How CIOs Can Effectively Partner Across the Business in 2021

2021 Survey Report


For C-suite technology leaders, their initiatives are increasingly touching all areas of the business, offering opportunities for collaboration with their peers. The past year, while challenging, accelerated digital business opportunities. The shared challenges of 2020 led to numerous productive discussions in which Evanta communities hosted 190 virtual events for 6,300 CIOs. 

CIOs are increasingly balancing an accelerated project pipeline and an overloaded IT team, forcing them to rethink the sustainability of how they are supporting the business. As one CIO mentioned at the end of 2020, “Project velocity was equal to or greater than previous years.” At the same time, CIOs and their teams have considerable influence on business growth and outcomes and do not want to lose the momentum for digital initiatives.

Focusing on a Data-Driven Culture

CIOs from leading companies around the world reported that their top priority for 2021 is data and analytics, followed by cybersecurity. Interestingly, these two areas of focus switched places since fall of 2020, the last time we surveyed IT leaders. 

In early 2020 and prior to the pandemic, cybersecurity was not as high on the CIO’s priority list as it was in previous years. Certainly, they could not have anticipated that workforces would be remote for the entire year, significantly altering the way they secure their organizations. And based on discussions in Evanta communities, they faced increased security threats last year, as well. Still, data and analytics was high on their list one year ago, and it seems that CIOs are in a position now to return to some of their pre-pandemic priorities. 

This year, we also asked CIOs about their common goals and challenges to making progress on their top initiatives -- in this case, data and analytics, cybersecurity strategies and digital business priorities.

Goals for Data & Analytics

80% Making data-driven decisions

67% Improving business outcomes

44% Improving metrics & KPIs

Challenges around Data & Analytics

44% Legacy technology 

42% Lack of skills

39% Lack of resources

Some issues that IT leaders raised anecdotally about data and analytics include the following: 

How do we build an advanced analytics strategy? We want to take the next step to get to big data and analytics."

The part we are struggling with is consolidating knowledge to drive insights. We are taking the next steps in data and building out the team and our expertise."

The data does exist [in our organization], but it might not be in the format we need or aggregated at the right level."

CIOs want to learn more about this topic from a strategic perspective (73%), but also from an execution point of view (69%).


Creating Robust Cybersecurity Strategies

For their second priority focusing on security strategies, CIOs’ primary goal is to manage risks to the organization. 

Goals for Cybersecurity Strategies

92% Mitigating risks

36% Improving processes and efficiencies

28% Developing talent and skills

Challenges around Cybersecurity Strategies

57% Quickly changing landscape 

35% Lack of resources

35% Lack of skills

CIOs said the following about their interest in cybersecurity this year: 

Security is on my list every year. We’ve seen a lot of competitors and customers devastated by breaches and security issues.”

More than 50% of our attention needs to be in cybersecurity and information security. If I were starting my career in IT now, I would go down the path of information security.”

Cybersecurity exposure and awareness are a key challenge – how do I integrate this throughout the business and make it part of our DNA? How do we make every employee feel responsible for cybersecurity?”

To learn more from their peers and experts, 72% CIOs said they would like strategies on cybersecurity and 65% wanted to hear about execution.


Driving Digital Business Priorities

Digital business was primarily expanded or accelerated last year, and now technology leaders are focused on what’s next and how to mature these capabilities.

Goals for Digital Business Priorities

72% Expanding digital business and increasing maturity

58% Improving business outcomes

56% Optimizing the customer experience

Challenges around Digital Business Priorities

50% Legacy technology 

35% Lack of skills

35% Quickly changing landscape

Some topics that CIOs specifically want to discuss on digital business include: 

Where will our industries be in 5 years, and how can CIOs be driving things forward now? Why are we waiting for the business to tell us the direction if technology is supposed to be the driving force?”

This is the most important topic from a technology perspective. Driven by COVID-19, we had growth in eCommerce as part of total revenue. We digitized the front end, but would like to hear what other companies are doing to digitize the back end.”

All strategic pivots for the organization have some digital element. This starts to touch on change management, which is very hard.”


What Lies Ahead

For all of their top priorities in 2021, technology leaders had a variety of main goals -- from making data-driven decisions to improving processes and efficiencies. The common challenges to achieving their objectives are dealing with legacy technology and a lack of skills. A rapidly changing landscape also creates roadblocks to strategically overcoming those challenges.

Like all C-level leaders, CIOs are also looking ahead to how they will manage the return to work and what that means for their workforce. When they talk about innovation, they mention it sometimes in the context of collaboration, eliminating war rooms, and launching new projects while working remotely. As one noted, “This has been an 18-month experiment in remote working.” Another said, “I am interested in innovation around the remote workforce, collaboration and how to be more innovative in that space.” 

CIOs have an opportunity to partner with CHROs and others to determine or adjust work policies. Somewhat unique to the technology space, other companies (such as Salesforce and Twitter) have already declared that employees will have flexibility or not be required to work in the office. One technology leader said, “Teams have proven they can work from home and are very comfortable doing so. A lot of the tech community will not want to go to the office —how do we achieve a happy medium?” 

In addition, CIOs could partner with CHROs to focus on health and wellness issues — not normally in their realm, but tangentially related to exhaustion from the pace of change and change management issues. Several executives mentioned organizational change, communications or addressing company culture as necessary components of plans to achieve their goals. 

One CIO wondered, “Are we paying lip service to the human impact of things? Have we put too much pressure on people in challenging circumstances? We are talking about this, but what are we actually doing about it as leaders?”

Perhaps most obvious, CIOs can work collaboratively with CDOs to address their priorities in data and analytics and with CISOs to focus on cybersecurity strategies. 

CIOs were relied upon to support a remote workforce and drive a business continuity plan in the aftermath of the pandemic. Then, digital business capabilities became essential during periods of lockdown and dramatic shifts in consumer behavior. CIOs today are a critical part of the leadership team, and now need to address how the impact of last year is affecting their teams and their mission critical priorities. 

Based on more than 700 CIOs’ responses to Evanta’s 2021 Leadership Perspective Survey.


by CIOs, for CIOs

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