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Strategic insights on the new era of digital business transformation: An interview

“At its root, AI is a user experience strategy. It requires getting close to and understanding use cases and desired impacts.” — Peri Kadaster, Chief Marketing Officer at Nearform

Nearform’s Chief Marketing Officer, Peri Kadaster, shares the expert insights she’s gained from her 15-year career as a tech leader. She discusses how business leaders can successfully leverage AI, Nearform’s unique approach to helping organisations successfully navigate their transformation journeys, her experiences as a woman in tech and more. 

Who are you and what’s your background?

I am a strategy consultant-turned-marketer. I started my career at companies like The Parthenon Group (now Parthenon-EY) and McKinsey & Company — where I focused my time on the tech & startup industry, doing marketing strategy. 

I shifted gears to working in tech about 15 years ago, first doing mobile user acquisition as VP of  Marketing & Analytics at CoffeeTable, an e-commerce startup in San Francisco, and later shifting gears to do B2B marketing, with leadership roles at a Turkish fintech and later at McKinsey Digital Labs. 

I was thrilled to join Nearform in the summer of 2023 as Chief Marketing Officer.

You were a speaker at the 2024 Dublin Tech Summit, what was that experience like?

Speaking at the Dublin Tech Summit was an amazing experience. It was great to bring together diverse perspectives on timely topics. I was lucky enough to speak on a panel with leaders from NASA, Microsoft and many other leading organisations from Europe and around the world.

Something we agreed on is the fact that digital transformation, as we know it or have known it in recent years, is fundamentally about to change — and a big driver of that is the advent of AI.

AI is going to change the way we do everything. It's going to change how companies like Nearform develop software, products and platforms, and how we work with data. It's also going to change how we serve clients, who include enterprises from sectors such as financial services, telco, healthcare and more. 

From a marketing perspective, the way customers receive services and get value from companies, and the way brands communicate, all of this is about to change with how AI is incorporated. A lot of that brings good news. You can see the potential for efficiency. You can see the potential for customers to get served with what they need in a faster way and, potentially, a better, more accurate way. You'll see efficiency gains in terms of production and the supply side. 

But with it are also inherent risks. There are concerns about data, privacy and security. There are certainly concerns around regulation, which currently is a patchwork of different approaches across different geographies. For example, the EU is about to pass laws that are very different from what the US is passing federally, which is complemented by what specific US states are passing separately. 

So, while it's an exciting area, and one that will fundamentally change how enterprises engage in business transformation, it's also one to really be vigilant about and have an approach that integrates risk mitigation along with execution in parallel.

What was the key insight you gained from each of your fellow speakers at the Dublin Tech Summit?

Each of us brought different perspectives to the Dublin Tech Summit.

One of the speakers was a digital leader from NASA who has been there for 25 years. It was interesting to hear about the similarities, as well as differences, in the issues they face. 

A lot of the emphasis was on the importance of having a business wrapper around technological initiatives. This is key because there is a risk of developing technology for technology's sake — creating new features that weren't available before, but now can be delivered, simply because they're feasible. But in the absence of a business lens, this raises the risk of creating features that won't be fundamentally adopted by the market, by users, by consumers, by employees etc. 

I thought he brought a really interesting perspective in terms of that requirement, of the intersection of business and technology, one that aligns with Nearform’s approach of collaborating with both digital and business leaders across functions.

Another one of the speakers made a point about the importance of people in the transformation process. We talk about AI as a technology and as a digital initiative. But, by and large, it's actually a people project, because so much of what AI enables and or requires is change in processes. It will change the skills required to complete certain tasks and fulfil certain roles, but it also will require a redesign of processes and ways of working.

All of that requires behaviour change. As anyone who has worked on transformation initiatives with companies knows, a big goal is to change people's existing habits — break old habits and create new habits. 

I think the intersection of those two perspectives was really interesting.

What defined the previous era of transformation strategies?

The previous age was very much focused on thinking of digital transformation as a separate but parallel initiative to what the business objectives and business strategy are. 

