Each January BCS produce a report informed by IT leaders. This year it was also the basis of the inaugural IT Leaders Forum event - ‘The Adaptive CIO’. Brian Runciman MBCS looks at some of the takeaways on concerns, priorities and skills gaps.

Like no other year, 2020 showed just how reliant all organisations are on the IT function. The effect on IT leaders, in the tech and people context, has been commensurately large.

With 2020 showing us how much we need IT expertise, IT competency and dependable systems, the so-called ‘soft skills’ of caring for the team and empathetic leadership have also come into their own.

This is shown in some of the biggest changes in numbers seen in the BCS IT Leaders survey in recent years. But the numbers also demonstrate that when IT leaders raise issues that need addressing (security and cloud loom large, yet again) - they know of what they speak.

It is hardly surprising that responders this year have had things to say about good people management, business continuity strategy and, as always, where they feel their concerns and gaps are most pressing.

Key findings

The annual BCS IT Leaders report sees IT professionals share insight and make predictions about future technology trends.

The priorities for 2021 are operational efficiencies (59%), business transformation and organisational change (55%) and remote and distributed working (48%).

  • When asked to single out their number one priority, the top answer is business transformation and organ-isational change, selected by 22% of respondents. This is followed by operational efficiencies (15%) and staff engagement and well-being (10%).
  • The technologies that organisations are prioritising for 2021 are cyber security (61%), cloud (also 61%), and business process automation (47%).
  • When asked to identify their top technology priority, cyber security (18%) edges ahead of cloud (15%). Also with 15% is business process automation, closely followed by agile methods (14%)
  • Only 9% of participants feel their organisation has enough resources to achieve success in 2021.

What changed across 2020?

The highest scoring priorities for 2021: ‘operational efficiencies’, ‘business transformation and organisational change’, and ‘remote and distributed working’, represent a shift in the patterns of recent years.

This is no doubt due to the uncertain nature of the year and is reflected in the drop in the position of ‘continuous innovation’. It was first in 2019, with 54%; in 2020, it was second overall with 53% - this year, it dropped to fifth place.

Conversely, ‘staff engagement and well-being’ was prioritised by 44% as a top five answer for 2021: a significant leap from the 32% who rated this in the top five in 2020’s report.

Similar trends were reflected when choosing the organisation’s top priority. Again, ‘staff engagement’ rose significantly - it was only a top priority for 3% in 2020 and 4% in 2019 but hit 10% this year.

‘Operational efficiency’, too, is on a general upward trend. It was rated as the top priority by 10% in 2019, 17% in 2020, with 15% this year.

Most important technologies

The highest scoring technology priorities were consistent with recent years - which reflects well on previous strategies, but the relative importance was even stronger. ‘Cybersecurity’ and ‘cloud’ were tied with a 61% strike rate, with ‘business process automation’ following in third position.

‘Cybersecurity’ and ‘cloud’ were also joint top in 2020 but with only a 52% strike rate; similar numbers were recorded in 2019. In 2019, ‘business process improvement’ scored 36%, so 2021’s 47% is again a significant jump.

Unsurprisingly, these trends were also reflected in the choice of top technology priority. ‘Cybersecurity’ was chosen by 18%, ‘cloud’ and ‘business process automation’ by 15%, with ‘agile methods’ much-improved at 14%.

For comparison, in 2020, ‘business process automation’ was chosen as top priority by 10%, with ‘agile methods’ at 4%; in 2019, ‘business process automation’ was 12% with ‘agile methods’ at 7%.

It will come as little surprise after a tumultuous year that optimism about achieving organisational goals is low. Only 9% of participants feel their organisation has enough resources to achieve success in 2021. This compares to a steady (although still very low) 12% in both 2020 and 2019.

Sleepless nights at the top

So, what has led to IT leaders having a record-breaking (in BCS survey terms) low expectation of success in 2021? One of the key questions we’ve asked over the years of this survey, ‘What changes and trends in IT keep you awake at night?’ offers some insight.

The general picture from these verbatims is very much in keeping with the figures, with the two main answers being ‘cybersecurity’ and ‘cloud’. Two respondents summed these up neatly. On security: ‘Cybersecurity is a big worry. Most of the rest we are in control of - the inputs and outputs - but we cannot control bad actors. How much defence is enough?’

And on cloud: ‘We need to be able to prevent service failures in a complex, hybrid-cloud landscape.’

Of course, some other regular contenders were well represented: 5G, AI, legal compliance, Brexit, change management, capability gaps, data proliferation, decoupling data from legacy systems (Editor’s note: we have earmarked to explore what it really means in 2021), digital transformation and optimisation, disaster planning, digital literacy of general workforce, resilience and shadow IT.

The need to adjust to a changed 2021 provoked comments on what organisations will need to keep going. For example, the ‘ability to keep up and adapt without incurring unnecessary expenditure,’ and ‘to support large numbers of end users with new platforms.’

