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How is digital transformation affecting the CIO role?

At the HMG Strategy 2020 Summit, the CIOs of e.l.f. Cosmetics, NetApp and El Camino Hospital discussed their evolving role in this era of business and digital transformation.

If you think the CIO's role and responsibilities haven't changed in the last 10 years, you're partially right. A panel of executives at the HMG Strategy 2020 Silicon Valley Global Innovation Summit discussed and debated the impact digital transformation has on the CIO role, and one thing they agreed on is that what they've been historically responsible for hasn't gone away.

"The old role of the CIO is dead. Business transformation continues as we evolve to a digital campaign of sales to customers we'll probably never meet in person," said William Miller, senior vice president and CIO at NetApp, which is based in Sunnyvale, Calif. However, in the midst of these new responsibilities, don't expect what CIOs have been responsible for in the past to magically disappear.

"While we're managing infrastructure, reducing contracts and trying to give our customers a path forward, you don't get to give up any of the traditional CIO role," Miller said. That comment drew laughs from the audience of C-level executives who are being asked to take on more while staying completely responsible for everything they've had to do in their pre-digital transformation role.

Miller's advice? "The more comfortable you can be with being uncomfortable, the more successful you will be."

Ekta Chopra, vice president of digital at e.l.f. Cosmetics, which is based in Oakland, Calif., oversees the company's digital transformation efforts. She agreed that the CIO needs to stay involved in infrastructure and security decisions, but also has to understand the overall business and work to enable business strategies. "With every decision, you also need to keep the end consumer in mind as well and make sure whatever you're doing is bringing value," Chopra said.

Speakers during the panel at the HMG Strategy 2020 Silicon Valley Global Innovation Summit
Speakers during the panel at the HMG Strategy 2020 Silicon Valley Global Innovation Summit

In the pre-cloud era, it was very difficult to analyze consumer buying patterns, and certainly not in real time. But today, companies like e.l.f. Cosmetics are far better able to analyze and predict consumer buying.

"I should know a consumer only shops at certain times or only buys when there's a promotion," Chopra said. "With the cloud, there is a hyperfocus on mapping everything a consumer does. I can't do that without cloud computing."

Implementing a digital team

Since digital transformation often requires new technology and a new way of doing things, companies are often forced to hire consultants and contract workers. Chopra has tried to keep that to a minimum.

"Having our own people in place who understand our business, not consultants, is important when leading a digital transformation [initiative]," she said.

Chopra also emphasized that digital transformation is both a business and technology change that affects everyone in the workplace. To that end, rather than the IT department, her team is called the "digital team."

"There is a commerce side generating revenue and there's another side working to bring more automation and make employees more productive. I want everyone to be one team working for each other," Chopra said.

Receiving customer feedback

There's always going to be technology trends that seem worthwhile, but for businesses to adopt something new, it needs to show it can improve bottom-line results or an improved CX that enhances the product or service.

NetApp is a company that interacts directly with customers to develop better products. "We bring customers into our briefing centers for feedback and we're able to show them what we're creatively working on under NDA and hear what outcomes they are trying to achieve," Miller said. "The one thing we hear all the time is that these customers are struggling to become more agile and keep up with the rate of business change."

Miller suggested companies go beyond SaaS in the back office and develop comprehensive, agile development platforms. "It is likely that around 25% of your application portfolio represents your 'systems of differentiation' which will require a dynamic DevOps framework to remain competitive," he said. "If you can't deliver differentiating software as microservices -- rapidly updating features on a daily or hourly basis -- you aren't going to be successful."

Developing a digital front door

Another challenge many companies face with digital transformation is keeping the old architecture relevant when there's too much investment to simply discard it.

Deb Muro, CIO of El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif., said much of her job these days revolves around modernizing older technology that has been in place for 15 years or longer. "We're growing by leaps and bounds, so the challenge is: How do you develop a digital front door with these older systems in place that may not be compliant?"

Echoing Miller's call for agile development, Muro said that being able to iterate is very important. "We can test the changes we make, which lets us kind of fly the airplane while we're building it," she added.

For Muro, AI has already proven to be a game changer. El Camino had a data lake, but the analytics to get useful information weren't very accessible at first. "There was a dashboard the C-Suite had access to from their desktop, but it was a pain point," she said.

An AI system gave El Camino Hospital better access to patient data, even predicting if a patient was likely to code in the next four hours. "Before, we had to wait until a patient stopped breathing," Muro said. "Now, we can predict if they will stop breathing or code blue. That's addressing a real need."

Emerging technologies and the pace of change continue to challenge the CIO's role and the ability for them to keep up, but perhaps this will one day be considered an easier time. As Miller put it: "The business demands on IT will never again be as slow as they are today."

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