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Preparing for the digital future, leading in the digital present

At the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, panelists and professors look ahead

May 29, 2014

Adriana Karaboutis, vice president and global CIO at Dell, joined a panel at the 2014 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.

Adriana Karaboutis, vice president and global CIO at Dell, joined a panel at the 2014 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.

At the 11th annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, speakers from academia to industry gathered to discuss the expanding role of the chief information officer today, the latest breakthroughs in digital technology and what they mean for society, and the state of security and privacy in the digital age.

After a morning panel about the relationship between the CIO and the board of directors and an academic keynote panel featuring professors Erik Brynjolfsson, Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Tom Malone, and John Leonard that covered territory ranging from Google’s self-driving car to the disconnect between fast-moving technology and much slower-moving governments, four prominent CIOs took the stage to discuss their roles.

Adriana Karaboutis, CIO of Dell, Rebecca Rhoads, CIO of global defense manufacturer Raytheon Company, Roger Gurnani, CIO of Verizon, and Brian Lillie, CIO of the data center company Equinix, all talked about the dramatically expanded scope and prominence of the CIO role over the past five years. They agreed that as technology’s importance to businesses’ growth has become increasingly clear, IT has become steadily more integrated into the business overall. At Dell, said Karaboutis, “IT is in the business. We don’t ‘support’ the business or ‘partner’ with the business. We get in there.” Rhoads described the role today as “CIO-plus,” noting that Raytheon had merged the IT function with its other business services, including finance and human resources, to create a shared services group, underscoring the way IT underlies the entire business. In her role today, Rhoads said, she aims to contribute to both top and bottom-line growth. “We’re expected to come to the table with ideas for new markets to enter and how to optimize working capital and margins,” she said.

Many panelists throughout the day addressed the topic of data security, and the CIOs emphasized that their jobs are heavily focused on risk management, with a need for both safeguards against data breaches and thoughtful disaster preparedness plans should a breach occur.

In response to an audience question, the CIO panelists also discussed the challenge of managing a multi-generational workforce, particularly in a functional area where skills age quickly as new technology emerges. “The generation doing the most innovation may not be the same as the generation making the decisions about where to invest,” said Rhoads. “But often [when people are hesitant to spend money on a project] it’s because they’re concerned about risk. You need to allay those concerns with an explanation of how you plan to mitigate them.”

Karaboutis shared an example of Dell’s approach to its youngest generation of workers, who they found were regularly using a variety of mobile applications and cloud services while at work. “Rather than drive out and prohibit, we want to embrace and secure,” she said. “We said, ‘Send us the apps so we can secure them.’” Dell went so far as to create its own mobile app store. “With the consumerization of IT, you can’t expect people to turn everything off at work,” said Karaboutis. “And sometimes what you do for employees you can end up bringing to market.”

Afternoon breakout sessions included discussions of big data, communicating the business value of IT, and leading digital transformations, among others. The day was capped with a keynote by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT Sloan, who shared ideas from his latest book with Brynjolfsson, the New York Times-bestselling The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Machines.