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Talent, resilience, hybrid work, ethical AI, trust, empathy, collaboration and cybersecurity were the central themes discussed throughout the day Monday at MIT’s annual CIO Symposium.

The changing role of the CIO to that of a business leader was one of the trends IT leader panelists and MIT researchers agreed is forthcoming.

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Among the many takeaways of the day-long conference was that IT projects are frequently derailed by a discrepancy between what a sponsor thought they wanted and what was eventually launched. Often, there is a lack of clarity because not enough time is spent defining processes.

People must be invested in the initiative for it to succeed, and “culture is an operating system,’’ noted Kathleen Kennedy, executive director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, during a session on collaboration between CIOs, CDOs and CEOs.

Cybersecurity in an increasingly interconnected world

The average cyberattack has been going on for 200 days and discovery is either made by an outsider or by accident, said Stuard Madnick, co-founder of cybersecurity at MIT Sloan during a keynote address.

Madnick said he wants to promote the phrase “interconnected and volatile world,’’ and, noting that the Colonial Pipeline attack left thousands of gas stations on the East Coast closed, added that “the collateral damage of cyberattacks will overwhelm more than the attack itself.”

He advised the audience to consider whether the NIST framework of identify, protect, detect, respond and recover is used in their organization.

“The last three often get neglected,’’ Madnick said. “The biggest issue is how to be resilient. Assume you will be attacked, so how well prepared are you? You, the CIO, need to take the lead.”

In a session on how cyber resilience has become a competitive advantage, panelist Fred Cohn, director of cyber security and digital risk at Schneider Electric, said that resilience for the company means not only protecting their own infrastructure but helping customers protect theirs.

Traditionally, the operational technology and IT units have been very siloed, but they have been working to grow “trust and understanding,” Cohn said.

Panelist Esmond Kane, CISO at Stuart Healthcare, said cyber resilience is “Darwinian and existential.” If an organization doesn’t take protecting its infrastructure seriously, leaders “will learn the hard way that ransomware is a business problem.”

The leaders agreed it is important to gauge how adept third-party providers are providing the services you need. While they may do a great job with penetration testing, the same might not hold true for endpoint protection, Cohn said.

Because people are always a part of the security equation, panelist David Masson, director of enterprise security at Darktrace, said that there needs to be “a no-blame culture. Fear of blame kills security,’’ because if people make a mistake in that environment, they won’t say anything.

Why cloud transformations fail

In a keynote on why cloud has moved to the top of the C-suite agenda, Steve Van Kuiken, a senior partner at McKinsey, said cloud transformations fail when the board and executive team aren’t made an integral part of the discussion to migrate.

Yet, even with the innovations and benefits cloud unleashes, “CEOs and boards are still not meaningfully engaged,” and McKinsey sees “over and over again they don’t understand the cloud’s ability to drive value.”

Not only is buy-in essential, but a top-down strategy is needed for engagement throughout the process to ensure implementation and migration are successful, he said.

Van Kuiken suggested three actions CIOs can take to help their CEO and board understand cloud’s potential. It starts with speaking in a language they can understand, making the opportunity real with use cases and keeping them in the conversation.

“Don’t say: Trust me, we’ve got this under control and I will show you the result,” he advised. “If the senior team is not on the journey, it’s hard for them to see the destination. Radical transparency helps. Build trust by going on the journey together.”

Transforming the way we work

As people return to offices, they expect to retain much of the flexibility they had during the two years of working remotely during the pandemic. Mike Daoust, managing director of Chrome enterprise at Google, and Vipin Gupta, chief information and digital officer at Toyota Financial Services, discussed the value of the hybrid work model during a fireside chat on the transformation of how people work.

Gupta said the hybrid model is here to stay and the new normal. Toyota refers to it as flex work, he said, which is “an empowering model,’’ and gives people choice in their work environment.

It has also “created a level playing field between introverts and extroverts,’’ Gupta said, noting that during online town halls, “there’s more live interactions and participation” thanks to collaboration technologies. Toyota measures the effectiveness of hybrid work by collecting data and drawing insights from it, he added.

Flex work also helps drive diversity and inclusion, but Gupta acknowledged that it becomes “a tricky balance.” Leaders need to be trained on how to make decisions.

“We have to add leadership acumen as one more competency,” Gupta said. ”How do you lead in this hybrid world?”

Technology trends in the decade ahead

In a session on the most impactful technologies to come, planning and moving into the metaverse was a core focus of the discussion.

Panelist Suneet Dua, products and technology chief growth officer at PwC U.S., said companies are not doing enough to upskill employees, and that he has clients who “have already purchased real estate in the metaverse and expect us to transact with NFTs and train in the metaverse.”

While 79% of CEOs are worried about whether their employees have key digital skills, only 25% have done something about it, Dua said.

The CIO role is becoming more impactful, and they need to drive technologies such as quantum computing, high-performance computing and the advent of 5G, said panelist Manoj Kumbhat, global CIO at Kimberly-Clark. Cybersecurity, privacy and ethics are very important considerations for tech leaders as they think about new technologies, he added.

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Panelist Eben Hewitt, fellow and CTO of Sabre Hospitality at Sabre Corp, said that the travel industry has started to come back post-pandemic levels, but wondered whether business travel will sustain  given the popularity of video calls.

But when it comes to the future of work, the discussion came back to skills — both soft and digital.

“All of us in this room have a fiduciary responsibility to take care of skills and figure out what they are for the future – if we don’t do that, automation can only go so far,’’ said Dua. “In a world of inclusivity, skills are for everyone and [reskilling is] a chance to give back to the whole enterprise.”

Kumbhat said changing views on work and leadership are critical in the years ahead.

“I’ve been telling my leaders to think about empathy and understanding the unique nature of employees. We’re focused on flexibility and making sure as leaders we know what our role is, managing through change and doubling down on employee engagement.”