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How one CIO drives business transformation through tech

Tom Peck, CIDO at Sysco, shares valuable insights into the key role that CIOs play as a transformation driver while managing emerging technologies such as AI.

CIOs and IT leaders need to anticipate global disruptions -- and that process requires looking ahead.

Organizations must be able to adapt quickly to stay competitive in a rapidly changing business environment. Balancing organizational resources and innovation presents a constant challenge for CIOs and IT leaders. The process requires strategic planning, careful analysis and a willingness to take risks.

This year's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium theme was "Driving Digital Resilience in a Turbulent World," where CIOs and top IT leadership discussed cybersecurity, resilience and digital transformation. The event took place on May 15 and 16 in Cambridge, Mass.

In this interview ahead of the event, Tom Peck, chief information and digital officer at Sysco, a wholesale restaurant food distributor headquartered in Houston, discussed the multiple challenges CIOs face -- including innovation, prioritizing work and data governance -- as well as the benefits of consistent collaboration with company leadership.

Peck also shared insights into emerging topics such as combining robotic process automation with AI and implementing generative AI into existing processes.

Editor's note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What is one of the most important ways top IT leadership roles have changed?

Tom Peck: That's a great question. We've been talking about the evolution of the CIO role or IT leadership for years, if not decades. What's happened is, more recently, that transformation has accelerated the need to change. Technology is so pervasive today. Companies are run on digital [technologies]. Traditional companies are now digital companies, even within Sysco. Our trucks, our warehouses, our sales tools -- it's all digital, automated. What's happened is technology, depth and breadth are now assumed to be table stakes. We just have to have that.

But more than ever, we're business leaders first. We're a 'well-rounded athlete.' You need to be the CEO's trusted adviser. You're sitting at the intersection of people and process to drive the transformation, to drive the innovation. We're also focused on risk management, resilience, governance, portfolio management and making sure we're spending in the right areas. It's an exciting time to be an IT leader, and we have a great view of what's going on around the company.

CIDO Interview: Tom Peck

How do you balance IT functions with evaluating and prioritizing emerging technologies and challenges?

Peck: Balancing all that is indeed a challenge. We all struggle with that strategically versus tactically: Run the business versus grow or innovate. These are real challenges.

Three points: First of all, the more clear we are with our strategy and our vision ... helps make sure we're focused on our North Star, what's most important, so we don't stray on to other things. We know what the priorities are. The better talent that we have on the team, the more people like me and our leaders, we can delegate and focus on other things, hopefully more strategic things. We rely on our trusted advisers, our staff and our ecosystems of partners.

We need to be really good as IT leaders facilitating the governance and the prioritization of the work, whether it's a project with a business case or a new innovative idea.
Tom PeckChief information and digital officer, Sysco

Second, we need to be really good as IT leaders facilitating the governance and the prioritization of the work, whether it's a project with a business case or a new innovative idea. Within Sysco, everything competes for our time, our talent, our funding. We're really focused on things like test and scale -- learn fast, fail fast -- so that we're not consuming our time, talent and resources on projects that might distract from other opportunities.

Finally, within Sysco, we have what we call strategic look forward days, once a month, where we -- as a leadership team -- focus [on] nothing but talking about innovation and disruption in the market, and what we can do to innovate and solve business problems, and [what] went out in the marketplace. It is a challenge. We're all struggling with that. I like to believe that the effective IT leader can navigate through that with those concepts of structure and talent and people and partnerships.

In what ways have you started to deploy AI or generative AI and how has it changed your business?

Peck: It's clearly a differentiator. It's clearly important, a competitive edge. We're doing a lot of it at Sysco. However, there's a lot of questions and a lot of things that need to get discussed before I share a couple of things that we're doing.

One of the questions many of us have [is that] we're all doing RPA, or robotic process automation. RPA is a little bit more focused on structured inputs and logic -- focused on attended automation, if you want to refer to it as automation of manual, repetitive type tasks. But AI takes it to the next level, where it's focused on the end-to-end automation. It learns. It has logic, [and] it learns. To what degree will RPA morph into AI? Because a lot of us have a lot of investment already in RPA type of technology. We're watching that play out as well.

But specifically, to AI, I like to say: You can't go buy a SKU of AI at the local store. Where do you get AI? A lot of times it's native in the software that we buy. In Sysco -- as an example -- [it's] in a lot of our SaaS software [and] in the software that we build.

We're looking at things like: What's our customers' propensity to buy? How do we predict what products they might want to buy? We're looking at suggested orders. What might we want to up-sell and cross-sell? That's all based on learning or artificial intelligence.

We're looking at prescriptive actions for our sales team. What should they do so that they don't have to spend as much time researching? They can spend more time nurturing the relationship.

We look at AI and predictive type of data science for things like inventory management, managing shrink and those types of things. It's been very effective for us, and it has had an impact on our business.

If you think about what's coming next, and more generative AI, as you all know, is much more focused on delivering or generating more realistic content -- things like texts, images and products. For companies like Sysco, how can you take raw input, raw data, and turn it into perhaps a curated menu where we can help our chefs and our restaurant tours? And how do we take content and personalize it to your e-commerce experience so that we can create that training and that menu curation and that recipe creation for you, without you having to spend as much time thinking?

In things like ChatGPT and others, where you're leveraging large language models and more human-like conversations, [that] has huge potential impact on our ability to run customer service and customer care. We're excited. We're already doing a lot.

But there's still a lot of questions out there. Is it overhyped? Is it a threat? How's RPA going to evolve? We're on the leading edge, and we're doing some great things at Sysco. We look forward to following the market as it continues to evolve.

It's also good to hear that there's room for RPA use in your industry. A lot of people are trying to put it in, but it's not working out. It's nice to hear that there is a possibility there.

Peck: It's a test and scale, fail fast. We're seeing some amazing results on the analyzing the propensity to buy, the order history, what you might like and what you might want to purchase in the future as well. We're seeing really good results, even for the predictability of where's your delivery, where's your truck, if you will.

What is the biggest data management challenge you face today?

Peck: The biggest data management challenge is data governance. And before I tell you why, just some real quick context here at Sysco. Our goals around data are: We need more real-time data for things like pricing and inventory. We need more predictive and more prescriptive [data] for the same reasons. We need more rapid integration of our mergers in our acquired companies. Finally, we need actionable insights in the monetization of that data.

If you think about those challenges or those goals, it's not the tools or the technology that's the challenge. It's not the master data management. It's really the pure quantity and volume of the unstructured data and the continuous accumulation of that data.

That's why I answered with data governance, because when you think about data governance as differentiated from data privacy, which is much more focused on who you can share information with, and your data protection, which is about the safeguarding, data governance is more about the definitions and the data dictionaries. It's more about the retention policies. It's more about the accessibility than classifications. How do you monetize that? What do you do with the data? What's the data lineage? How do you know it's trusted?

So, data governance, given the continuous growth and accumulation of unstructured data, that's what's going to drive the competitive advantage, and that's where a lot of our AI models are also going to be focused on going forward as well.

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