MIT Sloan CIO Symposium preview: Digital transformation shifts into high gear

The upcoming MIT Sloan CIO Symposium will explore CIO challenges of the moment – including the pandemic-related speedup around digital transformation plans. Executive Chair Allan Tate shares a sneak peek
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When Allan Tate took over the reigns of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in April 2020, he inherited a respected 16-year-old conference known for pairing MIT academic leaders with award-winning CIOs and industry experts in the trenches. This unique blend of researchers and practitioners consistently resulted in a day full of engaging discussions, where new ideas were shared and debated. Soon after he began the new role, Tate made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel the conference. 

Like many global conference organizers, Tate then worked with his team to find another way for the event to go on. They experimented with a digital learning series, offering virtual roundtables and webinars over the course of several weeks.  

[ Read also: Digital transformation: 3 driving trends for 2021. ] 

In this interview, Tate discusses how his team used the lessons learned during last year’s pivot to shape the programming for the 2021 event. This year’s symposium will be an eight-week digital event that includes a new community element  for the program. Tate explains what led his team to move to this model and discusses the CIO challenges that will be addressed during the series, which begins April 5 and ends May 28. 

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): The MIT CIO Symposium had to pivot dramatically in the past year. Can you talk about how the format has changed, and why you’ve gone in the direction you have? 

Tate: We're not creating a substitute for our beloved event on MIT campus; rather we're reimagining what it means to have a Symposium in a world that has drastically changed due to the pandemic.

In 2020, our in-person event was scheduled to take place on May 19. Once we canceled the in-person event, we adopted a Digital Learning Series as a trial that included monthly panel sessions. As the series progressed, we made the sessions more comprehensive and discovered audience likes and dislikes through feedback via surveys. 

We gathered that the audience prefers relatively short episodes (60 to 90 minutes), and they prefer virtual events to have small chunks of engagement on a regular basis instead of everything packed into one or two days. A one-day event makes sense for in-person because of the investment in travel and lodging. But without this mandatory time commitment, no one wants to sit in front of their computer all day.

A one-day event makes sense for in-person because of the investment in travel and lodging. But without this mandatory time commitment, no one wants to sit in front of their computer all day.

One of our goals for the Symposium this year was to use a technology vendor that has a platform to run not only a virtual conference but be of great value when we return to in-person (hopefully in 2022). This year, we’ve adopted a platform that makes it possible for us to showcase the content, collaborate on both a web and mobile interface, and develop a community – not just during the Symposium but year-round. Membership to the new MIT Sloan CIO Community will be included as part of the registration for this year’s virtual event series.  

TEP: What do you hope attendees will gain from this new community?

Tate: Our community will be dedicated to helping members build relationships with other technology executives year-round. Members can connect with other technology executives, participate in discussions, attend panel discussions from anywhere in the world, and more. The community is designed to be like a seasonal resort where “summer” is “Symposium Season.” Then during the off-season, activity may slow – but won’t stop. 

People’s investment in the community is not ephemeral; rather, it is persistent in that the community will continue year-round. What we are asking is for our audience to come on this journey with us – build the community with us.  

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

In addition to the panel sessions and MIT Sloan CIO Community, the event will have weekly discussions of the weekly theme, roundtable discussions during the afternoon, a town hall, and evening hours in multiple booths serving subsets of our audience. 

TEP: Are there any benefits to holding this event virtually versus in-person? 

Tate: With the digital edition of the Symposium, we're bringing together CIOs from around the world. The virtual community will fundamentally change the way we engage with each other. Participants in the online Symposium will be able to find each other based upon location and interest and interact with each other on social media-type threads on key discussion topics.

We’re engaged with CIO clubs around the world and giving each their own space within the MIT Sloan CIO Community. For example, a CIO club from China could have a space where it holds roundtable discussions with each other, perhaps during business hours in China and perhaps in their native language. At the same time, they can interact with CIO clubs from Canada, Mexico, and Europe while all enjoy the traditional thought leadership during Symposium panel sessions. These panels continue the tradition of bringing together MIT thought leaders with in-the-trenches CIOs; however, because it’s virtual, it opens our event up to a more geographically distributed audience.

TEP: This year’s theme is “The Big Reset: Digital Enterprises Shift Into High Gear.” Why is that theme relevant now?

Tate: In April 2020, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella famously said: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” Much of the workforce has been forced into the digital space – it's a major shift – and leadership must adapt. The pandemic proved how vital a CIO is to an organization as they deploy technology to benefit employees and end users.

The pandemic proved how vital a CIO is to an organization as they deploy technology to benefit employees and end users.

More and more CIOs are becoming accountable for the digital performance of enterprises around the world and so we need to drive that discussion and help CIOs navigate and lead their enterprises.

TEP: What are the biggest CIO pain points or concerns you’re trying to address in this year’s event?

Tate: Before the pandemic, only 12 percent of executives strongly agreed their organization’s leaders have the right mindset to embrace the changes needed to thrive in the digital economy, according to the 2020 Future of Leadership Global Executive Study and Research Report by MIT Sloan Management Review and Cognizant. A sobering 9 percent strongly agreed that their organization has leaders with the skills to thrive in the digital economy. Ready or not, the pandemic forced enterprises to quickly adapt. One of our panels – “Re-imagining Leadership in the Next Normal … Are CIOs prepared?" – will provide practical and specific recommendations to help CIOs settle into the next normal by increasing transparency and demonstrating authenticity.

TEP: How have the challenges facing CIOs changed since the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium last year?

Tate: It’s not whether digital transformation will come, but when and how. For many companies, the pandemic was a wake-up call. In the new digital economy, many enterprises won’t succeed by merely tweaking the management practices that led to past success.

To thrive in a digitized universe, businesses of all sizes need to reinvent themselves. Yet leaders often lack a common language to assess the degree of threat digital disruption poses to their business, and – more importantly – the language to create a compelling vision for their enterprise’s success. Stephanie Woerner, of MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research, will lead the discussion on building an enterprise for the world ahead.

TEP: What do you expect will be the biggest disruptors to the CIO role in the next few years? 

Tate: The pandemic accelerated digital transformation and proved how vital CIOs are to their organization. As digital business grows, CIOs are becoming accountable for operations, essentially becoming digital COOs. It’s important CIOs know how to adapt to this trend and our panelists will dive into this at the 2021 Symposium.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.