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With accelerated digital transformation, less is more

Ramping up digital transformation to take on problems such as COVID-19 shouldn't mean running up huge numbers of projects. CIOs argue for a focused approach and crystalized tech.

The pandemic has intensified the pursuit of digital transformation across a range of enterprises, but more projects may not spell better results.

That's one theme that surfaced during a panel discussion on accelerated digital transformation at the 2021 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. The annual symposium, a digital event this year, concludes May 27. Topics covered range from the future of work to digitalization trends.

The latter have taken a cue from COVID-19 and its health and economic effects. The quickening of digital transformation in workforce collaboration and customer engagement, among other areas, has swept numerous industries. Projects involving cloud computing, AI, immersive technology and IoT have emerged in recent months.

The fewer, the better

But MIT symposium panelists cautioned CIOs against losing their focus in a glut of digital initiatives.

Harmeen Mehta, chief digital and innovation officer at telecommunications provider BT, suggested prioritizing 10 projects -- or whatever happens to be the optimal number for a business -- instead of pursuing hundreds of efforts.

"Really make them count and do them really well," she said.

Mehta said a personal insight arising from the coronavirus pandemic also applies to business life.

Harmeen MehtaHarmeen Mehta

"I just realized you don't need half the things that you think you need to live," she said. "Similarly, even in the workplace, we clutter our thinking and our priorities."

The antidote is a short list of goals. "We can stop this busyness in organizations and get very outcome-focused," she added.

CDM Smith, an engineering and construction company based in Boston, also follows a quality-versus-quantity approach with its digital transformation projects.

David Neitz, CIO at CDM Smith, said his office has created a "do-not-do" list.

"It is all about value creation," he said. "Challenge what you are doing every single day, everything you are involved in, to say, 'If it's not creating value, why are you doing it?'"

This rigorous self-assessment has "helped our organization accelerate our digital journey," Neitz said.

Adriana KaraboutisAdriana Karaboutis

Project consolidation also contributes to focus. Adriana Karaboutis, group chief information and digital officer at National Grid, a power utility company based in London, recommended pulling together multiple technology initiatives to take on the top challenges facing enterprises and society at large.

The pandemic, she said, provided a "call to action" to accelerate digital initiatives and think about technology differently. Going forward, the same philosophy can address issues such as climate change, she suggested.

Calls to action around renewable energy and zero-carbon initiatives, for example, "are going to drive the focus around digitalization and data," Karaboutis said. That direction calls for using technology in concert, instead of pursuing disparate "science experiments," she added.

Technologies ranging from edge computing to digital twins "are going to have to crystalize and come together to achieve some of these big initiatives," Karaboutis said. "Personally, I think that is a silver lining coming out of COVID and the pandemic. It's doubled down the focus and crystallization for what we need to do."

Security mindfulness

CIOs should also keep close tabs on security amid accelerated digital transformation.

Challenge what you are doing every single day.
David NeitzCIO, CDM Smith

At National Grid, IoT and edge computing are pivotal to how the company extracts insights from data, Karaboutis said, noting that utilities generate the most data of any industry. The company analyzes energy consumption data to prepare for usage peaks and mines data on the health of connected assets -- i.e., transformers -- for predictive maintenance.

Karaboutis, however, acknowledged the attack surface that comes with an IoT deployment.

"We want those insights and want those assets talking to us," she said. "On the other hand, we are acutely aware that all of those [IP-connected devices] are opportunities for an infiltration or an attack."

Karaboutis said her approach to digital and data strategy is to maintain a sense of excitement but proceed with caution.

Meanwhile, Neitz has also observed the dichotomy between technology's benefits and its potential for security exposures. He said IoT and digital twin technology help CDM Smith's customers boost the efficiency of critical assets such as wastewater treatment plants.

"But every one of those IoT devices now opens up an attack vector," he noted. "We found it necessary to really make sure we think of cybersecurity first. We design it into what we do."

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