One CIO’s Platform Thinking Primer

Business development strategy is an 'ever-shifting continuum,' says Nate Berent-Spillson, VP of engineering at Launch by NTT Data.

Gone are the days when success was measured solely by individual achievements. The world is just too complex and too fast. Today—as everyone reading this well knows—it’s all about creating ecosystems and fostering relationships to drive innovation (or even stay relevant). Those old “linear” and “siloed” strategies? They’re toast—and so are those who pursue them.

Not everyone has the same approach to the platform challenge, however. And not all sizes fit all. StrategicCIO360 talked to Nate Berent-Spillson, VP of engineering at software development company Launch by NTT Data—which has helped digital deployment for huge, heavyweight outfits like Jeep, The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority, DTE and more—to hear his best practices for strategy, building objectives as a tech leader—and placing bets on team and technology for both his own shop and his big-brand clients.

As CIO, how do you label or bucket your main objectives?

In addition to categorizing objectives under customer focus, or what we term as “customer intimacy,” it’s also a combination of product innovation and operational excellence. Without one, the other doesn’t exist. In terms of product innovation, when you’re selling professional services, you have to attract people who want to constantly advance their skillset to keep your product fresh, relevant and in demand in the market.

We combine that with accelerators our teams bring to the table to make them more efficient and effective. From a technology perspective, teams have to be invested in using the latest technologies themselves to be able to bring these to market. As part of this, it’s crucial to understand how people are investing in products like the cloud, generative AI and distributed systems, so the proper recommendations are made.

Operationally, we focus on training, onboarding and minimizing friction of forming new teams. Ultimately, we’re optimizing the software delivery value stream as much as possible and executing it in the market. 

Are you shifting resources to product innovation or customer intimacy—or the equivalent of what these are named in your business?

The areas that I’m making investments in on the product innovation side are artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science, and expanding areas of DevOps into security, network and ML.

AI is getting a lot of hype right now, but it’s a real differentiation that we’re able to immediately apply in tech as a force multiplier. In other areas of business value streams, it will take longer to disrupt, but we’re laying the groundwork right now for the foundational skills that we’ll be applying across the business domains. 

How can organizations prepare for the pressure to continuously improve operational efficiency?

The rules are ever changing, and what’s interesting is that for the longest time the motion was to find a place with a lower labor cost. The equation is now shifting to automate, and replace humans with AI and ML. The motion of simply “find a lower-cost human to do the work” is over.

The other big opportunity is to look at applying a lean product paradigm to just about every value stream in an organization. Sales, marketing, field service and warranty claims can all benefit from looking at the full life cycle of the product and service, and how to remove all of the manual friction and replace it with automation and artificial intelligence.

How can companies think about IT as a platform that serves their business? 

We’ve always thought about infrastructure as a platform in technology. Mainframe, client-server, desktop, mobile, and cloud have all been platforms. The big shift is that companies are now able to take that up a level or two and look at their business itself as a technology platform. That’s new territory for many legacy companies and just not wired into their organizational DNA.

Platform thinking is looking at your organization together with technology as a means to strategically align capabilities, buying what’s commodity, building what’s strategic, and seamlessly changing and adapting how you deliver your products to market to capture the maximum benefit at a continuously lower cost.

I see two main patterns across enterprises and it’s either too far of swing into one—and only one—direction, or a misalignment of strategic thinking.
In the case where companies go too far in one direction, it’s “we’re going to build everything,” or “we’re going to buy everything.” It’s never all one or the other, it’s an ever-shifting continuum, but that type of subtlety is difficult in practice. 

The other way this manifests is that we misapply strategic thinking and buy what we should build, or outsource what’s strategic, and keep in house what’s commodity. That’s where enterprises really struggle as they quickly find that they are now beholden to a third party for their strategic special sauce. 

We approach it by looking at what’s truly strategic versus what is now commodity, and align our investment accordingly for a time horizon. As that shifts we also shift accordingly so we’re continuing to invest in our outer strategic arc, while improving the efficiency for delivery of our core business.

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