As business leaders we’re used to being prepared for the future, it’s simply part of how we work. But when that future is thrown into uncertainty how do we react? With clarity and confidence. That was the outtake from Salesforce’s recent executive roundtable ‘Up at Night’, where we discussed the challenges faced as we work to accelerate and deliver the digital imperative in our companies.

Joining me for the session were two exceptional and insightful visionaries - my colleague Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce, R ‘Ray’ Wang, Principal Analyst and Founder, Constellation Research and, most importantly, forward-thinking business leaders from some of the world’s largest companies. Here are some of the key topics we discussed.


What are the key themes as we move at breakneck speed in terms of digital transformation?

Ray’s optimistic take on this was that the difficulties we’ve been facing through the pandemic will actually work to our benefit - it will give us a chance to reset.

We need to move beyond the reaction to the pandemic and look at what we can do in its aftermath. He believes it all comes down to skills - the key skills that we need in order to move forward and how we harness them in order to make the most of the reset.

The second theme that Ray focused on was that of Customer Experience. He argued that real success in CX happens when the customer is almost oblivious - that it should always be running in the background calmly steering customers towards the best action. It’s not about your CX AI constantly asking questions, it’s about it understanding and guiding.

A senior exec from a top professional services company agreed but made the key point that these changes are only as good as the pace of culture change that one can drive within the organisation.


Why is the battle for data supremacy so important?

We’re all aware of the importance of data in everything we do, but often we don’t stop to consider what we want out of that data. Ray pointed out that in this battle for ‘data supremacy’ humans are at somewhat of a disadvantage. We can make a decision in a second, but it can take weeks to get it through a management committee. Machines, on the other hand, can make decisions a thousand times each second. But the key point in all of these decisions, whether human or machine, is to start with the business questions you want to ask, then look for the data.

A CTO at a multinational CPG company argued for the democratisation of data. He was clear on the point that, particularly within global organisations, the more people that can access data the better the outcomes and growth. It’s a really valuable point, that perhaps the battle for data supremacy should be reframed as a battle for data democracy.


What exactly is decision velocity?

Ray introduced the concept of decision velocity and its importance to success. He believes that decision velocity - not just how quickly we make them, but how good those decisions are, are driven by three things - analytics, automation and AI.

The analytics aspect is simple, it’s about the business questions we’re looking for answers to. It is about starting in the right place - by understanding that all these business metrics are interconnected and avoiding asking questions in a silo, you’re off to a good start.

Next, it’s how do we automate collecting the data that will answer that question and then finally how can we get AI to work to deliver the best solution to the problem.

Both Ray and Vala agreed, automation isn’t enough on its own - it’s really important to understand when to introduce the human touch. Vala pointed to the frequent failure of chatbots in customer service organisations, not because people hate interacting with them, but because they can’t always get to a human when they need to. It’s vitally important not to lose trust and the way to do that is to retain a level of accessibility and empathy.


Speed or caution?

Back to the breakneck speed of digital transformation that we started with. There’s no escaping this question and all our contributors had slightly different viewpoints.

A CTO at a global professional services firm made the reasoned point that to some extent when it comes to digital transformation it isn’t a level playing field. While every organisation will talk in terms of agility and transformation in reality the newer, smaller entrants to the market have the edge - simply by virtue of being smaller. Larger organisations might struggle to balance agility and innovation with compliance for example. Ray pointed out, however, that larger organisations have the ability to partner with emerging tech vendors earlier - often in an exclusive arrangement. So it’s winner takes all at the high end and the low end - leaving the organisations in the middle potentially most at risk.


How do you create the space for innovation in a data-driven culture?

This was perhaps the question that created the greatest discussion of the roundtable. A CEO of a leading energy company made the point that we’re all on board with making more confident, data guided and evidence based decisions. But how do we allow for insight and innovation in the right place? It’s certainly true that we can all recall instances where success happened as a result of sticking to insight over data, uncomfortable though that is to admit. One director at a multinational insurance company warmed to this theme, pointing out that the best sales people tend to be very instinctive, knowing when to push and when to ease off. Our professional services representative argued that innovation can come from anywhere and it’s important to provide both systems and the time to let it flourish. Ray, as you would expect was straight up on his beliefs around the issue, and I’ll quote him directly here:

“The art is to bring teams together, for example getting the operational team to understand the innovation team and the exponential team. It takes a mix of internal and external shareholders to build that - it needs finesse. This is the first step. The second step is to reimagine. There are a bunch of joint venture business models that are going to emerge - for example you might partner with Salesforce or a cloud provider to actually build that innovation. We all want our companies to be data guided but sometimes exciting things happen when we include insights - the leaps won’t happen if we are enforcing only data based decisions through the organisation.”

Ray and Vala also recommended the book by Alex Osterwalder ‘The Invincible Company’. Ray went so far as to describe it as the ‘best cookbook’ and ‘the ultimate consulting bible’ - he’ll probably be quoted on the book’s dust jacket!

The book discusses dozens of companies and points to their playbook in terms of the innovation velocity that pulls them ahead in their sector - and how that helped build an invincible company, so most definitely worth a read.

What is clear from the discussion we had is that, no matter the sector, we’re all kept up at night by similar concerns. And that those concerns can be eased by sharing our experiences and being open to solutions that might come from left of field.

Or as Ray put it “there needs to be a mindset that brilliant innovative ideas can come from anywhere and you need to make sure that you have the systems to be able to capture this.”  My thanks to Ray, Vala and our customers who took part, we’ll all sleep a little easier tonight.


I’d wholly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Ray’s new book ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Surviving And Thriving In A World Of Digital Giants’.