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Taking calculated risks: Two IT leaders’ approaches to emerging tech

Finding and evaluating emerging tech is a big part of a technology chief's job, and successful adoption hinges on multiple interrelated factors. Tech leaders at Pixar and Case Western Reserve University share their individual strategies and the mindset, focus points, and actions required to implement cutting-edge technology.

Effective CIOs mitigate emerging technology adoption risks while taking steps to maximize returns.

For the technology chiefs at Pixar Animation Studios and Case Western Reserve University, capitalizing on emerging technology allows their organizations to focus on producing world-class entertainment and life-saving medical education, respectively. The ways in which these leaders collaborate internally to assess needs and determine strategy provide ample insights into a host of focus points, mindsets, and behaviors that allow organizations to make calculated risks and drive toward new horizons.

As they make clear, successful adoption hinges on four interrelated factors:

  • An evidence-based use case and vision for the technology
  • Financial resources for implementation, maintenance, and monitoring
  • Highly competent talent
  • A cultural willingness to pivot quickly

These factors are similar to those that help determine implementation success in commoditized parts of the technology stack. However, when it comes to emerging technology, an organization needs a deep emphasis on anticipatory behaviors. IT staff, for example, need to be comfortable with ambiguity, as their efforts may represent a new type of use case. Financial needs may spike considerably if the emerging technology requires further research and development. Perhaps most significantly, unlike commoditized elements of the technology stack, the malleable nature of emerging technology may broaden the horizons of an organization's vision long after the new technology is deployed.

Pixar: Fusing the arts and sciences through emerging technology

Steve May, Pixar's chief technology officer, is focused on producing software for the hundreds of distinguished artists and filmmakers responsible for some of the world's most imaginative films, from "Toy Story" to "Incredibles 2."

"We are working directly with the artists that are going to be using the technology as we design and develop it," May says. "We make movies for the masses; we make technology for our filmmakers."

Pixar's proprietary RenderMan rendering software provides the technological architecture for its creative output, and the company has worked tirelessly to ensure that technology serves the storytelling process. During the production of "Finding Nemo," for example, Pixar employees used scuba gear to study how light diffuses underwater. The animation process for Sullivan, the hulking and furry protagonist of "Monsters, Inc.," is another example, May says. Sullivan's blue and purple body is a render comprised of approximately 2.3 million hairs. During initial production two decades ago, animators not only struggled to make fur look as natural as possible, but they also contended with GPU limitations that required them to submit single frames of animation for retrieval the following day, based on an essentially hairless render model.

Today, animators can animate a fully rendered character such as Sullivan in real time, manipulating and posing the model with every single hair intact. Such exponential advances in GPU technology advance storytelling.

Emerging technology naturally holds such promise as well, but discerning which technologies will best serve the studio is hardly a linear process. "I wish I could tell you there is a recipe or a formal process we go through in trying to unearth emerging technologies and then evaluate them and then figure out how to deploy them," May says. "We don't do that. It's much more organic."

Discussions surrounding emerging technology at Pixar are a function of culture, and these conversations are continuous. Employees benefit from a host of leading outside speakers at Pixar University, the company's in-house educational and professional development arm. May says the Pixar Research Group conducts academic research on a host of topics, including specific desirable technological advancements, while contributing to a larger discourse across the industry. Finally, Pixar Labs is a key outlet for small technological projects, allowing employees to essentially apply for grants for short projects, much like academic independent studies. 

We have a history of doing experiments with small bets, and for us, the small bets tend to be around creative short films. That allows us to try some unique or different things we're seeing in a low-risk kind of way.

Steve MayChief technology officer, Pixar Animation

Short films, such as "La Luna" or "Piper," tend to precede full-length theatrical releases and are often a showcase for more experimental technologies and artistic techniques.

"We have a history of doing experiments with small bets, and for us, the small bets tend to be around creative short films," May says. "So that allows us to try some unique or different things we're seeing in a low-risk kind of way." 

For Pixar, machine learning is an incredibly significant emerging technology. It is particularly relevant for the development team for RenderMan, which simulates the transport of light photons through space. 

"The amount of interactions of all those photons in space is computationally intractable to simulate, so we're using machine learning techniques to help determine what the most important photons are to keep track of and to perform the calculations and simulate the interactions with the world," May says. "If you didn't do that, you wouldn't actually be able to produce the next generation of high-quality images in a tractable amount of time."

May adds that virtual reality's implications are yet to be maximized or even fully understood. It is unclear whether the technology will become an effective stand-alone medium for long-form storytelling, but it is currently expediting more traditional animation projects. 

