Feature Story

'CIO Perspectives 2020’: IT strategies for the new normal

At a Cisco Live roundtable, top tech leaders discuss their expanded roles — and unprecedented challenges


If anyone still doubted the strategic importance of today’s CIO, the COVID-19 pandemic has put those questions to rest

This was clear in a CIO roundtable discussion this month at Cisco Live, Cisco’s premier education and training event for IT professionals.  

Moderated by Michael Krigsman, an industry analyst and host of CxOTalk, the discussion — CIO Perspectives: 2020  brought together three top CIOs: Abhijit Mazumder of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS); Phillip Knutel of Babson College in Massachusetts; and Jacqueline Guichelaar, senior vice president and CIO of Cisco.

In a free-ranging discussion available on the IT Leadership Channel, they shared their recent challenges, top priorities, and key insights about the rising challenges facing CIOs today — along with their thoughts on the elevated status of the CIO role.  

As Krigsman stated, the pandemic is driving rapid transformation and major tests of CIO leadership. But the best CIOs have been there every step of the way, to guide organizations, scale fast, and implement new technologies and solutions. They also drove the right investments before the pandemic stuck — ensuring that their organizations were ready for the unexpected. 

But for even the most forward-looking CIOs, it hasn’t been easy. 

Jacqui Guichelaar recounted how Cisco was already a highly transformed organization, and very accustomed to remote work. Yet the upheavals of the new normal challenged even her teams. 

“We ran from 20,000 up to 140,000 [remote workers], within 10 days,” she said. “I knew we could scale, and we were changing the systems and trying to add the capacity. But I was also very mindful that now we have a very different landscape.”


A surge in demand, capacity, cyberthreats, and stress

Guichelaar cited two new Cisco studies: CIO Perspectives 2020, surveying the priorities and sentiments of 1,500 CIOs from 13 countries around the globe; as well as CIO Impact Report: COVID-19, which pulsed more than 300 Global CIOs on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their leadership strategies and day-to-day stress levels, while also capturing their insights on current and future IT strategies.

Responding to the impact of COVID-19 is a priority for pretty much everyone,” she said. Were all thinking about what the new normal looks like and how our future plans need to be adjusted. Interestingly, budgets are a concern for many, but everyone also realizes that they have to make the proper investments to make it through the current challenges.”

Throughout the crisis, those organizations that had already prioritized transformation fared the best. Babson College was one such organization. But Knutel still called moving 650 courses from on-campus to online “one of the most challenging times of my career.” 

“It was a pretty abrupt transition,” he said. “Although our strategic plan has called for more of a move to an online learning direction, this was not the way we would have done it, ideally.  

Like many CIOs throughout this crisis, Knutel is proud of what he and his team have accomplished. And he’s optimistic that it will continue to spur digital transformation at Babson College. 

“It’s been extraordinary,” he said, “… it’s really accelerated the strategic initiative of our president.”

Moving forward, IT agility will be increasingly important. At Cisco Live, the company announced new solutions to support enhanced business resiliency to meet future challenges for workers, whether in-office or remote. 


Staying agile and secure, in a multicloud world

Mazumder explained the vast scope of his own responsibilities. With 450,000 associates around the world, and more than 1,000 strategic customers in areas like banking, insurance, utilities, and service providers, it was imperative that he support his own teams, as well as the important work of his customers. 

“COVID-19 has been a significant challenge as well as an opportunity for TCS,” he said. “Our opportunity has been to really transform ourselves over these last 60 days or so, where we were fundamentally delivering services from peoples homes.”

Security was a top concern in Cisco’s survey, Guichelaar said, and it has certainly kept CIOs up at night in recent months. As organizations struggled to meet new demands, hackers smelled blood. 

In Cisco’s second survey, CIO Impact: COVID-19, Cisco pulsed more than 300 CIOs on their experience with the pandemic. Security was the top driver of stress, followed closely by VPN bandwidth, and loss of productivity. Since the pandemic began, the already high stress from security alone has risen by 14 percent, to a total of 56 percent; VPN bandwidth jumped 36 percent, putting it nearly in line with security

However, as with remote work capabilities, the right investments in security and secure collaboration platforms have paid off. 

“We have been unscathed because we are using a platform that grew up in a corporate environment and was built to be secure from the get-go,” Knutel added. “And so we have not had security incidents in the way that a lot of campuses and K-12 institutions have. Its been a huge relief that we chose the right horse for this particular race.”  

In recent months, Cisco Webex has handled unprecedented levels of demand while ensuring security, flexibility, and ease of use. At Cisco Live, the company announced new Webex innovations, including even greater security and capacity, together with extra voice-activated technologies for greater ease-of-use and safety as we return to the physical work environment in coming months.   

Moderator Michael Krigsman also highlighted the importance of cloud in the current crisis — “I think we have a unanimous decision that cloud is a darn good thing,” he said. And as with security, all agreed that decisions to build new capabilities before the pandemic are paying off now. 

“I think we all have been making these investments on the cloud in the last four or five years, said Mazumder. And it really has made the world of difference in allowing us to really be resilient, really be scalable.”

Phillip Knutel of Babson College agreed that his priority on upgraded networks, cloud, and SAS is paying off now.

“We needed to do this quick pivot,” he said. “And had this happened, I would say even a year or two ago, when we were really either in our infancy with a lot of these platforms or not nearly as far along as we really are now, we would have been in a lot worse shape.”

The priority given to cloud was backed by Cisco’s CIO Perspectives survey. 

“What the survey said from the CIOs that we interviewed was security is number one,” said Guichelaar. “But cloud was number two. At Cisco, we have a hybrid cloud strategy, which is wherever we can use SAS we should. We buy commodity and new sites where we should, and balance between internal data centers and the public cloud. And the more we diversify, it allows us to ramp up capacity and have the resilience that we need to keep running our businesses.”


Big challenges, greater opportunities

Despite the deep challenges that we all face, the discussion ended on a note of optimism — for the expanded role of IT and the CIO, and the future impact of technology for good

“What this crisis has shown us is that organizations cant live without technology in today's world,” said Mazumder of Tata Consultancy Services. “And that essentially validates our experience. It’s one of the best times to be in IT because we are truly proving to the industry why IT matters.” 

Indeed, Cisco’s CIO Impact survey revealed that 88 percent of CIOs believe that their role is expanding to have greater impact across their organizations and industries. 

Never waste a good crisis,” added Knutel. “We have so many opportunities right now to be business partners, to really engage with our internal and external facing clients and focus on revenue, focus on ROI. A lot of the things that were perhaps around the periphery for us in the past now become front and center.”

Guichelaar concluded with a few thoughts on the leadership role of CIOs. In Cisco’s CIO Perspectives survey, 94 percent of CIOs feel that they are aligned to a higher purpose, to do good in the world. And Cisco’s purpose is to power an inclusive future for all. 

But as proud as she is of her own team and IT in general through this crisis, she warned of new challenges to come. 

“Have empathy for your IT teams,” she said. “People are under a lot of pressure in every industry, but from an IT perspective, have empathy for your team,” she said. “Make sure you look after them. Make sure theyre getting enough breaks. We need them for the marathon, not for the short term.”    


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