Top enterprise tech trends for 2021

With IT budgets still recovering from the pandemic, CIOs will need to make shrewd bets

For many CIOs, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a powerful argument for digital transformation, as companies worldwide scrambled to equip newly remote employees with digital tools.

In the pandemic’s early days, CIOs spent a bundle to get this done. Between April and June, they paid an additional 5% of their 2020 budgets, or roughly $15 billion per week, to cover critical technology needs, according to the 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey.

The new year presents new challenges for enterprise tech investment. The initial demands of the crisis may have eased, but CIOs must choose wisely. Global IT spending in 2021 is forecast to reach $3.75 trillion, a reduction of 1.6% from 2019 outlays, according to Gartner.

We asked enterprise technology experts for their thoughts on which strategic investments CIOs should prioritize in 2021.

Intelligent process automation

The most popular technologies of 2021 will combine decision intelligence with automated workflows. Companies want the productivity of automated systems along with data-driven decision-making supplied by machine learning.

Machine learning can also supply useful capabilities to automation programs, such as optical character recognition, image and voice recognition, and information extraction from documents and contracts.

It is relatively easy for automation programs to call machine learning APIs, so integration is typically not much of a problem. This will vastly expand the application domains of both AI and automation, and will lead to broad reengineering of business processes to take advantage of these new capabilities.

Thomas H. Davenport
Distinguished professor, Babson College; senior advisor to Deloitte AI

Low-code API platforms

For years, awareness of the power of API platforms has been building in the private markets. Today, a wide range of public cloud, programmatic interfaces are going mainstream thanks to simple and intuitive low-code/no-code development capabilities.

Companies can rapidly assemble best-of-breed services, such as storage and compute, payment, video integration, and communications. This will massively accelerate product innovation cycles and reduce enterprise costs, allowing easy integration that even a lightly trained technician can execute.

I expect 2021 to be a breakout year for this business-to-developer (B2D) market as the enterprise fully embraces the trend, with more breakout IPOs to follow.

Byron Deeter
Partner, Bessemer Venture Partners

Consumerizing the enterprise experience

The pandemic has accelerated enterprise digitization as never before. We’re seeing years of digital transformation occurring in months. Cloud and data technologies will be the building blocks of this evolution. As workforces become more distributed, simple, consumer-grade UI/UX will emerge as table stakes for any successful digital transformation journey. This will be an area of critical tech investment next year.

Employees will need and expect to have the same quality of software at work as they have in their personal lives. We see companies investing further in easy, intuitive, mobile-first interfaces powered by NLU/NLP tools that will drive productivity. Advances in natural-language AI will be required to easily surface and summarize relevant information, understand content and conversations, make predictions and recommendations, take optimal actions, and automate repetitive tasks.

Going into 2021, enterprises will need to accelerate AI technology investments that empower employees and customers to seamlessly focus on areas where humans excel in the most natural way possible: creative thinking, customer interactions, and unpredictable work.

Lara Caimi
Chief customer and partner officer, ServiceNow

Digital collaboration tools

Remote work has put a spotlight on collaborative work management platforms. Almost overnight, they became critical tools that allowed teams to organize their work and collaborate more effectively.

Compared to just a few years ago, the technology has improved the ability to integrate documents, video, virtual whiteboards, and any digital asset. End users can set them up easily without relying on admin to build their workflow.

These tools will be even more important in 2021 as we move to a hybrid, office-remote workplace. They will help teams be more productive in a shared physical workplace, a virtual workspace, or a combination of the two.

Margo Visitacion
Vice president and principal analyst, Forrester Research

Private 5G networks

For years, 5G has been touted as a “next big thing” because it offers lower latency, faster speeds, and greater bandwidth than Wi-Fi. But now that 5G is here, enterprise customers see an important downside: Carriers who lease 5G service are required to own the data while it moves between a company’s network and the cloud, potentially exposing massive amounts of proprietary data to competitors or hackers.

Private 5G networks are emerging as a powerful solution for companies with sophisticated networking needs, such as manufacturers, utilities, logistics centers, and business and science campuses. Private 5G offers added security by controlling data moving to and from the cloud. It also allows the integration of cybersecurity protocols and data management and compute tools across the enterprise.

Deployed correctly, private 5G may allow these companies to move to fully automated network operations—a goal that enterprises have sought for years.

Zeus Kerravala
Founder and principal analyst, ZK Research