Align Technology’s Tech Leader Believes Digital Technology Is the Pathway To A Perfect Smile – Forbes
Sreelakshmi Kolli has been the Senior Vice President of Global Information Technology at Align Technology for more than six and a half years. During that period, the global orthodontic medical device company has grown tremendously, especially through its popular Invisalign product. As Kolli sees it, future growth will be heavily dependent on digital technology. There are 300 million potential customers of the company, and reaching them and engaging with them digitally is the pathway to converting them as customers. She and her team are hard at work at doing just that.
Kolli has also been hard at work modernizing the digital technology that Align Technology’s operation uses as the best path to ensuring that the company is primed for continued growth. Through the transformation that Kolli has led, the company is focused on delivering great treatment outcomes with data science, driving consumer demand to doctors offices, helping with conversion as customers become Invisalign patients, using global scalable infrastructure to support real-time ordering from over 100 countries, and manufacturing over 400,000 customized aligners per day. We cover all of the above and more in this interview.
Peter High: You are the Senior Vice President of Global Information Technology for Align Technology. For those who may be less familiar, could you provide a brief overview of the company’s business?
Sree Kolli: Align Technology is dedicated to transforming lives by improving the journey to a healthy and beautiful smile. We believe that a better smile has the power to create a better future, so we create digital technology and experiences to help people move forward in life. We are a global medical device company, and we have industry leading innovative products, such as Invisalign clear aligners, iTero intraoral scanners, and OrthoCAD digital services. Invisalign has helped over six million patients, and we are driving the evolution in digital dentistry with the iTero scanner. We are helping modernize today’s practices by replacing physical impressions, taking treatment planning online, and creating the potential to enable and improve nearly every type of dental treatment that is being offered.
High: Could you further elaborate on the role that digital is playing to enhance the dental experience?
Kolli: Every digital system starts with digital data and digital records, and all of our patient information through the iTero scanner is in digital form. Once you have strong digital patient information, you can do a great deal with data signs around clinical analysis and diagnostic tools to help doctors better understand and assess patients’ needs. Using these tools to give the doctors high-quality patient data is extremely powerful because it helps them make choices on the treatment options that are available to each and every patient. The same goes for how we create digital treatment planning with our software. Finally, our orthodontic appliances, which are digital, are able to deliver highly accurate and proper floor systems for every stage of every movement, which helps achieve highly predictable treatment outcomes.
High: How does IT create value in a business such as Align Technology’s?
Kolli: IT is the central nervous system of Align as it enables the evolution of digital dentistry. We have over 300 million consumers that could benefit from teeth straightening, and the only way to reach all of them is through digital technologies. As we transform dentistry to go from analog to digital, we need to deliver great treatment outcomes with data science, drive consumer demand to doctors’ offices, help with conversion as they become Invisalign patients, use global scalable infrastructure to support real-time ordering from over 100 countries, and manufacture over 400,000 customized aligners per day. All of this is tremendously dependent on technology, and the market opportunity is limitless regarding how we can digitize a practice and make orthodontics available to the masses.
High: You have two different constituent groups, which are the dentists themselves and their patients. How do you think about those different groups to ensure that you are developing technologies that are taken advantage of by both groups?
Kolli: As a brand, Invisalign is immensely well recognized. Part of the Invisalign difference that we provide is a fully digitized experience so patients can get the smile they desire. The aligners are better, they fit better, they work faster with innovative materials such as SmartTrack, and they have the omnichannel engagement platforms that are available. These engagement platforms allow for agility and experimentation for the different go-to-market conditions around the world that allow us to deliver great personalized experiences.
With our consumers (the doctors), we are focused on delivering great clinical outcomes and great predictability with both SmartTrack material and our digital treatment planning software. Further, we are focused on the difference that Invisalign brings to the table from an end-to-end digital system perspective, which includes data, planning, treatment, material, and the appliance itself. At the end, our entire ecosystem works together to deliver the great clinical outcomes that the doctors are looking for.
High: As you look forward, what has been incorporated into your strategic roadmap? What are some of the areas that you are emphasizing or technology trends you are taking advantage of?
Kolli: There is always a wide range of innovations that the teams are continuously working on. Part of this is to support the speed and scale of global expansion as well as the business evolution as the product utilization and adoption grows around the world. We have the largest digital dentition database with over 6.4 million patients, and predictive analytics and machine learning algorithms are all integrated into the product to deliver great outcomes and product performance. We additionally have the omnichannel engagement platform with microservices architecture, which allows for agility and experimentation. Moreover, the platform provides the ability to integrate data science to deliver personalized experiences as we send the consumers’ demand to the doctors’ offices. We work on improving release velocity with cloud infrastructure and DevOps practices, which provides a solid backbone for global growth and scale. We are making the shift from a project focus to a product and services focus, and as architecture grows more modular, it has become possible to have smaller teams that are more agile and that own the end-to-end experience from ideation to post-production support.
