The 6 Biggest Challenges Facing CTOs in 2021
Please note: this is an update to an existing article that was originally written during the height of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, offering new and emerging insights for CTO’s to be aware of in 2021 and beyond.
The colossal, industry-changing disruption caused by the 2020 pandemic changed the way CTOs work forever. Throughout this period of confusion and disruption, it was technology and science that helped pave the way for recovery.
From day-to-day innovations such as remote working software that allowed businesses to continue their operations from home through to life-changing medical technology fuelling vaccine uptake, technology has been the backbone on which all industries have begun to reclaim their way of life.
However, this also poses new challenges to CTOs charged with building software, apps and tech in a newly transformed world - where even those who were once averse to digital tools are not using them in their day to day lives.
As a CTO, you are not just responsible for ensuring the delivery of all technology in your business, but you must also act as a “shining light in leading [your] organisation through periods of disruption”.
Your role is to identify challenges, delegate the work and lead the strategy that defines your company’s use of technology - both internally and externally. But hey, you already know that part. So let’s go through the top CTO challenges right now and explore how to navigate them with a long-term vision in mind.
A McKinsey survey revealed that COVID-19 challenges not only accelerated the rate of digital adoption and transformation across companies in all sectors - but also showed that many of these digital changes are permanent.
Globally, digital adoption was accelerated by approximately 3 years. The survey also found that the rate of development of digital products surged - especially in the healthcare, financial and professional service sectors, where digital products were developed twice as fast as those reported by consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies that continue to rely on physical products.
The survey also looked at the digital changes implemented vs the respondent’s belief in whether they will stick. This revealed it is the most digitally-focused changes which will be those that persist. Respondents said that the most likely changes to ‘stick’ were increases in remote working (more on that further in this article), increased migration of assets to the cloud, increased spending on data security and increased ways for customers to purchase products/services online.
This survey backs up an obvious point: there has never been a greater demand for digitisation - whether that’s regarding workforce processes, customer-facing products/services or technology that drives organisational change.
To clarify that point, we’ll mention the McKinsey survey one last time… we know, we’ve used it a lot. But it’s too good to ignore. The survey found that businesses that invested or experimented with digital technology more than their competitors were better able to successfully navigate the COVID-19 crisis.
Putting all of this simply, companies that recognised the need for digital transformation performed better during COVID-19. Those that didn’t were forced to acknowledge its value. For all of us in 2021, digital transformation is now, quite simply, a necessity.
Remote Working as Standard
Back in 2020, we wrote the following: “As we emerge from a national lockdown, you may be slowly bringing furloughed workers back to the office. When COVID-19 hit the UK back in March, we had no idea what to expect. Weeks turned into months and project work took nosedive, with senior managers turned away from the long-term projection in favour of survival mode.
Many CTOs saw their attention shift towards enabling remote-working, including sourcing hardware, managing communications methods and ensuring cybersecurity on home networks. The time and resources dedicated to delivering long-term projects in keeping with wider company goals went on the back burner and many businesses are now suffering as a result.
Whether you’re leading on the development of an internal tool to streamline logistics and boost efficiency, or you’re mid-rebrand and stuck with a website or app that is neither here nor there, one thing’s for sure: you’re not alone. The pandemic has affected us all immensely and, while we’re not out of the woods yet, we have to adapt our approach to driving forward with goals - and stop waiting around for things to get ‘back to normal’ - whatever that looks like.”
We now know, in 2021, that ‘normal’ is never going to be clear-cut. Some companies have shifted to permanent remote working, while others are dead-set on returning to the office. Most seem to be seeking a medium between the two - with a few days spent remote and a few in more relaxed offices.
In an article by the BBC, a likely future of post-COVID-19 working is discussed in light of ‘staggered’ office space - where the workforce will be rotated on a staggered basis to allow collaboration in the office and remote work for those not required that day.
For CTOs this means knowing how to properly manage teams that may shift to both remote and in-office work. Tools such as Asana, which have grown even more popular during lockdowns, will continue to be essential parts of collaboration between team members. Video conferencing to ‘dial in’ remote employees to any office teams will also be important.
The pandemic brought with it huge instability which shows no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, around two-thirds of SMEs in the UK are planning to, or have made, redundancies following the coronavirus outbreak.
However, by 2021, many businesses surprised economists by becoming more resilient against lockdowns and being able to continue to offer employment - with the unemployment rate falling slightly since record highs in Autumn 2020. As businesses re-open, employment is now surging - but not in the industries or talent areas that most CTOs are involved in.
