Over my 20 years in various business and technical roles, I've come to appreciate the motto, "If everything is a priority, nothing is." Prioritizing effectively -- nailing down precisely what customers and employees need and expect, and what businesses can realistically deliver -- is an ongoing struggle for most decision makers. But in today's hyper-competitive landscape, the trade-offs between what requires immediate attention and what can wait can also be the difference between success and failure.
Salesforce researchers examine how IT leaders across the globe are prioritizing 10 hot topics when considering their strategy, skill sets, and future states. The report shows that top priorities for IT leaders include improving customer experience, security, integration, employee experience, and mobile -- all of which make good sense. These are among the most critical building blocks of any enterprise technology strategy today, and -- when done well -- help to make companies attractive to customers, employees, investors, and others.
But what's much more revealing, in my view, are the initiatives that are not topping IT's agenda, according to the report: artificial intelligence (AI), voice technology, blockchain, the developer experience, and learning and skills development. When you consider that 69% of people say that emerging technologies are fundamentally changing how they live, and more than half of customers actively seek to buy from the most innovative companies, the question emerges: how long can IT leaders put such initiatives off and still remain competitive?
1. Artificial intelligence: changing the rules of business
Today, AI is steadily permeating everyday life. Leading companies across hundreds of industries are harnessing its power. Banks are analyzing countless financial spreadsheets in seconds to detect fraud. Call centers are deploying chatbots to augment customer interactions. Research also shows that AI startup funding more than tripled from 2016 to 2018
All these organizations are using AI to make business processes more efficient, solve complex problems, and better predict customer behavior. Yet as Salesforce's report reveals, only 37% of IT leaders currently consider AI to be a high priority, and only 7% have a fully defined AI strategy. In fact, more than half (53%) still describe their AI strategy as "undefined."
It's clear that some IT leaders may be interested in the value of, say, detecting fraud without manual input. However, harnessing AI's capabilities to do just that is still being seen as more of a "nice-to-have" approach -- it's just not as urgent as addressing more pressing front‑office issues. Yet customers increasingly expect AI-powered developments like individualized recommendations and automatic order fulfillments -- and these are raising the bar against which all companies are judged. Rather than "nice-to-haves," AI-powered experiences are the new norm for creating a customer-centric experience.
Regardless of whether or not an IT leader has adopted AI, 83% believe it is transforming customer engagement, and significantly, 69% say it is transforming their businesses overall.
Looking ahead, the report shows that AI adoption is projected to grow by 95% over the next two years. In short, AI is changing the rules of business, so it's imperative that companies prepare now for its impact on every element of their industry and workforce if they are not to fall behind.
2. Voice technology and chatbots: growing in impact across every industry
As the Salesforce research confirms, many IT leaders are prioritizing initiatives that improve the customer experience, a vital lever in pursuit of growth and customer retention. AI-powered voice technology is a powerful tool to support this approach. Intelligent assistants such as Siri or products like Amazon Echo with Alexa play the part of personal assistant, helping consumers expedite activities such as ordering groceries from a mobile device, browser, or chat platform.
Service agents are using voice-powered AI chatbots to help customers perform simple tasks such as changing a password. This frees up customer support teams to apply their brainpower to more complex queries. Voice technology can also be integrated with back-end IT systems in areas such as managing inventory or customer relationships. Conversational CRM platforms and digital assistants can help sales reps quickly access phone numbers, while human resources teams can onboard employees faster.
Yet despite voice technology's growing impact, we found only 22% of IT leaders consider it to be a high priority, and only 14% have a completely defined voice technology strategy.
This sets up potential challenges for companies. As customers get used to interacting with companies through voice, they will increasingly expect to do so in all of their digital interactions. Salesforce's research underlines this point. Today, 58% of customers say voice assistants are actively changing their expectations of companies. Already, 23% prefer to use them when communicating with companies.
The Salesforce report shows that, even if IT leaders' can't prioritize voice technology amongst their litany of other pressing initiatives, they very much recognize its significance: 68% of IT leaders expect voice technology to be a key part of their business processes within two years.
At the same time, while adoption of customer-facing voice technologies is projected to increase by 139% during that time frame, internal use cases are also set for significant expansion. Adoption of employee-facing voice technologies is expected to increase by 232% within two years.
Soon, customers and employees will expect to engage with brands across every industry through voice-enabled interfaces. This is why I believe that enabling teams to deploy such capabilities is a key competitive differentiator now, and table stakes going forward.
3. Blockchain: adding business value through new offerings
Awash in competing initiatives, only 10% of IT leaders consider blockchain technology to be a high priority right now, according to Salesforce's report. Various challenges were cited in implementing blockchain -- including the need to prove its value to the organization, and to identify relevant use cases.
