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MIT-CIO event explores digital resilience amid disruption

Allan Tate, executive chair of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, shares an overview of the 2023 event, including focus areas such as cybersecurity and tech evaluation.

The CIO role is becoming increasingly difficult as both disruptions and technological sophistication grows.

This year's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium is tackling some of those challenges, with the theme "Driving Digital Resilience in a Turbulent World." It takes place on May 15 and 16 at the Royal Sonesta Hotel at 40 Edwin H. Land Blvd. in Cambridge, Mass.

The event's executive chair Allan Tate talked with Diann Daniel, an executive editor at TechTarget, to discuss the event's history and this year's focus on balancing cybersecurity issues with enterprise technology choices. He also shared why CIOs need to become strategic, agile and proactive.

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

Welcome, Allan, and congratulations on the 20th anniversary.

Allan Tate: We have come a long way in 20 years. If you don't mind, I'd just like to say a couple of words about that. Back on April 4, I did a retrospective with George Westerman, Christopher Reichert and Lindsey Anderson. George was the moderator and then Christopher and Lindsey were the past chairs. We had a great discussion about the evolution of the symposium -- I guess also about the evolution of the CIOs role in these past 20 years and how we have evolved along with that.

In the beginning, we were a small academic conference. Then we ended up adding the Innovation Showcase, which brings together a lot of startup companies for people to see. Then we eventually added the CIO Leadership Award, which has become a huge tradition that I just love. It brings a lot of speakers to the symposium.

Then in 2020, I became the executive chair and brought in a lot more changes in part because we were forced to adapt to COVID-19 like everybody else. One of the things I did is I expanded the range of academics we brought in, so we now go to departments across MIT. That includes logistics and transportation; the Center for Collective Intelligence; the Media Lab, and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, otherwise known as CSAIL.

We've also increased the participation of the CIOs. They act as award judges, but they're also coming back now to moderate panels. We introduced a CIO-to-CIO program this year that just has virtual conversations between CIOs. There's no sponsors or academics in those conversations. The last one this year is tomorrow [on May 2]. We created this online community and involving the audience much more fully as we prepare for this symposium.

We have this ideation phase in the fall. We have the inside MIT program in the early months of the year where people could come and talk with the MIT academics who are participating. Now [we have] the CIO-to-CIO series as I mentioned. We're just doing more and more so that people can share ideas, build relationships, and get ready for the big day.

What hasn't changed, by the way: The tradition of what we do is bringing together in the trenches those CIOs, the MIT academics -- bring them together for one day [for] exciting conversations and just help people build relationships and have a great experience. It's been quite a ride.

Interesting, thank you. Building on that: This year's theme is "Driving Digital Resilience in a Turbulent World," which is pretty appropriate. Can you speak to what that theme encompasses?

Tate: It is an appropriate theme, isn't it? We're trying to highlight the role of technology, innovation and leadership in creating a resilient and agile organization. Cybersecurity and privacy are front and center of this. That's why we have Stew Madnick, who is [co-founder of] Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan [CAMS], who's going to be giving the keynote. He's going to be followed by Keri Pearlson, who's the executive director of CAMS.

Part of what we've heard is that with CIOs, there's just so much digital technology. They're having to sort through it and figure out whether all these technologies can complement one another. Are these technologies going to integrate with their legacy technologies? Everything's becoming kind of this complex system problem.

How do organizations cultivate agility and innovation as they go along? How do they foster data-driven decision making? We have a couple of panels focused on this. One is leveraging data in every aspect of the enterprise. That's going to be led by Michael Schrage. We also have a panel about augmenting digital with AI, machine learning and Web3. That's going to be led by Irving Wladawsky-Berger. Then there's also the whole issue of the talent and workforce. What's the strategy for keeping people on board and motivated?

Of course, there's a lot of talk these days about the balance between office work and remote work. We're going to have Melissa Swift back. Melissa was with us last year; she's going to join us twice. She's going to be on the virtual panel tomorrow [on May 2]. She's also going to be on the panel "Digital Enterprise: Version 2030" at the symposium.

Finally, I think it's all about leadership and collaboration. We'll be joined by three CIO Leadership Award finalists that we [invite] every year -- somewhere between three and five. But this year, it's going to be three, and we're excited to have them. Our tradition is to have each of them on two panels to share their experiences of what they're doing. These are the best CIOs. We get them on two panels, and it's going to be a lot of fun.

A look ahead to MIT CIO Sloan Symposium 2023

Thanks. I have a two-part question next. There's been an increase in both cyberattacks and cybersecurity regulations. How are those changing the CIO role? How do those factors affect or how should those affect how IT leaders research, test, pilot and adopt new technologies?

Tate: This is an important question. Let me start with the cybersecurity regulations and the CIO role. As I mentioned, Stewart is going to give his keynote about managing the organizational impact of the new cybersecurity regulation. We'll be starting off the Symposium on this part of the question. This is because more and more, leaders have to focus on the strategic aspects of security. They need to make cybersecurity part of the culture, which is a mantra that KerI Pearlson -- who I mentioned is executive director of CAMS -- she brings this up all the time. The other thing she always brings up is that cybersecurity is not just a technical problem. It's also a people problem.

How do you build awareness? How do you build skills? How do you attract and retain talent to deal with cybersecurity issues? It's not just prevention, right? It's not just about putting in technologies to make sure that you don't get attacked because you're going to get attacked. The question is, how do you keep the business running after the attack happens? And that's the resilience aspect of what we're talking about.

In a nutshell, the CIOs have to focus on being more strategic and more proactive.

Now, getting to the second part of your question, how do these factors affect the IT leaders? How do they approach research and adoption? They have to have a more careful and a comprehensive approach. Are these technologies going to introduce new vulnerabilities? Will these new technologies adhere to the security standards and regulations that all the CIOs have to comply with? How do they evaluate the technology vendors and their security practices? How do they collaborate with the legal and compliance teams? How do they run proof of concepts, which are essential, but also test these new technologies and make sure that they're going to be secure as well as advance the business? How do they build awareness among their employees of all these problems; continue to monitor and update the technologies; and just evolve with the threats, which are always evolving? Criminals aren't just sitting on their hands. They're innovative too.

Yeah, they are. Thank you for that. Last question: Is there an overarching strategy that can help IT leaders drive resilience?

Tate: Yes, I think there is. The strategy needs to be holistic; by that, I mean they need to encompass technology, processes, people and culture. In the past few decades, the major reason why we embrace new technologies has been efficiency and productivity. Resilience was this back-burner issue for many companies.

But times are changing. The world is more turbulent; it's more uncertain. We got pandemics, we got cybersecurity incidents, we got supply chain disruptions, and on and on. Creating a culture of resilience is more important now than it's ever been, and it's a focal point for the CIOs.

You have to take a proactive approach to risk management. You need to prioritize cybersecurity and data privacy. You need to encourage a mindset of learning and continuous improvement across the organization. You need to build an IT infrastructure that's going to scale and adapt and respond to changing business requirements.

We've had the cloud mantra for years now. We still have, as we talked about at last year's symposium, a lot of companies that need to adopt the cloud. Finally, CIOs need to communicate the importance of digital resilience to their stakeholders, the C suite executives, board members, the employees -- literally everybody. It's an important theme. It's going to be an exciting conversation this year, that's for sure.

I'm looking forward to it. Allan, thank you so much for joining me, and I will see you soon. I hope everybody has a chance to join and listen to all the great things that are going to be covered.

Tate: We look forward to everybody coming May 15th and 16th. We're at a new location at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge, Mass. I think it's going to be a great location, and we already have plans to be there next year.

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