Being the heroes of 2020 operation crises, CIOs and their teams now need to make hay while the pandmic rages hot.

Business leaders naturally want their organizations to accelerate digital business initiatives, but CIOs looking to turn this desire for digitalization into a reality must prepare the right mix of ingredients, according to Gartner.

The preparations for successful and long-term digital transformation (DX) involve three layers: learning lessons from 2020; building on the business requirements for further data-led change; and delivering better customer experiences through emerging technology.

2021 is seeing new opportunities for C-suite executives. CIOs and their IT teams who are getting the right mix now can bake lasting success into their digital business strategy. Let us look at those DX layers in detail.

Layer 1: Learning from 2020

It is fair to say that the IT department and the business have sometimes had an uneasy relationship. While certain functional lines, like finance and marketing, can be sure of their seat at the top table, IT has often been viewed as a poor relation to some of its business peers. Rather than being a core function, technology was seen as more of a service to the organization.

All that changed in 2020. When the impact of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, IT stepped up to the plate and kept the business going. From establishing remote-working capabilities, to helping the business move to online collaboration, to creating new electronic channels of delivery, CIOs turned a crisis into a defining moment for digital teams.

Now everyone at all levels of the business understands the value of IT. While some executives prior to the pandemic may have already recognized the potential of technological disruption, the rapid pace of transformation through 2020 gave all board members a first-hand appreciation of a well-thought-out digital strategy.

Executives that may previously have perceived digital technologies as hype and a drain on resources have been brought onside. After all, just think of what could have happened if the power of the cloud had not been available.

Layer 2: Further DX during 2021

This new-found recognition of all-things-digital has been great for CIOs and their IT teams. They have finally been accepted as a business essential. However, the battle is far from won. Information technology has proven its value at a time of crisis—now it needs to prove its value time and again in a new landscape where a combination of digital, data and the Cloud are the building blocks for agile business models.

In many ways, this is the stage when DX gets serious. The board is now looking to CIOs to use digital technology to take business transformation in all kinds of exciting directions. For some businesses, this has meant creating the ‘workplace of the future’, where employees work in a hybrid way with time split between home and office. It may mean using data analytics to explore new customer delivery channels and to develop new ways to delight clients. Or it may mean moving into new areas of operation altogether, using digital and data to generate innovative business models.

Last year was tough for everyone, but 2021 is revealing fresh opportunities. The businesses that thrive this year and beyond will be those that use technology to undergo not just a digital transformation but a continual digital evolution. The Board has seen the game-changing power of tech, and governments are responding to this opportunity too.

As noted by IDC, the Malaysian government has announced a RM12bn–RM15bn investment into the Cloud earlier this year, as part of their MyDIGITAL digital economy roadmap, to help companies digitalize, build resilient infrastructures, reduce operating costs and improve analytical efficiency.

Now it is time for CIOs and their teams to help create a brighter future.

Layer 3: Tech-powered great experiences

The final layer is where CIOs use digital technology to power a permanent transformation in the way customers experience the world. A whole host of emerging technologies, from AI to VR and from quantum computing to brain-computer interfaces—will help to change the way we use and experience technology forever.

Much further into the future, the innovation of quantum computing will allow businesses to process huge amounts of information not possible with classical computing. Brain-computer interfaces, on other hand, will allow users to control devices with their minds, opening whole new avenues of experience, particularly for those with physical impairment.

Some of those advances may seem a long way off right now, but tell-tale signs of their potential are already showing. Consumer-facing companies, for instance, are using data-powered AI bots to interact with clients on web channels, freeing human specialists for more complex enquiries.

Meanwhile, retailers, real-estate firms and automotive companies are using VR to help customers try everything before they buy.

Significant opportunities to bring about lasting change across the digital environment are emerging right now, with the advent of next-gen data management that promises simplicity at scale; zero trust security principles; AI-powered insights and third-party extensibility. Such next-gen data management allows organizations to reduce data infrastructure silos, protect data from ransomware and other cyber-threats, and derive greater value from their most valuable resource: their data.

There is much for CIOs and their teams to look forward to in the near, medium and long term, with the successes they had in 2020 setting them up for new opportunities this year and beyond. For those organizations and their IT teams, led by their CIOs, who grasp the nettle, success can be baked in.