The COVID-19 black swan turned 2020 into a year of great angst and its effects will continue through most of 2021. The global economic and geopolitical environments will be negative for most countries for at least the first half of the upcoming year, which will make for uncertainty and more constrained IT budgets. Furthermore, the disintermediation and structural impacts of the digitalization of corporate business models will add additional distress and uncertainty, as companies and individuals strive to determine how to survive and prosper in the New Normal. To address these challenges, business and IT executives must re-examine their business models, culture, people, processes and supply chains as well as the impacts caused by external pressures. Externally, IT executives will have to work with non-IT teams to improve and restructure processes to address the business requirements underlying the work-from-home (WFH) requirements for more collaborative, interactive, personalized, and predictive real-time information using AI, analytics, IoT, mass personalization and mobility. Simultaneously, IT executives will have to address the data integrity and privacy and service level concerns that impact business outcomes, productivity, revenues and cybersecurity so that there is more confidence in IT and the organization as a whole. Internally, IT executives will need to increase their focus on analytics, automation, componentization, containerization, machine learning, operations effectiveness, orchestration, privacy, and security so that IT can deliver more and better offerings quicker and at a lower cost while protecting the organization from cybersecurity attacks and vulnerabilities.
Our 2020 predictions were good for the first two months of the year – and then the novel coronavirus closed down the world. While vaccines are now in the process of being disbursed around the globe to create a level of herd immunity, we remain a long way off before that occurs and governments cease the lockdown directives that are destroying their economies. The good news is that businesses can plan a little better for 2021 than they could for the second half of 2020. Nonetheless, a good amount of uncertainty remains.
The United States will experience a positive year overall, as long as the new Biden administration and the state and local governments do not keep constraints on various business sectors much beyond the first quarter of the year. Outside of the U.S., the majority of countries will also see a level of positive growth once their governments allow businesses to go back to work. Further tensions and disruptions are expected at the usual hotspots, which could have a substantial impact on commerce. Moreover, regulations such as the general data protection regulation (GDPR) and its equivalents in California, Canada, and other regions, and cybersecurity breaches like the Solar Winds hacks are forcing businesses and governments to reconsider their culture, processes and views on privacy and security. Therefore, executives must invest in transforming their business with a constant eye on cybersecurity and drive process improvements to remain competitive, help contain costs, enhance compliance, minimize risks, ensure privacy, and improve resource utilization. Below are five areas that will be focal points in 2021.
Digital Transformation – The COVID-19 lockdowns forced organizations to accelerate their digital transformation projects from years to months. The meaning of “location” changed in 2020 and it has impacted where and how people work and who they work with and how they interact. Business units that were once concentrated on a campus are now spread out over sometimes vast geographies and interacting via a myriad of social media tools. While most organizations made a shift to digital business to support the WFH environment and online commerce, many guardrails, especially in the areas of governance, privacy, and security, were lowered in order to meet the rapid timeline constraints. 2021 will be the year for eliminating the exposures, making structural changes, and getting new controls in place. Additionally, firms will be automating processes and operations and re-evaluating supply chains. Once the basics have been done, companies will tackle the customer experience elements, as users prefer working with enterprises that make doing business with them simple.
Cloud/Edge/IoT – First it was “cloud,” then it moved to hybrid cloud, and multi-cloud. In 2021 we will see a major move to the edge along with an acceleration of workloads moving to various cloud options. As always, the network/server/storage topography continues to evolve, with new products and solutions appearing daily that will make it difficult for IT executives and architects to construct application and data architectures that can survive long-term. While new methods of abstraction, automation, orchestration, and portability emerge to address these growing issues, companies find themselves already locked into legacy cloud solutions with islands of data that are out of control. Cloud portability has become a challenge, which means architects need to determine the best target cloud/edge solutions for each workload early in the cycle. Thus, while there will be more workload movement to clouds, edge, and IoT, the business impacts and results will be mixed.
