Engaged employees ensure personalized customer experience.

For Donna Morris, “Moving forward and not being stuck in the past is an imperative.”

As Adobe’s executive vice president of customer and employee experience, her mission is to challenge the status quo, to innovate, and to transform. In this interview with MIT Sloan Management Review guest editor Gerald C. Kane, she describes how leveraging Adobe's move to the Cloud has given both customers and employees a richer, more positive experience.

You’re executive vice president of customer and employee experience at Adobe. I’m intrigued by your title. I haven’t seen that combination before. Why did you choose to combine those areas and what do you in this role?

Adobe’s entire business is based on people. We’ve always considered people our most important asset, and our people include both our employees and our customers.

We’ve been in business for 33 years and, historically, we’ve invested a lot of energy in our employees’ experience. But we felt we needed to shift our thinking and put the same kind of emphasis on our customers’ experience, which is why we combined the customer experience team, which focuses on customer support and technical support, with our employee experience team, which focuses on creating great experiences for our employees.

You talk about creating great experiences for your employees. What does that look like at Adobe?

A great experience is something that’s meaningful. It’s impactful. It’s personalized. It could be ensuring that employees have a really good onboarding experience, or that they have the opportunity to grow and develop their careers here, or have the opportunity to build strong relationships with their manager.

But we also want our customers to have a personalized experience with Adobe. If I have to contact support, our support team is going to know who I am, what products I have, how I use them, and what issues I might have with them. As a customer, I’ll know that there’s a community at Adobe.com where I will have a personalized experience based on the products I use.

How long have these two functions been combined, and what’s the biggest impact you’ve seen as a result of combining them?

We brought the teams together officially in November 2015, so we have just over one quarter under our belts. But it wasn’t only bringing these functions together. Our customer support function had been divided into two groups. One was for customers who use our digital media products, and the other was part of our field organization to support our enterprise customers. So we’re really doing two levels of organization integration — bringing the two customer support teams together and also combining that newly integrated customer support team with the employee experience group.

Where have you seen the greatest impact from that integration?

It’s still early, but one near-term opportunity has been enabling employees to experience our products and services themselves before we send them along to our customers. While we had tried something similar in the past, it was never formalized. Next week, we’re launching what we call “Experience-a-thons,” which will be an opportunity for our employees not only to engage directly with the technology we use for our products and services but also to provide immediate feedback to our customer organization and product teams before we go live with them.

You got a lot of positive publicity a couple of years ago for making a very bold digital transformation when you changed your pricing model to a more subscription-based model. Can you give me some background on how that decision was made, and then talk about the impact it had on the culture here?

Moving to the Cloud was a bold strategy, and it clearly has had all kinds of cultural ramifications. The first thing we did in 2012 was disrupt the way that we traditionally reviewed people’s performance. We adopted what we call Check-in, which is an ongoing mechanism for ensuring that all our employees are aligned with the overall goals of the organization. It’s also a mechanism for providing them with real-time feedback. Gone are the days of annual performance reviews and ratings. That was one very big change.

Another thing we did was reassess our locations. We were a pretty dispersed as a company with more than 80 locations in 41 countries. Looking at the size of our company, you would say that growth requires that, but we contended that growth in so many locations added another layer of complexity. So, we reinvested in some locations and we pulled out of others. Today we’re down to around 68 locations. That was a very deliberate decision to ensure that our employees had the opportunity to work together in close proximity. We also felt that doing that would help scale the business more effectively.

Your decision to make that strategic change has also had sort of wide-ranging impact on how you were organized. Is that a fair statement?

That’s right, exactly. Our organization structure has changed. The capabilities that we look for across the organization, the skills development, and our investment in that development have all changed.

Let’s talk about skills for a moment. What skills do you think are the most important as we move toward a more digital workforce?

We’ve always looked for individuals who are continual learners — people who demonstrate a lot of learning agility and who are intellectually curious.

What is different are the skill sets we’re looking for. They’re not the same as what we we’ve looked for historically. Let’s look at data scientists. Traditionally, we haven’t looked for top-notch data scientists, but because of our transition to the Cloud, we now have really big data teams that give us insights into our subscriber base — how they use our products, whether they are trial users or already subscribers to the Cloud. Adobe has become a company that’s rich in data and insights, so today we have jobs that we wouldn’t have had five years ago.

Mobile is another area where our capabilities have changed. We have mobile developers and also people who are thinking about what’s next with video on mobile and how that’s going to affect advertising.

Also, as an organization continues to grow and become increasingly complex, leaders will have to demonstrate more maturity. We’re looking for leaders who come with scale, who have worked for global companies that are larger than we are, and who are used to handling complexity with simplicity. We also want leaders who can roll up their sleeves and make things happen.

When you approach potential employees and say, come work for Adobe, what prompts them to come here? Is it just a better job, or higher pay, or is there something about Adobe that lets you woo them away from their existing jobs?

Our company is all about creating rich experiences, and people feel a connection with that. We’re not as customer-facing as Facebook or Apple, but people connect with Adobe very often in their everyday life. If they’ve read a magazine, or been online, or watched a movie, or exchanged a PDF document, they’ve interacted with Adobe, and that element of working for a company that’s actively engaged in so many aspects of our everyday life is definitely of interest to candidates.

Another thing that attracts them is that we’re a pretty exciting transformation story, and people want to be part of that. There aren’t a lot of tech companies that are three decades in and have different plays for different periods of evolution. We’ve been able to adapt to revolutionary shifts in the market through our use of new technology, and I think that’s really exciting for people.

So what’s going to be the big story for Adobe or any organization that’s going to struggle with transformation over the next three to five years? You talked about how data is transforming everything now. What’s that next phase and what are you preparing for?

Mobility is going to continue to disrupt and transform the way we engage with technology. Using video, not only for collaborating but also as a learning platform, will continue to evolve and change.

Community is huge, also. How customers find each other using community is something that we’re going to continue to invest in and build out. And communities within organizations — think of them as employee networks — will continue to strengthen.

I have one more question before we wrap up. Adobe has made a lot of acquisitions over the past three to five years. How do you develop a common culture across the organization?

Our view is that every time you acquire a company, you’re not necessarily assimilating — you’re integrating. Acquiring Omniture back in 2009 was a big cultural change for us because we were building out an entirely new business. We needed to be more customer oriented. We needed to build our insights around data, and that drove a lot of changes in our culture, including the way we hire people, the skill sets that we were looking for, and how we built those skill sets.

You have to look at the cultural integration as part of the acquisition process and ask, what is it that you need to preserve to make the deal successful and what are you expecting will change?

We don’t tend to be loud and proud about things, but we do have a fantastic track record of making successful acquisitions, and I think it’s because we invest a lot of time in this area. We’re doing something right in terms of bringing people in and allowing them the opportunity to really do their best work and make an impact. I think that’s critical.

Are there employees who have gotten lost or been left behind in this transformation or have you made a concerted effort to make sure they have the skills to deal with what’s new and different?

Being a public company, we’re focused on ensuring shareholder success, so we’ve had to bring people along. We’re also a company that treats people with the utmost respect, but if they’re not able to make the journey, they go somewhere else. Moving forward and not being stuck in the past is an imperative.