Five priorities for CIOs in 2021

Trends accelerated by the coronavirus crisis present challenges and opportunities; dealing with both has increased the workload for chief information officers


1 Regulatory compliance and security

The entry might have been number one in the charts for the past few years, but the mass jump to working away from the office catalysed by lockdown has meant chief information officers (CIOs) must be on top of data management, security and compliance. 

“The shift towards remote work and digital operations has meant the information security posture of many businesses, faced with an increasing amount of threats, has had to improve,” says Federico Baldo, CIO at Eurotech, a multinational company supplying internet of things solutions.

“Security starts at the top of an organisation and, while chief executives do not need to be security experts, they do benefit from an accurate understanding of the relevance of security to their organisation. And for many smaller businesses, in particular, it is the CIO’s job to lead the internal security programmes.”

Caroline Carruthers, chief executive of data strategists Carruthers and Jackson and former chief data officer at Network Rail, says a mindset transformation is required. “My biggest piece of advice for CIOs when it comes to regulatory compliance is they need to stop thinking about security and privacy as a tick-box exercise,” she says. “It’s essential they see this as a positive opportunity rather than a hurdle to overcome.”

There are enormous advantages for the organisations that get compliance right, she insists, from increased customer trust to more secure intellectual property.

2 Modernise IT infrastructure and systems

COVID has tested the robustness of supply chains, business models and information technology systems alike. In many cases, it exposed worrying vulnerabilities. 

“After the immediate response to the pandemic, it allowed the time to look at IT systems and assess whether they remained fit for purpose,” says Jean-Sébastien Pelland, deputy managing director of Eland Cables, a global supplier of cables and cable accessories.

“Businesses constantly evolve, requiring IT systems to adapt rather than making wholesale changes, simply due to the pace and perhaps uncertainty of the new avenues. Now is the time to make sure the systems match the business as it stands today.”

This chimes with Sharon Mandell, CIO of Juniper Networks, a multinational cybersecurity company. “As we ‘cloudify’ and ‘SaaSify’ our entire product line, Juniper also needs to update its IT architecture. We need one that’s more nimble, that brings new capabilities and that’s more user aware to enable the experience our customers and partners desire throughout their journey with us,” she says.

Like many organisations, Juniper has pivoted its offering, in part because of the pandemic fallout. “Modernising IT is a priority now as many of our systems were built around a business model that delivered hardware, with embedded software only, and traditional technical support and services,” says Mandell.

3 Ensure real-time visibility of critical data

“The world we’re living in is moving faster than ever and organisations relying on data even one week old are behind the curve,” warns data strategist Carruthers. “The nature and speed of change in 2021 will make real-time visibility of critical data the single biggest factor in winning new business across almost all industries this year.” 

She advises that “CIOs need to make sure they have insight into what is going on in their industries in real time” to make accurate predictions.

Rich Murr, CIO at Epicor, a global provider of enterprise resource planning software for the manufacturing, distribution, retail and service industries, agrees. He calls actionable data “the holy grail” of IT. “And sometimes it’s seemingly just as difficult to obtain,” he says. “The challenge is less about systems and more about the business processes that produce and consume the data. 

“CIOs need to educate their business peers, not to sit back and expect clean data to appear magically in their systems, but instead to take strong ownership and execute the hard business process improvement work necessary to create actionable data.”

4 Engage and educate the workforce

On Murr’s point of driving education and training, so employees can use all IT systems capabilities and have a good handle on data management, this is another important CIO task. “IT needs to work for the worker,” says Tim Christensen, chief technology officer at workforce communications platform SocialChorus.

Football Association CIO Craig Donald says: “Facilitating tech literacy will be central to my role in boosting enjoyment and attainment as the football community comes back to life in 2021. Particularly in non-tech organisations, CIOs shouldn’t just go in there being the mystical gurus of technology. Get a dialogue going and show how tech can directly impact relationships.”

Educating staff is particularly challenging for Jo Drake, CIO of ecommerce company THG that in September attracted the largest initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange since 2013. “As part of a global business that is expanding at a rapid rate, it’s important to have the best team possible and the right talent to grow with us,” she says, pointing to several schemes that attract and nurture tech talent.

5 Make full use of cloud computing 

Eurotech CIO Baldo urges businesses to “go full-on cloud”. He says: “If the business gross margin is not sensitive to slightly higher costs, there are many more advanced and integrated security capabilities that smaller businesses can leverage through the use of cloud services from AWS, Azure, Google or IBM than could be achieved on-premise, within the same budget.” It is the CIO’s responsibility to manage the move to the cloud and beyond.


Dr Anjali Subburaj, chief architect of digital commerce at multinational manufacturer Mars, believes businesses can move up a level in this area. “Adoption of cloud computing allows IT teams to focus exclusively on driving business outcomes via their endeavours instead of grappling with IT infrastructure issues,” she says. 

Once the cloud is embraced, more tech opportunities become accessible. “CIOs should also be prioritising the introduction of an artificial intelligence-embedded approach,” Subburaj adds. “This will improve the accuracy and relevancy of outputs, such as supply and demand, and personalised product recommendations to consumers.”