This period of swift and intense change has sparked a huge opportunity for those in tech, and as a CTO, the decisions you make next are vital to the future success of your organisation. Tech was proven to be a more resilient sector during COVID-19 disruption thanks to its ability to adapt to remote work and the dependency on other businesses on technology - but talent movement and mobility is a greater challenge.
Globally, we’ve seen increased demand for roles in and around the tech sphere - and not just on the delivery side such as development and design staff, but also project management, strategy, innovators, communicators and linguists who can help organisations maximise the power of technology on a global stage.
In fact,71% of business leaders thought business would become more dependent on technology in the future as a result of COVID-19, driving demand for talent, according to research carried out by TechUK.
So, what challenges does this present to CTOs?
Unfortunately, it may mean a struggle to find tangible candidates. The BBC predicts a coming digital skills crisis for the future British workforce, with the uptake of IT at GCSE down 40% since 2014.
With the figures we’ve talked about above, the demand for good digital candidates has never been higher. Britain’s recovery must be digital - but what if there aren’t enough skilled workers to fuel it?
CTOs must therefore be willing to invest in training for their current team, explore apprenticeship placements and try to retain the teams they already have. Otherwise, you may be risking having demand stretched beyond capacity.
Of course, there’s another solution to this lack of digitally skilled candidates...
Everyone is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic - but few industries have managed to recruit at the right pace to ‘reskill’ their team for the coming digital transformation. As we’ve just discussed, there’s not enough new talent to support the needs of businesses that are trying to supercharge their digital growth.
Agencies, while also challenged by the pandemic, have emerged as invaluable partners for businesses. The value of an agency has always been that a CTO/business owner can quickly access expert skills and talent without the time and money investment of full-time recruitment - but as the country and world heads out of COVID-19, this is more useful than ever.
Working with agencies means instantly gaining new skills and abilities without having to recruit. For businesses who are trying to enact digital change NOW, working with an agency is often essential. Even if you have your own extensive tech team, there are likely skills you lack in-house which an agency can help provide.
Communication has never been more important, however, only choose to work with agencies who are willing to adapt to your own team’s structure and establish clear communication channels and processes. At KOMODO, for example, we invite our clients into their own project-specific Slack channels so they can communicate with not only account managers, but directly with the team working on your project.
If you haven’t already, arrange a meeting with your agency to go through the company’s current targets, how they may have changed and where your agency’s efforts could be best served.
This really is your opportunity to determine whether they are still the right fit for your business in a post-pandemic world.
And, if they’re not? Then it’s time to take a step back, reassess and meet some new ones.
Cybersecurity & Compliance
According to Gartner, for example, only 24% of businesses routinely follow cybersecurity best practices and consequently, the estimated bill in 2021 for addressing poor security is expected to cost a whopping $6 trillion worldwide. As the world looks towards digital transformation, it’s time for CTOs to really lead the way with cybersecurity and compliance.
As businesses try to decide how best they can drive digital innovations, it will fall to CTOs to lay out the right pathways and give them opportunities to improve in areas just like cybersecurity which were once either neglected or worse, ignored.
Take, for example, the new ‘blended’ model of remote work. How does a CTO ensure that corporate data is kept safe as employees inevitably use personal equipment to access company data, or use company equipment for personal usage? While employees taking equipment home is nothing new, the permanent shift to semi-remote working caused by COVID means this needs to be re-addressed.
Lessons learned during the pandemic should be used to design better cybersecurity systems and to prove the value of an investment in areas like automated security software. Those with good Cyber Incident Breach Response (CIBR) plans in place should incorporate the learnings from COVID-19 into future response plans.
Furthermore, CTOs will likely be investing in new technologies such as 5G, AI, the IoT (internet of things) and more cloud adoption - which all pose their own unique security challenges which must be addressed.
A final note is that of accessibility. As COVID-19 related changes mean more people began using digital software, devices and apps, accessibility has gone from a ‘nice to have’ to a critical, essential and often, legally-required consideration. The RNIB has pushed for lawsuits due to digital discrimination, though most cases have been settled out of court.
Considering there are 13.9 million registered disabled people in the UK, not meeting accessibility guidelines doesn’t just mean failing to meet requirements - it also means missing out on a huge potential pool of users.
Even those who are not registered as disabled can benefit from good accessibility standards - which is why many modern UX designers are engaged in research and development for solutions that make it easier for ALL users to interact with tech.
We’ve already written extensively about accessibility guidelines in both mobile and web design, so we won’t go into too much detail here. Nevertheless, with an upsurge in digital activity across all sectors, CTOs simply cannot afford to not invest in accessibility to meet the rights and expectations of the previously tech-adverse users forced into digital adoption by the pandemic.
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