Adobe CIO Stoddard: AI bots can ‘cut toil,’ reduce demands for IT help

You may only know Adobe as the Photoshop company, but it has spent years integrating AI into its products, as well as its internal business processes. …

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While average people know Adobe mostly as the company behind Photoshop, their consumption of digital and printed content created by Adobe apps is incalculable, thanks largely to its Creative Cloud of increasingly AI-driven professional applications. So Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard’s fireside chat at VentureBeat’s Transform 2020 digital conference was of special interest today, as the senior executive spoke with VentureBeat’s Hari Sivaraman about best practices in integrating AI into businesses — something Adobe was handling seamlessly well before AI became a buzzword.

In the past, Stoddard noted, CIOs had quiet roles at companies, handling back office functions and putting out IT fires, but that’s changed a lot in the past few years: CIOs have moved into leadership positions, driving strategic direction while also managing the reliability and scalability of a company’s computing solutions. For Stoddard, that’s meant thinking about how automation and AI can transform the business and improve internal efficiency, including reinventing the classic IT department to “take IT out of the equation” for people within the business.

Pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic as a situation where Adobe had to pivot from gathering in offices to working from home in the span of a weekend, Stoddard said that AI had helped the company manage what could have been impractically numerous IT requests. Adobe deployed an AI/ML chatbot to answer employee questions, using natural language processing to interpret requests, then either provide answers or link to knowledge base articles. By using email and chatbots rather than phone calls to IT, the company cut its typical 10-hour response time down to 1 hour, a 90% improvement.

Chatbots are likely to become a primary form of business communication, Stoddard said, as people become more comfortable using them, and Adobe is working with companies to co-develop chatbots that can understand questions to provide first-level customer service. Going forward, chatbots could also help with robotic process automation, to help direct problem solving that way.

In addition to triaging questions, Adobe is also using AI/ML bots to “eliminate toil,” Stoddard explained, improving overall business efficiency. An AI-based catalog ordering system for hardware eliminated around 76% of the work of creating purchase orders, Stoddard said, while a contract creation system eliminated about 82% of the prior workload. One can imagine how much time Adobe saved its own employees using AI systems that intelligently auto-populated forms rather than demanding repetitive re-entry of already known information, to say nothing of the potential of deploying similar solutions to paying customers.

Stoddard identified employee fear of change as a potential concern as organizations adopt AI, and said that bots should be thought of as additional virtual workers to handle mundane tasks — not replacing humans, as Adobe has noted in the past, but rather enabling them to focus on value-added activities. Good change management, she said, includes giving employees the opportunity to experiment with new technologies in a safe space. If people have time to learn, think about, and become comfortable with AI solutions, they’ll quickly determine what they can now do on their own. To do this, an organization needs to be bold enough to give employees toolkits rather than mandates, while applying the right governance as people address their own problems.

The apparent end goal of these changes is to reduce or eliminate queues for IT services, but not to kill IT departments. In the past, Stoddard explained, IT departments worked on projects to solve issues, and employees had to wait in line for IT staff to become available to address each problem. Going forward, she said, AI and ML will used to solve systemic problems automatically, solving the IT bottleneck by giving people streamlined solutions or the self-service tools they need to fix issues.

During a Q&A session, Stoddard was asked what hurdles might stand in the way of a company adopting conversational AI. She explained that Adobe started small, to help people understand how AI works and become comfortable with it, rather than starting so large that the system might be intimidating and cause people not to use it — a wise approach both in terms of user adoption, and in creating AI IT projects that don’t try to bite off more than they can chew.

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