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A focus on possibilities at MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

A changing workforce, the opportunities of big data, and the need for broad risk management were among the key themes at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--One of the reasons I like to attend events like the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium is that they're opportunities for a reality check. Vendor confabs can sometimes feel like a bit of an echo chamber that is a bit disconnected from what IT departments are really doing or, at least, the pace at which they're doing it.

To be sure, the companies attending and speaking at events like this symposium tend to be more leading edge and forward-thinking than average. Even so, I was still a bit surprised at how strongly most of the end-user panelists echoed themes like IT consumerization, big data, and the shift to an emphasis on business agility over raw cost that one hears over and over in vendor presentations.

For example, on the CEO keynote panel, Eric Openshaw, vice chairman of Deloitte, spoke about how innovation is going on at the edges of organizations. He talked about focusing on "the passionate knowledge worker" and how they are "struggling mightily to get the right mix of social media."

Eric Openshaw of Deloitte discussed the challenges of leveraging social media in an organization that dealt with large quantities of confidential customer data. Gordon Haff

On the same panel, David Castellani, the CEO of New York Life Retirement Plan Services, asked questions such as: "How do you attack legacy systems to free up capital for development?" He wants to "move to dumb terminals, iPads, and small phones."

The unanimity on the panel, which included business leaders from what would generally be regarded as relatively conservative organization operating under significant regulatory constraints, was striking: the workforce is changing and the way we think about IT is changing.

As it is in vendor circles, "big data" was also a major theme. But in the context of the CIO, this isn't about NoSQL, eventual consistency, caching, Hadoop, and all the other technical details and products associated with handling exponentially larger pools of data. Rather, it's about what new and fundamentally different things does having that data enable.

On this theme, Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT, framed the shift this way. McAfee said that data could be used as headlights, a dashboard, or a rear-view mirror--which is to say to look at what's ahead, where you are, or where you've been. All three uses are valid, but data has historically been mostly about reports, which is to say looking backwards. The excitement around large data stores is far more in figuring out where a business is going and, presumably, making adjustments.

In general, my sense is that this is an area in its infancy with an enormous amount of experimentation and learning happening. I heard a number of interesting ideas but it was mostly in the vein of initial research or fragmentary thoughts. For example, there was a sense that companies could gain interesting insights by combining public and private data sources. Or that trend information to be gleaned from sources like Twitter just as broader fashion and other changes have been used for forecasting. But there was also a general sense that we often didn't know what questions to ask, which makes extracting insights from data difficult.

Finally, woven throughout many of the discussions was the theme that flexibility has to be paired with overall IT governance and risk management. It's more than security. David Saul, chief scientist of State Street, said that they "view cybersecurity within the larger context of risk management...A risk-based approach helps us decide where we want to make our investments. There is some science to this."

With respect to cloud computing, governance and control were leading most panelists down the path to implementing private clouds while using public offerings for specific well-defined services. As Ina Kamenz, CIO of Thermo Fisher Scientific, put it: "We're very cautious to put customer data in the public cloud...The risk is my responsibility. [The cloud provider] doesn't have to answer to the board of directors. I do."

Perhaps it's a generally improving economy, but the meta-theme could be described as optimism and a sense of possibility associated with IT--and a focus far more on growth than on cost-cutting.