It’s hard to calculate the value of work IT teams have performed, a task made more challenging by a global pandemic that redistributed teams remotely. Chipmaker Intel has taken a stab at this endeavor in announcing that its IT organization generated $1.6 billion of business value in 2020, COVID-19 outbreak notwithstanding.
Intel’s IT department implemented remote assistance technologies and augmented reality (AR) solutions to ensure that the chipmaker’s employees could continue to do their jobs from afar, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) software to support sales efforts, according to CIO Archana “Archie” Deskus, who joined the company in January as the coronavirus began circling the globe.
Such production would garner plaudits for any company, but it has more poignance for Intel, which has stumbled in recent years.
The chipmaker ceded ground in the mobile wafer market to rival ARM and lags behind NVIDIA in the red-hot market for GPU processors powering artificial intelligence systems. Moreover, the cloud and edge computing markets are cannibalizing volumes and margins in the server market, where Intel’s x86 chipsets thrive. Those challenges, along with a missed delivery date for its 7-nanometer chips, have courted activist investors.
Accelerating transformation in-flight
Formidable hurdles for any CIO looking to execute a digital transformation for sure, but the difficulty was compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak. When Intel closed its offices last March, Intel’s 5,000 IT workers were halfway through a digital strategy to improve collaboration and other business workflows, but it quickened procurement of equipment and other essential solutions, Deskus says. IT scrambled to provision more laptops, boosted VPN access, and ramped up deployment of Microsoft Office 365, Zoom, and other software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools to help 100,000 employees pivot to remote work within 72 hours.
“The pandemic created a real sense of urgency for us to come together and put our heads together pretty quickly,” Deskus tells CIO.com. “In a crisis, people are more tolerant of moving fast.”
Fabricating chips is Intel’s bread-and-butter, but pandemic restrictions cancelled travel worldwide, threatening to throw a wrench into foundry operations.
To ensure that staff could continue operating its manufacturing facilities, IT built a hardware and software platform that technicians use to monitor and manage factory operations from home. The platform includes capabilities for videoconferencing, diagnostics, and troubleshooting. IT also scaled up software to help vendors, factory engineers, and technicians take control of factory equipment from their computers from afar. The platform “keeps products flowing from manufacturing across the supply chain,” Deskus says.
Converting to remote operations was a major win for a company whose products are built by humans operating sophisticated machines in factories and chip foundries.
Deskus has experience with such transformation. In her previous role as CIO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Deskus oversaw NextGen IT, a companywide initiative to overhaul internal IT systems, including integrating several ERP systems and standardizing business processes.
From transformation to innovation
Thanks to COVID-19, Deskus is getting a chance to tap into more innovation at Intel. Her team deployed AR to improve yield, to troubleshoot problems with tools and other factory equipment, and to train.
Technicians view photos and videos in real-time through AR glasses to perform maintenance, while trainees watch remotely via their laptops. Trainers and trainees also reverse roles so the learner can get supervised, hands-on experience. Technician certification now happens 25% faster as a result of the AR, Deskus says. Intel plans to extend its AR solutions to manufacturing execution systems.
Intel has also brought its data science capabilities to bear on helping its 2,500 sales staffers better target prospective customers. Intel’s Sales AI platform includes an app to help sellers tailor offers to customers, while another app automatically generates product pitches via email, web notifications, and newsletters without human intervention. These apps generated $168 million in revenue for Intel in 2020.
Intel is also now using AI algorithms to dynamically generate optimal price performance and price combinations for its chipsets in near real-time, reducing time to insights by 30x and generating more than $600 million in business value last year, says Deskus.
The future of business resiliency
Intel’s IT staff performed yeoman’s work in keeping the company afloat during COVID-19, but many businesses are confronting the existential question of how to prepare for the next pandemic. Intel is no exception.
Most enterprises conduct scenario planning to prepare for regional network outages and other disruptions, such as a natural disaster, which impact a subset of the business. Few enterprises plan for a pandemic, which as the world has learned from COVID-19, can shut down global operations overnight, Deskus says. The company is building more mature risk mitigation and business resiliency to prepare for future disruptions, though Deskus says the details are still being worked out.
Noting that the pandemic has forever changed the way Intel works, Deskus adds, “Going forward, we have an opportunity to build a culture that maintains that same sense of urgency and acceleration to deliver greater value for Intel and our customers.”
Intel has other reasons to be optimistic. In February, the company named former Intel CTO Pat Gelsinger as CEO. Hiring an engineering leader who is also a savvy CEO — Gelsinger had excelled as VMware’s CEO since 2012 — is a smart play. Opportunities abound for Intel in such categories as edge computing, programmable processors, and AI, according to Forrester Research analyst Glenn O’Donnell.
“With someone like Pat Gelsinger leading the company, it can rebound — once again gaining customer trust and investor confidence,” O’Donnell wrote in a research note. “I am optimistic.”