Adobe's CIO: IT leaders a 'catalyst' to bring together digital transformation

A recent conversation with Adobe CIO Gerri Flickinger underscores how IT leaders can and should lead digital transformation from the front by looking outward.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

How are IT leaders succeeding in adapting to today's fast-moving technology trends, especially as a) digital shifts to the very forefront of business itself and b) corporate focus moves to being consistently customer-centric across all channels?

It's clearly a major challenge to lead a large organization towards better adaptation to today's digital operating environments, yet the data is also increasingly clear that most organizations' growth opportunities lie in new digital markets and channels. To make matters acute, we now know that the top performers in most industries tend to offer superior customer experiences, especially through their technology-based products and services, according to recent data from PwC.

In a recent conversation, I explored how the CIO of one of the world's top software companies is pushing the envelope on the practice of IT in these vital areas. Certainly, IT leaders today are on the hot seat for having to deliver on an all-time high number of technology areas. It's likely that the majority of them are falling behind, playing an ever more challenging game of covering an rapidly expanding number of technology stacks, products, vendors, and solution domains, all while trying to connect them effectively to the way the business creates value for customers.

What then should IT leaders do to better activate against today's priorities?

The rise of Digital Transformation: One of the most significant IT trends in years

To help answer this question, I recently had a chance to sit down and speak with Adobe's long time CIO Gerri Flickinger about her views on how IT leaders can seize the reins and start grappling with what has become the combined IT/business mantra of today, digital transformation (see Google Trends chart above).

Adobe CIO Gerri Flickinger
Adobe CIO Gerry Flickinger
Gerri has had a long and storied tenure as CIO of Adobe, during which Adobe has seen its greatest growth and success. The average tour of duty for a CIO is much less than the 8 years that she has been at the company, which says much about her legacy so far. It also provides a unique opportunity for an IT leader to see how their long-term thinking has paid off.

From her perspective, and I would tend to agree, IT is still uniquely positioned to be the catalyst in the two strategic areas I mentioned above: A highly integrated omnichannel marketing and customer experience as well as delivering on the foundation for the next-generation of an organization's digital services, from customer self-service apps to strategic new offerings based on Internet of Things technologies.

Two Forces and Three Centers of IT Gravity

For her part, Gerri believes there are two primary forces at work in today's customer-facing IT world:

1) The user experience expectation has changed. We must now support the entire customer journey, because that journey is becoming more and more personalized based on product usage and desired communication of the customer, as well as more agnostic with devices. For example, how can we personalize inflight experiences, starting right when someone buys the ticket through to the whole in-plane experience? We must integrate back-office and purchase flow information, in-airport IT, on-aircraft systems, and incorporate an adaptive user experience based on changing conditions. In addition, many will participate, but some won't at first, so we must build flexibility and privacy into the architecture.

2) There are now three key emerging centers of gravity for the modern organization. They have come from different needs and domains. These are:

a) Transactional, historical corporate data that is in traditional IT systems and CRM solutions.

b) Marketing center of gravity, Web analytics, especially the ROI of marketing campaigns, impact of marketing activities/messaging, customer engagement behavior, and usage against Web-based assets.

c) In-product telemetry, instrumenting customer input data, and Internet of Things.

Gerri believes that IT can be the unifying element for all of these centers of gravity. Perhaps even more, a genuine leader. In fact, Gerry said to me, "CIOs must be the galvanizing force for business, policy, and process for customer experience" going forward.

The Modern Digital Organization: Marketing, IT, Data, IoT, and Digital Business

She also had several key learnings based on her experience in doing just this at Adobe, namely that IT leaders must lay down an effective enterprise architecture that will support the realization and interconnection of these centers of gravity. She also advised pro-actively developing the skillsets within the organization for the new disciplines and practices that are involved in next-generation digital methods.

She also had a message of urgency: "Don't wait too long to dive in." With market forces and technology moving so rapidly today, it's now quite easy to get stranded in the past unless sufficient imperatives are created. This is something I noted recently with the unfortunate trend of relatively flat IT budgets in an all-time high water mark of digital change, and that the CIO must articulate extremely well to other C-level leaders and the board of directors to marshal sufficient resources.

Twin Soft Challenges: Old Perceptions and Culture

Gerri noted that developing a modern architecture and data strategy are critical components to get right in today's IT foundation, as it will enable integration and support for digital marketing and new digital services:

The key IT activity today to support change is designing a go-forward architecture that can support real-time messaging, data collection, and customer personalization. SOA is now built into a lot of products today, much more than it was 5 years ago. You can't define a target architecture and be there in year, however, so make sure you're selecting technology that is flexible and open.

Two things everyone must do to succeed here: Make sure there are standards around product instrumentation. It's not possible to let everyone loose who has an idea around instrumentation, but you can make sure the CIO is someone who can bring people together to a more standardized discussion around customer and product data.

But perhaps the most challenging is undoing current expectations, prior experience, and too many uncoordinated actors. Gerri notes several pitfalls and a key leadership role:

Don't let old perception/history get in the way. Preconceiving notions of what IT does and what marketing does have to be put aside. The hardest part is the cultural transformation of the three centers of gravity.

One key warning: Avoid too much variety. It's good to let people test, but let them create 15 different methods, and you can't reasonably bring them together.

And finally, the CIO is the catalyst that brings them all together.

At the end of the discussion, I asked Gerri if she embodies these ideas in her work at Adobe, and she confirmed she did, and that many of these approaches then made it into the products once the direction was validated. It's a great example of what an effective CIO can do, and a powerful model for how we can go beyond bolt-on digital transformation. Adobe's market cap has more than double's under Gerri's watch, so this advice is worth heeding as the CIO, CMO, and CDO come together and collectively move our enterprises into the future.

Up soon: A look at how modern IT and change agents are remaking what's possible with digital transformation based on some of my latest research and case examples.

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