Organisationally, CIOs, CTOs and CDOs were often very siloed from the business units themselves. So tech decisions would be seen as large investment decisions, and large capital outlays, the impact of which would oftentimes be measured at the business unit level. Sometimes at the corporate level, in the case of corporate strategy teams, and so forth. But they were seen as disparate streams of work.

Now business and technology are increasingly intertwined, so the key is to leverage today's technology in service of your business objectives. That means organisations are increasingly on the front foot of technology tools. Put another way, transformation is now multiple layers.

Digital transformation cannot be digital alone. It's almost a misnomer. The real challenge of any transformation effort is that it requires people to adapt their behaviour. If you underestimate the “people” aspect, both in terms of buy-in for the adoption of new tools as well as the capability building required to really leverage and get the most out of the investment and new tools, you won't be successful — no matter how great that shiny new product or platform may be.

Where do data and AI fit into this new era?

There are a number of key technologies. Obviously data, and AI is the one that’s top of mind for everyone. But what AI means is different for each organisation, and it's a moving target.

At Nearform, we tell our clients we meet you where you are. This is because there are many factors that influence where an organisation sits on the data and on the AI maturity curves. The reason we say this is AI is not one point in time, it's not even a linear goal. It's generally the culmination of a multi-step process that's required. 

This starts from data engineering, just getting the plumbing working and having the data “pipes” around different parts of the organisation talking to each other. It then goes to enabling the data science required to unlock the analytics that can drive business intelligence, and ultimately insights and actionable decisions you can take.

That moves up to AI, where the human is no longer necessarily the decision maker. But the technology can take on that role. And all along the way are other critical areas, like data governance, reliability, security and much more.

Again, it's this notion of technology, capability and strategy all coming together as one.

Another consideration is: “Who is the end user of AI?” There are so many applications, and one that always comes to mind is the notion of chatbots and how they can serve customers. But you also have to think about internal applications of AI — for employees. There's an urgent need to reevaluate how work is done in the context of AI.

At its root, AI is a user experience strategy. It requires getting close to and understanding use cases and desired impacts — as opposed to technology for technology's sake or creating features for feature's sake. It's taking a holistic view of how that particular user is incentivised and is trained to operate.

How can business leaders ensure they're investing in the right areas?

There's increasingly this competitive dynamic between enterprises and newly emerging challenger brands. We see a lot of this in the financial services industry, with new branchless banks for example. We see that in numerous other industries as well. 

Investment can and should be made as close to the user as possible. As I mentioned earlier, individual business units within an organisation are increasingly involved in investment decisions around technology. This enables existing enterprises to reinvent themselves at a more rapid pace than was previously expected. Plus, they have the added advantage of having legacy knowledge and expertise, as well as a track record of success. 

While emerging technology may be seen as democratising access to markets for new brands, it can also provide new competitive advantages for existing brands too.

Should people be afraid of this new era of transformation?

Fear of change is a natural human response, but I would say no in the short term. In fact, a lot of the initial disruption we're seeing is in the most frustrating or annoying — and least sexy — areas. 

For instance, I angel invest in American and European startups. I remember one of my first investments some years ago was for a company that helps digitise the note-taking process and elderly caretaker settings. The environment and the processes were not exactly cutting-edge. However, the user insights and the data that emerged helped develop a tool that led to a step function change. This change wasn’t just in the note-taking process, but also the employee engagement, as well as the patient care level.

I think the same is true today — when thinking about where to embed new technology in the day-to-day, that's different. You look first at: “What is it that people complain about?” It could be HR processes. (In my case, it's expense processes!)

There are different ways in which people can embrace new technologies, specifically AI-powered efforts that aren't scary and are actually really helpful in the day-to-day. For example, in my daily work, one of my colleagues on the Digital Marketing Team collaborated with one of our AI experts to personalise and automate a subset of our outreach messages. 

Something like that is a tremendous step forward in terms of providing the right messaging, at the right time, to the right person to help make our efforts more effective and helpful.