Risk radar

What else should we be aware of? Some comment highlights include:

‘Articulating business value.’
‘Being able to provide the latest IT services quickly enough for our business to deliver applications to our customers.’
‘Higher expectations for software security, unrealistic expectations for AI, reliability of deep-learning systems.’

Being a broad technology church at BCS means we also elicit some domain-specific comments. One commenter raised this problem: ‘All the changes are happening faster than the health service can (will) react to.’

Naturally enough, many of the concerns raised in the survey that will affect 2021 arise from 2020’s situation: ‘During this pandemic, platforms like Zoom, Teams, GoToMeeting, etc. have been very popular and often enabled businesses to continue to function. However, whilst they may, in some cases, have raised public and business trust in the profession, there are still too many failed IT projects.’

As noted above, innovation has taken an understandable back seat to business as usual. As one commenter said: ‘I work in the leisure sector and what keeps me awake is helping my company make it through the next year. Forget about upcoming trends, we are trying to work with 40% less staff and very little spending.’

Eyes on Europe and beyond

Inevitably, political views come in. BCS takes a neutral stance on party politics of course, but as an example, one respondent listed their concerns: ‘Lack of clarity over service provision to and from the EU. Losing all my biggest clients who are based in the EU. Brexit / government is a joke.’

Some larger unknowns also came up: ‘Scale of technical debt vs the imperative to address this very quickly (and at acceptable cost) in order to meet the changing needs of the world. Also, the difficulty of delivering complex change at scale.’

Another comment concerned how to ‘articulate the shift to operational expenditure model with a traditional organisation that expects a certain level of capital expenditure. And recruitment of staff with concerns about IR35 statutory changes.’

Some raised organisational maturity: ‘I am keen that we are working on strategically planned objectives and are innovative and creative. However, some of our drivers would require tactical solutions and we need to provide routes to create that flexibility. I am not sure we are mature in that way.’

Here are some of the business consideration comments this survey got:

‘Lack of general understanding of the mission criticality of data quality.’
‘Keeping pace of all changes is tremendously difficult (if not impossible). Not sure a specific “upcoming change/trend” is a cause of sleepless nights - but general workload can do at times.’
‘Making sure the balance is right between user needs, organisation needs and the appropriate use of digital and tech to improve services.’
‘My organisation fails to keep up because of a lack of IT literacy amongst leaders.’

Whilst there are clearly large areas of concern, there are also those with a philosophy that works for them. These two comments show either end of the spectrum:

‘There’s not enough space (in the survey) to really answer what keeps me up at night.’
‘Nothing keeps me up, really. Organisations that have embraced agile methodology and/or devops as part of their IT delivery process are already ahead of the curve towards adapting to any upcoming changes. For those that haven’t, this would be their main focus as well as building out their remote working capabilities.’

The COVID effect

Maybe an indicator of the effect of COVID is encapsulated in this stat: concerns about Brexit ran at 14% in the top five concerns for 2020 but dropped to 8% for 2021. IT leaders were clearly more concerned with other things, for example business continuity and looking after dispersed workforces.

Business continuity strategies

Nothing tests a business continuity or disaster preparedness plan more effectively, sadly, than an event. And we well know the effect that COVID has had on workforces, as one responder wrote: ‘100% remote working, temporary office closures, events have had to be moved online only - this has impacted our field marketing strategy significantly.’

A considerable number of responders found their plans up to the task. ‘One could make the argument that COVID has been a thorough test of our continuity strategy and that the test has been passed with flying colours,’ wrote one commenter. ‘Very little disruption has occurred despite the majority of our workforce now performing their duties from home, where previously there was a strong focus on working from fixed office locations.’

COVID has also meant that previously ad-hoc approaches to homeworking have been quickly firmed up. The move to the cloud, with an attendant collaboration mindset, has been not only needed, but imperative. Likewise, the move away from fixed hardware.

Discussing the change needed in threat perception, one person wrote: ‘All services are being reviewed and a programme of improvement to the ICT infrastructure has been implemented. Other planning is also underway. More monitoring of systems is taking place. The availability tiering of systems has been reviewed.’ These are no small tasks.

For some, these changes were part of a progression: ‘It accelerated change already underway - it also shifted the risk appetite to a less controlled environment.’

Planning and continuity

In terms of planning, certain principles have been reinforced: ‘Business continuity is a continuous working. It is ongoing, so programme and documentation should not be seen as final. There are always resource changes that could impact these arrangements.

‘During COVID-19, we have seen increases to resources; improved recruitment process; development of rotas; redeployment of essential resources; contracts extended and budget increases. Change improvements are reflected in continuity planning, which requires continual analysis of arrangements, so we are better positioned.’

We had several comments on successes and the benefits of previously started transformation:

‘Being an IT company, not only has our own (recovery plan) been properly tested, our entire client base and the IT model we sell has proven to be the best one it could have been.’
‘We invested in remote working prior to the pandemic.’

