8 lessons for IT chiefs: MIT Sloan CIO Symposium 2018

8 lessons for IT chiefs: MIT Sloan CIO Symposium 2018

Taking your digital strategy from vision to execution requires great culture change. Get lessons learned from CIOs who are making progress

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May 25, 2018

5. Blockchain: Think carefully on your potential use cases

The conference session on Blockchain was packed – not surprising, since it’s a technology for which many CIOs are still evaluating for fit. Panelists advised CIOs to critically examine possible use cases – and reject the many that won’t suit blockchain. 

Prasanna Gopalakrishnan, executive VP, chief digital and information officer for Boston Private, shared her experience evaluating applications in the banking world. Start with the business problem, she said, then ask "What is blockchain truly adding in value?" Moreover, she said, "You have to demonstrate a value for every party involved."

United Nations CIO Atefeh Riazi, a finalist for the 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership award, sees large potential for blockchain in a different realm: Identity. Blockchain could ease struggles for the 1.2 billion people globally who lack an identity, she said. These people may be refugees, or may have experienced human trafficking, for example, she noted. "Refugees without identity are a big concern," she said, noting that when people lack identity records, they can be vulnerable to child marriage, child labor violations, and other dangers. She also sees potential for blockchain to combat problems arising from widespread identity theft, and to ensure the integrity of elections.   

6. Figure out your big vision: Then think small experiments

Internet of Things, AI, cloud ... CIOs today feel bombarded by new technologies. Jeanne W. Ross, principal research scientist with MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research, has a message for CIOs: Calm down! You can’t realize advantage from new technology unless you focus first on being a well-run company, she said – a statement that drew cheers from the audience. 

Ross emphasized that you can’t go digital until you are a digitized company, something that requires a complete organizational redesign around ubiquitous data, unlimited connectivity, and massive processing power. 

You then need a vision that focuses on your company’s value proposition in the digital era. Ross gave the example of Schneider Electric, which evolved its business from an electric equipment manufacturer to a provider of intelligent energy solutions. When you figure out your vision, Ross said, it’s time to think small. Big companies like big initiatives, but the reality is, going digital will involve lots of little experiments along the way. As Ross described, your vision is your North Star. Your strategy comes from how you follow it.

7. Execution problems often trace back to leadership woes

The last panel of the day started with a joke from moderator Paul Michelman, editor in chief of MIT Sloan Management Review. Why is strategy like a fish, he asked? Because it rots from the head down. Michelman went on to share some bleak statistics from recent research that highlighted the huge gap between digital strategy and execution that many organizations face. 

Only about half (51 percent) of executive team members could list their company’s top three strategic priorities, he said. It got worse further down the chain, he explained. Only 18 percent of middle managers could name their organization’s top priorities. Panelists talked about the culprits behind this breakdown, including clarity of communications, company politics, and failure to frame strategy in dollar terms. 

Important takeaway: if you have an execution problem, it’s often a culture issue – and as a leader, it’s your job to change the culture, pointed out Mike Macrie, CIO of Land O’Lakes. "If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority," said Macrie. If teams have one hour left in the day to get something done, your job as a leader is to make sure they know how and why to choose the things that are going to move the business toward its goals, Macrie explained. 

8. Take a hard look at how you articulate strategy

When you’re leading teams that are executing on digital business strategy, aim for constant reinforcement and repetition of vision, tying benchmarks to compensation, and honest, empathetic conversations, panelists advised. Also, take a close look at the vision itself. Is it understandable? Is it realistic? (Remember Gledhill's saying about his organization's digital vision, discussed above?)

Anthony Christie, chief operating officer of Trace3, explained that sometimes peer pressure can be the enemy of strategy. "I can't count the number of times a team has brought an initiative forward with unrealistic expectations about its impact on the business," he said. Christie said he works with teams to talk through what success looks like and how it ties to business strategy so that everyone starts on the same page. 

Finally, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Fellow with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, shared this clear, concise takeaway for leaders: Simplification is critical to strategy execution. "If the people who are supposed to execute – let alone the marketplace – don’t understand what you’re talking about, you won’t succeed," he said.  

For even more lessons learned, read our interview with Bharti Airtel's Global CIO, Harmeen Mehta, who won the symposium's top honor: See 6 questions with winner of the 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Leadership Award.

Ginny Hamilton, Carla Rudder, and Laurianne McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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