Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfesson started writing about the impact of AI and machine learning (ML) almost a decade ago. They teach at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and their early books, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” and “Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy,” provided deep insights into how the era we live in would unfold. We saw a lot of their ideas on display recently at TrailHeaDX Salesforce’s developers’ conference in San Francisco.
In a recent interview with McKinsey, McAfee says that few executives, even the ones pursuing digital futures for their organizations, have sized up the potential impacts,
Even though they see a lot of disruption coming, I still think that many really smart, well-managed companies are underestimating the scale, scope, and speed of disruption this time around.
Perhaps the greatest challenge all leaders face is better separating the threats from mirages or the things that will and won’t change about running a business in light of advanced technologies, for instance,
Articulating a compelling vision that will attract talent, customers, and stakeholders; being true to that vision; and managing the culture that you’ve created to go tackle those visions. Those are deeply human skills, and leaders who are good at them are going to become even more valuable.
The clear implication is that machines are doing the rote work and humans have to gravitate to the higher value add activities. That’s what makes Salesforce and TrailheaDX so interesting. From the outset the founders, Marc Benioff and Parker Harris, intuitively understood the importance of culture-building. They’ve always strived to make the business about something bigger than making money or even building a great company.
We all know about the company’s famous 1:1:1 business model in which it donates one percent of its profit, product, and time to charitable causes. While the fundamentals of the model haven’t changed, perhaps in a nod to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Salesforce has broadened the culture quest to encompass as much of the outside world that’s relevant to its mission as possible.
They now talk about the Ohana, a Hawaiian word for family and like any well functioning family, they concentrate on the success of their members. This translates into the vision of Salesforce’s Trailhead as a training vehicle for users but more broadly as an approach to helping people develop the skills needed to secure good paying middle-class jobs.
Fundamentally, Salesforce may be a very successful technology company but it is also a strong culture play. In fact, the company and its products apply McAfee’s digital disruption analysis well. Products like Einstein and the Analytics Cloud help customers to grow into a world of relationships dependent on analysis and statistics rather than gut instinct while simultaneously offering a vision of a culture focusing on the customer and the employee.
All of this came into focus at TrailHeaDX conference in San Francisco. Trailhead, the product, is a self-paced learning and certification environment that teaches all levels of users about the Salesforce platform, Lightning. The platform offers users ways to develop and maintain systems based on no code, some code, or a lot of code depending on the task and the user’s ability.
But more than this, the digital disruption has enabled app developers to take much of the work out of being a customer. We used to talk a lot about the customer experience until we learned that customers value plain old vanilla competency in their dealings with us and not a grand show. It was a subtle change and we discovered we can only be really good at the blocking and tackling if we can anticipate customers’ needs which exposed the need for AI and ML. By successfully anticipating customers we can shorten the interaction time and demonstrate our competency.
But note that this change requires building capabilities into software which is not trivial and is, frankly, best done by the software itself and not a coder. That’s why the platform has become such an integral part of any software vendor’s arsenal. It’s also why something like Trailhead has become a vital part of Salesforce’s overall offering.
My two bits
It all fits together but we aren’t at our destination yet. The digital disruption should be considered as the mountain we need to climb before we get to the promised land. Platform technology frees us by generating running code and splicing together analytics, process flow, and quite a bit more. With our new freedom we can devote more resources to dealing with the interpersonal parts of customer relationships that people are good at and machines are not. It would be a mistake to think that we can reap a technology dividend by simply removing people from all of our processes. That’s why, to do the people part we need a people focused culture within a business and this includes the people we call employees.
So, in my mind, TrailHeaDX was a lot more than a developers’ conference. It certainly was that but if that’s all you got from it, next time bring your boss and culture visionaries because even if they can’t write a line of code, the culture part is large.
Adam Smith famously referred to “the invisible hand” of the free market in his landmark book “The Wealth of Nations” and with that made himself one of the very first political economists. Smith’s observation was so on point that today most of us assume markets run through the agency of individuals pursuing their enlightened self-interests. A lot of this drove the evolution of CRM as a tool for tracking customers.
If you pay attention today you can notice a not-so-invisible hand functioning in multiple areas. For instance, if you’ve been following the aftermath of the school shooting in Florida, you know that an activated group of kids and adults nationwide has begun a movement to get something done about gun safety. The #MeToo movement in which women are banding together to change the workplace by eliminating sexual harassment is another, and so is the Black Lives Matter movement. But you can argue that all of them are free market responses in that they arose from the grass roots without much prompting from elite power centers.
What each has in common is the initiative by engaged individuals to cause change in what are essentially marketplaces in the broadest conception of that term. Much closer to home, even in the technology world we’re seeing the stirrings of user dissatisfaction with social media and it’s not clear where this will go. Its impact on CRM could be big because social has become one of the key channels linking vendors and customers.
