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Where IT is headed in 2021: 5 key trends to watch

2021 might not yet feel too different from 2020, but CompTIA's latest report highlights five intriguing trends in the IT industry for which you need to be ready.

While the first months of 2021 didn't look much different from late 2020, there are some positive trends to follow and business initiatives to consider, according to survey data in CompTIA's "IT Industry Outlook 2021."

The yearly study provides the latest insight into the trends shaping the industry and its workforce, and changing business models. Here's a look at five things to know about in 2021, with more details available in the report below.

1. The IT industry remains cautious -- but bullish

There are many factors expected to drive positive growth in the tech industry in 2021, led by a pickup in existing customer business. There's a lot of "new" to consider too: Reaching new customer segments and selling new business lines and products finished among the top four reasons CompTIA survey respondents are optimistic for the new year.

But overall, many companies are still quite concerned about the pandemic, as 77% of channel respondents said continued COVID-19 effects could impact business, while unexpected incidents, such as a financial crisis or natural disaster, as well as postponed purchases, are also big worries.

"From a revenue perspective, fingers are crossed. The glass half-full crowd (37%) expect that they will grow revenue in 2021 in excess of both 2020 and 2019 results. Another quarter expects to remain stable with 2020, though that could be a revenue level that was less than 2019 for those firms. Nearly another quarter of respondents acknowledge that 2020 led to lost revenue, but they predict a return to 2019 levels this coming year," according to CompTIA.

2. Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts will increase

It's unfortunate that diversity initiatives became somewhat politicized in 2020, but the truth is -- and data supports -- that companies that implement DEI programs are more profitable, more productive and more successful. But more needs to be done. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that computing occupations held by women has declined from a high of 36% in 1991 to 26% today. Expect more public commitments to diversity within the workforce in 2021.

"The end result [of diversity initiatives] may be immeasurable as companies reap the benefits of multiple perspectives and support equal opportunity for all groups," according to the report. "As much as 2020 taught companies about flexibility and resilience in the face of business disruption, it has also drawn a spotlight to fair treatment, and the most forward-thinking companies will publicly demonstrate their commitment to this ideal."

Forces shaping IT industry growth in 2021

CompTIA's latest survey puts emerging trends in context to reveal likely impacts on 2021 business growth.

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3. Emerging tech finds a home inside business solutions

Nobody ever says, "Hi, I'd like to buy some blockchain" or "Can I order some more IoT?" Those technologies, as well as other emerging tech like artificial intelligence, were never designed to be point solutions. Instead, they're being implemented into bigger solutions designed to solve real and specific business problems -- which spells opportunity for solution providers of all types able to leverage the techs to build differentiating solutions.

"Most businesses will not have an IoT strategy; they will implement IoT components in their strategy for inventory management or property operations. Moving forward, the question around emerging technology is not How do you sell this technology? or How do you stand up this technology? but How do you use this technology to craft a unique solution? As with all strategic IT, answering this question requires both an understanding of the technology and an understanding of business operations," CompTIA wrote in the IT outlook report.

4. Some optimism for 2021 budgets

After such a chaotic 2020, about 41% of channel respondents expect their 2021 budgets to be about the same as 2020, which could be seen as good news in some respects. The better news? Another 25% of channel companies expect their tech spending to be somewhat higher, compared to 13% who expect budgets to be somewhat lower. The data was also pretty succinct as to where that money should be spent.

"Respondents have some clear opinions on what department areas are getting sufficient allocation in the overall budget versus those areas that could use more or less. Sales, marketing and, oddly, tech support rate highest as areas being slightly underfunded. Marketing is an obvious one; for many channel firms it has always lagged in both resources and general attention," according to CompTIA.

5. Zero trust shapes new cybersecurity initiatives

If we were talking about people, building a business model where you literally trust no one would seem a bit much, but when it comes to new devices on a network, it makes perfect sense. After all, bad guys spend all day trying to find that one vulnerability to exploit. And all it takes is one. The advent of zero trust -- where every device, transaction, everything -- must be verified; it is being employed at the data, application and user access levels.

"As companies become more comfortable with a zero-trust framework, they will also gain an appreciation for the new investments they have to make, the new processes they have to build and the new skills they need to acquire," according to CompTIA.

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