The final episode in the MIT Sloan School of Management CIO Symposium series took place on 14th October and ended with a focus on digital transformation, offered by a diverse set of business leaders across a range of industries. The previous two episodes focussed on the shift in workplace and how enterprises are handling the new normal.

Panel 1: Digital Transformation on the Fast Track 

The theme of the first CIO panel was the accelerated rate of digital innovation since remote work became a necessity earlier this year. Business leaders from Slack, Equinix, Zimmer Biomet (a leading medical device manufacturer), and Kinesso (a newly formed advertising agency holding company) shared their responses to the pandemic through a Gartner framework defined by moderator Mike Grandinetti and focused on Four R’s:  

  1. Runway: What work (in terms of digital transformation) did your organization do in the run-up to the lockdown beginning? 
  2. Response: How has your company responded to the pandemic in real-time? 
  3. Recovery: What actions have you taken/are taking to recover? 
  4. Reexamine, reimagine, reinvent: How are you reexamining, reimagining, and reinventing the business going forward? 

Runway and Response 

Stephen Franchetti, VP of IT and Business Technology at Slack, shared how the messaging platform had seen a huge spike in usage, to the tune of 300 million users, across the three weeks in mid-March when lockdown started in the U.S. “Even though you run tests,” he said, “you never know how elastic your architecture will actually be. Thankfully, the product worked as designed and we were able to scale up to meet demand.”  

“When the crisis began in China in late 2019,” said Zeeshan Tariq, Senior VP and CIO at Zimmer Biomet, “we were able to conduct a tabletop exercise to measure our ability to conduct business if it became a worldwide pandemic. This was invaluable in terms of getting a head start.”  

In terms of the biomedical company’s response, he shared that it was organized across four key areas: (I) safety, (ii) modeling and insight, (iii) financial flexibility, and (iv) revenue optimization. In terms of modeling and insight, he stressed the importance of having timely and factual information in the midst of the crisis to enable effective decision-making. “We needed to quickly understand the facts,” he said, “in order to be prepared.” 

Recovery and Reinvention 

If you are charged with the renewal of your business, asked Grandinetti, what will you stop doing? What will you start doing? What’s something you will continue to do?

“Stop adding complexity,” said Graham Wilkinson, EVP, Product Strategy and Innovation at Kinesso. “Solutions [in the advertising world] need to be consolidated and clients need clear solutions,” he posited. “In terms of starting, we need to start asking why we’re doing things more often and continue to ask why every time we want to add a layer of complexity.” 

“What we’ll start doing,” said Zachary Smith, Managing Director of Packet, since March an Equinix company, “is focusing even more on our people, helping them take advantage of highly distributed remote teams, providing training and supporting relationships that are distributed.” He also noted the data center giant’s continued focus on digitizing its platform.

Panel 2: Building Digital Ready Culture in Traditional Organizations 

“Technology changes quickly, but organizations change much more slowly.” 

The second panel of the episode began with a presentation from MIT faculty member Dr. George Westerman in which he outlined “George’s law” as a spin-off from Moore’s law. At the Sloan School of Management, more attention is paid to the second half of George’s law than the first, he shared.  

Similarly, in regards to the phrase “digital transformation”, not enough attention is paid to the transformation element, Westerman said. Ultimately, building a digital-ready culture is “not a tech challenge, but a leadership one” and “if you get that part right”, the tech side will drive itself.  

Digital companies tend to have a different set of core values to traditional ones, Westerman continued. He noted four main values to adopt when seeking to foster a culture that is digital ready: (I) impact; (ii) speed; (iii) autonomy; and (iv) openness. 

“A New Level of Innovation” 

The presentation was followed by a second panel with two experts on digital readiness: Shamim Mohammad, Senior VP, CIO and CTO, Carmax and Cynthia Stoddard, Senior VP and CIO, Adobe. Stoddard shared her view that at Adobe, the last six months had seen “a new level of innovation” where internal processes, such as an evaluation that might have previously taken 6-9 months were currently being achieved within just a few weeks. “People have realized they can work differently,” she shared.  

At the same time, she cautioned that it was important for people to take breaks from their intense work schedules, particularly in light of the “blended world” we are living in with additional care responsibilities than usual for many, whether in terms of supporting remote education for children or stepping up elder care duties while working from home. Stoddard said Adobe has told its staff, “you and your family are number one, our customers are number two.”

Mohammad, meanwhile, said that Carmax, the U.S.’ largest used-car retailer, was also seeing similar accelerations in terms of productivity since the corporate side of its workforce had become 100% remote. He attributed this partly to a focus placed on digital transformation over the last several years and an effort to building an empowered mindset among all employees.  

“The product team works like small startups,” Mohammad shared. There are reviews with senior execs every two weeks with plenty of opportunities in between for experimentation. Similarly to Westerman, he is also a believer in the idea that “culture is intentional”, describing it as equivalent to “an operating system”.  

Stoddard said she agreed 100% and for her the biggest barrier to remove in terms of enabling cultural change was trust. “When you tell people it’s OK to fail while innovating,” you need to ensure that it really is, she said. “When people bring ideas forward, showcase and use them,” she counseled. “You have to work to build a sense of trust in the organization.”  

Fireside Chat: CIO Insights from the Cockpit  

“Iron Sharpens Iron”  

The final part of the episode (and of the entire Symposium) ended with a twist: a fireside chat with Guy Snodgrass, former fighter pilot, Top Gun instructor, author and speechwriter for Secretary James Mattis.  

“How should we prepare the next generation of CIOs to take on an ever more complex world?”, asked Allen Tate, Executive Chair of the Symposium. His answer: “Iron sharpens iron.” Young people need mentorship and sponsorship opportunities. In addition to creating these, business leaders should foster organizational cultures that are open, diverse, and inclusive. Bring young people into a problem and encourage them to work outside of their paygrade and experience level.  

Across his time as a fighter pilot, Snodgrass carried a book of emergency procedures outlining what to do in the case of life or death scenarios, such as a sudden loss of cabin pressurization or an unforeseen engine fire. The Top Gun teams had to memorize the procedures well in advance of an emergency so that when one occurred, they could immediately kick into habit and access their “brain stem power” to be able to respond quickly and calmly to life-threatening incidents. 

“Two Kinds of Problem: The Urgent and the Important” 

CIOs around the world have one of the most pressurized jobs around right now, Snodgrass said, tasked as they are with keeping organizations functioning digitally during a massive transition to remote working. Tate reminded the audience that one of the CIOs in last month’s episode had been responsible for scaling 2,000 to 20,000 VPN connections within a two-week timeframe.  

Snodgrass advised CIOs to adopt a “thoughtful and deliberative” style of leadership during these tumultuous times and urged them to make room outside 9-5 to devote to considering short and long-term challenges and opportunities. He quoted President Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problem: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”  

You can find out more about (and watch) the Catchpoint-sponsored MIT Sloan CIO Symposium here and read our write-ups on Episode #3: The Post-Pandemic Workplace and Customer Experience, featuring Catchpoint CEO, Mehdi Daoudi) and Episode #4: The Post-Pandemic Enterprise with speakers from Equinix, Eli Lilly, and Experian.