Digital Leaders Focus Their Technology and Talent Priorities on Resilience, Speed 

March 01, 2024
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Thank you to everyone who attended and participated in the 16th Metis Strategy Digital Symposium. Highlights from the event are below. If you missed the event, check out Metis Strategy’s Youtube channel and Technovation podcast in the coming weeks for recordings of each conversation. 

Our next event will take place May 21. More details and an agenda coming soon. CXOs, are you interested in attending? If so, kindly register here. We look forward to seeing you!

The COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chain challenges and the broad resurgence of artificial intelligence created a sense of urgency among many technology leaders to modernize and improve their organizations’ digital capabilities. Today, many companies are beginning to see the results of those investments and talking about the strategic ways technology can continue to enable innovation and resilience. Tech leaders recognize the importance of playing both offense and defense as they continue to navigate an uncertain business landscape, and the continued need to align talent and business strategies as they plan for future growth.   

Investing in resilience 

Some leaders outside IT may argue that there is never a good time to invest in IT. But given how quickly the competitive landscape is changing, organizations can’t afford to pause. For CIOs, a question is where – and when – to make those strategic investments.  

“It’s much more beneficial to invest in a downturn than in an upcycle,” said Gates Corporation CIO Diego Silva. During a downturn, there is more capacity and willingness for people to drive change, put new skills into practice, and move projects forward. The greater acceptance for change gives companies the opportunity to drive productivity and resilience, and ultimately put them in a position of strength when the next upswing comes around. 

Indeed, many organizations took advantage of time during the pandemic to invest in digital capabilities. When the world was in “shutdown mode,” Sunbelt Rentals Chief Digital & Technology Officer JP Saini invested in the organization’s omnichannel retail capabilities, talent development, new innovation models, and other initiatives to strengthen the resilience and adaptability of the enterprise. As Metis Strategy partner Chris Davis notes: “Businesses are cyclical, but progress and innovation don’t have to be.”   

MSDS attendees shared that the biggest barriers to advancing and maintaining digital capabilities are legacy operating models and legacy infrastructure

Managing both offense and defense

True transformation means not just building innovative products and services but also ensuring that all the processes that support those innovations are running as they should. For CIOs, that means playing both offense and defense well. 

At pharmaceutical firm GSK, innovation has long been a core competency. As leaders discussed transforming parts of the organization, there was growing recognition that the company had to balance playing offense and defense, playing to win rather than “playing not to lose.” Offense includes those digital and data capabilities at the core of a company’s strategy, while defense-oriented activities may focus on areas like responsible AI and cybersecurity. It becomes a virtuous cycle, GSK Chief Digital & Technology Officer Shobie Ramakrishnan said. “Defense in service of the offense becomes important.”  

Tech modernization is another area where offense and defense must be balanced. As Grainger CTO Jonny LeRoy noted, organizations that have been early adopters have a duty to tend to the IT garden over time, “to keep the weeds out.” Putting that into practice, Grainger is focused on the mechanics of how it grows, using its understanding of processes like customer acquisition and inventory management to guide the continuous development of its systems and solutions. Meanwhile, Grainger keeps an eye on the horizon and experiments with new technology as it comes so it can be ready for what’s next.  

Continuously improving

Responding to a fast-changing market requires organizations to deploy new capabilities quickly and pivot when necessary. That requires a mindset of continuous improvement and a constant search for opportunities to align people, process and technology toward a common outcome. 

Consider a zero-day cybersecurity vulnerability, one that takes advantage of an unknown or unaddressed issue and needs to be fixed immediately. Jen Felch, Chief Digital Officer and CIO at Dell, said the best way to be prepared is “not only to take care of it early, but figure out how to get fast.” While some may view behavior or process change as antithetical to speed, the efforts to make those changes and continuously improve can be major levers to increase speed and efficiency.   

