The 20th annual State of the CIO is coming after one of the most unique years in the report’s history. This edition of the study looks at previous topics such as where IT leaders are focusing their time and expertise, and also has some new additions including diversity & inclusion initiatives in IT and how the pandemic has impacted the role of CIO.

Breaking down the research results in the 2021 State of the CIO webcast is the four-headed team made up of host Tim Scannell – Director of Strategic Content at the CIO Executive Council; moderator John Gallant – Enterprise Consulting Director at IDG Communications, Inc.; and guests Sarah Naqvi – EVP and CIO at HMSHost and Nathan Rogers – SVP and CIO at SAIC. We’ve outlined a few of the key takeaways from this insightful discussion below.

Pandemic & New Tech Landscape

To say the pandemic impacted businesses in 2020 is an understatement. As a result, significant changes had to be made in order for organizations to survive and have at least a semi-successful calendar year. The majority of CIOs (82%) say that they have implemented new technologies, IT strategies and/or methodologies over the past year due to the pandemic. This should come as no surprise given the sudden shift to remote work, having to find alternative ways to engage with clients, and the complete disruption of some industries. Due to these implementations, 73% of CIOs either increased their IT budgets or made no changes in 2020. There is even more optimism for 2021, as 88% of CIOs say that their IT budgets will either increase (49%) or remain the same (39%) over the next 12 months.

Both guest speakers found their teams received budget injections to help maneuver their organizations through the pandemic. For Nathan Rogers, his team was initially faced with a budget freeze, giving them a moment to determine what was the best course of action moving forward. Once it became apparent they had to invest to successfully get through the pandemic, he found himself tasked not as much so with implementing new technologies but instead making the transformation proceed more rapidly. No longer focusing on the workplace of the future but instead the work of the future has been Rogers’ big help for his team’s transformation.

Much like Nathan, Sarah Naqvi found that her team often “can’t do work fast enough.” From her experience, adopting and implementing collaboration tools have been a life saver for engaging within Naqvi’s organization. Working in the retail and restaurant industry, adjusting not just internally but also to the consumers’ changing needs has been vital for Naqvi and her team. Deploying contactless technologies to appease customers has been one of the main drivers in the transformation of retail from a “push to a pull technology environment.”

Current Status of the CIO

As technology continues to evolve, the role of the CIO does as well. More CIOs will be reporting directly to the CEO in 2021 than ever before (51%), hinting as the rising importance of CIOs and blending of business and IT. Mirroring this trend, CIOs want to focus on more strategic tasks by 2024 (58%) up from 39% currently. In order to get there, CIOs hope to spend more time on driving business innovation (38%), developing and refining business strategy (31%) and implementing new systems and architecture (30%) in the next three years. This effort isn’t solely a future goal, it’s relevant right now. Aligning IT initiatives with business goals (40%) is the third most focused on activity today, only behind security management (44%) and improving IT operations/systems performance (41%).

However, this transition for CIOs is not a new concept and was not spurred on by the pandemic. The shift in IT roles has been occurring since the start of digital transformation and the increasing imbedding of technology in businesses. Now with COVID-19, the evolution of the CIO has simply been expediated, especially with the growth in cybersecurity measures to accommodate work from home. In times like these, if a CIO is unable to change and get connected with the business, it will be impossible for their role to remain relevant.

CIO Role Expansion & 2021 Priorities

Diving deeper into how exactly the CIO role is evolving, the research explores their new responsibilities and actions. The majority (96%) of CIOs say their role is expanding beyond traditional IT responsibilities, including cybersecurity (57%), data analysis (47%), and data privacy/compliance (44%). CIOs are also currently tasked with the creation of revenue-generation initiatives, whether that be by automating business and/or IT processes (56%), creating teams focused on innovation (37%), or interacting directly with clients (36%).

Over the past year, the pandemic has changed the level of importance for a number of CIO actions. Automating business and IT processes saw the largest increase at 81% but developing the customer journey was not far behind (75%). For Naqvi, she anticipates that technology can and will be a significant solution for keeping employees and customers safe as well as just easing the customer experience as a whole.

Business Initiatives for 2021

Looking at the business initiatives that are expected to drive the most IT investment in 2021, transforming existing business processes, increasing cybersecurity protections and improving the customer experience lead the way. When asked how the current socio-economic pressures impacted the prioritization of their business initiatives, 57% said that increasing cybersecurity protections and improving the customer experience grew in priority. In order to support and establish a more inclusive and diverse IT culture, nearly three-quarters (72%) of CIOs are making diversity & inclusion a priority during the IT hiring process and 77% believe their organization understands that the rate of innovation increases if D&I is embedded into tech teams.

While there’s still ground to cover, D&I gained a lot of it in 2020. For 2021, bringing more women into the IT workforce is no longer just a discussion, it’s imperative. Unfortunately, Naqvi has concerns if the talent is actually there, despite the active interest in making the change. Solving the issue from the root of the problem is what she would like to see – supporting women throughout the entire IT journey, from gaining interest at a young age up through their education and then into the workplace. Just like Naqvi, Rogers stresses the importance of leaning into making the appropriate changes as early as internships and apprenticeships.

To hear more of what these CIOs had to share, watch the full webcast here. To learn more about what else is on the horizon for CIOs in the coming year, download the 2021 State of the CIO executive summary.