Technology leaders who encountered a tough slog in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 aren't catching much of a break this year.
Indeed, 2022 adds the tests of inflation, the back-to-the-office debate and geopolitical turmoil that exacerbates preexisting supply chain issues. Perennial concerns such as cybersecurity and the IT staffing shortage continue unabated. And the pandemic, now in its third year, complicates matters with regional flareups.
Against this backdrop, CIOs face a delicate balancing act: They must deal with a host of variables that could disrupt business in the near term, while also pursuing innovation projects pointing to the future. Read on for the key CIO challenges unfolding this year.
1. Finding and retaining IT talent
The "Great Resignation," which has seen massive numbers of workers leave jobs, has created another sense of resignation: the realization that finding and retaining employees will continue to frustrate IT organizations.
"The CIOs' reaction to this has to be, in a sense, to accept their fate," said John-David Lovelock, research vice president at Gartner. He likened CIOs confronting the IT skills gap to survival course participants. At some point, they have to acknowledge their circumstances: "You're spending the night in the woods," Lovelock said.
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But if information officers must endure the wilderness, at least they have plenty of company.
"This is one [challenge] that seems to cut across all CIOs," said Darren Person, global CIO at NPD Group, a market research and consumer trends company in Port Washington, N.Y. The issue is not simply building an IT organization to meet today's needs, Person said. "How do we make sure that we are helping mature a set of IT professionals to make them successful even beyond what they are doing today?"
One answer is providing a well-defined career path to becoming technology leaders, with dual tracks for technical and management roles. Technologists often encounter a fork in the road where they must choose whether to stay in technology or shift to management and its traditionally higher pay scales. The test for IT organizations is to create a career path for people who want to continue as a technical subject matter expert and reward them for doing so, Person noted. "You don't have to make that decision in your career to move away from what you're so good at," he added.
In addition, IT shops need training and mentorship programs to help technical and management personnel navigate their career paths. Person emphasized the importance of combining training with "staff augmentation," in which employees in training are paired with business or technology experts. Trainees and mentors work together on projects to reinforce the learning. That approach is more effective than taking an online course in isolation, he said.
"The problem is, when they come back to their day job, there's no project to work on," Person said. "They forget everything that they've learned in that course."
Brian Jackson, research director in the CIO practice at Info-Tech Research Group, in London, Ont., said IT departments that neglect career advancement do so at their own peril. He said employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of professional development and purposeful work.
Companies must provide a career path with a defined set of skills employees need to acquire to reach the next post or salary increase. "That has to be absolutely clear to employees," he said. Info-Tech's "CIO Priorities 2022 Report" cited supporting an "employee-centric retention strategy" as among the most pressing issues this year.
IT staffers also need to understand how they contribute to broader business goals, Jackson said. Employees who view their role as keeping the lights on won't be highly motivated.
"That can be sort of dreary," he said. "You want to make sure there is a discussion of what is the mission of IT and how does it connect to the overall mission of the organization."
2. Boosting customer experiences
CIOs aim to get on the front foot when it comes to improving customer experience, whether that means making life easier for internal users or external business partners and clients. Customer experience is often the focus of forward-looking digital transformation projects.
Investment in this area separates digital leaders from followers, according to SPR's "Technology Leadership Forecast 2022." SPR, a digital technology consultancy based in Chicago, found that 59% of the IT leaders it surveyed said they were extremely effective at responding to customer needs compared with 37% of the laggards. SPR defines leaders as IT organizations that innovate for the future, partner with the business side and can cite evidence of achieving their goals.
Higher education is among the industry sectors focusing on customer experience -- or student and staff experience in the education setting. Maryville University, located in St. Louis, is rethinking the college experience. Phil Komarny recently became Maryville's chief innovation officer, joining the school from Salesforce, where he was vice president of innovation.
"We're doing a very deep dive on experience analysis, designed around our students' journey, the way you would do it for the customer journey in a retail space," Komarny said.
Through this analysis, Komarny said he aims to understand the as-is environment and the "ugly experiences" students may be having with the school's current tooling. The eventual goal is to redesign the often cumbersome business processes students use to navigate their college experience with modern applications such as Salesforce, Slack and mobile applications, he noted.
"This is one of the biggest investments students make," Komarny said of a college education. "Why can't we make that delightful for them, instead of saying, 'This is where you need to go because this is the system we employ'? That's the old state. I think we're moving to a much more consumer-driven future state."
In another example, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona uses ServiceNow to help students handle administrative tasks without having to visit multiple campus offices. The SaaS technology is also widely used among employees in the financial aid office and the president's office, among other departments.
John McGuthry, vice president and CIO for the division of information technology at Cal Poly Pomona, cited figuring out how to support students in a more digital fashion and creating more digital experiences for employees as among his top priorities.
"By delivering a great student experience, you're adding to a great campus culture," he said.
McGuthry also cited IT staffing issues as a challenge, noting that most CIOs in higher education, as in other industries, are struggling with retaining people.