Cybersecurity and Compliance – The use of analytics, and machine learning will help improve real-time analysis, but because guardrails were loosened and state (and professional) actors are more active, cybersecurity breaches will still be a major challenge in 2021. The Solar Winds breaches continue to demonstrate that companies and governments still have significant holes in their cybersecurity structures. Moreover, the increase in successful ransomware attacks have emboldened even more attacks. This new year will produce more of the same, with the average financial impact increasing. On top of that, most users remain oblivious to the impacts caused by poor email practices, use of insecure mobile apps, and insecure IoT devices. It is evident from examining the breaches that organizations have less of a technology problem than people and process failures (including the application of configurations, encryption, patches, and quality code). Companies need to re-imagine their security practices from all angles and clean up their recent and longer-term technical debt. Furthermore, the lack of cloud service provider (CSP) transparency remains an issue and an exposure in 2021, especially since the CSPs feel they offer secure platforms and the breaches are caused by customers’ failures. On the compliance front, expect other countries (and U.S. states) to continue to pass their own privacy acts, creating a patchwork of requirements that firms will struggle to adhere to. Thus, in 2021 IT executives will be hard pressed to keep up with compliance requirements globally while improving users’ support for compliance. IT executives will need to work with auditors and regulators to develop better proactive processes that reduce the cost of compliance and risk exposure.
Data and Analytics – Data and data usage will be the key to success in 2021. The shift to cloud and edge – and the associated architectural decisions behind the moves – focused on workloads and not on data. This is once again aggravating data integrity challenges while increasing the exposure to data loss. Organizations will need to put more emphasis on data management if this issue is to be properly addressed. We expect that to occur naturally in some companies but it will be failures that force most of the change. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a required component to almost all new solutions. There are a few areas where AI options are visible – robotic process automation (RPA), virtual agents, machine learning, deep learning, and reinforcement inference learning. The digital transformation shift instituted some RPA implementations. In 2021 we will see significantly more. AI/ML will prove to be valuable components of most of the new development, IT operations, and OT (business Operations Technology) production tools that are needed in the post-COVID-19 New Normal.
DevSecOps / DataOps – The trend toward DevOps and DevSecOps will gain momentum in 2021 but progress will remain slow with most companies a long way from having this as their development standard. The challenge is not the technology – new and enhanced CI/CD and other automation/orchestration tools appear almost daily – but overcoming the organizational resistance to change as well as the acceptance of new and expanded roles and responsibilities for developers. The incorporation of security into DevOps (to DevSecOps) so that security does not become a bottleneck has not been easy. Enterprises struggle to find the right set of tools for new application code scans and tests, and regression testing that is easy to use and does not impact the process flow. Furthermore, success has been limited by not having the right metrics in place and monitoring progress throughout the year. Until this is corrected, progress will be limited. On the other hand, DataOps is a newer methodology that is a needed counterpart to DevSecOps but is yet to gain momentum. It is problematic to have new DevSecOps applications available for production within a few weeks or months when some of the supporting data cannot be extracted, transformed and loaded in less than six months. DataOps will see 2021 as a year of piloting and initial penetration in a number of large enterprises.
The Bottom Line
The paradigm shift to a digital economy is still in process, but it is not a technology issue – it is a business model transformation and must be recognized as such. Business executives cannot leave these decisions to IT executives or business/technology consultants. Executives need to determine what businesses they wish to be in, what structural changes are needed, create the strategies, and then have the processes and applications designed and implemented. While this is a multi-year initiative with a lot of moving parts, many components must be delivered in 2021 if companies expect to remain competitive.
The year 2021 will be challenging for business and IT executives. IT needs to work harder to integrate itself with the business and work collaboratively to enhance operations (whether onsite, in the cloud, or at the edge) and innovate new, simpler approaches for doing business. Additionally, IT executives will need to invest in AI/ML, cybersecurity, DevSecOps, DataOps, and other process improvements to help contain costs, enhance compliance, increase flexibility and responsiveness, minimize risks, and improve resource utilization. Business and IT executives should collaborate throughout the year so that IT budgets, plans and strategies dovetail with organizational goals and needs and remain tightly integrated throughout the year.