"We're already using virtual reality to help our filmmakers make traditional 2D movies," May says. "The technology is not fully realized yet, and we don't really know what the potential range of applications are."

Open culture supports creative exploration

May stresses the prevalence and importance of openness in Pixar's culture, which has strong implications for emerging technology experimentation. In Hollywood, it is normal to have your work evaluated on a weekly or even daily basis—and the proof of success or failure is right on the screen. By the same token, in Pixar's software R&D group, software developers showcase their work frequently, garnering instant feedback that allows them to pivot quickly.

"When I think about emerging technology, it's really about what is new on the landscape when we don't even know the future potential," May says. He advises IT leaders exploring the landscape to always connect emerging technology strategy to end-user needs.

"You get into trouble when there is too much separation between the technology that is being used and what its impact is going to be on the other end," May concludes. "You want to keep those things close together, and if you can [connect] them like we do here—and literally mix the people up together—that's where you'll get the best and most fruitful innovation."

Case Western Reserve University: Emerging tech adoption as a strategic imperative

Sue Workman, vice president of university technology and CIO at Case Western Reserve, says that to help frame potential educational applications for emerging technology, she and her colleagues seek to understand the learning styles of Gen-Z students.

"We see how they are starting to learn and how they are starting to use technology," she says. "And we have to be prepared—it's not that long until they get here."

For Workman, a key manifestation of this approach is an increased focus on voice assistants. Workman and her colleagues observed the extraordinary fluidity with which young digital natives navigate personal consumer technology such as iPads and smartphones thanks to voice commands. 

"There is this whole generation that probably won't type into a search box anymore," Workman says. "They expect to talk." 

Experimentation yields new applications

Workman and her colleagues wanted to experiment, and they asked for volunteers to understand potential applications. The eventual result was Spartan Answers, an Android- and iOS-supported digital assistant accessed through Google Assistant. Students can ask Spartan Answers (the name is a nod to the university mascot) for queries such as event information ("What's happening on campus this weekend?") and directions ("Where is the Case School of Engineering?").

Mixed reality and holography are emerging technologies that are central to Case Western Reserve's academic mission, especially for medical education. The university and nearby Cleveland Clinic maintain a robust partnership, including a joint Health Education Campus housed in the 447,000-square-foot Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion.

In 2014, the CEO of Cleveland Clinic invited Case Western Reserve colleagues, including Workman, to visit Microsoft and study the prototypical version of an upcoming mixed reality headset called HoloLens. Workman was deeply impressed by the technology's implications. She consulted with a radiology professor who still serves as director of the Interactive Commons, the university's multidisciplinary imaging and research collaborative. Their shared enthusiasm for mixed reality—specifically, its potential to influence learning outcomes as well as its economic scalability—helped prompt further internal discussions and, ultimately, HoloLens adoption.

"We'll be teaching anatomy this fall with HoloLens," Workman says. "We have a full male and female human anatomy and curriculum development tool."

For Workman, the steps required to understand the emerging tech landscape are similar to those the university would take in any technology assessment, including market analyses and pilots. Emerging technology, however, requires a mission-driven sense of spontaneity and open-mindedness that is in keeping with the university's loftiest ideals.

It's important to not always lean on your experience when you're looking at new things because the whole game may have changed. Take a little risk.

Sue WorkmanVice president of university technology and CIO, Case Western Reserve

Workman therefore advises IT leaders focused on a given emerging technology to spend some time with it and enjoy the process of discovery. This often requires setting aside suppositions and preconceived notions. When seeking to integrate HoloLens, for example, she initially thought that the technology would be a significant drain on storage infrastructure and bandwidth—fears that ultimately proved unfounded. 

"I think it's important to not always lean on your experience when you're looking at new things because the whole game may have changed," Workman concludes. "Take a little risk. You don't have to jump in with both feet right away, but don't be afraid to play and ask your staff to go play. Go look at [emerging technology] and just have a good time with it. If it works, you might be really surprised."

How two IT chiefs approach emerging tech: Lessons for leaders

  • Tech leaders at Pixar and Case Western Reserve evaluate emerging technology based on several interrelated factors, including use case and vision, financial resources, highly competent talent, and a cultural willingness to pivot quickly.
  • At Pixar, assessment of tech isn’t a linear process but more organic, whereby smaller projects such as short films are used to showcase new technologies and artistic techniques, allowing the studio to experiment in a low-risk way.
  • Case Western Reserve is experimenting with technologies Gen-Z students use, such as voice-activated digital assistants, as well as mixed reality and holography for medical students. Evaluation and adoption of cutting-edge tech is mission-driven, the university’s CIO says, and requires open-mindedness and a willingness to set aside preconceived notions.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.