MIT CIO Symposium Examines Need for Proactive Enterprise IT Innovation

NEWS ANALYSIS: The 2014 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium focused on the need for enterprise IT to proactively build new capabilities to avoid getting blindsided by innovative digital upstarts.

Proactive Innovation

Somewhere out there is a smart guy or gal with decent coding skills ready to upset your best laid business plans. Maybe it is a new way of renting rooms or a challenge to taxi services in your city or the use of drones to deliver your pizza, But that new idea is germinating, and venture capitalists are ready to fund even the most far-out idea.

Meanwhile, you are pushed on one side to create the new ideas and pulled on the other side to secure the digital gates to your company and keep the bad guys from stealing your customers' identities. That is the new world of the CIO.

This year, as in several years past, I attended the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. While in past years the discussion was around whether or not the CIOs in attendance trusted cloud computing or were getting ready for mobile computing, the theme of this year's May 20 event (at least in my opinion) was all about leading your company's charge into the digital revolution or else getting flattened by that code-pounding upstart.

"Are you ready for the shifting frontier of mind and machine?" was the question posed during one session, while another cautioned, "Evolve or Perish: Becoming the CIO of the Future." Amid all that evolving and frontier shifting were CIOs trying to strike that balance between the brave new digital world and the old caveats of security, privacy and compliance.

"We are now on the cusp of the second machine age," said MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson. Brynjolfsson is also the co-author of "Race Against the Machine," which outlines an era moving from machine augmentation to add to human muscle to computer augmentation to add to the human mind. While mind augmentation might sound all well and good, if self-driving cars and trucks replace human drivers and IT professionals are kicked out of the data centers by self-healing IT systems, the job disruption potential is sobering.

While the robot and high-powered computer disruption outlined by Brynjolfsson is not quite upon us yet, disruption was the common topic among the CIOs and other C-level execs at the conference. Digital business transformation means "using technology to radically improve performance or the reach of your business," said MIT research scientist George Westerman during a panel on digital transformation.

Those transformations can include putting the customer first in every process as advocated by Dell CIO Adriana Karaboutis or having a goal where 80 percent of all business transactions are digital by 2020 as outlined by AT&T CIO Thaddeus Arroyo.

Moreover, the transformation to a digital enterprise takes the ability to recognize the need to reach a changing audience as in the case of Tanya Cordrey, the chief digital officer of the Guardian News and Media.

She noted that two-thirds of the Guardian's audience is now international instead of United Kingdom-based, and that achievement required a digital transformation melding new digital technologies while retaining the Guardian's heritage of fearless journalism.

The panel discussions were less about technology than about how to make sure technology decisions are upgraded from just supporting business strategies to taking the lead in the development of new capabilities that empower new strategies. The question becomes, "Where in the broad ecosystem can we play?" asked Stephen Neff, Enterprise CTO at Fidelity Investments.

He was referring to the changing world where startup companies using platforms like Amazon Web Services can suddenly spring into the marketplace or where, in one example, a supermarket chain suddenly becomes a competitor by offering customers financial services.

Engaging those new competitors early and making sure your company has the skills, structure and attitude to be the first to the market rather than being trapped in the cycle of reactive business response were top of mind among the CIOs both in the panels onstage and in the audience.

Aligning technology decisions with business strategies has long been a theme of CIO events such as the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. The change this year is that the technology capabilities can lead the business strategies. The risk is that without those capabilities the upstart code-pounder can put your company's financial future into the minus column.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.