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3 CIOs talk driving IT strategy during COVID-19 pandemic

At the 2020 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Leadership Award presentation, the finalists discussed their role in helping manage their companies through a crisis and prepare them for recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic scrambled business operations more profoundly and rapidly than any event in most people's living memory. At leading organizations, CIOs are playing a crucial role not only in helping navigate the uncharted territory, but also in capitalizing on emerging opportunities created by the upheaval.

"How do we come out of this crisis even stronger than before?" said Mojgan Lefebvre, executive vice president and chief technology and operations officer at Travelers Insurance and one of the finalists of the 2020 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Leadership Award.

During the online presentation and panel, the three finalists for the leadership award discussed how they've helped to enable future success by implementing a quick and successful IT strategy during COVID-19.

"IT has transitioned from being a function that was viewed as a necessary evil or a cost pool to now being considered a trusted partner," said Zeeshan Tariq, vice president and CIO at Zimmer Biomet and one of the finalists for the leadership award. "A partner that is not only essential for enabling organizational strategy but also for creating market differentiation and potential market disruption."

This became increasingly evident over the last few months as organizations have relied on IT to make the right technology-driven decisions to ensure businesses continue to operate. CarMax, for example, not only moved its wholesale business online in just a matter of days, but it quickly accelerated certain components of its omnichannel marketing operations to meet customer needs virtually, according to Shamim Mohammad, the company's SVP and CIO/CTO and the recipient of the 2020 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Leadership Award.

"The customers have changed over the last few weeks," he said. "[They're] looking for convenience, safety and personalization."

Create an IT culture that will drive innovation

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many IT leaders faced the challenge of having to transition organizations to a work-from-home environment. In less than 10 days, the technology and operations team at Travelers Insurance managed to get the company that has offices all over the world to being fully online, with almost 100% of employees working remotely, said Lefebvre. In addition to having access to digital capabilities, the IT department's ability to respond quickly and effectively was in large part a result of building and engineering a culture with deep expertise, according to Lefebvre.

Tariq echoed this during the online panel, describing the importance of having a culture that allows for a more innovative mindset as part of the IT strategy.

"Like any organization, we focus on results, [but] we also equally focus on creating a healthy and inclusive culture -- a culture where every team member feels that they have a voice, they are heard, where they can be themselves and be their best," he said. "[It's] a culture that is focused on continuous improvement and value generation. When you do that, magic happens."

According to Mohammad, IT leaders should also consider how agile development practices can play a role in innovation. He said most teams think agile is synonymous with innovation, and simply putting the practice in place will make teams more innovative. But in fact, agile is just one part of a broader culture of innovation that also requires the right team, collaboration and drive for good customer experience.  

"Most companies approach [agile] for the wrong reason," he said. "Our approach was: How do we transform the culture of our company so that we can be more innovative? "

Keep digital transformation a priority

While most organizations today are focusing on ensuring basic operational readiness, digital transformation should remain a part of the IT strategy during COVID-19, the CIOs said. This includes initiatives like robotic process automation, AI and other digital initiatives.

"Digital transformation is more of an imperative than ever before," Tariq told SearchCIO in response to a set of email questions. "The COVID-19 pandemic is only going to accelerate the need for digitization across all levels of the organization."

Zimmer Biomet is on track to have RPA bots hit 50,000 productivity hours in 2020, according to Tariq. "[Robotics and AI are] truly revolutionary," he said in the online panel.

Mohammad agreed that AI -- and even machine learning -- will become an even bigger focus, and in CarMax's case, is going to permanently change the way people shop.

"The technology that is going to allow them to experience the richness, the quality of the product in the convenience of their home will win," he said "[It's] going to drive the personalized experience for the consumers."

Lefebvre also took advantage of the digital capabilities Travelers invested in over the last several years, including virtual inspections, virtual premium audits and virtual risk assessments. Her team even spent the previous six months updating over 400 mission-critical processes, which now allows them to support up to 30,000 VPN connections. "We have a responsibility for what we call business resiliency, which is encompassing of crisis management, business continuity and disaster recovery," she said in the online panel.

Allocate the costs

Some organizations had no choice but to reduce IT budgets during this unprecedented time, which left CIOs with the heavy task of finding ways to allocate the costs of IT spending without having to disrupt digital transformation projects.

"Prioritization," Lefebvre said. "It's always a backlog. There are limited resources and there's no doubt that there are parts of the business that want to accelerate digital, and they're going to come with some of the resources and be willing to put in what it takes to do that. So, there is a possibility that the cost comes out of some other part of your business. The part that everyone is going to invest in is collaboration tools -- that is the one area where it's going to continue to grow."

Tariq emphasized the importance of factoring in business outcomes when deciding which technologies will bring the most value to the business.

"We mandate a clear and measurable success criterion ahead of making any technology investment," he said in an email. "It goes beyond simple quantitative return on investment or architecture fit. Once a technology is selected, we invest meticulously in organizational change management, ensuring that organizational readiness to extract optimal value from technology investments."

MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Digital Learning Series

In lieu of holding the 17th MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, which was cancelled due to COVID-19 precautions, the new MIT Sloan CIO Digital Learning Series will provide webinars through October 2020 that are targeted at CIOs as well as all people interested in digital technology and its impact on business and society. With a focus on the theme, "Leading a Post-Pandemic Enterprise," it will equip attendees to not only understand how to operate in the new environment, but also how to stay competitive and engaged with customers and stakeholders. The Digital Learning Series will feature more than a dozen interactive panel discussions led by CIOs, technology executives and MIT thought leaders. Learn more and register here.

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