The Digital Game

The 15th annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium (May 23rd, 2018) had as its byline, “Up Your Digital Game: From Vision to Execution”. Well attended and engaging, it was clear that “Digital” was flexible enough to accommodate any future-oriented use case, whether linked to internal productivity or prowess around clients. Any talk of Gartner’s bi-modal IT was very much “yesterday”. Absolutely “in”: AI and machine learning.

While I am not a fan of panel discussions, and the CIO Symposium always favors these, there were some interesting ones. “Creating a Digital Culture” had Tanguy Catlin of McKinsey, David Gledhill of DBS Bank, Andrei Oprisan of Liberty Mutual and Melissa Swift of Korn Ferry Hay Group. George Westerman of MIT started with a presentation on how digital innovation is accelerating. He gave examples of recent advances in AI. There are algorithms that summarize lengthy texts well, AI that beats the Stanford reading text, AI-powered medical diagnostics that beat the doctor, AI software that can clone anyone’s voice after listening for just 3.7 seconds! Culture as an amplifier was mentioned. Culture-centric agile transformation, where smaller teams are empowered were discussed. A good definition of culture by our friend Anonymous: “Culture is what happens when the boss is not in the room”.  A more formal definition of Digital Culture: “A self-reinforcing set of values and practices that enables an organization to thrive in the fast-moving digital economy”. Autonomy, Speed, Openness and Impact were the four differentiators between a traditional organization and a “born digital” organization. The digital ones had about twice the percentage of these characteristics than the traditional ones did. DBS spoke of how they focused on running a bank like a tech company. They focused on five things: 1) Going from projects to platform, in terms of discipline and capabilities; 2) Becoming agile; 3) Organizing for success; e.g., using DevOps; 4) Building with modeling and testing 5) Automation, particularly around testing. With the above, they were able to increase their release cadence by a whopping 7.5 times! Korn Ferry spoke of a more networked way of operating and “powering the speedboat” cultures. Looking at structures that push people in the wrong direction was discussed. One caveat: “The right people often look wrong” at first because of existing paradigms. “Curious and adaptable” were held out as signals of success for individuals and teams. Among other interesting observations by the panel: Invest in the ability to communicate – not just in technical expertise; Design thinking is just not known well enough; Agile is not all of culture; Bi-modal is just an excuse (!) A startling and thought provoking statement was, “There is a 100X difference between good and average digital talent”. It was suggested that “explosive movement” is needed right now towards a digital future. How? Give people the tools to change. Use cadence and speed as KPIs. Insist on hard core measurements. “Do not view technology as transactional” was another remark with the suggestion to “find your disruptors” and hire for disruptiveness.

A panel on “Realizing Synergies from Digital Innovations” had participants Nils Fonstad from Sloan, David Hackshall from Cochlear Ltd., Akash Khurana from McDermott and Bill Kracunas from RSM. Some interesting remarks: You want focused organizations not siloed ones; It is everyone’s responsibility to improve products; Design thinking needs to be introduced into organizations; An Innovation Center for products works; AI robots as investment advisors or even HR advisors can be useful; You need a digital thread to tie everything together; Have hackathons not just for IT but the business; Top performing companies are differentiated not by total spend but how the spend is allocated. And, yes, “Norway wants to get rid of cash”.

I enjoyed the panel on “Blockchain: Rising Above the Noise”. Atefeh Riazi of the UN spoke about 1.2 billion women in the world without identity and refugees: people who cannot get a bank account. There was discussion of how the cost of sending money by a worker to support his or her family can be up to 7.1% with hopes that Blockchain can bring this down to at least 2%. Prasanna Gopalakrishnan of Boston Private spoke about the liquidity that banks and their clients need and how blockchain is being used to reduce friction in transactions. Boston Private is using Open Source software. There was discussion about the value that blockchain brings – the fact that every party involved in a transaction sees all aspects of the transactions. The need for the ecosystem to take privacy and security into account was discussed. Establishing trust for an identity, such as needed for voting, was a topic. An architecture-first framework was spoken of. If there was one thing the panel pushed on for the audience, it was: start now! Look at the business use first. Then look at Open Source blockchains in the context of whether your blockchain needs to be private or public. Exploring for a week or two, you should be in a position to download and experiment with a few Github examples.

A panel on “Realizing Synergies from Digital Innovation” stated that test-and-learn should be a focus. It was suggested that firms are investing in four types of digital innovation: 1) Business Operations for operational efficiency and flexibility; 2) Employee experience for employee productivity; 3) Customer facing improvements in new products/services and customer experience focused on increasing revenue per product/service or revenue per customer; 4) new Business Models to get new revenue from new customers.

There were some thought-provoking talks. Erik Brynjolfsson spoke of “The AI Awakening – Implications for the Economy and Society”. He spoke of some startling advances, such as the accuracy of AI systems now exceeding those of humans in visual recognition. He spoke of learning systems becoming superhuman for suitable tasks, i.e., in particular domains while general all-encompassing intelligence remains far. He talked about research that has been looking at which jobs are suitable for machine learning. A rubric of 23 questions was developed and applied to 964 occupations, 2,069 direct work activities related to these and 18, 156 occupation-specific tasks. While Massage Therapists and Archaeologists and Dancers appear relatively safe, not so Insurance Claim clerks, Concierges and Credit Authorizers. The new Grand challenge was posed as: digital technologies will continue to accelerate but our skills, organizations and metrics are lagging. Business as usual will not solve this problem.

Frederic Veron of Deutsche Bank spoke on “Safe and Sound Software for Digital Execution”. He described this as Adaptable, Resilient, Secure, Safe, Properly tested, Operationally ready, Cost effective and Architecturally sound – all designed to deliver an adequate customer experience. Who would disagree? Three stats that he emphasized: Software source code in the world doubles every 42 months; the speed of commercial software slows by 50% every 18 months; the average tenure of CIOs is 51.6 months. What the last signified was not clear. Other statistics about Developers were startling. 69.1 % are self-taught, 43.9% learn programming on the job. Veron ended on the note, “the better the software, the better the business”.

There were other panel discussions, then a final excellent keynote by Andrew McAfee, “Is Tech Screwing Up The Planet”. This left one pondering: is technology at all costs really the way to go? What is and what will be the impact?

All in all, the Symposium talks and panels and the vendor stalls (Equinix, Markley, Bigleaf and others) made the event very worthwhile and enjoyable. The food, too, was excellent.