Digital transformation: 3 takeaways from Constellation’s Connected Enterprise conference

With digital transformation and AI, are you running too fast? Which is more important – employee or customer experience? IT leaders, consider these lessons
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Constellation Research’s Connected Enterprise conference, held last week, brought together some of the most interesting minds in tech and enterprise IT, with plenty of food for thought for IT chiefs. Guest speaker and “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf was a treat for the audience, discussing everything from quantum computing to AI. When asked about the not-too-far-in-the-future problem of quantum computing breaking current encryption algorithms, Cerf said, “We are well on our way to crypto algorithms that are not susceptible to factoring primes.” So don’t go converting all of your bitcoin to cash just yet.

Cerf also cautioned against jumping to conclusions with artificial intelligence. “Just because you can play Go,” he said, “doesn’t mean you know how to change a diaper. Be careful to make a distinction between today’s machine learning and generalized intelligence.”

[ Could AI solve that problem? Get real-world lessons learned from CIOs in the new HBR Analytic Services report, An Executive’s Guide to Real-World AI. ]

What? Don’t overstate technology? What industry does he think this is? Let’s look at takeaways from the conference for IT leaders:

Lesson 1: Oh the humanity! Slow down to go fast

Cerf’s role as the chairperson of the People-Centered Internet initiative steered another dialog that turned into one of the conference themes. “We have a serious problem with social media,” he said. “There’s a deliberate creation of divisiveness in our society by nation-states.”

Thank you, Captain Obvious? Maybe. But Cerf is one individual who’s trying to do something about it, starting with himself. “We need to slow down when we reply,” he said, “slow down and think.”

Most of the responses I heard from a CCE panel of experts on countering deep fakes and disinformation boiled down to just that: Slow down. Think. It’s good advice for a lot of topics in tech.

“The problem with most ‘best practices:’ It depends upon where the organization is.”

Constellation’s VP & principal analyst Dion Hinchcliffe mentioned slowing down and thinking during a digital transformation session: “This is the problem with most ‘best practices:’ It depends upon where the organization is.” You have to slow down before you can go fast.

Andrew Nebus, the moderator of another session, tweeted a key takeaway he heard from AI and wellness expert Liza Lichtinger backstage: “We are living in the attention-deficit era. If we do not pay attention, our resilience diminishes, thus technology will automate and design us towards stagnation.”

In other words, go super fast, give up your autonomy, and accelerate off a cliff. You snooze, you lose.

Even the best artificial intelligence teams require the human factor. Says Tricia Wang, a tech ethnographer at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, “AI teams that are doing well are well-balanced. The bad ones skip the human interaction model. The great ones have ethnographers and psychologists that can collect qualitative data. You have to have a diverse team to do AI right.”

Lichtinger says that the Singapore government has built great technical AI, but now they’re bringing talent in from all over the world to develop leadership and soft skills on the team.

Bottom line: Before artificial intelligence, you might want to try applying some human intelligence. Again, slow down!

Lesson 2: Customer and employee experiences: Be great at both

Another conference theme: Some tech will help us serve customers better than we ever have before, but we’d better take care of employees if we want them to take care of our customers.

It’s not a question of which is more important. CIOs must execute well on both employee and customer experience.

Bradd Busick, the CIO for Macdonald-Miller (a mechanical contractor doing business in the Pacific Northwest) shared how his customers are benefitting from the technology that your kid has been bugging you about for years, especially this holiday season: Virtual reality.

Much ado has been made about what a fantastic experience VR game Beat Saber is, and yet the paucity of business applications and business benefits surrounding VR has left enterprise IT a bit disillusioned. Cue Busick’s use case. As it turns out, Macdonald-Miller’s use of VR with 3D designs of upcoming building projects has led to “some incredible wins” such as “letting a prominent customer of ours discover that a hallway in the hospital wasn’t big enough to fit a hospital gurney in.”

It’s about more than systems; it’s about the way we work.

To be clear, when you’re spending millions and millions on a massive construction project, this is a good thing to discover before concrete gets poured, not afterward. Busick says that since they’ve been using customer-facing VR, customer retention has increased by 6 percent, and maintenance business has increased by 33 percent. That’s the exciting and new part.

CCE’s presenters also pointed out that the old, boring, and critical also needs to be included in much-needed enterprise modernizations. Bennet Yen, vice president of product at FinancialForce, almost certainly has motivation to comment that “every one of your business processes has to be connected to a financial backbone in order to be able to know what decisions are financially good.”

Yet he’s right. Enterprise IT crows about the integrations that it manages to achieve, but we focus on the new and interesting apps far more than old — and critical — back-office processes. This focus on the new can lead to delays or even a lack of integration of new knowledge into financial decisions for the organization.

It’s about more than systems; it’s about the way we work. R. “Ray” Wang, the founder of Constellation, asked Yen a bit of a loaded question: “Is finance collaborative?” and Yen responded, “In a modern business, yes.” Nice save! Those of us who have experienced the opposite will appreciate this perspective to no end.

Digital and customer experience are both pretty hot topics with IT and CEOs lately. Quikrete CIO Jay Ferro reminded us of the link between happy employees and happy customers: “Take care of your people and they’ll take care of your customers.”

A little humility goes a long way with customer experience.

Dr. Zafar Chaudry, CIO for Seattle Children’s Hospital, noted that a little humility goes a long way with customer experience. “Maybe we don’t know what the patient needs. Maybe we just ask the patient?” Plus, he adds, at children’s hospitals, maybe 11-year-olds are smarter than the CIO, so why not use them to transform the organization?

We also have to be smart about use cases and not slavishly adopt cool new tech. For every VR use case that’s achieving business objectives, there are probably a dozen blockchain use cases that aren’t quite as well thought out, said Mike D. Kail, CTO for “This concept about [using blockchain for] tracking your lettuce from farm to store: It doesn’t implicitly add security or prevent it from spoiling. It made zero sense to me when coined and makes zero sense today,” Kail says.

What does make sense with regard to data strategy?

Jonathan Feldman is the CIO for Wake County in NC and is an award-winning CIO, speaker, and writer. He was named a top CIO to follow by the Huffington Post and was honored with a Frost & Sullivan CIO Impact Award. He was previously CIO for the City of Asheville, NC.