High: There are a number of organizations that are similarly switching from a project orientation to product orientation. However, it seems to be those at the leading edge who are pursuing this path, rather than the average CIO. What was your rationale for doing so, and what steps have you taken to realize that vision?
Kolli: The need primarily came because the teams were just going from project to project, and we wanted them to own the outcome of the work they were delivering. Further, it was immensely important that we had a continuum of the software life cycle development as we were going more agile and as we were trying to experiment in the marketplace as to what works. Experimenting with what works includes figuring out which products work, which services work, and what the consumers and doctors were reacting favorably to. Further, technology was at the right place to make this change. By going modular, by going to microservices, by having a cloud, and by allowing A/B testing possibilities, it just felt as if it was the right time to have the teams working towards a more iterative outcome for an extended period of time. Part of it works, part of it fails, and the team continues to take those learnings to develop even better products. That need drove us to start shifting our focus towards how a product organization would deliver a product and determining what delivering services meant. With the amount of innovation that we were driving, we needed to have a team that was continuously learning as they were experimenting and developing even better products and services.
High: You are a customer as well as an employee of the company, and I imagine that many of your colleagues likewise have the opportunity to use the product. Could you talk about how being a customer impacts service and product development?
Kolli: We are lucky to be part of a company and a team that is highly integrated with understanding our consumer and customer needs. Being a customer of the product allows us to understand the different characteristics consumers look for in a product, and it allows us to better comprehend why consumers pick Invisalign versus another form of treatment. There are many factors people consider, such as the cost, if the treatment works for them, if their peers have used it, how it impacts their lifestyle, and how the social experience looks. When we design a solution, all of those experiences matter. We constantly are in doctors’ offices observing how they use the product, how they interact with their patients, how they submit treatment planning, and if it is easy for them to use the software we build. We look at the entire lifecycle of order-to-cash, invoicing-to-collections, sending the consumer demand to the doctors’ offices, and how we can help digitize the doctors’ practices. Overall, we are highly integrated into their needs, and being a consumer plays an integral role in how we design the solutions.
High: You have a global team in places such as Silicon Valley, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, China, Israel, India, Mexico, Russia, and other places in the U.S. How do you manage your IT function with such distributed talent?
Kolli: We have a great culture at Align, and we have an environment that allows everyone to thrive. Because the business model is an end-to-end, order-to-cash, real-time ordering process, everyone has to function in a collaborative manner. Historically, you could assume that the ERP team can sit in the back office and do what they do, the CRM team can sit somewhere else doing what they do, and here we are building commerce products, doctor portals, engagements, communities, clinical education, and mobile apps. All of those require a great deal of cross-functional collaboration as a team throughout the company.
With a global product that is sold in different countries with different go-to-market conditions, it is impossible to sit here in Silicon Valley and imagine what the doctors and consumers in China want. The technologies that they use are exceedingly different than what we use in the States. However, having distributed teams helps a great deal in understanding what the local go-to-market models are, what solutions we have to build for the local market, and what technologies are appropriate to build those solutions. If something works in a market quite well, we try and see what we can do to take that and globalize it as much as we can, which we have used to our advantage. The team is always working with a growth mindset, and they are always experimenting, learning, and iterating. Having all of these teams in different places brings a different perspective as to how we put together a solution for our consumers and the doctors.
High: As a company with headquarters in Silicon Valley, perhaps the most competitive marketplace for great technologists on Earth, what sorts of strategies do you use to attract that talent? Moreover, what is the value proposition that you convey during the recruiting process to attract people to your IT department?
Kolli: We have a highly diverse and engaged team, and we consistently get strong NPS [Net Promoter Scores]. Having this helps a great deal in referrals and with the employee connections that are available around the offices we work in. We get great feedback from the team that is attributed to amazing colleagues and the culture of teamwork, and Align is such a unique place to work because we are transforming an entire industry to go from analog to digital. Our employees work in an environment with a sense of empowerment and belonging, and they can touch, feel, and change the product they grew up with as a child wearing metal braces. They have an impact on how doctors’ practices go from analog to digital, and they see how experimentation, learning, and iteration are all part of how we deliver great products and experiences. There is a great deal of excitement that comes with being part of that digital transformation journey.
High: As you look to the future, which trends are beginning to make their way onto your personal roadmap?
Kolli: We are looking at all of the technologies that help build the next generation of customer and enterprise products as systems of intelligence. These include the hybrid cloud, data lakes, and all AI disciplines including, machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, voice recognition, image recognition, and robotic process automation. We are looking to integrate all of these technologies into every aspect of our commercial, sales, marketing, clinical education, customer care, and manufacturing applications.
We are looking to build out our IoT roadmap. To do so, we are looking to leverage intelligent edge, real-time streaming, and distributed scale-out architectures. Down the line, we will also look at technologies such as blockchain to create a secure and authentic digital breadcrumb of key transactions. All of the digital technologies are exciting to us when it comes to brand recognition, brand differentiation, product performance, manufacturing, how we can transform customer service, and how we can create engagement experiences.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy , a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book is Implementing World Class IT Strategy . He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs . Peter moderates the Technovation podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.