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.
The software industry has changed materially since the introduction of cloud computing at the turn of the century in ways that we might too easily forget. Fundamentally, for all its promise, software was once an impediment to business and that began to change after Y2K. You need only recall the great difficulty the business world went through to enable systems to capture four-digit years at the turn of the century. The changeover imperiled more than one large corporation and made many skeptical of big software projects.
Nearly 20 years ago when you bought software, it was far less flexible than today. I once knew a CRM company that had three products for various stages of the company lifecycle and none of the products was interchangeable. A small company with visions of becoming large had to make a Hobson’s choice. It could buy a lower capacity product because that it could afford with an inevitable upgrade later. Or it could buy more software than needed and hope to into it. The upgrade almost always involved ripping and replacing software, converting data, and retraining users.
Today, because software is available by the seat-month, it’s no trouble to start small and grow organically even adding functionality as the need arises, a big difference that saves time and effort as well as costs.
Salesforce revealed The latest example of this enhanced scalability today. First announced at Dreamforce, the new Salesforce Essentials is a scalable set of sales and service solutions aimed at the SMB market. But it’s not a stripped-down version or a unique solution that you’ll someday have to throw away when your needs change. The Essentials solutions are built on the Salesforce Lightning Platform just like the rest of the Salesforce offering. So as needs change, users can simply add functionality and here’s also no need to convert data.
Designed for high usability with key features like Einstein AI built in, Essentials is both a complete and an expandable one. With Einstein users can get insights from their data in the same way as users of the rest of the Salesforce suite. The AppExchange, with its thousands of platform native applications, is also accessible making it possible to fine tune even a small instance of Essentials.
This approach is a good bet for two kinds of businesses, small businesses and boutiques, each has different software needs that essentials can help with. True small businesses may need few functions and record keeping is a big deal. Giving employees a way to understand the sales team’s relationship with the customer is critical to enabling the support group to do its job professionally and efficiently.
Many boutique businesses may have small headcount but they still have sophisticated business processes involving many millions of dollars’ worth of activity. For example, independent financial advisors might only need a few seats, but they still have sophisticated processes to administer and they sometimes need integration with a variety of applications from other providers in the industry. They may also wish to augment their Salesforce instances with applications from the Small Business Hub, part of the AppExchange to fully support their customers. Salesforce Essentials gives them a path for doing all of this without costing a fortune or spending many months knitting systems together. Finally, Trailhead, the Salesforce’s interactive learning environment helps guide users through setup and first use.
My two bits
Today’s Salesforce announcement is certainly interesting from a product perspective. But it’s also a clear demonstration that over time, software technology has become more automated, less costly, and more attuned to business. I haven’t seen any economic analyses, but it seems logical that the maturation of software over the last two decades plays some role in our global ability to innovate and bring new businesses to market in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of the older paradigm. It takes less capital to spin up a business today than ever before and software efficiencies are a major cause.
Of course, many businesses will fail for a variety of reasons; that happens all the time. But the cost and complexity of technology is no longer a gating factor in business development and that’s a profound improvement.