What Canadian CIOs need to know in 2021

Written by Chris Howard


Like their global peers, CIOs of Canadian organizations faced the humanitarian catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic as managers, technology providers, executives and people. 

At the start of 2020, CIOs’ immediate priority was to quickly enable remote work, providing employees with scaled collaboration tools and secure connections. Their early and widespread success in doing so proved the ability of IT organizations and thus focused executive attention on the wider range of digital techniques to be used for continuity, resilience, adaptability and recovery.

Now in 2021, it is imperative for CIOs to continue prioritizing the digital business initiatives that were accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Canadian CIOs must take advantage of their newly elevated position and implement innovations that support even deeper transformation. Here’s what Canadian CIOs need to know to lead digital business in 2021 based on findings from the Gartner 2021 CIO Agenda: A Canada Perspective.

Digital is advancing

Since 2017, Gartner has tracked where organizations are on their digital transformation journey. The data shows that digital marched ahead in 2020, with 64 per cent of Canadian organizations reporting that they are delivering, scaling and refining their digital efforts. This put them in a good position to weather the COVID-19 disruption – but there is still work to be done.

Canadian CIOs have reported slightly lagging digital maturity over the years compared with the rest of the world, evidenced by below-average revenue from digital and a fewer number of processes that have been digitally optimized. As Canadian enterprises reset in the face of the pandemic, CIOs must ride the wave of digital acceleration happening around them. Capitalize on opportunities where digital business opens up new revenue streams or enriches the margins of existing products and services delivered on digital channels. 

The CIO position has been elevated

CIOs were successful in enabling a shift to remote work at scale in response to the pandemic. This raised the profile of the IT organization: According to the 2021 Gartner CIO Agenda survey, 73 per cent of Canadian CIOs reported that business leaders are asking IT for more high-value, strategic things as a result of COVID-19. Around 70 per cent reported a strengthened CIO/CEO relationship

Now is the time to keep that momentum going. Businesses expect continued contributions from their IT leaders as digital initiatives accelerate. CIOs are in turn building platforms to respond and adapt to business context change, which should lead to positive changes in how IT is perceived by executive leadership. 

COVID-19 effects will continue into 2021

In the second half of 2020, many enterprises looked back on changes made during the initial COVID-19 response phase and considered the permanence of those changes into 2021. 

Unfortunately, some changes may revert as uncertainty about the progression of the virus and its economic impact persists. Only 14% of Canadian CIOs see an increase in IT headcount, and they are hesitant regarding increases in workforce training. However, as vaccines become more widely available and distributed, we should see a commensurate return to hiring and skills development through 2021.

On the positive side, Canadian CIOs report an increase in funding for digital innovation in 2020, which is expected to continue growing through this year. Digital channels that were essential for business continuity have now become the conduit for innovation. Unsurprisingly, three-quarters of Canadian CIOs indicated there would be increased implementation of digital channels in 2021. 

Through the tragedy and misery of COVID-19, the pandemic has also created opportunity to use technology and information in increasingly valuable and innovative ways. Most businesses are being redesigned, and CIOs are in a position to lead along with their executive peers. 

Invest in technologies to support digital transformation 

Given the potential returns from deeper customer engagement and business transformation, it is not surprising that Canada’s CIOs have tuned their investment to these goals. Cloud services, data analytics, cybersecurity and customer/user experience solutions are among the top areas of increased investment cited by Canadian CIOs. 

These investments are all interlinked: For example, core system improvements often lead to reduced on-premises investment and aggressive pursuit of cloud solutions, while increased collection of data drives better customer engagement but also requires new forms of cybersecurity investment. 

Canadian CIOs should continue to look at technology investments through the lens of enabling digital transformation. Continue aggressive modernization of core systems and processes to support broader innovation and reduce technical debt and complexity.


Chris Howard is Gartner’s Chief of Research, responsible for ensuring that Gartner research meets the general and industry-specific needs of senior executives, with emphasis on both technical and business leadership. 

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT) delivers actionable, objective insight to executives and their teams. Our expert guidance and tools enable faster, smarter decisions and stronger performance on an organization’s mission critical priorities. To learn more, visit gartner.com.

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