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2020 CIO Survey: Doing more, with less

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Wilhelm Krige, Absa Group CIO.
Wilhelm Krige, Absa Group CIO.

2020 has brought unique challenges, and companies which were prepared to pivot to new ways of working have reaped the benefits, said Wilhelm Krige, Absa Group CIO, on Thursday night.

Krige was delivering the keynote address at ITWeb Brainstorm's first virtual CIO Survey banquet.

About the survey

The ITWeb Brainstorm CIO Survey, run in partnership with MTN Business, is now in its seventh year. The survey captures input from South African CIOs and provides insights into the tech strategies of the country’s leading private- and public-sector organisations. The 2020 survey was conducted in September and November and captured input from 130 CIOs. The key findings were revealed at the virtual Brainstorm CIO Banquet, on November 26.

The full research report will be published on ITWeb and Brainstorm in early 2021.

Krige and his team presided over the recently completed demerger from Barclays, which was completed under lockdown. Barclays announced about four years ago that it would no longer be holding a majority stake in Absa, which triggered the complex process of bringing back the IT functions to South Africa. Barclays paid R18 billion for the programme, which took a year of planning and three years to execute. The separation programme involved about 276 separate projects, and 167 applications were migrated, involving 11 of its banks across the continent.

He said it was a challenging programme, and a ‘remarkable feat’ by its technology teams.

He said there was also a newfound belief in the ability of a distributed workforce to operate from home.

“As employers, we got to know that our people can work effectively from home. We saw some fantastic increases in productivity at the bank. In the past there were a lot of sceptics about whether people can be trusted to operate from home, I think that 2020 has proved that given the right tools and the right environment, our people can operate effectively.”

Krige said that meetings are now shorter, and it ‘was almost like people are cutting to the bone with issues that need dealing with’.

There were also other repercussions, such as office space.

“Fancy buildings and big offices are no longer a requirement. I think that we’re going to see a very healthy mix of people working at the office and people working at home,” he said.

Krige said the distributed workforce also presented some challenges, particularly around the securing data and privacy.

He said the pandemic had also quickened its ability to tap into a global workforce.

“We’ve already started doing that by having people continue to work for us when they’ve had ambitions to move overseas. Unfortunately it’s a double-edged sword, and what we’ve seen at the bank is that some of our best employees have been targeted by big, global tech companies, and they’re now working for them without having to leave the shores of this country, and living in the shadow of the (Table) Mountain.”

He said the highest number of concurrent workers they had working from home prior to the lockdown was about 1 800.

“Within a week, suddenly we were at 20 000, and we are now running, at any point in time, at 25 000 people working from home.”

He also said that there had been a great shift to digital business, and in his opinion, 2020 marked the ‘crossing of the Rubicon’ with digital adoption by his customers.

He said customers were forced to adopt and embrace new digital technologies.

“Customer behaviour has changed forever, and for those of you whose strategies are not geared to serve your customers digitally -- as markets of one -- I think you may be already in trouble.”

“That shift has taken place, and will never go back.”

Survey results

Like a mirror held up to the South African tech sector, the findings of this year’s ITWeb’s CIO Survey reflect how technologists have retooled their business models to weather the choppy conditions of 2020.

Presented by Brainstorm editor Adrian Hinchcliffe, the broad themes point to accelerated digital transformation initiatives, and an increased importance in the role that IT has in enabling digital business. And, there appears to be slightly more money to implement these plans, with 28% of CIOs reporting increased budgets. Slightly less (26%) say they’ve got the same budget to work with, but they have had to refocus their spending to deal with the effects of the pandemic.

The spending areas throw into sharp relief IT’s new focus: 74% say they’re investing in remote work solutions, 65% in conferencing and meeting apps, 56% on connectivity and data, and 52% on security. Every cyber security expert warned that this year would bring increased risk, and these predictions were borne out by a sharp increase in cyber events. Almost half of respondents (48.7%) said they were concerned with securing their distributed workforce, and 47% said they were worried about the theft of data. And, 36% are worried about ransomware, and 34% are concerned at targeted attacks. What will CIOs be focusing on in the next two years? Almost a third (30%) say they’ll be focusing on cost optimisation (up from 21% in 2019), and there’s still 28% who plan on implementing business process automation (which is down from 36% in 2019). As last year, almost half (47%) want to develop and execute a digital strategy.

Another stark difference between this year and the last is that a third of the 130 respondents have frozen any new hires for the foreseeable future, up from 13% in 2019. Predictably there’s also increased restructuring and retrenchments (14% this year, compared to 6% in 2019). There’s also an uptick in the use of contractors (21% versus 14%).

And, fewer CIOs have a seat on exco than last year. In 2019, 45% of respondents said they had a seat, but this dropped to 39% this year. But more CIOs reported having indirect access to the board through the CEO or CFO.

You can view the executive summary of the results here:
2020 CIO Survey key findings

For an in-depth report on how Absa separated it’s IT systems from Barclays, look out for Brainstorm’s cover story in December. We speak to Wilhelm Krige, Absa Group CIO, on this most delicate of operations.

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