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CIO interview: Sheri Rhodes, CIO, Workday

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital change for many businesses – and even for cloud software leader Workday, there are always new things to learn and introduce

Workday CIO Sheri Rhodes is an experienced IT leader who believes tech chiefs have a fantastic opportunity to have a long-term impact on the future direction of their organisations – if they work in close partnership with their business peers.

Her sentiments are backed up by global research that Workday conducted with consultant Deloitte recently, which explored how digital acceleration – prompted by the coronavirus pandemic – has influenced the work of CIOs and the perceptions of their executive peers. Almost half (49%) of IT chiefs believe they need to spend less time on IT matters and instead want the IT function to become a strategic enabler for business growth.

The report, based on a survey of more than 600 executives worldwide, reveals that the top performers, identified as progressive CIOs, represent just 8% of IT leaders. These progressive CIOs behave differently from their peers in three key areas: using data to fuel decision-making; collaborating with finance to drive transformation; and adopting an agile and cloud-led approach to business change.

“For any CIO, it’s all about thinking like a general manager and thinking about IT as a business,” says Rhodes. “So, think more holistically in terms of how the business operates, and the value that can be achieved – and that doesn’t have to be about tech specifically. If you think more like a general manager, I believe that will be the biggest motivator to grow someone’s career.”

Taking an opportunity

Rhodes joined Workday as CIO in April 2019 after two years in senior IT leadership roles with Western Union. She says the opportunity to use her two decades of management experience in a progressive company was an attractive proposition.

“The people, the culture, the technology all came together to make it the right fit,” she says. “The Workday culture is amazing in terms of both empowering employees and driving that culture from day to day. I’ve used Workday technology throughout my career, so there was some familiarity in terms of the solutions that the company offers.”

As CIO, Rhodes oversees the company’s global information technology organisation, including cloud data security and governance. She says one of the best parts of the role is the opportunity to help shape the business strategy of a fast-growing company.

“It’s a company that’s scaling,” she says. “That means needing to be agile and continuously changing, evolving and reshaping, so that we can continue to grow as rapidly as our products are being consumed.”

Supporting business growth

Rhodes reports to Workday’s chief operating officer, Jim Bozzini. She says her overall responsibility for the company’s corporate application landscape and infrastructure means her number-one priority is enabling fit-for-purpose systems and services that can support business growth.

“I love building out technologies that will scale,” she says. “Being able to manage the internal use of our products is amazing, just because Workday has so much richness when it comes to process flows and the extent of the platform and the capabilities that it touches, whether it’s planning, procurement or HR.”

“We don’t want to be changing data at every entry point for our customers. We need our data to be consistent”

Sheri Rhodes, Workday

Rhodes drives the overall enterprise data strategy, making sure the company has a 360-degree view of its customers and is using this information at the right time. As well as looking after external customers, her team takes a view on Workday’s own technology and provides feedback to the company’s product and design groups.

Another key area of input is mergers and integration, says Rhodes. Workday continues to be an acquisitive firm and has purchased technology firms such as Scout, Peakon and Adaptive Insights in recent years. Rhodes helps ensure the integration of those firms into Workday is as seamless as possible, both in terms of employees and technologies.

“Not only can I touch the employee experience, but I get to touch the customer experience as well,” she says. “And when our team touches any of the additional properties that sit outside the product – maybe creating a support case or looking for knowledge – it’s exciting to be able to have an impact.”

Exploiting data successfully

Rhodes looks back on her two-plus years at Workday and says one of her key achievements involves running a programme called Total Customer Engagement, which centres on using data to create the best possible experience for the company’s customers.

“That project was about thinking from our customers’ perspective, ‘What’s the first experience you have right when you reach out to Workday?’” she says. “It covered everything from the support experience and on to bringing automation and intelligence into how we route cases and look for knowledge across digital touch points.”

That initiative involved building out the company’s core data foundation. Rhodes’ team exploited Prism, Workday’s analytics tool for understanding data across line-of-business functions. They also created an enterprise data hub that brought together information from across the organisation as a trusted source of knowledge.

“We talked a lot about core data management, which is about making sure that all the touch points for our customers and all the data points come back to a core central repository to be validated and trusted,” she says. “We don’t want to be changing data at every entry point for our customers. We need our data to be consistent.”

Managing rapid change

The past two years have been a testing ground for the capabilities of all CIOs. In extreme circumstances caused by the pandemic, CIOs stepped up and delivered cloud-based digital transformation strategies in weeks, sometimes days. That’s something that Rhodes recognises, too.

“Being resilient in the cloud has definitely been at the top of the list in terms of CIOs being able to react to the change associated with the pandemic,” she says, adding that on-demand IT has really proved its worth to businesses in all sectors. “Implementing underlying technology built in the cloud is now key.”

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So, what has it been like leading technology during this period at Workday, a company that not only relies on on-demand IT services itself, but is also crucial to supporting the rapid cloud-led transformation that is taking place in many other businesses? The answer, says Rhodes, is interesting.

“I feel really fortunate to have been at a cloud company,” she says. “I know there are a lot of CIOs at other companies that have had to deal with a lot of older technology. For us, it was seamless when it came to the technology itself. Systems were enabled and we could work virtually.

“That’s not to say we didn’t have to make sure we were prepared – we iterated and ensured that our planning, and our investments, were right. We made sure we were spending money in the right places. And that iterative planning was a constant process. But, like I said, I feel fortunate.”

Leading new initiatives

As well as continuing to hone Workday’s cloud data security and governance, Rhodes says she will be focusing on another key project this year – the creation of a new business technology centre in India. This centre will have a wide focus and will be an important initiative for the business going forward.

“It will include Salesforce developers and configurators, and some of our data teams will be there, here in California, and in Dublin, Ireland,” she says. “Between those three sites, we will try to have global coverage and make sure that we have the right skills in our product teams, representing the requirements of both our employees and our customers.”

Rhodes says another important area of focus over the next two years will be managing the ongoing return to the office. In whatever form that return takes, she says her role as an IT leader – and that of her executive peers – will be to make sure the experience is as frictionless as possible for the company’s employees.

“That means making sure we have robust collaboration tools and that the engagement process for our employees is seamless,” she says, adding that she will also be looking to help the business hone the internal capability it needs to deliver useful products to customers.

“Another focus is building out the teams to make sure we can scale the technologies and our processes as quickly as the business,” says Rhodes. “We’ll be looking to support the digital journey for our customers and to make sure that we’re continuing to evolve that process, so that we have better insights around our data.”

Embracing the future

When it comes to building her own IT organisation, Rhodes says that one of her most important long-term priorities – like so many other CIOs – is skills and development.

“For me, that work centres on being able to retain the workforce and ensuring that you have the skills for the future, and that you’re forward-thinking in terms of embedding security in everything the company does,” she says. “So, everybody needs to have a base of security awareness and we need to build that into the technology that we’re delivering.

“We also need to make sure we have the right use of data in the right places and that we’re building the insights. I think that skills fluency across those security and data domains is hugely important. Being able to attract those skills will be key for any CIO who wants to be successful.”

Rhodes says the aim of this preparatory work will be to help give the business the IT resources it needs to flex and change. “I think creating a workforce that’s agile with skills that can cut across domains is crucial,” she says.

“My role is about creating an organisation that is as flexible and as responsive to change as possible – and doing it in a way that is able to add value on a continuous basis, so we don’t have to wait a year or two for benefits to be delivered.”

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