by Serge Findling

10 future trends and how CIOs can keep ahead in 2021

Dec 04, 202010 mins
Artificial IntelligenceBPM SystemsBusiness Continuity

After a year disrupted by a global pandemic, the next normal is starting to take shape. Here's a look at what's ahead for IT organizations.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, CIOs have faced epic challenges unlike any they’ve previously weathered. For many business leaders, recovery isn’t just a return to their former state but a top-to-bottom rethinking of what business they need to be in and how their business must be run. As the chief owners of the digital infrastructure that underpins all aspects of modern enterprises, CIOs must play pivotal roles in the road to recovery, seeking the “next normal” while still performing their traditional roles.

The following predictions, based on the IDC FutureScape: Worldwide CIO Agenda 2021 Predictions, present information about technologies, markets, and ecosystems to help CIOs better understand future trends and their impact on the enterprise, and offer guidance on complex, fast-moving environments, proposing prescriptive, actionable recommendations for the next five years.

1. By 2022, 65% of CIOs will digitally empower and enable frontline workers with data, AI, and security to extend their productivity, adaptability, and decision making in the face of rapid changes. Businesses need teams and workers to function more autonomously, making decisions in the face of great uncertainty. Frontline workers are in the best position to gain real-time knowledge of changes in customer behaviors and external environments. But they need access to data and intelligent tools embedded in their workflows in a seamless fashion. CIOs will need to bolster IT capabilities in data science, AI, and human-machine interface and advanced intelligent workflow design.


  • Acquire talent through hiring, development, and partnering ahead of the curve to avoid critical gaps.
  • Create centers of excellence (COEs) for data/analytics, AI, machine learning (ML), and workflow and task automation.
  • Ensure strategies, policies, and tools are in place to secure sensitive data and ensure proper usage.
  • Plan for the evolution from directed digital workers to hybrid digital/human workers to self-governing digital workers.

2. By 2021, unable to find adaptive ways to counter escalating cyberattacks, unrest, trade wars, and sudden collapses, 30% of CIOs will fail in protecting trust—the foundation of customer confidence. According to a recent IDC survey, 63% of organizations are investing in cybersecurity to build digital trust for customers, employees, and partners. Despite these investments, almost one-third of CIOs will fail to fully surmount the fallout from adverse events as the intensity and diversity of threats escalate, resulting in degradation of trust in their businesses. CIOs will be expected to lead all technology aspects of risk management for the enterprise and its ecosystems at a time where funding is scarce and scrutinized.


  • Rethink risk management strategies in the new context of high volatility, increased threats, and business uncertainty.
  • Embrace modern practices and leverage proven frameworks like NIST.
  • Create trust objectives and strategies to focus efforts on high-payoff initiatives.

3. Through 2023, coping with technical debt accumulated during the pandemic will shadow 70% of CIOs, causing financial stress, inertial drag on IT agility, and “forced march” migrations to the cloud. Faced with the need for speed in reacting to rapidly shifting business conditions, many CIOs have had to shortcut normal IT protocols to get digital solutions in place, sometimes literally overnight. Adding new technical debt was unavoidable, resulting in future obligations to mitigate deficiencies. But if left unchecked, technical debt continues to grow and eventually becomes an untenable drag on IT. Savvy CIOs look for opportunities to design next-generation digital platforms that modernize and rationalize infrastructure and applications while delivering flexible capabilities to create and deliver new products, services, and experiences to workers and customers.


  • Triage pandemic-driven emergency solutions into “good enough to keep,” “need to be remediated,” and “must be retired or replaced.”
  • Collaborate with line of business (LOB) executives to “divide and conquer” technical debt using LOB developers and funding to extend IT capabilities.
  • Merge technical debt elimination efforts with platform modernization initiatives.

4. By 2023, global crises will make 75% of CIOs integral to business decision making as digital infrastructure becomes the business OS while moving from business continuation to reconceptualization. IT must play a central role in business recovery, with leadership of enterprise technology, risk mitigation, and cost optimization. CIOs have an opportunity and obligation to provide an enterprise “operating system” made up of digital infrastructure, intelligence, and IT capabilities necessary to power their businesses into the future. The most successful CIOs will exhibit traits that combine entrepreneur, visionary, and implementer—the ability to create and sell the vision for the new enterprise and then make it happen.


  • Invest in short-term survival but also long-term recovery.
  • Leverage quick iterations with tangible deliverables and reevaluate needs as environments evolve.
  • Partner with LOB executives, industry peers and experts, and technology partners to build a web of knowledge to surmount current and future crises and challenges.

5. By 2024, to support safe, distributed work environments, 50% of CIOs will accelerate robotization, automation, and augmentation, making change management a formidable imperative. Automation is a priority to eliminate human dependencies in business-critical systems and processes. IDC has found that on average, 16% of the workforce will be replaced by AI automation in the next five years, after a steady increase from 11% to 23% over the period. In short, managing change, not only in workflows and processes but also in culture and worker behaviors, is fast becoming a key differentiator and job requirement for CIOs.


