Changing Lives Through Digital Transformation

Apex talks to Siva Balu, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at YMCA OF THE USA about Digital Transformation and what it means to him and his organization. With 20+ years as an industry leader, his perspective is a must read! 


Q: What does Digital Transformation mean to you?

A: Digital Transformation is to reimagine running your business in a new way using digital technology thereby exponentially changing the experiences of your consumers

Digital transformation is not just for your consumers, it is also transforming the experiences of your employees and stakeholders for the better. 

Digital Transformation is not a project but a continuum where you continuously strive to rethink on how to accomplish your business strategy through digital technology.

I consider there are three foundations of Digital Transformation: technology, security, and data. 


Q: What are some of the challenges of Digital Transformation?

A: Well, to start with, Digital Transformation has become a buzzword. It is very important to spend time in strategic thought leadership on what Digital Transformation means to your organization. How will Digital Transformation impact your consumers and how will it help you grow your business, reduce overhead, significantly increase the customer experience. The first challenge is to define what Digital Transformation means to your organization through a strategic roadmap. Then, it is important to get the stakeholder buy-in. Digital Transformation is not an IT project. It is an asset that needs to be thoughtfully planned. The last challenge would be strategic investment. In many cases, Digital Transformation initiatives tend to run multiple years. It is important to stay the course.



Q: What does Digital Transformation mean to your organization?

A: We are in the early stages of digital transformation where we are rethinking how we interact with our constituents in various areas including branding, marketing, communications, virtual interactions, mobile experience, etc. We are reimagining delivery of fitness and wellness through virtual and mobile platforms. We are looking to connect our digital products to our digital ecosystems. This will help us to tap into the big data in the backend for business intelligence and data analytics. This will also help us curate the consumer experience.

In addition, we are developing secure digital products to deliver chronic disease prevention programs to the program participants. We are currently getting inputs from various stakeholders to identify use cases for our digital transformation, including mental health programs, diversity content and more. 

This is an exciting time to be able to use digital to have a measurable impact in people’s lives. 


Q: What are your top data priorities: business growth, data security/privacy, legal/regulatory concerns, expense reduction…?

A: Some of our top priorities are foundation to our technology ecosystem and our digital transformation. For example, information security and privacy are non-negotiable. We look at data to help enhance our brand value. We use data to empower and enhance our consumer experience and in the long run identify areas where we need to focus on. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is an utmost priority for us. We use big data to help us identify where we need to provide programs and services where there may be a need. We are looking to transform our customer relationship management through our digital transformation initiatives. 



Q: How are you justifying the cost needed to evolve and adapt IT to support the speed and agility required by the business?

A: I am smiling thinking about this question. Whether your organization is for-profit, non-profit, government agency or NGO, and irrespective of your industry, everyone is faced with the question of cost at some point. 

This is where having a strong strategic direction, along with stakeholder buy-in is very important. Another issue I have both seen and experienced is, the key stakeholders and leadership treating IT as a silo department. The IT assets belong to the organization, not just to IT. In my experience, any time when there is a need to find efficiencies or cut costs, IT becomes the first target. This is because IT is perceived as expensive by the corresponding stakeholders. So, the challenges of cost justification are real.  

The best approach that has worked for me to continue to evaluate the IT costs and balance it with the business value proposition. The head of the IT team needs to think, act, and react like a business owner. Some of the fundamental values I have practiced are transparency, strategic alignment, constant communication, stakeholder buy-in, not being territorial and most important is to build trust.  Taking the stakeholders through the journey of what is being developed in IT and how it is going to help the organization, answering questions, being objective and open minded will ease the cost justification conversations. 

At the end, showing results will speak for itself. For the IT leaders, while it will be important to justify costs, it is equally important to continuously show the progress and results to your stakeholders.



Q: How would you define “Enterprise AI” in a non-digital native enterprise like your organization?

A: First, every organization will be digital-native in the near future, if not already. Then the premise is, how do we define “Enterprise AI”? It is a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. I predict every organization will be using AI in some form or the other in three to five years, most of it will be through integrating with strategic partners and products. AI will help organizations propel into the digital age, provided they have the right use cases identified to focus on. Just like how we moved from mainframes to client-servers, on-premises data centers to cloud, etc., we will move our analytics and business intelligence to AI models. And it will become second nature. There is also a perceived barrier to entry to AI, as there are cost and skillset barriers. We will see more and more vendors providing products powered by AI that will be used at an enterprise level.



