Women in Architecture Spotlight – Susan Saunders

Featured in this week’s spotlight is Susan Saunders, Senior Enterprise Architect of WPP – Strategy & Architecture.

Saunders is responsible for Big Picture Architecture, Architecture Governance and dual facilitator of WPP Architecture Community of Practice. She has benefitted from a breath of cross-industry experience, in both highly regulated and non-regulated industries including pharma, chemical, medical devices, plus retail, construction and more latterly media and advertising, working in business and enterprise architecture roles.

Saunders is best described as bringing a ‘steady hand’ to the helm to deliver architecture governance and framework fundamentals and navigating safely the uncharted and turbulent organizational environments. She truly embraces that ‘growth mindset’ by onboarding new concepts such as Enterprise co-design and applying Generative AI to something as ordinary as architecture artefacts.

Following below, she shares some of her insights about her successful career and what she sees in the future.

Question: How did you get your start in the industry?

Answer: My unintentional entry into Architecture commenced when I was encouraged to apply for an ‘internal’ opportunity as the Architect for a key Supply Chain programme for the major Pharma company I was working for. Having held former IT positions in that organisation, including integration consultant for strategic applications, I was successful in becoming their Senior Architect for Supply Chain & Logistics. There’s no substitute for a broad experience, traversing IT roles builds competencies and is a great foundation for Enterprise Architecture.  My background is a business degree, with a focus on IT systems design and business analysis and business architecture is a particular passion for me. For anyone deciding on an architecture career, it is a great discipline to enable transfer of value cross differing industries and I’m pleased to have applied relevant skills across Pharma, FCMG, medical devices, chemicals, construction and most recently advertising and media.

Q: What is your current responsibility and what is your typical day like?

A: I’m currently Senior Enterprise Architect, responsible for Strategy and Architecture Governance and Big Picture Architecture. This comprises establishing and operating both the Architecture Governance across the company and co-facilitating Architecture Community for one of the biggest Creative Media and Advertising organsiation’s – WPP. We are currently on a transformation path to World Class IT for IT and Business Functions. Life is busy! WPP is made up of thousands of sub-companies (Agencies), that gravitate around the ‘Group’ like a solar system.

My current role has included designing, deploying and now, continuously simplifying centralised architecture governance, on a scale I haven’t experienced before. WPP has a fractal enterprise model at the point of delivery of our services to external clients – they require individuality and immediate attention. Key for governance is agility and fast responses, whilst maintaining the ‘golden thread’ of architecture to achieve a simplified IT application portfolio. Developing a centralised but democratised architecture governance operation has been necessary, taking a balanced approach and keeping many plates spinning in tandem, is the daily theme.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: I love the variety that WPP offers and the fact it encourages a ‘growth mindset’ and allows everyone to ride the ‘architecture elevator’.  One day you are taking a helicopter view working on co-design of the enterprise, the next day you are qualifying as a prompt engineer to really understand what Generative AI can do to improve productivity in development of architecture design artefacts.  Our organization thrives on the creatively of its people across all disciplines, so encouraging self-initiated growth, is key and this manifests in the innovative work we contribute to.

Q: What trends in architecture are you looking out for the rest of 2023 and 2024?

A: Rather than looking out for a trend, we’ve been absolutely swept up by the current ‘wave’ of  Generative AI. This has covered the Creative Media and Advertising industry like a tsunami. The key is in the word ‘generative’, which means it is capable of creating material and ideas upon which our creative agencies can rapidly base new client products and services. It is a ‘new era’ for this industry, opening many opportunities, consequently it has been an absolute focus this year for architecture in WPP. The governance team’s been involved in the development of functional assurance processes and vendor evaluation criteria for Generative AI models. This has been vital to enabling rapid use of these models by our creative agencies. There are many different ‘models’, delivering creative outputs ranging from scripts, through to ‘deep fakes’ (true copies of humans and their voices), so the scope has been very challenging. WPP are targeting a ‘responsible use’ approach, rather than applying a stifling governance wrapper. This enables our creative technical agencies to have the freedom of use as quickly as possible with the least risk.

The other trend I’m also really looking forward to embracing is Co-Enterprise Design. This focuses on holistic Enterprise Design, with equal focus on Organisation Identity, Experience Design and Business Architecture. The aim of this approach is getting a balance between customer focus and functional operation and the company ‘branding’. I’m looking forward to identifying an opportunity to allow our organisation to add value using this approach.

Q: What is one thing we can do to support or increase the women in architecture?

A: Women in architecture are acknowledged for many skills, especially business relationship management, facilitation skills and getting things done. However, the art of ‘being heard’, especially in certain forums, is often a difficult skill to master. How many times have ‘you’ been in a situation when a point is made by a female participant that brushed over and later ‘re-used’ with seemingly great impact… was it the timing of delivery; context or strength of voice, that landed that same point with accolades. We could argue of course, that is not just a skill for women or architects, however initiating a focus group at WIA on acquiring these skills, could be very impactful for individuals.  Learning from other women’s success is key and something we can all contribute to, and benefit from.