IT leadership: Top 5 challenges to expect in 2023

Inflation, a potential recession, and ongoing security threats are just a few of the challenges IT leaders face in the coming year. Here are five trends to watch
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Every year has challenges that impact IT strategy and priorities. Some can be identified and planned for at the start of the year, while others can materialize anytime. As an IT leader, investing in outside-in learning and dialing your active listening skills to identify the signals of the upcoming year’s risks and opportunities is essential.

Some of this year’s signals include inflation, the likelihood of a global recession, and ongoing supply chain risks in many industries. Many companies have laid off employees, and CIOs must find ways to help employees feel safe as we head into another year of uncertainty.

Cybersecurity challenges include a 33 percent increase in ransomware attacks in 2022, and CISOs have ongoing challenges combatting malware, phishing attacks, and security threats related to hybrid work.

[ Also read 13 tech predictions for 2023. ]

And if you thought the pressure to accelerate digital transformation was letting up, think again. According to one study, customer experience and developing new products remain top board priorities, and 46 percent of transformation plans include new products, services, or revenue models.

These trends suggest a challenging year for IT leaders balancing the need for speed and safety, growth and efficiencies, and leading transformation to avoid longer-term disruption.

Here are five challenges to focus on as we head into 2023.

1. Balance cost-cutting and innovation priorities

Leaders might read the financial trends and focus 2023 on cost-cutting initiatives such as automation programs, modernizing infrastructure, or platform consolidations. But transformations must go beyond cost efficiencies and tactical customer experience improvements.

Digital transformation programs should include developing new products, growing digital sales channels, and delivering new AI/ML capabilities, and these are generally multiyear investments. Taking your foot off the gas pedal in 2023 while competitors continue to invest is a recipe for disruption.

I recommend prioritizing force-multiplying programs that target multiple business outcomes. For example, a program for growing revenue with a new e-commerce website can also deliver automations and integrations across marketing SaaS platforms that deliver cost efficiencies. In IT, DevOps investments to improve customer experiences and using CI/CD to increase deployment frequency can also enhance quality by instituting continuous testing.

2. Retain, train, and empower transformational leaders

Don’t cut the training budget or provide fewer learning and development opportunities. This is particularly important if you want to increase the velocity of your digital transformations and demonstrate business impacts in a year where executives are prone to cut back on innovation budgets, learning programs, and leadership coaching.

Spend more time learning about market changes, talking to customers, and partnering with business leaders on growth and operational plans. That means less time overseeing architecture, coaching agile teams, driving DevOps standards, or improving data governance.

Also, retain and develop a team of aspiring transformation leaders – what I call Digital Trailblazers – to lead initiatives and drive transformational outcomes. One way to empower them is to double down on low-cost experiments and fast proofs of concepts (POCs) that align with force-multiplying programs.

3. Develop self-organizing standards in agile, DevOps, and data

A significant challenge for all IT leaders over the last two years was how quickly, efficiently, and intelligently they responded to the pandemic, hybrid work, and other game-changing world events. Going into 2023, it is the first time over the last three that IT teams can shift from being highly reactive to developing and executing more proactive and strategic plans.

But many IT organizations struggle with planning. Some agile teams barely do just-in-time planning, where they draft user stories and prioritize right before sprints start. Others attempt quarterly planning, only to find it too slow and hard to orchestrate in a hybrid work model. Some leaders now recognize that quarterly planning is ineffective given the many unknowns in developing customer experiences, applying new technologies, and performing data discoveries.

I recommend agile, continuous planning, but more importantly, facilitate discussions around self-organizing standards. Leaving it to the discretion of every team to fully self-organize is inefficient and leads to inconsistent results, yet we know that top-down bureaucratic standards don’t work. When teams come together and define the principles of the operating model, then you’re more likely to see better planning and execution.

4. Partner with business leaders on the future of work

Hybrid work was an emergency shot in the arm for many organizations that tethered employees to cubicles and desktop computing. While many organizations plan to support hybrid work for the long term, the challenge for IT leaders is to ride this momentum and find business partners ready to define their future of work.

Here are three opportunities:

  • Align data governance initiatives to citizen data science programs where there are greater opportunities to enable smarter and faster decision-making
  • Select machine learning and AI experiments that can have faster and more meaningful business impacts in areas such as search experiences and natural language processing
  • Invest in a digital experience monitoring tool, measure the employee experience when working remotely or in offices, and identify ways to improve performance

5. Prioritize implementing security in DevSecOps

IT leaders say DevSecOps and ask developers to shift-left security practices, but I believe implementations lag behind intentions. Part of the reason is cultural, as over the last several years, business demand to improve customer experience and modernize apps left little time for implementing security best practices. Another reason is the lack of training and DevOps tooling, so developers are more likely to pursue a known area by addressing tech debt priorities rather than security.

There are more tools today to implement security in CI/CD, infrastructure as code, Kubernetes, and other DevOps technologies. The challenge for IT leaders is to drive implementations by selecting technologies, training development teams, and prioritizing security standards in DevOps.

[ Also read DevSecOps: 4 key Kubernetes trends to know ]

Every year has its challenges. Digital trailblazing IT leaders learn what’s happening in the world, their industry, and their business to shape goals and priorities, and they aren’t afraid to take on new challenges.

[ Discover how priorities are changing. Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: Maintaining momentum on digital transformation. ]

Isaac Sacolick is the president and founder of StarCIO, a technology learning company that guides leaders on digital transformation. A lifelong technologist, Isaac has served in startup CTO and transformational CIO roles.