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CIO role post-pandemic is 'opportunity of a lifetime'

What is the CIO's role in 2021? Genpact's Sanjay Srivastava, a speaker at this year's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, says CIOs are becoming 'co-creators' of new business models.

Sanjay Srivastava, chief digital officer at professional services firm Genpact, met up with SearchCIO on Zoom to talk about the enterprise post-pandemic and the role of the CIO in 2021. Srivastava is in charge of Genpact's digital and technology businesses, overseeing the firm's AI, analytics and digital technology services. Over a two-decade-plus career in global sales and services at large companies, including Hewlett Packard, SunGard (now FIS) and Akamai, Srivastava also built and sold four technology startups.

Srivastava is a panelist at the all-digital 2021 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, speaking at a session titled "Advice for CIOs from CIOs: Exploring the Future of the Role." Here, he argues that, for CIOs to help companies transform, a dual perspective is required. CIOs must be consummate enterprise insiders, able to draw on deep business and process expertise, and the ultimate outsiders, tuned into new technology developments and out-of-the box ideas.

In a wide-ranging interview, he talks about the need for "multilinguals" -- i.e., people trained in several disciplines -- the transformative convergence of cloud, data and AI; and the abiding importance of good judgment in gaining a competitive advantage.

During the pandemic, companies have had to make tremendous changes to accommodate what we're calling the 'new normal.' Of these changes, which do you believe will outlast the pandemic?

Sanjay Srivastava: There has been so much change since the pandemic, and frankly, change is still happening as we're moving forward. The first phase of change was all about: How do you quickly respond to the pandemic? Much of that was around: How do you shelter at home, and therefore, how do you set up the corporate infrastructure to be accessible in ways that allow people to work from a new blueprint? People are working from different locations now; they're not physically together. That phase then moved into the phase of: How do you recover? How do you drive revenue? How do you grow out of this? And that required a re-architecting of the technology backplane so that you could simplify, modernize, you could deliver the missing capability that was required.

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I see a shift now to a question that most boards are asking, which is: How do you sustain this? How do you persist? When you think about the long-term sustainability of the company, what are the core components that we need to build upon and accelerate?

The biggest thing that we'll see coming out of the pandemic going into the future is that this pace of change that … is so much faster than we've seen before, is actually going to be the slowest it will ever be. It is only going to accelerate from here.
Sanjay Srivastava

And the reality is that all of those questions have ended up with the same answer, which is: We have to bring digital in; we have to accelerate the journey in digital. We have to bring artificial intelligence into play in meaningfully intelligent ways, in very focused applications. We have to build a foundation of data that gives us the backplane upon which we can drive insights to make better business outcomes happen.

That journey started a long time ago but certainly accelerated during the pandemic. And I think we have gotten to a point where now we have this conversion effect of cloud, data, AI -- three components that are converging at speed -- and that conversion is just driving an explosion in opportunities.

So, I think the biggest thing that we'll see coming out of the pandemic going into the future is that this pace of change that we've gotten used to, this pace of change that we think is so strong, so much faster than we've seen before, is actually going to be the slowest it will ever be. It is only going to accelerate from here.

Given the blistering pace of change -- in technology, business models, consumer behavior -- where do CIOs get the training they need to take advantage of the new normal?

Sanjay SrivastavaSanjay Srivastava

Srivastava: CIOs have a lot on their shoulders. I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is that CIOs who are successful will need to be a balance of two things.

I think you need a very strong outside-in perspective. You have to think outside the contours of the company that you're at. You need to separate yourself from the momentum and the internal inertia to really be able to think outside [the box]. At the same time, you need to follow emerging technologies. You need to look at what's happening in the startup ecosystem. You need to be connected to the venture capital community so that you're able to take advantage of new capabilities. And all of that really requires you to be an outsider.

The challenge, of course, is that, as much as you need to be an outsider, the reality is that transformation is actually a groundswell that requires fundamental change, that involves people and processes and really the entire organization. So, you need the stakeholder relationships. You need the credibility to lead the change internally. You need the buy-in of a much larger set -- and you need that change to be fundamental. All of that then requires that you are an insider -- that you understand the business, you have the connections, the operating history so that people get behind you.

