MindFuel - CIOs make sense of the new abnormal, and the transformations that lie ahead

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed July 8, 2020
Digital transformation has been pitched as a bulwark against the pandemic economy. The truth is much more complex. At IFS MindFuel 2020, a CIO panel with Mars Petfood, Berkeley Group and Mediq provided a reality check - and took the conversation in directions I wasn't expecting.

IFS - Mindfuel CIO panel
(IFS - Mindfuel CIO panel)

The virtual events season has answered questions on business resilience under duress.

But where do we go from here? IFS' ongoing event, MindFuel, helped me dig into issues that are glossed over too often.

I'm not a fan of fast-forwarding through our predicaments with cotton candy talk about "post-pandemic" business. We are now in what my colleague Den Howlett has dubbed "the new abnormal."

We will be there for quite some time. By the time we emerge (e.g. a widely-available Coronavirus vaccine), the world won't be the same; it will be digitally-altered to such an extent that talk of "returning" won't make any sense. Which businesses will find a way to prosper - even if it means a dramatic retooling?

MindFuel's CIO panel - issues of resilience and transformation

A MindFuel CIO panel, which you can view on replay with (free) registration, faced these topics head-on. Moderated by Mark Chillingworth, CIO community editor, the panel moved beyond the obvious questions.

Yes, every company had to address the short-term issues of remote work at scale. Every CIO had to scramble on remote workplace security. I have yet to hear a "cloud-first" CIO express regret about their pre-pandemic cloud adoptions. But is logging in with cloud tools the same as transforming your business model? Hardly. With creative use of collaboration, you can maintain your work culture remotely. But you can create a more diverse, more adaptive culture that way?

Not every business had the luxury of remote-only. Some "essential businesses" had to bravely/smartly persevere. During the IFS session, which was titled "Safeguarding a business during a crisis without locking down productivity," Chillingworth asked Amit Apte, Digital Technology Director, Mars Petfood, how they pulled that off. Apte told attendees:

Pet food or pet nutrition, as we call it, is categorized as an essential service. So even though in Europe, for example, and in Russia, if you entered in any regions or locations which were locked down, or where literally everything was shut down, this was the essential service. So it was an obligation from us to keep on producing things. 

Apte's team was put to the business continuity test:

The Mars associates kept going. I think we had some instances where probably they had to change a shift or two, but nothing dramatic.

In this case, if "nothing dramatic" happened, that means your team are most probably rock stars.

Essential industries and supply chain fragility

I find "digital transformation" happy talk so misleading right now; the wrath of Coronavirus is distributed by industry. Wasn't it just yesterday Starbucks was an award-winning digital darling? Now, their entire model of "Starbucks, your gathering spot" is under duress. Chillingworth asked Chris Gilbert, CIO of British property developers The Berkeley Group: did your industry totally shut down - or were you able to carry on? Gilbert responded:

We were one of the industries that the government said should carry on - and we tried our best. We probably dropped about forty percent productivity. But not because we chose to - it was more the availability of materials.

That's the supply chain fragility Coronavirus has exposed:

Whilst construction sites would carry on working, the factories that were manufacturing the materials that we needed weren't all working. Some sites that didn't need the critical materials were able to carry on. But some had to stop because they got to the point where, "Okay, we need bricks." If you couldn't get them, you couldn't carry on. So that brought productivity down. But we did carry on working all the way through the main part of the crisis.

Does an early start on digital transformation pay off?

"The companies that started digital transformation before the pandemic have a leg up now." It's an assumption I hear frequently - but it deserves a thorough gut check. Here's how Apte put it:

If you look at what Mars has been doing for the past two years, we have been firmly on the path of digital transformation. What this means is: we had invested in processes/people/technology. And so we had committed to agile ways of working, really challenging this [notion of] long-winded projects, which keep on going for months and months. So we already had entered into a different way of working.

That included a new approach to technology:

We have adopted cloud-first, cloud-native. We have put the user-centricity, the customer-centricity at the heart of it. All those things are going to be the essential attributes as we go forward.

Apte shared questions they are asking internally - questions that have to be universal right now:

  • Do we really need to lock ourselves into a large, multi-year program?
  • Do we really need to lock ourselves into a large tech upgrade, but which actually doesn't put the user at the heart of it?
  • Are we still going to make decisions the old way?
  • Or are we going to be making decisions based on the data and analytics?

Challenging times? Absolutely. But that doesn't render the prior transformation irrelevant. Apte:

For us, fortunately, it's going to be a continuation. Of course, there is a review. Of course, we are going to be very, very careful. But those foundations we put in place, I believe that put us in a much better position than if we didn't have them.

Chillingworth asked Stefaan Kindekens, Group Chief Digital & Information Officer, Mediq, how their team has faced all this. Kindekens hit on a point I've heard frequently this spring: whatever digital changes you had in motion are now dramatically accelerated, and you better keep up. Kindekens:

Delivering health care before the Coronavirus was a very physical activity... We now see that healthcare is accelerating a transformation from physical contact between patient and doctor to remote patient/doctor contact. That can be over video calling, that can be remote monitoring  - it brings in all kinds of technologies that are required to support patients no longer in a hospital setting, but giving the same care in the remote setting.

That is something that has now been incredibly accelerated because all the beds need to be vacated for Coronavirus patients... That for us is an enormous challenge.

Digital acceleration faces data problems - and compliance

The only problem with digital acceleration? Running into a wall of compliance and data management. As much as we talk people/processes/technology, data management could easily make that top level. Factor in the promise of AI and personalization - but also the data privacy and ethical issues. Health care is a classic example, where every step towards personalized medicine invokes data privacy obstacles. In the U.S., the telemedicine being allowed now is far from permanent law across states.

The panel delved into many of these issues; check the replay for a full view. I thought Chillingworth framed it well:

Now is the challenge for all three of you. People have gone and experimented and tried new technologies. Now you do also have a governance issue. You don't want half a team on OneDrive and half a team on something else, creating the good old-fashioned data silos and old-fashioned governance coming back.

My take

Apte talked about the value of predictive technologies, while reminding attendees: you don't need "AI" in place for basic automations. He proposed two different work streams: AI/ML advances on one level - "that's the future," he says. But get your data plumbing right also:

Good enough is sometimes good enough, and you don't have to wait for the best. So your BI automation, your data automation, your data quality checks, your data transformations, helping people to help themselves... That's what the IT departments of the future should be doing. We should not be a bottleneck.

The panel seemed to agree: tech is not going to deliver a cure-all to black swan events. In healthcare transformation, for example, the tech is (mostly) there now. But changing medicine into outcomes rather than (overpriced) pharmaceutical revenue streams - there's a monster challenge beyond the tech.

The three CIOs also talked about serving end customers and improving Net Promoter Scores - not the type of talk you'd expect from CIOs. When Chillingworth asked the panel for final comments, they didn't dwell on digital. Instead, they brought up the problem of diversity and inclusion. How do you change cultural values in a (largely) remote workforce?

Apte raised it first:

I'm going to say something towards inclusion and diversity in the true sense, in every sense. One thing which has emerged also, apart from the absolution of digital tech, I think what has also been discovered is the sheer differences we have, The gulf between the haves and have-nots. And it comes out in different ways. There are genuine issues which people feel, in terms of the lack of inclusive diversity.

I actually don't care if I'm a technology leader or a medical leader, I don't care who we are. This is no longer a nice tick box, which everyone does. This has to be the way we actually work in the day-to-day, at home at work, which has become one now. This, to me, is an absolute must going forward.

I'm not going to put a ribbon on this important talk. Credit to the panel for broaching these issues in an unflinching way.