Q: How is your organization leveraging Big Data and AI and machine learning to transform their businesses and what opportunities does it present to the business? What are the challenges, and how can these be best overcome?

A: In our newly developed digital platform as part of our digital transformation, we deliver virtual and mobile digital products. We are creating AI models to start using the data to train and deliver the highest level of experience to our consumers through curated content. The challenge we see is with the data, both the quality and the context. We are working on tuning our algorithms to continue to improve our models. 



Q: What operating model and cultural changes have you considered as you shift to a digital business? What parts of your business would benefit the most from a greater digital foundation?

A: I believe the entire organization can benefit from a strong digital foundation. Within the technology team, we are completely in an agile delivery model. We continue to deliver, learn from our mistakes, and keep making relentless forward progress. It may take a bit more time to educate all the cross-functional teams and bring them on the digital journey. We are off to a good start. 



Q: How has DevOps and cloud services changed the way you design, build, deploy, and operate online systems and secure infrastructure?

A: We are a 100% DevOps and Cloud Services shop. This has indeed tremendously helped us move ahead in lightning speed to focus on our digital platform and products, and most importantly to deliver to our consumers. What this has given us is to avoid the distraction of maintaining the legacy systems, time delays due to hardware purchases or other similar challenges one could face by not using cloud services. On the flip side, the DevOps approach helps us focus on the work needed to operate and secure our infrastructure. We encourage a culture of collaboration among all teammates and partners.



Q: What advice would you give an early-stage CIO or CDO joining an enterprise organization?

A: First, understand where your personal and professional passion is. We are all humans who bring our personal self to a professional place of work. Take time to understand the business, the strategy, and the stakeholders. Your team is your important asset. Develop, coach, and build a strong team.  Focus on building trust and credibility. Trust and credibility are built over time by keeping up one’s commitments and delivering consistently.


Siva Balu – Vice President & Chief Information Officer at YMCA OF THE USA

Siva Balu is the Vice President and Chief Information Officer at YMCA OF THE USA. In this role, he is working to rethink the work of Y-USA’s information technology strategy to meet the changing needs of Y-USA and YMCAs throughout the country.

YMCA of the USA is the national resource office for the nation’s YMCAs. The Y is the leading nonprofit in 10,000 communities across the nation delivering positive change through 2,700 YMCAs focusing on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

Siva is the creator of the new Y Cloud digital platform to deliver digital, virtual and mobile products to members across the nation. Y Cloud is the world’s first digital platform built for non-profits by non-profit.  

As the CIO, Siva works with the key stakeholders across the nation’s YMCAs in achieving the strategic vision. He leads the creation and execution of the technology strategy through collaboration and thought leadership including digital transformation, data strategy, cloud strategy, information security, project management, mobile apps, social media, CRM, data warehouses & business intelligence, IT infrastructure & operations to support the YMCA movement.

Prior to his current role, Siva has 20 years of healthcare technology experience in leadership roles for Blue Cross Blue Shield, the nation’s largest health insurer, which provides healthcare to over 107 million members—1 in 3 Americans. He most recently led the Enterprise Information Technology team at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), a national federation of Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. He has created several highly scalable innovative solutions that cater to the needs of members and patients throughout the country in all communities. He provided leadership in creating innovative solutions and adopting new technologies for national and international users.

Siva earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering from Bharathiar University in India, a master’s in business administration from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management and executive master’s degrees from Harvard and MIT in Innovation, Strategy and Artificial Intelligence.

In his free time, he volunteers and contributes to several charities, including Special Olympics, Chicago Food Depository, Challenged Athletes Foundation, Beyond Hunger, The Pack Shack, Cradles to Crayons and Gardeneers. Siva is a Board Member at Sarah’s Inn, a non-profit supporting individuals and families impacted by domestic violence, and at The Soondra Foundation, a non-profit that provides healthcare to the poor working class in India. 

Siva developed a passion for long-distance running a few years ago starting with a 5k, and then to marathons and to running multiple ultramarathons. He has run multiple 100-mile races. He recently ran what is referred to as ‘the world’s toughest foot race,’ Badwater 135-miler in Death Valley, and one of the world’s coldest races, Tuscobia 160-miler.