However, a certain amount of refocusing has also been provoked. Some comments:

‘It has made us focus much more on resilience and failover to ensure we keep systems up for longer.’
‘In many ways, continuity has improved with less reliance on availability of physical spaces. We are, however, now over-reliant on one key cloud infrastructure provider.’
‘Every business needs a business continuity plan. Our business impact analysis (BIA) focused more on system / DC outage scenarios prior to COVID-19.But business continuity planning in the workplace, i.e., business continuity for a pandemic, has become equally important now.’

The future, needs and requirements

The new requirements of continuity were well summarised by one commenter: ‘We have seen increased identification of business-critical processes and personnel. Increased use of technology to overcome diverse location of teams and key business activities. Additional validation testing of people, process, technology, to achieve effective business continuity. Fast-track delivery of new VDI and zero trust network services to support agility.’

Changes in IT leadership competencies

Much has been made over the years about soft skills, especially in IT, where the kneejerk response is often that managers and leaders can be too technical (the nerd / geek stereotype of empathy deficiency). The overwhelming number of comments here paint a different picture and the importance of empathy and trust came through strongly. Said one responder: ‘COVID-19 has made us think more about our staff and how we support them. It has brought out the softer skills in good ICT leaders.’

What has been required of leaders in this situation, which one responder said has allowed us to ‘think laterally about remote working’? Here are some noteworthy replies:

‘It has forced IT leaders to be much more business-and-value-focused rather than IT-centric in their thinking.’
‘A leader needs to take care of their people, especially when so many of our colleagues have lost their jobs. A good leader, whether or not they are in IT, will do this. The ability to think on your feet and prioritise when so much of the workforce is working from home is essential.’
‘There is increased focus in developing soft skills such as emotional intelligence, storytelling and managing time.’

More on COVID-19

Will COVID lead to a weeding out of leadership teams? One person said that it has ‘exaggerated [the deficiencies of] the less able leaders.’ And, from the technical perspective, ‘Anyone who thought the future is on-premise only is probably out of a job. Cloud has got everyone working from home so if you are not thinking cloud first then that is a problem.’

What are some of the other negatives that need further addressing?

‘It has shown that “know-it-alls” don’t actually know it all and that we are not immune to the basic business practices or continuity planning...’
‘IT has become reactive in 2020 where we need to be strategic.’
‘It’s definitely highlighted weaknesses in IT management for a number of companies. In the job market, I have noticed more IT management positions asking for more skill sets than usual but for the same salary. For me, strategy and project management skills have been tested rigorously.’

What other positive effects have been felt by IT leaders? Here are some comments:

‘We’re taken more seriously by senior management.’
‘We’ve become more human - and understanding of different working practice models.’

Capability gaps

We asked those surveyed to give free text answers of where they saw the capability gaps in their organisations. A lot of answers came with a cloud flavour: cloud adoption and migration; general cloud skills (for example AWS); cloud infrastructure and security; and cloud service support especially to aid large-scale homeworking.

Said one person: ‘We need more knowledge centred around on-premises infrastructure, which requires a change in development practices as we move towards a more cloud-based organisation.’

In other comments, these areas were mentioned as needing bolstering: cybersecurity, DevOps, project management, testing, legacy systems knowledge, robot process automation, SCCM knowledge and general web skills.

Some answers were around culture issues, for example, one commenter noted an issue with employees’ ‘willingness to learn and adapt in new and emerging technologies. Staff tend to become comfortable with existing technologies and forget to learn about the new stuff, which could offer significant benefits.’ We need them to ‘keep on top of change in the IT and applications stack, finesse soft skills for customer handling, have a general knowledge of what is possible, be multidisciplinary, understand commercial priorities and understand digital consumer behaviour.’

Some also had a forward-looking approach. One person was looking for ‘experience in Tameflow, a combination of agile and theory of constraints approaches. Many of our IT developers are working on old technology and use waterfall techniques. They will need training in cloud-based technology, agile methodologies, serverless architecture and UX.’

Again, we had some sector-specific comments, such as: ‘We need a general awareness of how digital can improve the many different roles across the healthcare provision environment.

‘The sudden work practice changes of the coronavirus pandemic made a big leap in people’s understanding and adoption of digital, but it also highlighted how much more there is to be done to bring the level of digital literacy across the organisation up to a reasonable standard.’

Filling the 2021 gaps: additional resource needs

Bar graph detailing additional resource needs

Interestingly, ‘increased budget’ has dropped from second place last year (45%) to fifth this year as an additional resource IT leaders think they will require for success. The number one requirement (presupposing training, education and certification) has increased from 63% last year.

In the ‘other’ category, some commenters took a more societal view: listing a ‘country-wide 5G network’ and ‘collaboration with other organisations’ as additional resource needs.

Further reading

The full report is available on mybcs.org. Members should log in, click on ‘Knowledge and resources’ and then ‘BCS research and insights’.

Read more, including:

  • Where IT leadership is now, including IT representation on the board.
  • Where IT leaders go for leadership tips and inspiration.
  • How business continuity strategies have been affected by COVID-19.
  • The IT strategy changes needed post-COVID.