So, how can you be an outsider, to be able to do all of this stuff, and yet be a complete insider to be able to bring the rest of the company along? I think that's one of the largest paradoxes, one the largest dilemmas we face as a community. You wake up in the morning, and you know you've got to balance both halves of the whole to really be truly effective. But, boy, what an opportunity ahead of us! I really think it's the opportunity of a lifetime, and we're here for a reason, and there's so much to get done.

You have a big job at Genpact. You've also been a technology entrepreneur. You have been an outsider and consummate insider. Can you give some pointers on how CIOs can cultivate that dual perspective?

Srivastava: Well, I think there's no secret to it. I just happened to have benefited because I was a startup entrepreneur and I built four companies. When you're outside it, by the way, it sounds very exciting, but when you're in it, it's just you and all the odds of the world against you, and so you learn to improvise, you learn to innovate, you learn to make fail-fast decisions.

A lot of those skill sets are really important in the longer journey. Your ability to pick up new technologies and figure out what's going to work and what's not is critical. Your ability to tell what's mature and what's hype is a really important component of the decisions you need to make. And then, I think, most of all, you need to build a team around you that is innovative, that is entrepreneurial, that is motivated by change.

But, equally, for [the CIO role at] large enterprises, you have to be an insider. Many people like me have spent so much time inside corporations that you understand the business at a deeper level of detail. You understand the nuances of the process. You understand the ecosystem and industry and how it actually operates.

The reality is all of that AI you apply, all of the automation you put in place still has to be contextualized in the real world: That's about people, it's process, it's the individuals around you who need to get up and get into the program. How you drive cultural change [becomes important].

Experience in both those spheres or hemispheres is great because it allows you to pull it together, and there are many CIOs out there that actually bring that to the table, and we are fortunate to be in the positions we are in.

Cross-skilling, culture, creativity

The transformational change you describe requires everyone pulling together, as you say. Employees have to know how to use the data generated by technology systems. Top executives have to know enough about edge computing, AI and other new tech to know where -- and where not -- their companies might benefit from them. How does this happen?

… the world doesn't need another million machine learning experts. What the world really needs is another 10 million people that understand business process and artificial intelligence, people in finance and accounting who also understand machine learning. … We need these multilinguals.
Sanjay Srivastava

Srivastava: I think there are three things that are critical for any enterprise to think through as they embark on this journey.

One is the concept of multilinguals. I'll be bold enough to say that the world doesn't need another million machine learning experts. What the world really needs is another 10 million people that understand business process and artificial intelligence, people in finance and accounting who also understand machine learning, manufacturing engineers who also understand computer vision.

It's the convergence of disciplines that creates the opportunities for transformation. And so we need these multilinguals and this idea of cross-skilling. You need to find a way to have people from one discipline adequately trained in another so they can bring the beauty of those two together. That's the concept of multilingualism -- and it is super important.

The second thing that's important is culture. I don't know what the new numbers are, but they say the half-life for skills is five years. In other words, everything that I know, or every skill that I have now, will be obsolete in five years.

This is change at the speed of light. You have to have a culture that is based on the understanding that what you know today is most likely not what you need for the future. You have to build a DNA where you have curiosity, humility, where you're in this constant state of learning.

Then, I think the third thing [is cultivating] innovativeness, entrepreneurism, fast-fail work. Because the reality is a lot of this is experimentation, and the faster you get through that, the faster you learn the lessons and apply them is important.

I come across a lot of companies that have got a training class or two in place. That doesn't get you to the endpoint. You have to think about all three of those things, and you have to build them in from the ground up.

CIO role evolves

Your panel at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium looks at the future of the CIO role. How has the role changed in recent years?

Srivastava: The biggest thing I see is that CIOs -- most of us -- were on point for delivering value. That was the role of the CIO. We had a really important function, and we had to get the job done.

I think that is out of the window. The new role of the CIO is co-innovator. It's co-creator of the new business model, and you actually have to shift your mindset from value delivery to co-creation of the new business.

It's an important thing to take account of because the way you operate, the skills you bring to the table, the objectives you set for your organization and the talent you hire around you now needs to blend into this new model for the CIO.