A recent article in Wired, “Facebook Doesn’t Know How Many People Followed Russians on Instagram” by Issie Lapowsky, documents Facebook’s foot dragging on producing information for the various inquiries surrounding the 2016 American election. Jonathan Albright of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, has been looking at the details and producing information that’s uncomfortable to Facebook. He’s been quoted in Wired, The New York Times and elsewhere.
Albright’s work has uncovered many things concerning Facebook’s approach to the investigation which you might call passive aggressive. For instance, when asked why it had not produced information about how many people had seen Instagram information produced by Russian operated troll accounts, a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said, “We have not been asked to provide that information.” So little curiosity…
It’s not necessary to repeat the article here; it’s worth reading but that’s your call. It documents how Facebook has so far assisted investigators but only if they ask the right questions. The final paragraph summarizes this point,
Facebook has shown consistent reticence in detailing how these trolls infiltrated its platform and who that propaganda reached. They’ve repeatedly had to correct prior statements about the reach of these ads and accounts. By working with outside researchers like Albright, the company might be able to paint a more complete picture, but Facebook has been unwilling to open its data up to researchers.
It’s not necessary to re-examine every time Facebook denied their involvement or disputed findings that upwards of 150 million people saw content from the Russians or that all the US intelligence services agree that the Russians did indeed hack the election. That’s all very interesting from another journalistic angle but not this one.
The totality of Facebook’s unwitting involvement in the hack plus its efforts to downplay their importance brings up a bigger issue for Facebook, and by extension all social media: How useful are Facebook and social media generally considering the Russian hacks?
A glib answer might be that it doesn’t have to be terribly useful because it’s free and users get whatever utility they can from using it. But that misses the point. If Facebook’s utility is small or especially if it’s disputable, its business model would be in serious trouble.
Social media’s primary product has always been the user. It is valuable to each of us when we use it to gather information about our personal grafs and we knowingly pay an in-kind fee by letting social sites collect data about us, which they can then sell to advertisers. It’s a classic network effect—the greater the audience the more valuable the output of its data.
But what happens if the veracity of information on social media is in doubt? Social media’s value is directly proportional to its veracity and if one can doubt that veracity it might be prudent to seek alternatives. People and corporations that invest heavily in using social media’s information might begin doubting if their investments deliver value.
So far Facebook’s approach to the hacking scandal has been to deny and ignore it only admitting something when there’s no other choice. This presents another problem associated with stonewalling—dissipating trust. However unpleasant the facts, the more a party tries to ignore or hide them the lower the market’s trust in that entity and the greater the opening for a disruptor.
The truth value of what people put up on the networks and what they believe about the truthfulness of others’ posts makes social media’s world go around. That truth is what makes some people spend hours a day surfing the sites and it’s what makes advertisers purchase ads. Once that trust begins to erode, even a little, the business model can begin to unravel.
Whoever is advising Facebook on its strategy should reconsider. It’s human nature to not enjoy dealing with criticism and serious accusations. But impinging the free flow of information won’t solve the problem. Free markets depend on transparency and Facebook is a free market of ideas. If it stops being that, or even if people stop believing it, there’s no reason for them to continue using it.
Salesforce announced today that it had finalized its acquisition of MuleSoft a company specializing in software integration. The companies announced their intent back in March raising eyebrows when the price of the merger, $6.5 billion, was announced.
The cost of the acquisition is roughly two thirds of Salesforce’s current annual revenues and is exclusive of other mergers that the company has engaged in whose prices ranged from millions to billions. The announcement caused a fair amount of wonder and consternation in some quarters because of its cost and because MuleSoft was seen as, forgive this please, a one-trick pony.
Fair enough, but one can also say that the price reflects value pricing for the technology and not simply a more familiar cost-plus-some-profit-margin, for a very good reason. Companies buy other companies as a short circuit for conducting costly and time-consuming research and development and that’s where the value pricing comes in. Buying a company drastically shortens time to market.
Salesforce is one of the companies in the vanguard of the cloud computing revolution which, in a few years, will leave us with a global information utility that looks superficially like electricity or telecommunications but will be so much more. We’re already seeing the outlines taking shape as multiple vendors continue to deploy scores of datacenters around the world to handle the load.
This should be seen as a break with our information technology past when we relied on a corporate datacenter or a small regional cloud infrastructure. It is the commoditization of information and the crowning achievement of the post-World War II evolution of the information industry.
So back to MuleSoft. In a heterogeneous world with multiple competing and sometimes cooperating information utilities the need for integration is assumed. No matter how any vendor tries to convince the world that it should just run every app it makes, there will always be a need for integration. Moreover, our patience with the integration process will continue to decline. Salesforce has now built up an Integration Cloud for that contingency and it looks like MuleSoft is an important part of it.
As for cost, there was an article in the business press recently comparing management styles that focus on cost vs. those focusing on opportunity. I don’t know where it is but the important part is that those who focus on opportunity do better in the real world than the others. So in my mind the question for all parties both inside and outside of Salesforce isn’t the cost of the acquisition but how it will be used. We’ll have to wait for results but Salesforce’s track record is pretty good in this regard.