However, there do need to be clear steps taken towards risk mitigation. Again, that's the notion of data governance, regulatory compliance, cybersecurity etc. Those are all steps that need to be taken before and/or in parallel with embracing these new technology uses to ensure there's no need to be afraid, either now or in the future.

What's Nearform’s unique approach to helping organisations along this journey?

At Nearform, we say we meet you where you are. There are numerous factors that influence where an organisation sits on the data and AI maturity curve, so we use our experience to develop impactful solutions along that entire process.

For instance, we recently worked with a utilities company in South America. Nearform used AI to optimise the chemical facility operation based at a remote location to provide data that was expected to come from the facility even before it was operational. Our team built a digital twin of the physical facility, which enabled the new tech to go live before the facility launched. Within weeks, the Nearform team defined an end-to-end data flow, launched the platform and produced a functional prototype. And we followed that by delivering the full solution.

What I love about that example is it combines the best of what Nearform does. We do product, platform, data and AI as well as capability building to ensure our clients have a resolution at the end of an engagement that enables them and sets them up for success, moving forward after we're gone.

One of the things that really differentiates Nearform is our track record of success. We've been around since 2011, serving the biggest enterprises, governments and nonprofit organisations all over the world. We've improved the quality of patient care. We've helped governments get societies out of the COVID-19 pandemic, through data and through COVID tracking and so forth. We help airlines with their reservation system, so people don't get booted off of flights and things like that.

A lot of that has to do with the fact we only hire senior engineers, so our teams can get started and are able to get to results much faster than the average tech team. 

We also have a legacy of Open Source contributions. Nearform is one of the largest Open Source contributors in the world, and we're able to leverage that knowledge and those resources and tools to our client efforts. It’s another accelerant for getting time to value as quickly as possible.

Something else most people don't talk about is the fact that Nearform has a team most companies want to work with. People tell us: “Not only is your developer team sharp, not only are your designers and product managers collaborative, but they're really nice too .”

We bring a culture of shared success, and one of being on the same team, with our clients, as opposed to being seen as an outside vendor. We are truly a partner to our clients, one that’s on the same side of the room, whiteboarding together, working together, and having a human connection, in addition to the technology we deliver.

Can you share your experiences as a woman working in tech?

I've been a woman working in tech for many years, and I've worked in Silicon Valley as well as across the US and throughout Europe. I've seen or been in many situations that, in hindsight, may have been impacted by my gender, both good and bad.

I’ll start with where I am today, as CMO of Nearform. Being at Nearform has been an amazing experience as a woman in tech. I work on a majority female team, and sit on an executive team that has significant — at parity — female representation. We have an active Women's Guild that provides ongoing support, opportunities for learning, exclusive speakers and more. So I feel really fortunate to work in an environment where women are not only treated equally, but also given the space to celebrate our uniqueness.

I think a lot of diversity starts with seeing yourself in the roles you want to have. I've been very lucky to work at several companies where women comprise half or even more of the leadership team, and that's always been inspiring.

One thing I'd say is mentors are incredibly helpful for women in tech. As you know, many cities or sectors have close-knit ecosystems, and networking is critical to meet new people, as potential employers, clients, partners, or more. I personally have both male and female mentors, which I find helpful. It’s vital to have someone you can not only relate to, but who also brings a unique point of view and helps you mitigate your own blind spots.

Of course, there exists a reality where different individuals or groups may not have the same opportunities as others due to any number of reasons. I'd also say that, from a framing perspective, limits are temporary. Hearing “A woman's never done X,” or “There's no way we'll get to equal representation from Y per cent” is an antiquated and, frankly, damaging way of thinking. 

I’ve certainly faced my share of subtle or outright discriminatory comments and situations — and it’s up to us as women to find ways to not only speak truth to power in these individual instances, but also to internalise and learn from these experiences. As a result, we as women have strength beyond what we can at times imagine.

I truly believe there are no limits to what a woman can do, and often the first step to achieving a specific goal is that general ethos and mindset.

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