Flying at the Speed of Digital Disruption

Are CIOs finally tackling digital transformation head on?

By Paula Klein

Success can be an elusive goal for IT executives today. As soon as one priority is met, a new, more pressing pain point displaces it. At this year’s annual MIT CIO Symposium, the fleeting nature of the digital economy was top-of-mind, but so was a firm determination to charge forward. More than ever, CIOs seem to finally be tackling digital transformation head on.

To Jim Fowler, VP and CIO at General Electric, the key lies in constantly “reinventing” the business and keeping customers at the epicenter. The venerable company has become comfortable “breaking down silos,” changing cultural norms, and driving efficiency at all costs. “We tell our teams to forget the old ways. Solve problems. Work differently in the future.”

GE VP and CIO Jim Fowler (center) at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. DBS CIO, David Gledhill, looks on. Photo: Kent Reichert

And he’s not alone.

After years of talking about the need for change, IT leaders are in the midst of it. Ross Meyercord, EVP and CIO at Salesforce, said it’s now acceptable to “iterate as you go.” As a digital company from the start, it’s not worried about “nailing down end solutions on day one.” There’s clearly a “North Star goal” in mind, but the path must keep changing, Meyercord said.

CIO Leadership Award winner, David Gledhill’s approach at DBS Bank is pointed, as well. As Group CIO Gledhill said the bank thought long and hard about how to quickly adopt a digital mindset. Basically, “we think like a 22,000-person startup,” he told conference attendees. “We inject tools, think big, and agitate the shift.”

Specifically, the old leadership program was “trashed.” Instead, senior bankers were sent to hackathons and matched with young developers to experience the energy of startups. His mantra? “Reengineer to the core, don’t just apply digital lipstick.”

And the initiatives have teeth, targets, and top-down support. Gledhill said that 20% of group compensation needs to be driven by customer digitization efforts. As a result, his team has to develop new digital services to improve cost-income ratios. At GE, the digital goal is even more aggressive: 40% of compensation will be digital-driven this year, according to Fowler. CEO Jeffrey Immelt regularly reviews new digital processes and products. (Read more on measuring digital initiatives.)

Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

Getting used to discomfort was also a theme in a session hosted by MIT IDE Principal Research Scientist, George Westerman, about Preparing for the Future of Work. Ernest Ng, Senior Director of Employee Success at Salesforce, noted that “growth and comfort can’t easily coexist.”

IDE Research Scientist George Westerman, leads panelists, (from left), Cynthia Nustad, David Neitz, Mona Vernon, and Ernest Ng.

David Neitz, CIO of construction company, CDM Smith, agreed that staying uncomfortable may actually help established firms better compete with upstarts. “Either we disrupt ourselves or someone else will do it.” In his company, Neitz said that “thinking crazy” and outside the box is encouraged to innovate and exchange new ideas.

And the stakes are high: At Health Management Systems, EVP and former CIO, Cynthia Nustad, said that 80% of jobs in her sector are changing or being displaced. Neitz said that 85% of current jobs in the construction industry will change in coming years, too. “We need to open these conversations,” Nustad said.

In GE’s vision of the future of work, Fowler said that instead of people directing machines, machines will tell people what to do. Employees will write the code to do their work better and smarter and will use data to make better forecasts.

“AI and machine learning are coming of age,” he said, and GE anticipates new jobs that are much more cross-functional. He envisions teams of 10–20 people –some self-forming — from all disciplines tasked with solving problems and augmented machines and by outsiders.

And that may be as good a way to gauge success as any, given the velocity of digital disruption today.

See media coverage of these and other panels at the 2017 CIO Symposium here, here, and here.

JP Morgan Chase is also beefing up its IT investments. Read details here.

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