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CIOs Learn Leadership, Automation Lessons

May 26, 2015

A recurring theme at the May 20 MIT CIO Symposium was how business executives are finally Leading Digital. There’s no one silver bullet that will guarantee success, but importantly, IT leaders are taking on the strategic business roles that have been discussed for the last few decades.

For example, CIO Leadership Award winner Michael Nilles wears both traditional IT and corporate strategy hats at Schindler Group. Nilles, who participated in the Leading Digital panel moderated by MIT IDE Research Scientist, George Westerman, is responsible for traditional areas such as global business process management, IT and shared services. In addition, he’s the CEO of Schindler Digital Business AG, where he is “digitizing relationships with customers” and leveraging innovative digital business models, like the IoT, as competitive advantage for the company in the industry.

By contrast, at DHL Express Americas, Pablo Ciano –a finalist for the award — said the only way he can actively advocate for IT in strategic business decisions is to have a CTO carry out the day-to-day operations such as running the data centers and infrastructure for the company’s 500,000 employees and global logistics network in 220 countries.

Regardless of organizational structure, digital transformation and platform strategies are key to corporate survival—even for current industry leaders. Specifically, CIOs were told to work across business lines and across industries in unconventional ways. As Vivanda CEO Jerry Wolfe told attendees,

if you want to make change: “Don’t separate IT from the business. Imagine yourself in a service business” that’s different from the one you’re in; then, create a concrete plan that the board and CEO can embrace.

Why Automation Matters

An emphasis on business acumen doesn’t mean ignoring emerging technologies that are at your corporate doorstep, of course. At a session on The Impact of Automation, MIT IDE co-director Erik Brynjolfsson said that business and social contracts are “unraveling” and too many organizations still don’t keep pace with technological advances. He challenged his panelists to tell IT leaders why robotics and automation need to be top-of-mind.

Professor Mary Cumming, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, cited some provocative data about commercial pilots and her own experience as a military pilot to drive home the point.  On average, commercial pilots actually fly their planes only about 20 percent of the time, she said. The rest of the time it is controlled automatically.  “Humans don’t do well” with repetitive tasks over long time periods, according to Cummings. That’s why autonomous cars and automated business processes will become more accepted: humans get bored and won’t always intervene appropriately.

At the same time, she and MIT CSAIL Director, Daniela Rus, said that robots are still in the early stages, particularly when it comes to tasks that require reasoning, expertise and judgment.

CIOs will have to sort out which processes and jobs require judgment or involve high levels uncertainty, and which are ripe for automation. Cummings noted that IT of the future will need people who can understand the social and societal implications of IT in addition to programming literacy.