Massive societal shifts spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic include new work models, new privacy and data storage regulations, and new advancements in emerging technologies — permanent changes that highlight the need for CIOs to shift from a reactive position that is called upon in a crisis, to a proactive role critical to formulating business strategy.
The lessons we learned in 2020 will inform the decisions we make in 2021. The past year has seen disruptions in supply chains, educational systems, political institutions, and societal norms. As vaccines enter the market, we face 2021 hopeful, but exhausted. Emerging from a year that saw much of the world self-isolate, many CIOs have highlighted the potential for IT departments to serve as a champion for the security and comfort of employees.
Among other things, IT leaders will need to keep a sharp eye out for how they can best help their businesses and colleagues adjust to a new normal. “When we do go into offices or schools in person, we’ll need more privacy, space, and breaks than before,” Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at Nutanix, wrote in the company’s recently shared predictions for the coming year. “Helping people to be comfortable as they leave the relative sanctuary of their homes will require unprecedented access to validated health and safety data from our employers, local and regional governments and educational institutions.”
In this way, CIOs of 2021 will need to leverage the same IT acumen that allowed businesses to survive and society to continue at a distance in 2020 to bring employees safely into the fold of a world that has been fundamentally changed.
With the lessons of last year in mind, here’s CIO Middle East’s forecast for top trends facing tech leaders in the MENA region in 2021.
New working models will put pressure on IT
Managing remote work is a top priority for just about every business now. While “flex” or “hybrid” working models were slowly being introduced prior to the pandemic, the global move from on-premises working to work-at-home as a result of COVID-19 has put IT departments around the world under immense pressure to deliver mission-critical applications, data, and compute power to remote employees.
Organizations across the MENA region turned to technology to maintain business continuity while keeping employees remote and their customers well served. In the UAE, the government lifted a long-held ban on VOIP services like Microsoft Teams and Zoom early on in the pandemic, and the easing of those restrictions are likely to stay in place. Further, in June the UAE’s regulatory authorities released a statement encouraging the use of technology including fintech and regulatory tech, to “the fullest extent possible.”
With multiple vaccines on the market, the end of the pandemic may be near, but for businesses in the Middle East, remote and semiremote working models are likely here to stay. According to one of the Gulf region’s most popular job websites, Bayt.com, 90 percent of Middle East and North African professionals expect remote working to keep on increasing, and 74 percent prefer jobs that give them this option.
Heading into 2021, CIOs will need to implement solutions that promote business continuity and security while delivering mission-critical services “anytime, anywhere”.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, entire workforces in the Middle East shifted to remote working, ecommerce activity skyrocketed, and from medical appointments to family dinners, nearly every aspect of society was moved online. While technology kept individuals and businesses connected, it also marked a massive change in the cybersecurity landscape.
“The onset of remote working has left people vulnerable to cybersecurity challenges,” explains Emad Haffar, Head of Technical Experts for Middle East, Turkey and Africa at Kaspersky. “Kaspersky has reported that consumers and businesses in the UAE suffered more than 600,000 phishing attacks at the peak of the COVID-19 movement restrictions. Furthermore, from April to the end of June, more than 2.57 million phishing attacks were detected across the Middle East.”
Adding to the stress of an expanding threat surface, the launch of IoT connected businesses and smart cities, as well as regional regulatory policies like GDPR have left cybersecurity professionals with a lot on their plates for 2021.
The grim fact is that as dependence on connectivity and the value of personal data continue to increase, the cyberthreat surface will inevitably expand in tandem. For CISOs, this may mean a move from the basement to the boardroom, as businesses realize the importance of proactive cybersecurity as a part of a wider business strategy.
While upskilling in general will continue to trend in 2021, cybersecurity training for all employees, from the C-suite to the mailroom, will be critical in thwarting attacks from increasingly sophisticated bad actors.
“We would advise employees to stay vigilant when working remotely. Cybercriminals are constantly finding new ways to exploit people,” urges Haffar. “We believe that cyber education and training will help us take a leap towards reaching a secure world in the ‘new normal’.”
Hybrid/multicloud environments will dominate
As hyperscale providers continue to expand their footprints in the MENA region, organizations across the Middle East turned to the cloud in 2020. IT decision-makers hope to realize the speed and agility promised by cloud computing, while keeping CAPEX (capital expenditures) low. Even though the pandemic caused IT departments to curb costs in a variety of areas, cloud spending was spared for the most part, and in many enterprises the crisis was expected to accelerate the pace of cloud adoption.
However, as data protection regulations like GDPR and the UAE Data Protection Act take the stage, IT departments have found themselves walking the line between flexibility and regulatory compliance.
With these twin demands, CIOs in the Middle East are overwhelmingly migrating applications, services and data to hybrid, or multicloud, environments. Enterprises now have the option of simultaneously using on-premises infrastructure with services from multiple different vendors, given the number of major cloud data centres built by the major cloud providers over the last year and a half.
Multicloud provides the speed and scalability of public cloud and the security of private cloud in a hybrid environment that in 2021 and beyond will look attractive to businesses in the region, many of which are likely to see more data regulations and greater demand for public cloud benefits from end-users.
Automation significantly changes IT job market
Challenges presented by the pandemic have highlighted the promise of automation as a way to optimise costs as well as manage hybrid on-site and remote staff workflow. And as in other areas of tech, the COVID crisis appears to be accelerating an ongoing trend.
Fifty-three percent of senior executives based in the MENA region named artificial intelligence and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as the most important technologies on their agenda, according to EY’s 2018 report, The Power of Intelligent Automation. Two years later, we’ve already seen widespread implementation of AI technologies, and RPA is well on its way to transforming the global job market.
In fact, according to IDC, spending on RPA in Saudi Arabia alone is set to reach $27.4 million in 2023, increasing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 56 percent from 2019. RPA has the potential to automate myriad IT functions, from the onboarding of IoT devices, to filling the gaps caused by remote working.
With mass automation potentially on the horizon, many IT professionals may be nervous about the state of their employment. The good news is that opportunities for upskilling to meet new demands, and the creation of new IT roles designed to support automation will go far to fill gaps in the new IT employment market.