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The new CIO challenge: Assembling the right combo of human and machine smarts

The 11th annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium began with a piece of provocative advice for some of the world’s best CIOs: If you believe you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re setting yourself up for failure, especially in today’s enterprise.

Business peers are tech savvy, customers are plugged into your business like never before and digital disruptors are everywhere. Being a successful CIO in the digital enterprise is not about separating from your peers and customers, conference organizers said — it’s about effectively recognizing and integrating their strengths into your IT strategy.

In fact, as the day went on, it became increasingly clear that believing you know better than anyone else is actually one of the worst mistakes a CIO can make.

“The greatest threat to the CIO is the CIO themselves,” said Douglas Menefee, cloud CIO advisor at Amazon Web Services. CIOs must guard against getting too comfortable. “Human nature is tribal and we surround ourselves by people of like-tribe and we run the risk of being closed-minded,” he said.

Stephanie Woerner, research scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), concurred, stressing that it’s crucial CIOs be open to the strengths and ideas of their peers, and also be willing to continuously learn and think outside the box.

A simple example? Take “something that was in technology but turn it into an [IT] service,” she said.

Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, drove home the point in remarks that closed out a day of sessions that included: how to work with the CEO, how to balance innovation and security, how to be an effective IT service broker and how to make sure the CIO role doesn’t become obsolete. But McAfee took the notion of drawing from the human collective a step further. True magic happens when you integrate the strengths of people with the strengths of technology, he said.

And CIOs, with their technology domain expertise, are in a position to bring that magic to their companies — provided, that is, they can assemble teams with the right combination of human and machine smarts.

To illustrate his point, McAfee described to the audience a freestyle chess tournament where participants could form any combination of human and digital labor to compete against each other.

“What we learn is that the rightly composed team will beat any grandmaster,” McAfee said. “It will beat the best chess super computer. It will actually beat the top grandmaster with the best chess super computer, because the way to compose a team is to be very insightful about what people are good at versus what technology is good at and bring both of those strengths together.”

And the day is coming when anyone will be able to program these smart machines, not just software engineers from MIT. McAfee told the audience about Baxter, a robot that anyone can program — not by writing code, but simply by moving its “body” parts to show it what to do. “And you essentially say, ‘You got that?’ and Baxter says, ‘Yeah, no problem,’ “McAfee said.

Though Baxter is mainly used on the manufacturing floor, it shows that technology paired with people is powerful: powerful when used in institutions, powerful when used in education systems, and powerful when used in business models.

“These are not straightforward examples of substitution,” McAfee said. “These are examples of complements, of people coming together with technologies to do things better.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email  Kristen Lee, features writer, or find her on Twitter @Kristen_Lee_34

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