On the fourth episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, Sreelakshmi Kolli, Chief Digital Officer at Align Technology joins the show to discuss how data decentralization has helped upend workflows that have traditionally been full of friction, and the ways in which partnering with startups can have meaningful impacts. With an ever-pressing need for data to be usable by stakeholders across a company, Sree describes how Align Technology made a conscious choice to make data more accessible. She also discusses innovative technologies that Align is using on an everyday basis to transform medical outcomes, most notably 3D printing.
Data access is becoming a core issue for organizations of all sizes, and the traditional approach sees data in a more siloed approach where only those who know how to interpret and use data should have access. While data scientists are indeed best equipped to best harness this material, Sree and her team at Align Technology opted for a different approach: “The data [within Align] is available to anyone who wants to use it and make something actionable out of it. In the past, it was almost like ‘Oh, that data is owned by the Salesforce team or the SAP team or the treatment planning team or the clinical team.’ And it's like, no, no, no. Everybody owns all the data.” Empowering her team like this has prevented her technologists from being a bottleneck for the potential of this data, as most of the analytics today are run by the business users themselves. This enables the data science team to focus on product and clinical problems as well as working to make data more secure and accessible to others in the organization.
Beyond the workflow methodologies themselves, Sree describes the culture shift required for this type of change to be successful: “Our goal is to make data so pervasive inside Align, so that it's not just for a data scientist or a small technology team to unlock the potential of it. It's been a cultural transformation as much as it's been a technology transformation.” This mindset breeds confidence and trust, which has positive impacts for teams across the company. Additionally, learning from startups and how they operate culturally has had a significant impact on the way Align Technology operates. Whereas larger organizations can be afraid to fail and thus afraid to experiment and innovate, Sree has recommended a different approach for her teams at Align: “As a technology team, we stay on top of current technology trends and actively engage with the startup community…Experimentation is very much part of our culture, when we fail an experiment, we treat it more like learning experiences so that we can continuously iterate on the idea or, you know, we just decide to abandon it. The entrepreneurial culture is very much alive at Align.”
With technology acting as the “central nervous system of the company,” Sree describes several areas of innovative technology that Align is incorporating into the business that she is particularly excited about. One is an AI powered tool that helps patients see the results from using Invisalign, the braces alternative that has made Align a household name: “The selfie app that we use, we call it the smile view. That's an AI model that takes your selfie [in] real time and shows you what your smile could look like. That's a very individualized experience. We are using it in our treatment planning, you know, we understand what the doctor's treatment preferences are, how they would like to treat the patient. And so we are codifying that using AI to generate treatment plans that the doctors can then modify in real time.”
In addition to artificial intelligence, Align is also at the frontier of other disruptive technologies that are having real impacts on users. Unbeknownst to many, Align Technology is actually the biggest 3D printer in the world, harnessing the technology for their Invisalign products that have helped over 10 million patients worldwide. While much of the hype in the world of 3D printing surrounds the possibilities of crafting complex, intricate objects, the relative simplicity of orthodontic aligners is a fantastic example of next generation technology creating positive medical outcomes for patients.
As Sree looks forward, keeping Align Technology at the forefront of innovation means continuing to advocate for data decentralization in as much of the organization as possible. The startup ethos of experimentation and discovery goes hand in hand with letting as many different stakeholders make use of data. She is cognizant of the fact that in many ways, Align is a trailblazer in how they harness and use technology: “Nobody has done what we were doing before...Everything we do is first for the whole industry. So, I think it's important for us to keep at it and ensure that we are able to deliver for the doctors so that they can deliver for the patients.”