A major focus on diversity. Business model transformation. Soaring automation and AI initiatives. Increased data analysis. Oh, and the lingering impact of a global pandemic. One major takeaway from Tech Monitor’s Technology Leaders Agenda 2021 was that tech leadership is facing up to a huge range of competing priorities in the wake of a period of unprecedented challenges and change.
“It is not a stretch to say that the world is a markedly different place now from just a year-and-a-half ago,” says Arun ‘Rak’ Ramchandran, corporate vice president and global head, Hi-Tech & Professional Services and Digital Core Transformation, at agenda partner Hexaware.
“The technology function has moved ever closer to the strategic heart of business – in many cases, redefining what businesses are capable of achieving. Post-Covid, technology has now become an integral part of our present culture itself. And digital is the predominant meme in this culture.”
Entrenching and accelerating
Technology’s move to the strategic heart of business is reflected by just how many of IT leaderships priorities are issues more traditionally associated with the chief executive’s office, but many of these changes can be traced to a period that predates pandemic.
In fact, Ramchandran defines a number as “entrenched” transformations – technological earthquakes that were already underway before Covid-19, but which became fiercer as the pandemic spread.
As an example, the Hexaware executive underlines digital services, from the rise of contactless payments to e-commerce. “Their significance has become more deeply entrenched,” he acknowledges, “but businesses that had not already made progress in these areas before the onset of Covid-19 have struggled to stay afloat.” 68% of polled tech leaders cited data integration and infrastructure initiatives are their top technological priorities, a sign that there is still significant work ahead.
Shadowing these entrenched shifts, meanwhile, has been what Ramchandran calls “accelerated” changes. To explain what he means, he cites Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s, claim that we witnessed two years-worth of digital transformation in the first two months of the pandemic alone.
Respondents to the Technology Leaders Agenda made a similar point. Harnessing the benefits of the cloud and machine learning may have been on the “to do” list of a number of tech leaders for a number of years, but recent upheavals and changes have finally pushed those values, and the need to unlock them, to the fore. 61% of tech leaders expect investment in AI and automation to increase over the coming year. 44% of tech leaders made the same argument about cloud migration.
Enterprises have ramped up their tech budgets accordingly in 2021 and, besides the US, the majority of respondents expected budgetary increases to continue into 2022.
“I was not surprised to see that technology budgets are forecast to go up,” says Ramchandran. “We have already witnessed significant investment in cloud this year, as well as plenty of spend around automation and AI. There is renewed focus on creating more usable and customer-centric products and platforms. Enterprises are engaged in digital leapfrogging – transformation at warp speed.”
All the same, the Technology Leaders Agenda 2021 was far from a straightforward story of bigger budgets and seamless innovation. As an executive at Hexaware, a global IT leader, this is something Ramchandran intuitively understands.
“I think the intensity of transformation is what people are talking about from an efficiency perspective,” he explains. “You still need to be lean, you still need to be agile, you still need to modernise, you still need to make sure that you’re not caught short-handed.”
All this makes sense – especially given strategies that once took years to be executed may now need to go live in a matter of weeks. One way forward, says Ramchandran, is for tech leaders to change in parallel with their companies.
Long gone are the days when CIOs primary focus was keeping the lights on. Instead, Ramchandran argues that a new generation of leaders are going to come from a “very different” mindset – one where they instinctively understand digital change and all it can do for businesses and their customers. 68% of the tech leaders polled by Tech Monitor confirmed that the CIO is still the most senior technological role in an enterprise’s C-Suite and it will be interesting to monitor the extent to which the CIO to CEO pathway becomes a more common journey over the coming couple of years.
The focus on human leadership and sustainability among those surveyed would suggest CIOs are getting a very good grounding in a number of ever more prominent chief executive priorities.
All these shifts obviously have a strong ethical dimension. But in Ramchandran’s telling, they’re vital from a hard-nosed business perspective too. “Leaders must position themselves as employers of choice and understand what truly matters to their workforce,” he says.
“If you don’t demonstrate that you share the values of your employees, from inclusivity and diversity to sustainability and environmental accountability, they will not stick around for long.”
Nor is this a purely theoretical challenge. Many leaders surveyed by Tech Monitor noted that qualified cloud specialists and data scientists were increasingly hard to come by. Unless companies do everything they can to win what Ramchandran calls the “war for talent” – emphasising upskilling and personal development – even the most ambitious tech strategy is bound to fail.
“It is a struggle to find ready-made talent on the market, which means leaders need to develop it, helping their employees be fully ready to help shape this digital future,” the Hexaware executive explains. “It is promising that survey respondents appear to recognise emerging requirements around softer skills, prioritising people, culture, and values above all else.”
More to the point, enterprises will need to scoop up the best for all the work to come. The pandemic and its consequences may have emphasised the need for tech and its leadership to sit at the very heart of the enterprise, but that means little, suggests Ramchandran, if technology and broader business goals are unaligned.
“The future is digital,” says Ramchandran. “The question all tech leaders need to be able to answer is how quickly they can get there. They must remain focused on these longer-term requirements, while still being able to adapt and react to an array of pressing concerns, priorities and developments.”