3. Supporting hybrid work
The transition to hybrid work is another dilemma for CIOs. Here, the employee-retention stakes involve the entire enterprise, as workers seek flexibility and a better work-life balance. The degree of difficulty has only increased for IT managers who helped deploy remote work technology in the early days of the pandemic. Now, they must accommodate a permanently distributed workforce and the ongoing return-to-office movement.
Jackson called the hybrid operating model -- and making it run smoothly -- a common challenge everyone is trying to figure out.
As CIOs help reinvent the workplace, they may need to consider updated technology, he noted. Are their current collaboration tools sufficient to facilitate the new work model? They may also need to replace existing conference room technology with systems that provide equal footing among participants in video calls, he added.
NPD has been looking at software-based video equipment that would simulate the everyone-is-remote experience of having a camera on each participant, Person noted. This approach addresses the awkwardness of having one video screen displaying several conference-room participants and, alongside that view, a collection of smaller, individual screens.
"There's some new technology around and that's an investment I know a lot of companies are making," Person said. "The technology is still quite immature. So, it will be probably another investment cycle before I think we'll have the technology caught up with the problem that we're trying to solve."
4. Deploying automation
While the pandemic drove the rise of remote work, it also sparked investment in automation. That trend continues in 2022.
Automation can be both an efficiency and creativity play, Person said. "I want to move people to a higher-value function so that they're helping return higher value to the company, versus doing what would be manual or mundane things that, one, aren't very interesting and, two, don't really connect with a person," he said.
Person said automation includes scripts for handling repetitive tasks such as copying a file from one folder to another. He also sees potential in no-code/low-code tools. "They are not perfect, but certainly it is a window into the possibility of what's to come," he said.
CIOs, however, are divided on whether and how to use low-code/no-code technology. Person said some CIOs don't want anyone to deploy code unless they're in a technology group. Other CIOs, however, want to put tools in place to make employees more successful in their day-to-day work, but also provide the proper governance for their use. Person said he's in the latter camp.
"Technology needs to be an enabler, but the one thing [it] can't be is an enabler that opens up all kinds of security holes," Person said. "That governance structure is really important."
5. Shoring up cybersecurity
CIOs juggle an array of emerging technologies, from automation to AI, but they still must focus on the ever-present cybersecurity threat. The attack surface requiring protection expands as organizations digitalize more business processes.
"With all that CIOs and CTOs are trying to do, I think integrating appropriate security into the mix is an enormous challenge," said Matthew Mead, CTO at SPR.
One aspect of that challenge is an apparent disconnect between the IT organization's ranking of cybersecurity as a priority and the availability of investment dollars. The IT leaders SPR polled cited cybersecurity as the top skill required to execute technology strategy. But cybersecurity placed fourth behind data, cloud and digital workplace technologies when it comes to resource allocation, according to the company.
The Info-Tech report, meanwhile, pointed to ransomware readiness as a critical area for improvement this year. CIOs should consider partnering with vendors and coordinating cybersecurity efforts with other companies in their industry sectors, Jackson said. "This is challenging for any one company to deal with on its own," he added.
Jackson acknowledged that sharing cyber information remains a touchy subject among enterprises. But he noted ransomware can do much more than disrupt a business's operations, citing attacks on hospitals and energy pipelines. "This is a threat to society," he said. "We have to have a combined effort across sectors."
6. Looking into sustainability metrics and reporting
CIOs can look forward to yet another assignment as sustainability standards begin to coalesce.
The International Sustainability Standards Board in May outlined steps toward creating a baseline for sustainability disclosures, with plans to have the standard-setting work completed by the end of 2022. The board seeks to establish environmental, social and governance reporting standards for international investors. That move followed the publishing of the Securities and Exchange Commission's proposed climate risk disclosure rule.
Governments will legislate around the emerging standards, which will create compliance requirements for publicly traded companies, Jackson said. Businesses will need dashboards to track their carbon emissions and those of their supply chain companies. Data collection requirements will include facilities such as data centers.
"CIOs will have to get involved in this," Jackson said.
IT managers will likely need some outside help from consultants and technology vendors to understand how to measure carbon emissions. "Most organizations have never thought through this process before," Jackson noted.
7. Navigating inflation
Rising inflation calls for CIOs to think carefully about the timing of IT purchases.
Technology refresh cycles may be coming up for organizations that acquired networking gear in the early days of the pandemic. The question for IT managers is whether to wait a while longer to replace technology, thinking prices will drop, or make an immediate purchase, thinking prices will continue to rise.
"There are some signs that inflation will go the other way, but the signal isn't strong enough yet," Person said. "It's really hard to anticipate what's happening next. So, I think it's difficult, across the board, for people to figure out the timing on major purchases right now."
In addition to hedging equipment purchases, IT managers can also examine recurring costs such as SaaS subscription fees. A close look at utilization could uncover opportunities to scale back or optimize SaaS to account for inflationary growth, Person noted.