBR Analytic Services report: Pillars of resilient digital transformation: How CIOs are driving organizational agility. ]

In addition, IT will continue providing security, business continuity, and disaster recovery for all applications, including cloud-native applications. That will elevate the need for professionals who can “cut across IT silos of networking, compute and storage, build hybrid infrastructures leveraging both public and private clouds, and leverage emerging cloud-native technologies are instrumental to digital transformation,” Mirani says. “Look for generalists who can span multiple skill sets rather than specialists in only one area.”

Let’s look at four more roles to prioritize:

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.