From the Back Office to the Front Lines | Straighttalk

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By Cynthia “Cindy” Stoddard, Senior Vice President and CIO, Adobe

Having spent the last twenty-five years in corporate technology roles, I have had a front row seat to the evolution of the IT organization—from a back-office function reacting to business needs and demands to the revenue-generating partner in transformation that IT organizations are becoming today. In the digital era, where data is the new currency, IT is in the unique position of having just the right experience and end-to-end viewpoint to become a primary driver of business growth and innovation. There’s never been a more exciting, or challenging, time to be part of corporate technology.

I took the role as Adobe CIO just over a year ago precisely because it was a unique opportunity to lead IT at a company that not only had a stellar reputation in the technology marketplace but also was out in front as a leader in the shift to cloud-based business models. My global IT team manages the infrastructure and data to support that business model, delivers services that form the mission-critical backbone for the company, and works hand-in-hand with our product teams to help drive innovation.

Our focus, like many leading IT organizations today, has shifted from delivering projects to delivering business value, whether that comes in the form of increasing productivity or creating new revenue streams. And as we all know, that’s required some significant changes in the IT function. We have to work more closely and proactively with both our business partners and our technology providers. We must be able to provide the seamless, reliable, flexible, and scalable technology needed to succeed in the always-on digital era. We have to constantly be on the look-out for the next new technology-enabled business opportunity that will keep us a step ahead in a highly competitive marketplace. And we have to make sure we have the level of technology talent and business acumen to remain the best partners to the business going forward.

It Takes an Ecosystem

The roles of IT and the CIO are so different than they were even a decade ago. There is no longer any wall between technology and the business. IT is integral in every single thing that the business does.  And because of that, you really have to partner with the business. 

For an IT organization to become more than a service provider, it must get close to the business and its customers. I consider myself to be a “customer-facing” CIO. I expect my teams to understand the business’s opportunities and challenges, key strategies, and its customers intimately. That’s the only way you can be sure you design IT for business value and can deliver it.

IT is in a unique position within the organization. We have the infrastructure, deep process, and application knowledge, as well as a horizontal end-to-end view of the business. Additionally, we have a wealth of data knowledge and insights at our fingertips that we can use to help our business leaders make the next best decision to enable growth or innovation. So in an era of digital transformation, we bring a lot to the table.

But to do that well, we need to partner and collaborate with all facets of the business. If there are any walls or silos, we have to break them down.  We need to integrate IT with teams across the business and help influence the decision making.  That’s true for IT and its vendor partners in value delivery, as well. The traditional vendor relationship does not work in an era of digital disruption. You must have a partner with whom you share strategies, ideas, and pain points. No IT organization can do this alone.

The Demands of Digital Transformation

The digitization of business is a real game-changer, but it also creates challenges for the IT organization. For many, digital transformation impacts the traditional cyclical nature of business. That’s certainly been the case at Adobe, as it evolved from a maker of software that was packed up and shipped out the door to a SaaS provider that must be available and connected to customers 24/7. That demands a huge change in how IT operates. Systems cannot go down. Business processes must be flexible. IT has to be responsive.

Another change: As you become a true partner with the business (versus order taker), you need to understand and anticipate business needs so that you can empower teams with the right set of tools and platforms.

In order to accomplish that at Adobe, we’ve decided that IT needs to emulate the values of a cloud provider—to have cloud-like characteristics encoded in our DNA. Look at the value that cloud computing provides—it’s highly available, scalable, and easy to use. We want to have a cloud-like experience dealing with our IT organization. When we design IT solutions, we want to make them flexible, scalable, and easy to implement.  We want to deliver self-service solutions, effectively taking IT out of the equation with services and processes that can more effectively be managed by business stakeholders. It’s not that we want to eliminate the IT organization. We want to make implementing and consuming new technology solutions as seamless as possible for the business, while opening up opportunities for IT to look around the corners and drive business impact in new ways. 

For instance, at Adobe we are capitalizing on the incredible opportunity we have in creating what we call a data-driven operating model.  The company has no shortage of reports that give decision-makers an analysis of what has happened in the past. But the digital era is about looking ahead and making data-driven decisions about the future. So in IT we are bringing together our various streams of data—transactional data, operational data, customer behavioral data—so that we can enable our business leaders to analyze them more prescriptively and predictively.

Transforming Customer and Employee Experiences

That data can enable our company to rethink our end-to-end business processes and how we deliver value to the marketplace. Within IT, we’re always looking at where we might need to pivot—how we must change to meet the demands of tomorrow and what we need to do today to get there. We focus on the customer experience in everything that we do, and have that in the forefront of our minds. Because, when we understand the customer journey and what their pain points are, we can come up with powerful new solutions.

I’m also a huge proponent of thinking about the employee experience.  To date, we have made great progress in digitizing the front end of the customer journey.  The next era is to advance the inside and bring those key insights and best practices to the internal systems and improve employee engagement.  Something as simple as making sure that employees have a reliable and consistent experience with systems across devices and locations can have a huge impact on productivity, performance, and employee satisfaction.

We are embarking on an Employee Persona strategy where we segment our internal customer base to create the most effective interactions and experiences for each group.  We came up with four different employee personas—the builder, the communicator, the enabler, and the customer facing—along with best practices for meeting the unique needs of each subset. The builder persona, for example, includes most of our engineers, who have significant demands for collaboration and self-service tools.  The enabler comprises marketing, HR, and administrative team members who need solutions to manage and simplify their content.  We are tailoring tools and experiences to meet the singular demands of each group. One size does not fit all.

The Future is Still about People

As focused as we are on driving digital optimization and using advanced analytics to transform the business, the biggest challenge for IT in the near future will be the war for talent. Over the next five years, it is going to be critical to understand the skills that are required to remain competitive and figure out how best to nurture current staff and bring new individuals on board to meet those needs.

I’m convinced that a strong organization is a diverse one. In addition to gender and ethnic diversity, diversity of thought and experience is also key to creative problem solving and understanding. And that’s something that we continue to work on in the IT industry, particularly in certain areas like infrastructure management.

Finally, it’s critical to free up my staff to innovate and try new things. Even if you don’t succeed at times, it is always a learning experience that fuels future development. 

People remain the heart of IT, and that’s not going away any time soon. If I were to offer one piece of advice to up-and-coming IT leaders, it would be to get closer to your team. Understand your people—where they come from, how they think, what their desires are. Listen to them. Only once you do that can you match them up with the roles in which they will thrive. And that benefits them. It makes your job easier. It helps the IT organization. And it delivers value to the business. If you don’t understand who you have, you won’t get very far, no matter what new technologies or transformational opportunities exist.

 

The Takeaways 
In order for IT to become an effective partner with business, the function needs to intimately understand the business’s opportunities and challenges, key strategies, and customers.
To evolve into a next-gen IT team for the cloud business, it’s important to encompass the characteristics of a cloud provider.
The next era is to advance the employee experience with techniques and best practices used in transforming the customer experience.