  • Manage change and redesign processes as frontline workers will need to be acclimated to working with machines.
  • Be transparent in communicating plans for automation, and work with HR to manage worker concerns about job loss or marginalization.
  • Create an audit capability for ML and AI that can regularly assess data input relevance, model assumptions, and model output.

6. By 2023, CIO-led adversity centers will become a permanent fixture in 65% of enterprises, focused on building resilience with digital infrastructure and flexible funding for diverse scenarios. In today’s world, threats can come in multiples and are unpredictable and often not well understood because they are unprecedented. Mitigating risks—health, economics, social, political, and environmental—is now a business imperative. Instead of focusing purely on business recovery, high-performing CIOs build resilience, creating “adversity centers” along with flexible funding and robust digital infrastructure to enable businesses to rapidly cycle through the stages of cost optimization, resilience, targeted investments, and create the future business.


  • Invest in data excellence by enabling real-time, holistic, and secure data access to people and systems.
  • Identify key talent throughout the organization and beyond to staff teams now.
  • Create and gain senior management support for a charter with accountabilities, scope, authorities, and outcomes.

7. By 2025, 80% of CIOs alongside LOB execs will implement intelligent capabilities to sense, learn, and predict changing customer behaviors, enabling exclusive customer experiences for engagement and loyalty. Today, customer behaviors shift constantly, sometimes dramatically. The pandemic has changed how people live and how companies operate. IT organizations need to help businesses become truly customer centric, with deep knowledge of wants, needs, and behaviors. They need to deploy intelligent capabilities that can acquire and assemble disparate forms of data, then use AI, ML, and other technologies to extract insights and detect patterns that can be used to create engaging and loyalty-building experiences.


  • Ensure that policies and guidelines are in place for use of customer data and machine intelligence.
  • Adopt “customer-first design” in creating new systems and applications.
  • Establish metrics for measuring the impact and success of customer experience efforts.

8. By 2025, 60% of CIOs will implement governance for low-code/no-code tools to increase IT and business productivity, help LOB developers meet unpredictable needs, and foster innovation at the edge. Low-code/no-code tools are powerful if deployed and used properly. CIOs have to be cognizant that those tools require different governance than is generally used in IT to keep from creating byzantine and brittle application architectures. CIOs should view LOB development as a virtual extension of the IT organization and focus on supplying LOB executives and workers with on-demand self-service APIs, development platforms, and tools to create digital solutions that are easily accessible and usable by non-IT.


  • Create standards, architectures, policies, and other artifacts that are suitable for LOB developers.
  • Stand up COEs to support LOB developers in developing secure and robust applications.
  • Set up labs for code development, testing, and learning to aid knowledge transfer between IT and LOB developers.

9. By 2025, 65% of CIOs will implement ecosystem, application, and infrastructure control systems founded on interoperability, flexibility, scalability, portability, and timeliness. More than ever, CIOs must lead or enable innovation at breakneck speed under the pressure of fast market changes, regionalization, and industry reinvention. CIOs must manage a hybrid/multicloud infrastructure and the provisioning of “as a service” workflows and processes without locking into a specific provider. They must manage enterprise systems and applications as a whole, building a digital platform of platforms. And they must orchestrate and manage the participation of their firm in multiple ecosystems with shared processes, data, and applications. The common objective is to allow for interoperability, flexibility, scalability, portability, and timeliness.


  • Align IT governance, investments, and organizational structure with three control systems—infrastructure, enterprise systems, and ecosystems.
  • Drive a cross-organizational initiative including all the key stakeholders including LOBs, partners, and customers.
  • Leverage AI toward self-organizing infrastructure, self-optimizing enterprise systems, and self-organizing ecosystems.

10. By 2024, 75% of CIOs will absorb new accountabilities for the management of operational health, welfare, and employee location data for underwriting, health, safety, and tax compliance purposes.

The pandemic has thrust CIOs into new roles and responsibilities. That trend will continue as businesses strive to maintain compliance with evolving and emerging regulations while protecting the health, safety, and welfare of employees, customers, and partners. Many CIOs have to absorb those new accountabilities without shedding their existing mandate to help make their businesses more competitive and profitable.


  • Partner with HR, compliance officers, operations executives, and external partners to access newly required knowledge domains.
  • Work with LOB executives to understand reporting needs to avoid collecting unnecessary data.
  • Ensure that compliance measures are adequate across the collection, reporting, and use of all data.
  • Establish measures to ensure the accuracy and timeliness of data while helping LOB executives grasp the meaning and potential uses of data.

COVID-19 has put the entire world into a state of crisis, dramatically accelerated global digital transformation, and forced CIOs to become essential leaders in the survival and future of their enterprises. In this period of high uncertainty, CIOs and senior executives must anticipate alternative futures and set the path for the technology environment, allowing for speed, adaptation, and evolution. Today, planning must enable agility and rapid adaption.