Digital disruptions to the workplace—what every CIO should be thinking about

By Tom Keiser

Published October 28, 2016
Last modified October 28, 2016

During my time as CIO of Gap, Inc. I had the opportunity to serve as the advisory chair for the Fisher CIO Leadership Program. The program was originally founded by Gap’s founder, Don Fisher, through the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley with the purpose of advancing the development of technology leaders. Once a year, the program hosts a full-day event for CIOs, co-sponsored by Gartner, focused on innovation. The day finishes with a dinner and ceremony awarding a CIO a lifetime achievement award. This year’s award winner was Karenann Terrell, EVP and CIO of Wal-Mart.

I’m now CIO at Zendesk and have had the opportunity to rejoin the program. As part of the annual event a few weeks ago, I joined a panel discussion on how CIOs and senior IT leaders can drive positive disruption, instead of only reacting to disruption from outside influences. The panel included CIOs and retired executives from Intel, Merrill Lynch, and Nasdaq and was facilitated by Dale Kutnik, SVP, Emeritus and Distinguished analyst at Gartner. We covered a lot of ground, but one thing was evident: the future looks a lot different from the past.

Making the move from on-premise to SaaS
CIOs are under tremendous pressure to bring speed and agility to their businesses, as most are feeling some form of disruptive competitive pressure or are at least paranoid that disruption to their industry is coming soon. CEOs want to transition their business models to stay ahead of competition but frequently run into systems and processes that were built for another era—the opposite of agile or fast. Most companies are dragging around large, proprietary on-premise systems and ERPs that were deployed 5+ years ago for great business reasons, but now have become an obsolete boat anchor against agility. This frustrates CEOs and puts their company at risk.

My personal transition from CIO of a large specialty retailer to the CIO of a SaaS-based software company has opened my eyes to what it means to run your business completely on cloud-based software. The speed at which you can deploy new capabilities and change direction on technology decisions is truly liberating. The ability to quickly and massively scale processing and storage is breathtaking for someone who lived through the very constrained and expensive world of retail systems in the 90s and 2000s. Gone are the 3-5 year asset and depreciation discussions between CIOs and CFOs. Now these conversations are about monthly subscription costs. If you don’t use it, don’t pay for it—better products keep emerging that are easy to turn on and off, and that don’t require painful upgrades every few years. As a CIO, there’s no longer a need to spend time defending decisions you made years ago. Now, you transition and go. And the truth is, your employees and customers want to be on modern tools.

CIOs today who haven’t made the move to SaaS have a great opportunity to rethink their technology stack and business processes, and then to literally leap forward to modern SaaS software for speed and agility. SaaS means more point solutions and less monolithic integrated systems, so you need very strong data architecture and integration architecture. There is risk for the business in stepping away from ERP systems that you’ve built years of business rules and processes into, and which have given you stability and control. But it’s a false security—the much greater risk is to find your business disrupted and not have the agility to change. If business leaders do not understand this risk, then the CIO is in for a very slow and likely hopeless transition.

For those that haven’t yet made this transition, there are a series of early wins you can get with simple employee services like messaging for teams, video, storage, and, of course, our own Zendesk Support product. It’s amazing how quickly you can deploy, drive adoption, and enable productivity.

Every business today, no matter what industry, is in the technology business. Together with your product and brand identity, the technology your business operates on is an essential element in your ability to stay relevant and to keep pace with competition.

Disruptions that lie ahead
Cloud-based services and software have disrupted many industries but, from a CIO-standpoint, we know more disruption is coming. We’re looking ahead and thinking about virtual reality and augmented reality, and how that impacts the workforce. The Internet of Things (ioT) is coming into our work space. We’ll be dealing with an incredible amount of sensors and data, and will be pushing more machine learning and automation, both in the workplace and in our private lives. The consensus, as a panel, is that we’re not yet sure what the connection is between IT and augmented and virtual reality, but we know that there’s going to be one. Here at Zendesk, my team is thinking about our network, how we manage storage, analytics, and about data security as we rapidly scale as a company and contemplate the explosion of data that is coming. We’re keeping a pulse on the technologies employees are using and how they’re evolving to be sure we’re architected to support what’s coming next.

Every company sits in a different space and with different objectives, and every industry has different things disrupting them. The financial services industry, for example, was impacted by the advent of ATM machines and credit cards, which suddenly automated whole areas of the business. Now algorithmic-driven automated financial advisors are roiling that industry. What we all have in common, however, is that disruptions have primarily been digitally-driven.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and bots
A large part of our CIO conversations are, and will continue to be, around how we can drive productivity and value. For example, how do we scale at a lower cost? At Zendesk, we’re seeing this in support functions, and our more advanced customers are starting to apply AI, machine learning, and bots to all aspects of their business. Modern technology will enable us to save our time and effort—and our best people’s time and effort—for driving more productivity and creativity into different job functions instead of just keeping things alive and operational.

As an example, Zendesk is growing very rapidly and hiring many engineers and sales folks into our multiple global offices. Our IT team is looking at the whole series of things that happen with a new hire and how we get them fully productive with as few touches as possible. Same for when someone exits the company. Or when an employee requests new technology. The easy answer is to scale by hiring lots of support resources. The challenge is to get your organization into a mindset of productivity, automation, and removing friction for speed. Once you have that mindset in your organization, and the tooling, there are an endless number of repeatable processes that can be automated.

Growing businesses trying to scale have to think about how to support growth without adding an unlimited number of people. Ask yourself: How do you take the time to leverage technology and build in robotics? How can you build in analytics and machine learning to continue gathering valuable information? Where is it vital to keep a human at a particular interaction point? The goal isn’t to eliminate your workforce—it’s to enable them to do more exciting, innovative work.

The great news, and a key take-away, is that CIOs no longer need to spend so much time wrangling data out of systems. Data is easily at hand when we adopt modern technologies and allow ourselves the flexibility to quickly change course. The challenge then becomes: What will we do with this information? How can we act on it and use it to drive productivity and, ultimately, more value for our companies?


Driving out digital disrupters is also the focus of a recent report by Gartner. Learn more about the importance of deploying CRM technology that reflects customer empathy to help keep disruption at bay.