MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: Customer experience is critical in the digital economy

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The opening panel at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Wednesday emphasized the importance of customer experience in the future of the digital economy. The “Thriving Through Digital Ecosystems” panel was led by Peter Weill, chairman of the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research.

Weill began the session by introducing a recent survey of 144 senior executives, in which all were asked, “What is the biggest, most important breakthrough project you are doing to change your company?” Weill explained that answers ranged from digital engineering, to implementing new kinds of financial instruments, to experimenting with the Internet of Things. And while they were all very different, their answers fell into two key areas where businesses were making dramatic changes to compete and make money in the digital economy – business design and true customer understanding.

Weill went on to say that, digital technology and competition from startups are pushing all businesses to be more connected and transparent than ever before. Further, regardless of whether they are B2B or B2C, businesses need to become destinations for solving customers' needs. Amazon, a company that is particularly good at both objectives, earned 44 percent of total searches for consumer products last year, followed by search engines like Google, followed, finally, by the brands themselves.

The panelists were leaders from the financial industry, including Rob Frohwein, CEO and Co-Founder of Kabbage; Suresh Kumar, Senior EVP and CIO of BNY Mellon; and Gary Scholten, EVP and CIO of Principal Financial Group. 

A common theme that emerged from the panelists is the critical need to think like a startup to compete in today's environment. Scholten pointed to customer experience, scaled agile, rapid experimentation and minimum viable product as new competencies driving innovation at Principal Financial, and both Scholten and Frohwein emphasized the use of data to adapt, change, and redefine success in a digital era. 

Even Kumar, whose business is more than 200 years old, said he thinks of BNY Mellon as a startup. In fact, he said their age is an advantage because, unlike startups, they have the long relationships, great financials, and scale that make experimentation with processes like design thinking and lean startup easier. Kumar pointed to open source and blockchain as two areas of innovation at BNY Mellon.

All panelists emphasized the challenges and opportunities of creating more seamless customer experiences. In the case of Principal Financial, the customer is changing from businesses to consumers, Scholten said. Meanwhile, Frohwein exemplified how the customer experience with financial institutions has fundamentally changed by asking audience members if they had deposited a check via their mobile device in the last month. No surprise, the majority of hands immediately shot up. Frohwein said that businesses need to respond and adapt to that change.

To wrap the session, Weill asked each panelist what they were most excited about for the future of their business. Among the answers: Business agility, redefinition, and lack of limitations on what is possible through digital innovation. “We are doing things now that we couldn't have thought about three years ago,” Scholten said.

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.