This [new CIO role] is the need of the day. I think that is what corporations and boards are looking for CIOs to do. And it's super important for us as a community to take note of that and reorient our thinking and approach to that reality.

Could you delve into that a little bit more -- the difference between value delivery and co-creation?

Srivastava: I'll take a simple example. Many of us have been involved in cloud journeys. Cloud now is some six, seven years in the making. The first few years of the journey were very simple. It was what we call 'lift and shift.'

In other words, you have a data center. Why would you want to be in the business of building an advantage in data centers if you've got a business that does something else? That was a logic for moving from data centers to the cloud and the idea of scale and efficiency and economics and so on and so forth. But it was a lift and shift. You containerized. You virtualized, and you move it over. The reality is that is a value delivery. So, you look for risks, you look for efficiency, for optimization, for performance. That's what CIOs were geared to do.

The new need and the cloud business is all about simplification of the business interface. It's about modernizing your application stack. It's about building a technology backplane that allows you to quickly address needs that are accelerating as we make our way through the pandemic. That's a whole other game. That's not around value delivery. That's about co-designing the new business processes and the technology backplane for that.

So, the cloud business has changed. We actually do modernizing. We take an application that used to exist in this form, and by the time we have moved to the cloud, it has completely changed. It has expanded in nature to take on new things like cloud IVR [interactive voice response] and transcription and automatic NBA -- next best action analysis.

It changes the contour of what we do. The new cloud journey is refactoring and redesigning with native services that allow for a lot more automation than we used to have. That's an example of what we all need to do on a day-to-day basis.

Technology as competitive advantage: How doable is that?

One of the old saws we hear at IT conferences is that every company is a technology company. We're not a pizza delivery company. We're a technology company that delivers pizza. Or -- pick your industry -- we're not a farm machinery company. We're a technology company that tells the story of agriculture.

Companies understand they have to use technology to help gain a competitive advantage, but how attainable is this really? Take AI, every company has very specific and unique goals for what they want AI to do for it. Do you see a future where companies are going to have enough expertise to be able to tailor AI -- or whatever the emerging technology is -- to gain competitive advantage? Or are they more likely to have to conform with whatever commodity AI offers?

Srivastava: First, I absolutely am of the opinion that every company is a technology company. Some just don't know it yet. And I do think that that's going to lead us into a very different future to the one we operate in today.

But, at the same time, I also will say that, no, it doesn't mean that AI becomes commodity. Look, the reality is AI is becoming more and more usable and more and more in line with enterprise requirements. I saw recently that the cost to train a [computer vision system] now is all the way down to $7. 

So, the idea is that, now, AI is applicable in a significant amount of business processes that probably it previously wasn't. As that comes into play, it is going to redefine how enterprises operate.

And, in fact, broadening from AI, it's cloud, it's data and it's AI. So, on the cloud, the hyperautomation that is happening as we speak now is very different. We've been automating for years now, but for the first time, we now have the ability to go to the last mile and fill all of the last bits. And it changes the way work gets done.

Data is the final frontier of transformation because the ability to actually drive insight, convert that into insights and use that to drive transformation is now the single largest driver of economic transformational value we're seeing across the enterprise. And then artificial intelligence is becoming more and more usable.

So, I do think that all three of those will come into play. And I don't see that as a commodity. Look, code is going to become commodity, data is going to become pervasive, technology services are going to be much more available easily off the street.

But what's not going to be there -- and this is what a company needs to focus on -- is the ability to take those commodity components and tune them in the context of the industry to drive results specific to their corporation. You'll always have AI, but AI is just a prediction engine. And it will get better and better, but with prediction engines, you need judgment because you can't just take it to production -- you have to apply judgment to it.

So, the ability to tune an engine, the ability to apply judgment, the concept of labeling the data, the ability to configure the workflow, the notion of contextualizing the data insights -- all of that is specific to the environment and applies judgment and business knowledge.

So, I think you're going to continue to see abstraction and capabilities, commoditization in software components -- but a lot of that value will now shift to how you actually apply it and how you drive meaning from it. And that, for business, is going to become even more important.

Editor's note: Responses were edited for length and clarity.

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