Thursday, May 21, 2015

MIT Sloan CIO Symposium 2015: Dealing with Disruption

Peter Weill, MIT Sloan CISR

Board members estimate that 32 percent of their companies' revenues are under threat from digital disruption in next 5 years. This was one of the findings from a November 2014 MIT CISR study that Peter Weill shared to kickoff the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium 2015 yesterday. The theme of the day was "Inventing Your Future: Accelerating Success Through Technology.” The annual event always explores the intersections of business and technology in interesting ways and this year was no exception. I’ll cover a few of the ones that especially caught my eye here.

Derek Roos, CEO Mendix

The first was the topic of digital disruption. This is happening because, in the works of Mendix CEO Derek Roos, "Every company is now a software company.  Every employee is in IT.  The CIO is a business leader.” Jennifer Banner, the CEO of Schaad echoed that "10 years ago I’m not sure I would have known the CIO if I had ridden the elevator with him.  The CIO was not really in strategy. Now [the CIO is] absolutely critical in helping the board move into [digital] strategy."

At the same time, Christopher Perretta, CIO State Street notes that "risk has changed. Risk excellence is top of mind. If I blow the risk , that's it."

These twin and sometimes opposing needs to be nimble enough to handle digital disruption while simultaneously dealing with risk led to a discussion of two-speed (a.k.a. bimodal) IT. As Roos explained:

What's critical is you can't just take existing IT and decide to go fast. You may be able to incrementally improve efficiency and speed. But you have to do things differently. Large insurance company. We created a fast-track IT organization and put a cross-functional team together. Very nimble. Were able to take introducing new products from 18 months to 3 weeks. Think like a startup. Accept that they may fail. Fail but fail fast.

Ultimately, Roos envisions that the distinction between IT and not-IT will blur however. "Eventually the organizational structure of IT has to change. 100 years ago all the typing was done in a typing pool."

As a side note, there’s been a lot of discussion of late in “cloud circles” about the bimodal IT concept (at my employer Red Hat as elsewhere). It’s not without its detractors but, properly understood as referring to a modernizing classic IT plus a strategic initiative based on cloud platforms, DevOps, and new-style applications, it makes a lot of sense. That it made such a prominent appearance at a relatively business-oriented event such as this helps substantiate its usefulness as an organizing principle.

Daniela Rus, Director, MIT CSAIL

The Academic Keynote Panel dealt with the impact of automation on all this. Which tasks can easily be automated away? The key question is how repetitive and long-lived the tasks are. Prof. Daniela Rus, Director MIT CSAIL noted that the "car industry automates 80 percent of tasks because they can take advantage of repetitive tasks. But cell phones and electronics are generally only about 10 percent automated. If product is going to change every three months, you don't have time to retool and reconfigure the factory. Robots today are a bit like programming before we had compilers."

In general, tasks related to iterative software testing and deployment, as in DevOps, probably have fewer limitations than do tasks in the physical domain. Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that it’s important that workflows have to be understood and repeatable in order to enjoy the benefits of automation. 

On the same panel, Prof. Mary “Missy” Cummings, Director of Duke’s Humans and Autonomy Lab also cautioned that heavily automated systems can be a problem when humans need to take over control. A former US Navy fighter pilot, Cummings said that "Commercial pilots touch the stick for 3 or 7 minutes. Mostly on takeoff because planes aren't rated for automated takeoff. That's on a tough day. How much automation is in there? How much should be in there? Boredom is setting in. Humans don't handle that well." 


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