Top performing enterprises are accelerating digital innovation and leveraging emerging technologies to come out stronger on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has arguably been the most significant “turn” in 2020, according to Gartner's annual global survey of CIOs.

In response, the report adds, 2021 will be a race to digital with the spoils going to those organizations that can maintain the momentum built up during their response to the pandemic.

The 2021 Gartner CIO Agenda (behind paywall) survey gathered data from 1,877 CIO respondents in 74 countries and all major industries, representing approximately $4.7 trillion in revenue/public-sector budgets and $85 billion in IT spending. The resulting report argues the support for remote work that the COVID-19 pandemic brought will be one of the biggest wins. CIOs now have the attention of the CEO, and they have convinced senior business leaders of the need to modernize technology.

What are the practical learnings that enterprises and CEOs can take with them as they plot their way through the digital workplace in 2021? We identified five:

1. Securing the Workplace

Susie Wee, senior vice president and general manager of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Cisco DevNet and CX ecosystem success, said the need for a dedicated office is no longer a priority with remote work, but the work experience will have to remain consistent no matter where the workforce is located.

This makes the ability to ensure secure connections from wherever employees are logging in mission critical to the transition. The increase in access points means a wider surface for cyberattacks and businesses will need to incorporate additional security expertise into their infrastructure using automation to deploy at scale. The DevSecOps engineer helps them do this.

SASE (Secure Access Service Edge), cloud and cybersecurity skills will remain in high demand. Demand will be high for full-stack developers and engineers. “Site engineer, network automation architect, cloud architect, cloud automation architect — these emerging roles will need to understand the impact of a digital customer experience, security and security regulations, and automation that will help scale these technologies,” she said.

Related Article: Is Your Business Data Safe in Slack and Microsoft Teams?

2. Rapid Tool Adoption

For Stewart Dunlop, CEO of, a UK-based SEO specialist, the biggest lesson from digital transformation is that enterprises need to assess new tools against business needs and check the possibility of customizing those tools to correspond to workplace needs. Many enterprises waste budget and good will by introducing tools that are not used and overwhelm employees with functionality they may not need.

Thorough planning before adoption is a must. It may delay progress but it is better to profit from a slightly slower but successful rollout rather than get lost in tools and applications. Smaller teams may not need all the functionality offered by separate tools for virtual meeting collaboration, video calls and sophisticated CRMs.

The key takeaway is to think through practical use prior to making any further steps and balance long-term profit from digitization with speed to action.

3. Upskilling for Digital Transformation

Gabe Dalporto, CEO of Mountain View, Calif-based Udacity, an online learning platform, said COVID-19 has highlighted the challenges that have been present since the beginning.

Many people found their jobs impacted by COVID-19, and many of those lost jobs are not coming back. Digital transformation has been accelerating for years and there simply have not been enough skilled workers to fill the jobs that support it.

“Since the pandemic, companies have beefed up their virtual learning strategies to augment skills in data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud and other technologies for which talent is in short supply," Dalporto said. "In a recent survey of our customers, 70 percent claim skills gaps are hindering innovation.”

Learning Opportunities

That gap, combined with the rapid evolution of technologies that can provide a digital edge, has pushed companies to invest in training current employees. The idea is to better prepare workers to accommodate changing business requirements, thus enabling the companies like Shell, BMW, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and AT&T to better compete.

Related Article: Want to Be a Leader in the Digital-First Era? Upskill Your Workforce

4. Inevitability of Change

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that no matter how long things have been done a certain way, that can change overnight and organizations must adapt, said Nelson Sherwin, CEO of PEO Compare, an online professional employer organization.

“If you are not flexible, adaptable, if you are not fluid and ready to pivot, you’re basically dead," he said. "If there is any type of advice I can offer for 2021 and beyond, it’s to be ready for anything, and don’t become too complacent. We are going through a time of profound change on every level. Be ready to embrace it and you’re going to be among the lucky ones who survive the shift in the market."

Organizations that stick with the old ways are likely to be left behind, Sherwin added. The shift is unequivocally leaning towards a complete digitization and a move towards an increasingly remote workplace. Company leaders need to start thinking about what it means for their own company in terms of integrating digital.

5. Forced Reassessment of Priorities

The digital surge prompted by COVID-19 has also shown that successful digital transformation requires more than just enthusiasm. In their rush to pivot to digital channels in the early days of the pandemic, many organizations merely transformed long, complicated paper processes into long, complicated online processes, said Tiffany Carpenter, head of customer Intelligence at SAS UK & Ireland. An online loan application form, for example, demands just as much time and effort as a manual paper process. How does that serve the customer?

Carpenter said poorly executed digital initiatives can seed even bigger problems in customer experience. An impressive front end can imply speed and agility that the rest of the system simply cannot deliver.

COVID-19-driven lockdowns forced consumers into digital channels. Whether they are seeking a mortgage holiday from the bank or home delivery from a retailer, consumers rightly expect the same level of personalized service they might receive from an in-person interaction. Such expectations have pushed most online systems and digital transformation strategies to their limits. At odds with a seamless, personalized service suited to each customer, today’s digital options tend to offer a one-size-fits-all customer solution.

Perhaps one of the pandemic’s greatest gifts to businesses has been the forced reassessment of priorities. They know where to focus their digital efforts but many businesses have lost sight of their customers. Successful digital transformation demands a customer-centric guiding strategy.