Sharing the Vision to Put Customers First

How Rajiv Jain, senior VP and CTO of Corbis, got IT focused on what consumers want

The smallest ideas about how customers use our products and systems can often have the biggest impact in a Web environment. A new way to cache information wasn't even on our priority list at American Greetings Interactive (AGI) several years ago, but it moved up to the top when one of my staff members suggested it during a session I implemented for airing such ideas. Soon we were reducing storage needs and increasing performance.

CIOs have to encourage their staff to think about what little ideas can mean. At my current company, Corbis, a stock photography site, our mission is to empower creativity through accessible media: our catalog of photographs, video and multimedia. That accessibility is now achieved online. My goal has been to excite people about their ideas and make them want to come to me saying, "Did you see what this other company did? I have an idea to make it even better."

When I joined Corbis earlier this year, I realized that in order for my staff to really think about the customer, Corbis needed to think about IT as holding a place at the center of the company's financial success. I decided the way to ensure everyone at Corbis understood IT's position in the company's future was to rebrand my group from "IT" to "technology." This may seem like a little thing, but to many, the term "IT" means expensive boxes supporting the back end. And while the customer doesn't touch or see it, it's the part that makes our organization run. Renaming my group was only the start. I have also taken steps to encourage everyone to think from a customer's point of view.

The first step was to merge activities such as Web product development and e-commerce into the technology organization, rather than allowing the business to hold sole responsibility for them. Having the business gathering requirements and passing them on to the technology developers is a fine methodology, but in a Web-centric environment that thrives on short product cycles and immediate response to customer needs, it hampers the speed and effectiveness of development. It works better if everyone—from the product manager to the developer—is thinking about how the customer behaves.

I then started encouraging my staff to incorporate this business viewpoint into their own career development. As you think about your career growth, I told them, you should be coming up with two or three points to add each year on what you have done to change the technology group, the company and ultimately how Corbis interacts with customers. As staff members learn and adapt, they not only think about how they are helping the organization, they think about how they are affecting the customer. Having all these ideas in place helped me deliver three major initiatives at Corbis in my first eight months.

Encouraging people to think this way only goes so far. You need to make them live it. For example, the caching project we developed at AGI grew out of an initiative called Hack Day, which I plan to bring to Corbis.

Hack Day is a 24-hour period for developers to work on their own or in teams to build a product prototype. The date is set well in advance so they can get together on their own time to brainstorm and vet ideas. The coding and development all has to happen in the designated 24 hours.

We did this at AGI in 2005 and 2006, and it was fascinating to see how many great customer-oriented ideas surfaced: ideas that grew through interaction, observation and chatter in the halls. No matter what company you're in, you need to think about the customers' needs, desires and their interaction with your products and services.

Rajiv Jain is senior VP and CTO at Corbis, and a member of the CIO Executive Council. To learn more, visit council.cio.com.

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This story, "Sharing the Vision to Put Customers First" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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