Felch recognizes the desire for continuous improvement among teams as well, not only to build skills but also to see the results of their work. Rapid experimentation cycles have helped, she said: “let’s see what we can do in two weeks and build on that and see how it goes.” Giving appropriate context, bringing in knowledge from across the organization, and encouraging a test-and-learn mindset can also drive empowerment across teams. On the process side, constantly improving data quality, information retrieval methods and learning opportunities have also aided progress.  

The top talent efforts that technology executives are focused on to advance AI are widespread education/upskilling and scaling AI-based productivity tools 

Adopting new ways of working

Technology leaders are also adapting their talent strategies to better suit their strategic goals. Barry Perkins, COO at Zurich North America, noted that having a majority of technology employees in India limited productivity and agility. Noting “ABCD” – AI, Big Data, Cyber, and Development – as four critical digital capabilities, the company has begun to reassess its talent strategy, including which roles should be closer to headquarters. “We can’t have agility if we’re having conversations thousands of miles away with different time zones,” he said. “It’s much easier side by side.”  

Effective talent management also requires leaders to inspire teams about the organization’s future vision and help team members see their place in the plan. As Brinks Inc. CIO Neelu Sethi said, transformation of any sort is less about technology and more about people. She is working to create a true “three-legged stool” of people, process and technology rather than letting a single element be the focus.She also reiterated the need for true collaboration. “You cannot whistle a symphony,” she said. “It takes an orchestra.” 

At Travelers, preparing talent for large-scale change has involved a focus on four areas: Customer First; Empower and Act; Test and Learn; and Prioritize. Chief Technology and Operations Officer Mojgan Lefebvre also emphasized the need for effective communication to drive trust and accountability through transparency. “People want to play a role,” she said. “Bringing them along and giving them that capability is important.” 

A majority of MSDS participants are either experimenting with Copilots or other generative AI tools to enhance software developer productivity or scaling the adoption of these tools

Advancing generative AI adoption

Naturally, artificial intelligence continues to be a priority in 2024. After a year of initial exploration and education, many organizations are ramping up AI experiments and seeing ways to expand AI across the enterprise. Underpinning all of this exploration is a focus on value delivery and safety.   

GSK established an AI policy and set up an AI governance council five years ago when the organization decided to scale AI across the company. Now, Ramakrishnan is thinking about additional risks around adoption and procurement to ensure AI can scale. Similarly, Travelers many years ago set up an AI accelerator team to explore potential use cases and create a framework for responsible AI use. Now, they are prioritizing a handful of use cases and in the process of scaling them across the organization.

“Generative AI is top of mind for every executive to accelerate their workforce and accelerate the products of the business,” said Varun Mohan, CEO & Co-Founder of Codeium. In a poll, participants said the biggest benefit to AI and generative AI adoption is increased productivity (67%), followed by improved products and services (17%). When it comes to advancing AI, 40% of attendees said talent efforts are focused on scaling AI-based productivity tools. 

Around two-thirds of respondents see increased productivity as the biggest benefit to AI/generative AI adoption

Many speakers said they are currently using AI for use cases such as developer productivity and internal process automation. A key outcome: speed. “The more we eliminate the drudgery from the process, the more we can start to deliver value,” said Jen Felch of Dell. At Travelers, Levebvre’s team is exploring how generative AI can be an assistant or collaborator, such as quickly searching through and summarizing documents or helping team members access needed information. The company is also exploring how AI can be used to improve job descriptions and recruiting processes. Lefebvre noted that while many of their use cases are internally focused, they want to be able to scale the technology and “make it good before turning it around with customers” as there is also a lot of external value to capture. 

At Grainger, LeRoy’s teams are experimenting with generative AI in technology (coding assistants) as well as customer service. Through internal hackathons, the technology team developed tools that are boosting employee productivity and allowing them to do more with a constrained budget. As use of these tools continues to scale, financial management becomes an important factor, LeRoy said. “Some of that is selecting the right model with the right capability level that’s not overly expensive, and managing how much information you put into them.” 

Our next event will take place May 21. If you are a CXO and interested in attending, please register here

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