Workday CIO: What We’re Doing to Respond to a Changing World

Workday CIO Sheri Rhodes recently talked with Miriam McLemore, AWS enterprise strategist, as a guest on AWS’s Conversation with Leaders series. Rhodes discussed how the pandemic increased collaboration, why we shifted to a product-focused IT operating model, and how our Workday on Workday approach benefits customers.

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One of the things I enjoy most about my role is the opportunity to connect with and learn from fellow IT and business leaders. This has been especially valuable since the pandemic forced businesses to adapt to rapid and unexpected change at an even greater pace. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Miriam McLemore, an AWS enterprise strategist, as a guest on AWS’s Conversation with Leaders series, to discuss tactics we’ve employed at Workday to enable our own response to an increasingly unpredictable world. 

Here are some of the key takeaways from what I shared during our conversation.

Collaborating to Deliver Results

Collaboration happens at all levels of an organization. For my team, at a stakeholder level, it starts with the business value that IT can bring to the table. That means focusing on the business process and then introducing the technology to add value where we need to solve the biggest problems first. 

Our focus, from an overall stakeholder standpoint, is to rally around objectives and key results (OKRs), which are shared goals that provide solid cross-functional alignment across teams. OKRs also helps us ensure that we have the same goals and are evaluating the same metrics, keeping them in pace with each other in terms of delivery and prioritization.

From a C-suite perspective, collaboration is about leaning in with our business counterparts to make sure we're focused on the right problems, processes, and go-forward strategies. We support these goals by embracing an agile, lean startup culture that moves swiftly. And it’s important that everyone on the team has the right to flexibility within the architecture as well as the talent within our teams. In other words, team members are empowered to use technical and human resources in innovative ways.

In the case of the onset of COVID-19, when things were changing rapidly, we had to embrace our global crisis management processes, which required stakeholders from across the entire organization. Fortunately we had a playbook and a framework to operate against, which helped our in-house experts and our executives come together and focus on the right things, such as closing our quarter virtually and keeping employees informed about COVID-19. It also drove increased collaboration in specific areas such as financial investments. 

While I had previously worked closely with our President and CFO Robynne Sisco, this situation brought us closer. Together, we had to make tough prioritization decisions, and those conversations are ongoing, always centering us on our biggest priorities.

Shifting From Project-Based Work to a Product-Based Mindset

An IT operating model is how we do our work. A well-defined and articulated operating model is the bridge between strategy and day-to-day operations. This guides the team, provides the context, and enables the behaviors needed to achieve our strategy and vision. For us, we organize around products instead of projects so we can be more agile. A product is a capability or portion of a capability, brought to life through technology, business process, and customer experience. By working this way, we work more like a product engineering organization with product owners, continuous planning, and end-to-end lifecycle management of a product, but this wasn’t always the case. 

During my first year at Workday, we operated predominantly in a waterfall mode. I aspired to shift to a more agile mindset, which meant changing the operating model, and this wasn't just about an IT change. It was a chance to have the business join this change management plan and buy into the process because they are product owners who help define what we're solving for via technology. Making sure we had the right model in place to be successful was really important.

The true value of our more agile operating model is that now we can keep pace with ongoing changes. We're not always starting and stopping. We have teams filled with experts around a product domain, so we don't have to onboard or offboard contractors, and that helps us keep year-round continuity. This has sped up our response times, enabled us to keep subject matter expertise of the product domains and other areas in-house, and helped us be more responsive to the business. This flexibility also enables us to adjust priorities more easily as changes come about.

Prioritizing a Customer Zero Program

The one indisputable way to truly know your customer is to be your customer. Internally we call this team WoW, which stands for Workday on Workday. Part of our business technology team, they lead the internal deployment of our products across the application suite, ensuring we ourselves use the products we offer to our customers. And although we’ve been our own customer since Workday had only 200 employees, we’ve scaled the tools and applications with us as we’ve grown to over 13,000 employees. Similar to our customers, we haven't had to redeploy our solutions because upgrades are continually delivered as part of our ongoing service. 

One of the biggest benefits from the WoW program is that we use employee feedback to improve the overall customer experience. It helps with customer stickiness in terms of product innovation and overarching market positioning for the products. We also actively participate in design partner groups and pre-general availability meetings, which give us the opportunity to influence the product direction, strategy, and roadmap. 

Looking Ahead

As we start to emerge from the pandemic, we have exciting opportunities from both a leadership and technology perspective. As leaders, it’s important to keep empathy and fun at the forefront. The last year has made us better leaders who are more sensitive to this, and building a strong culture with a diversity of talent and ideas is hugely important. We’ve also become much better communicators—with global teams working remotely, being consistent with multiple channels is very important. 

From a technology perspective, utilizing new product offerings and go-to-market strategies that will enable scalability and support the return to the workplace and new hybrid environment will be important for CIOs. This means taking the time to ask what the next normal looks like and consider what pressures this might bring for IT leaders. Understanding the broader landscape will then help IT come to the table with more responsive technologies for these environments. 

Finally, making sure your technology is ready to scale and adapt as the world around us keeps changing—having an agile architecture, making sure security is built in, and making sure our technology is extensible—is going to be the major pivot point for CIOs. I think this last year proved that beyond a doubt.

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