Innovation is a team sport: Jay Upchurch, CIO, SAS

In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, the role of a Chief Information Officer (CIO) is pivotal to an organization’s success. Jay Upchurch, the Executive Vice President and CIO of SAS, stands at the forefront of this dynamic landscape, steering SAS through the ever-changing currents of technology and innovation. His approach is defined by a strategic investment in technology, processes, and people, ensuring that SAS remains adaptable and resilient in the face of market turbulence and global challenges.

Some edited excerpts:

As the CIO, how are you helping SAS navigate the dynamic technology landscape and ensure the company remains innovative? What strategies are you employing to future-proof the business?

CIOs lead the charge for using technology that enables an organization to anticipate and react to changing market conditions. Being able to quickly adjust course – especially during times of disruption – is one of the hallmarks of a resilient organization. Modern CIOs recognize resiliency as something that requires strategic investment and dedication. They’re the ones investing in technology, processes and people to ensure their organizations can handle whatever change comes next.

It’s critical for CIOs and IT teams to actively learn about the strategic goals and aspirations of the business they support and so they can move it forward using technology. That’s the only way IT can earn the trust of their business partners. The SAS IT organization operates using a business relationship manager model. It allows the IT team to deeply understand the business of our marketing organization, for example, and what they need and value. Or knowing how the finance organization operates and helping them enhance their performance using technology. What is R&D’s roadmap like and how can technology best support their efforts? Close partnerships like this help the IT organization stay in front of needs and expectations so the business moves forward with minimal hiccups. This kind of close business partner relationship also helps immeasurably when an organization needs to make a major pivot – like what most organizations continue to experience in times of geopolitical uncertainty, economic headwinds and global pandemics.

As artificial intelligence continues to advance and generative AI becomes more prevalent, how do you see the role of the CIO evolving? What new skills and responsibilities do you think will be most important for CIOs in the coming years?

CIOs are excited about the possibilities of generative AI, and we talk about it all the time. Most CIOs are starting with small internal generative AI projects because we need to learn more about its capabilities. What are generative AI’s advantages, limitations and risks? How can I make generative AI trustworthy and transparent? How can I use generative AI to make my organization more resilient? Before we can assess if there’s a way to put a commercial value behind generative AI, we need to learn more internally.

We already know that when AI is done right it can help an organization gain competitive advantage. But how do you “do it right”? First, you’ve got to have a good data management strategy. Second you must incorporate a wide appreciation for how to use AI (and generative AI) in a responsible way. And last, you have to implement safe guardrails and an enterprise platform for customers to use. That protects the company and gives your customers a jumpstart to realizing their AI aspirations.

CIOs also need the right technology at their fingertips and a solid approach for applying AI in ways that unlock rapid value inside your organization. Once you experience that momentum, you can push beyond internal applications and imagine the possibilities of monetizing AI for your customers.

It’s easy to lump analytics and AI into the same “business intelligence” category, but analytics is almost always a look at the past. AI allows you to predict what may be coming next. AI can help you make timely, predictive decisions that allow you pivot and enhance the organization’s resilience.

It’s important to recognize the value of generative AI while mapping its applicability with your organization’s strategy. What effect does it have on operations and the delivery of technology? At SAS, we love generative AI’s creative abilities to scale workforce productivity. We respect it may not always return the right answer, but it will give us a starting point to accelerate personal productivity.

We also must be careful about generative AI. It has great potential and upside. But because it generates unique answers on the fly, it also has the potential to make mistakes. Active human supervision and guidance is crucial. Just because the answer sounds eloquent, does not mean it’s right.

SAS is known for its analytics expertise – how is the company approaching the development of its own generative AI capabilities? What are your priorities when it comes to investing in this area?

We’re excited about the opportunities presented by generative AI. At SAS we’re focusing on three pillars of generative AI: synthetic data, digital twins and large language models. We’re applying these pillars to industry-specific solutions because that will help our customers realize value from generative AI faster. This spring we announced a $1 billion investment in industry solutions, and that includes integrating trustworthy generative AI capabilities.

SAS works with manufacturing and logistics customers building digital twin simulations. We also work with banking and health care customers in synthetic data generation. We’re researching how to apply large language models to industry problems with a focus on delivering secure, trusted results.

We’re building a generative AI integration our SAS Viya AI and Analytics platform with our strategic partner Microsoft. Our popular SAS Customer Intelligence 360 platform also can integrate with generative AI providers for assistance in streamlining marketing planning, content creation and journey design activities.

What trends are you most excited about in artificial intelligence and how is SAS positioned to take advantage of them?

SAS founded the AI and analytics space nearly 50 years ago, and we remain the designated leader today. The announcement of ChatGPT in November of 2022 was fantastic! It was targeted at the consumer. Consumers around the world quickly began to learn and experiment. That action raised the world’s understanding and appreciation of artificial intelligence. The growing AI knowledge base has spilled successfully over into the commercial space and has created exciting opportunities for SAS. AI is the topic of the year, and I think it will continue to be an important part of technology conversations for years to come because it influences nearly everything in modern society.

What advice do you have for other CIOs on fostering innovation, embracing new technologies, and driving digital transformation?

Innovation inside an organization isn’t solely up to the CIO or the CTO. Innovation is a team sport, and it’s important for an organization’s culture to nurture a sense of curiosity that naturally leads to innovation. IT has always been responsible for driving positive disruption inside companies to force innovation. Decisions around how to implement technology, processes and people to help achieve our corporate goals and prepare for the uncertainty of tomorrow falls to CIOs. In today’s world of constant change, it’s more important than ever that CIOs lean into these responsibilities to help ensure our companies are ready for the unexpected. Simply put, it is the CIO’s obligation to the board to make sure the business they serve is resilient.

AICIOJay UpchurchSAS
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