Yet significantly, half of the IT leaders surveyed do plan to increase their investment in blockchain technology over the next two years. The reasons aren't hard to find: While it may be in its infancy, blockchain has tremendous potential to bolster numerous initiatives such as data resiliency and partnerships.
Here's how: As a digital ledger stored on multiple computers in a public or private network, the data that blockchain records can't be changed or deleted by an individual network user. Instead, it is verified and managed by all users, using automation and shared governance protocols. This infrastructure ensures that any data shared across the network is accessible only to qualified network members, and that updating processes are more tamper-resistant and transparent. That can make a blockchain-based network a very secure place to transact -- whether an organization is trading stocks, bonds, or frequent flyer miles.
Blockchain technology can cut out the need for intermediaries in places where a trusted third party is normally required, such as banks or lawyers, saving time and money. At the same time, the technology can make the back-end operations of many companies more efficient because firms that work with each other have often maintained their own ledgers until now, duplicating work.
Ironically, blockchain's biggest benefit may address one of IT leaders' top two priorities: customer experience and security. Blockchain's distributed ledger has the potential to revolutionize IT security by enabling unprecedented authentication capabilities while providing new sets of connections for customers. That's huge, given that 56% of IT leaders say their security controls degrate the customer experience.
Gartner sees a spike in that enterprise adoption on the horizon: It predicts blockchain will result in $176 billion in added business value by 2025, and $3.1 trillion by 2030. With new offerings on deck in industries as diverse as financial services, healthcare, music, supply chain, and government, it's time for IT leaders to address the blockchain opportunity. First, they'll need to prove the business value internally, while articulating blockchain's specific role in their organizations.
4. The developer experience: adding a pipeline of much-needed resources
IT leaders today have to make hard choices. The tremendous pace of technological change means that the pressure's on to do more in every budget cycle. As well as maintain legacy applications and systems, IT must implement a growing list of new, mostly cloud-based platforms and technologies while improving security, reliability, and scalability.
And the pressure is relentless. For example, the report found that IT leaders' adoption of low-code and no-code tools is projected to increase by 156% over the next two years. Adoption of serverless computing is predicted to increase by 58% over the same period.
With in-demand skill sets shifting faster and more frequently than ever, it makes sense for IT leaders to put initiatives in place now to attract and retain more developer talent. Yet Salesforce's research found that only 19% of IT leaders view the developer experience as a high priority.
Of course, where teams are overstretched just keeping existing systems operating, it can be harder to respond effectively to such challenges. According to the research, 72% of IT leaders say project backlogs prevent them from embarking on strategic projects like focusing on strategic initiatives.
However, IT leaders may be missing opportunities to support their teams by strategically opening up valuable business data through application programming interfaces (APIs) -- both internally and to outside business partners. Other strategies include engaging with citizen developers via new and improved low-code platforms to unleash technology enablement and adoption in a sustainable manner.
5. Learning and skills development: keeping up with evolving IT requirements
Of course, it's not just individuals with application development skills who are currently in short supply. Skill levels right across IT are being challenged as new enterprise platforms and products become more sophisticated. For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 19% growth in demand for IT researchers by 2026, as well as 24% growth in demand for software developers. These predictions are much higher than the average growth rate of 7% for all occupations.
Salesforce's research shows that on average, only 24% of IT leaders describe their staffs' skills on a given topic as advanced, with the biggest gaps occurring in AI, voice, and blockchain.
To avoid persistent skill shortages, IT leaders must develop strategies to keep up with the evolving requirements of the new wave of AI. This could include shifting some simple development work over to non-technical staff -- by engaging with citizen developers, for instance, as I've already suggested. They could also seek more talent from non-traditional IT backgrounds, such those changing careers or veterans returning to civilian life – but most aren't taking that approach.
At the same time, IT leaders need to help existing employees upgrade their proficiencies and quickly gain the skills they need through workforce training programs. A shift to lifelong learning is also essential.
If technology is changing every few months, skills development programs must follow suit. Using immersive new technologies like virtual reality can accelerate the speed and scale of training, and empower employees to learn at their own pace in a digital, on-demand setting.
Overcoming obstacles in the digital transformation journey
Prioritization pressure never goes away. But I believe that IT leaders who move these five initiatives -- AI, blockchain, voice, the developer experience, and learning and skills training -- up the corporate agenda will find their organizations are better positioned to effectively adapt and grow in an evolving digital economy. Conversely, leaving them as an afterthought may hamper digital transformation efforts and threaten businesses' ability to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
For a closer look at the results of Salesforce's Enterprise Technology Trends research, you can read the full report.