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Leading the charge: How are tech leadership priorities evolving following an unprecedented year of change?

Hexaware EVP Milan Bhatt discusses the leadership challenges and opportunities he is witnessing, both within his own organisation and across the tech landscape as a whole.

By Milan Bhatt

It has been an exceptionally challenging year for tech leaders around the globe. But it is also an exciting time to lead the technology function. In many cases, the pandemic has prompted increased investment, spurring organisations to accelerate the pace of digital transformation and position technology at the heart of their business. The technology function is playing a crucial role in not only helping to navigate the crisis, but also driving longer-term strategic decisions across the enterprise.

In this speedily evolving landscape, Tech Monitor’s 2021 Technology Leaders Agenda seeks to identify the technology trends, leadership objectives and policy themes that senior executives with responsibility for technology expect to shape the coming year. The new research initiative has surveyed hundreds of CIOs and CTOs of large corporations across the globe, guided by an executive steering group of established technology leaders.

Agenda sponsor, Hexaware, is a global IT consulting and digital solutions company that has undergone its own significant changes in the last 12 months. EVP Milan Bhatt has watched first-hand as conversations with internal and external leadership partners have shifted, both in terms of priorities and ambition.

“Initially, it was all about survival,” Bhatt recalls. “But then, as people began to realise that this is not going to go away in a few weeks or months, leading businesses pivoted to looking at the uncertainty as an opportunity to make sustainable changes.”

A change of pace

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Of course, digital transformation was already well underway before the outbreak of Covid-19. However, says Bhatt, the pandemic meant that decisions that would otherwise have taken several years have been fast-tracked to the top of the agenda.

To begin with, tech leaders focused on putting out fires; ensuring vast swathes of the workforce work from home securely and facilitating digital collaboration. Bhatt believes businesses from across the board have faced two major challenges in getting this right.

The first has been figuring out how to cut existing inefficiencies and ensure operations are as lean as possible. “Things that were untouchable in the past suddenly became fair game,” he explains.

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Challenge two involves facing some home truths. “Everybody thought they were resilient, but it was a rude awakening that they weren’t really,” says Bhatt. Over the next few years, he continues, all companies will undergo an important transformation to become hybrid businesses, with a cloud infrastructure. In turn, this will strengthen their position to take on the next crisis.

Tech leaders step up

For Bhatt, a growing ability to take the longer view should play a big role in shaping the role of the technology leader over the year ahead. If the last 12 months have demonstrated an ability to handle crisis management, the next stage is building on a vision that consolidates technology’s position at the very heart of the enterprise.

“When I started my career, IT was almost like a reporting function – it was several layers down in the hierarchy,” recalls Bhatt. “Today, a lot of businesses have promoted the idea of technology leadership to CEO-minus-one. As technology becomes core to almost every industry, it will be interesting to see how many CIOs or CTOs actually become CEOs. My bet is that it’s going to be a significantly growing percentage.”

Hexaware Technologies EVP Milan Bhatt

In fact, he continues, modern tech leaders will struggle to survive in their current roles – let alone progress to the next level – unless they update their skillset and have a clear understanding of how organisational business imperatives align with key technology decisions. After all, he says, “technological transformation is seldom about technology only – the decisions are part of a huge cultural change”

After a year that thrust technology into the spotlight, how are technology leaders now planning for the future? What are their technology priorities and what are the biggest leadership challenges they are wrestling with? To find out, Tech Monitor surveyed 611 technology leaders, including CIOs, CTOs, chief digital officers and chief data officers. Click here for our Technology Leaders Agenda 2021 white paper.

Bhatt concedes there is still a significant amount of work that needs to take place. “There’s a lot of hype around cloud and agile software development,” he says, “but the reality is I think it’s a very low percentage of companies that are truly agile and embrace the cloud in a big way.”

Despite these concerns, Bhatt is confident technology leaders are in a strong position to look beyond quick fixes and embrace lasting change. “It won’t just happen by saying ‘I’m going to hire 100 scrum masters’. It requires a much deeper change in how you think about your organisation, your products and how you communicate to people on what is in it for them.”

A fresh approach

The last 12 months have provided Bhatt and his colleagues with an unprecedented opportunity to put this type of thinking into practice. Prior to Covid-19, Hexaware focused on three key strategies: automate everything, cloudify everything and transform customer experiences. Since then, each one has been tweaked to reflect current challenges.

“First, we want to help our customers digitally leapfrog their technology,” he explains. “If it would usually take four or five steps to get from point A to B, we think you should skip steps two, three and four. Go directly to five.” In addition, Hexaware is eager to help organisations make their operations more efficient through the use of automation and transform the customer experience with virtual but immersive interactions.

Perhaps most importantly, Bhatt and his colleagues introduced an extra strategy, born out of the unique conditions the pandemic has created. “We knew that the new reality would be how do we engage with the anytime, anywhere employee,” says Bhatt. “And we know that at least for the foreseeable future, everything will become hybrid – data centres, workplaces and customer experiences.”

By widening the net like this, Bhatt believes there is a chance to combat the skills gap. “It’s really hard to find good cloud engineers and architects because of the velocity with which cloud technologies are developed,” he explains. “It’s almost impossible to have experts when the technology that you’re supposed to be working on was launched last quarter.”

When asked about the biggest overarching challenge facing tech leaders today, Bhatt’s answer is simple. “Eventually, it all boils down to talent,” he says. It’s an issue that is on Hexaware’s mind – this year alone the tech giant set out to hire more than 6,000 technical staff. In the midst of all this change, it is worth pausing and remembering that it is an organisation’s people – rather than merely the tools and platforms – that will define the success of the technology function.

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