The good news for enterprise IT is that CEOs see digital technology as more important than ever, especially in plotting out their post-COVID recovery. The bad news? CEO’s don’t exactly have a clear idea of what ‘digital technology’ means.
At the end of 2020, Gartner conducted its annual survey of CEOs in various industries around the world, asking them to name their top priorities for 2021 and 2022. The results are now in, and CEOs clearly see technology as key to their post-COVID recovery and growth plans.
Here’s what CEOs in 30 countries named as their top five business priorities for this year and next:
- corporate (i.e., strategy, reorganization)
- financial (i.e., cash flow, cost cutting)
- workforce (i.e., retention, hiring, health/safety)
Compared with Gartner’s 2019 survey (conducted pre-COVID, of course), CEOs are making technology a much higher priority in 2021 and 2022. In fact, the number of CEOs ranking technology as a top five priority has jumped by 20 per cent since the 2019 survey.
IT has clearly proven its worth to the C-suite during this pandemic.
The money’s on tech
Tech is also a top priority for CEOs when it comes to spending. CEOs cited the following areas as their top five priorities for increased financing and investment in 2021 and 2022:
- digital capabilities
- information technology
- product enhancement
- people and culture development
- R&D and innovation
Having tech ranked first and second on that kind of list sounds good for enterprise IT departments, right?
The thing is, CEOs may not define digital technology the same way their CIOs and CTOs do. Based on the Gartner survey, many CEOs may not even know what ‘digital’ really means.
The survey’s most revealing finding emerged when Gartner asked the CEOs this question: “Which new technologies will most significantly impact your industry over the next three years?”
Here were the CEOs’ top answers:
- artificial intelligence
- general IT-related tech
So C-suite execs plan to embrace e-commerce as a ‘new’ technology to drive post-COVID recovery and growth? Really? Kristin Moyer, a distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, was also a little gob-smacked by the popularity of that response.
“I mean, e-commerce is (like playing) digital catch-up,” Moyer remarked during a webinar presentation of the survey findings.
Another distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, Mark Raskino, was similarly unimpressed to see CEOs cite cloud as a top ‘new’ technology for strategic business change, since (as he pointed out during the webinar) cloud computing has been around for, oh, more than a decade.
Raskino was also flummoxed by the word ‘digitalization,’ which was the second most popular answer given by CEOs.
(Note: the CEOs were not given a list of specific words or priorities to choose from; the word ‘digitalization’ ranked high on the list because it was the answer provided directly by many of the CEOs surveyed.)
“Digitalization? Like, what does that even mean, you know? This word keeps popping out of CEOs’ mouths and they clearly don’t have a definition around it,” Raskino said.
As best as Gartner researchers can gather from the poll responses, when CEOs say they prioritize ‘digitalization,’ they really mean ‘taking existing processes and just digitizing them.’ Not exactly a visionary take in 2021, eh?
“Doing a lot of (digital) stuff doesn’t mean innovative change,” Moyer warned. “We’re seeing a rise in scaling safe, conventional digital efficiency … and a drop in deeper digital change ambition. So we worry a little bit that CEOs are digressing to more of an e-business type of agenda.”
How can enterprise IT managers rescue their CEOs from the technology time warp they seem to be stuck in? Raskino suggested they should harness data and analytics to:
- track how their customers’ beliefs and behaviours have shifted due to COVID
- determine how those shifts will affect customer preferences and demand in their sector over the next two years
- track the changing dynamics of growth opportunities and risks in different geographic markets due to COVID
- analyze how shipping and taxation trends are changing in various parts of the world due to COVID, and predict how that could affect their business
Raskino said analytics can also help CEOs avoid “thinking of (digital) only as e-business on steroids rather than a digital deepening into the product and the business model.”
“We’ve had this hard reset, this pivot,” he added, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This isn’t just about a bit more cloud and what are we going to do with desktops and should we upgrade our ERP? It’s all of the philosophical questions around technology strategy, including things like do we need an AI ethics council and is blockchain really going to revolutionize our industry?”
At the end of the virtual presentation, Raskino posed another question, one that he intended to be rhetorical: “The decade of digital awakening and catch-up is kind of done, right?”
We should get a clearer answer to that a year or two from now, when organizations look back at what they really, truly prioritized while formulating their strategy for business after COVID.