Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

During times of uncertainty, innovation must fuel your business growth engine

Brian Solis, global innovation evangelist at Salesforce, talks about the importance of digital business transformation, new business model innovation, and how companies can successfully compete in the Novel Economy.

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Brian Solis, global innovation evangelist, Salesforce.

When Brian Solis joined Salesforce as a global innovation evangelist, we planned a deep-dive Q&A. I wanted to better understand his point of view on innovation and digital transformation given his long career as an industry analyst and digital anthropologist. Innovation is at the heart of the pandemic response playbook for how companies will stabilize, reopen, and ultimately, grow during times of uncertainty. As part of that conversation, Solis shared his thesis on the rise of the "Novel Economy," and that led to a conversation in and of itself. I invited Solis back to continue the dialogue. 

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What is the role of the global innovation evangelist? 

Solis: At Salesforce, my role is to learn from and also do my part to guide customers in accelerating meaningful bimodal digital transformation and cognitive automation and business innovation, especially now in a Novel Economy. As human behaviors change post-COVID-19, I'm paying close attention to necessary shifts in customer experience (CX), journey orchestration, digital marketing and commerce, and service and support design. Specifically, I'm tracking opportunities for AI, voice, blockchain, ambient computing, and sharing how these technologies and supporting best practices can spark creativity to define the next normal. 

As a digital anthropologist, and former analyst covering digital disruptive technologies and business models, what inspires your work?

Solis: During the rise of Web 1.0, the conversations about tech were either enterprise hardware and software or all things dot-com. I noticed that in most corporate sales, service, and marketing, companies didn't really see people; instead, they were referred to as personas or demographics and seen as numbers, traffic, impressions, conversions, abandoned carts, etc. That's when I was driven to become a digital anthropologist. 

I observed the evolution of human behaviors as technology was aimed more and more at end users. Over time, the impacts on society weren't just notable, they were telling in how markets would evolve. Customer expectations and behaviors, and as a result, their journeys, were radically and rapidly changing. The same is true for business buyers. After all, everyone is a customer, everyone is human. How business buyers use personal technologies affects who they are as a person, which changes the dynamics of their business buying journey over time. I called this "digital Darwinism," which represents the evolution of technology and society. The practice of digital anthropology forced my work to place people at the center of everything.

Whether it's B2B, B2C, B2B2C, what we're really talking about is P2P, people to people. The best stories are always human. Understanding their reality, goals, and aspirations gives purpose to the most meaningful strategies and roadmaps. It's the difference between mass personalization and humanization as our dear friend and leading independent analyst Paul Greenberg explores in his new book, The Commonwealth of Self-Interest. 

Humanization benefits everyone. I wholeheartedly believe that digital anthropology should have its moment now. The social sciences belong in the C-Suite. As such, my goal is to be a strategic advisor for executives and change agents everywhere on how to become a human-centered customer company, embrace data-driven empathy, shift toward digital-first mindsets and operations, enhance customer (and employee) experiences, and evolve into a cognitive, self-driving enterprise. Innovation and growth will be organic outcomes of these investments.

How does the current state of the world impact your thinking and research?

Solis: First, I wish everyone good health, warmth, strength, and resilience. Together, we will do more than get through this, we will be better and more resilient and unified.

The digital anthropologist in me is paying attention to the human side of disruption because you can't solve traditional problems with technology alone. Technology is an enabler for whatever vision you set out to enliven. And, this is the time for a new vision to stay alive, survive, and then thrive in the next normal. 

In parallel, the futurist in me is playing out phased scenarios as the next normal takes shape. But also, we have to look ahead at future scenarios, however unlikely they may seem, to identify common denominators and plan accordingly. In normal times, my work would have been hyper-focused on empowering leaders to drive global innovation and transformation against future competitors and market disruptors. Essentially, this "future-proofing" would define strategies and roadmaps to stay ahead of and also shape the future as it unfolds.

While the need to future-proof is still important, we also need to invest in disruption-proofing. The threat of disruption isn't limited to advanced competitors or unforeseen market disruptors. The Novel Coronavirus is one such example. There will be other local and global pandemics in the future. Climate change has and will continue to disrupt businesses locally and eventually globally. This process scenario plans for all possibilities to ensure mitigation and continuity. 

The normal we knew is behind us. We are now entering the next normal, what we discussed earlier as the Novel Economy. Novel means new and unusual. It represents a new strain of market conditions that are not yet fully identified or understood. It also represents the framework for the next normal. What we do right and what we get wrong from here on out, becomes the new playbook. This is the time to get it right.

COVID-19 exposed the weaknesses and gaps of digital transformation to date. With sudden, widespread remote working, escalating e-commerce, the influx of digital service and support, the overnight shift to digital- and mobile-first and virtualized customer/employee experiences, heightened dependencies on supply chains, et al., digital transformation itself was digitally disrupted. 

How should companies think differently about digital transformation in the Novel Economy?

Solis: Focus on business continuity. Then, focus on expansion and scale.  Next, focus on digital growth and resilience. But at the top of the list, digital transformation needs a vision and that can only come from leadership. This is a time to give purpose to digital transformation that goes beyond modernization. 

Pre-COVID initiatives that aren't absolutely vital to the three phases of evolution in the Novel Economy, i.e. stay alive, survive and thrive, should be postponed indefinitely. Moving forward, we must re-imagine digital transformation as bimodal, 1) digital operational excellence (business continuity and scale) and 2) digital business model innovation (supporting/driving existing revenue and novel growth opportunities).

In the first phase, essentially, these times right now, there's a need for DX triage. Leaders establish cross-functional war rooms that initially focus on business continuity and burning platforms as a matter of survival. These war rooms then evolve into command centers that focus on scaling existing systems and processes and building out areas of criticality, i.e. digital- and mobile-first virtualize experiences, i.e. e-commerce (traditional online, mobile, and social) and service and support (at home call centers, digital engagement, and scaling automation). 

Moving forward, DX must be purposeful and intentional in its acceleration and focus. It has to. More importantly, DX cannot be something that continues without an enterprise-wide purview and also a re-imagined, highly relevant, and market aligning impact. And by relevant, I mean relevant to people, in every capacity, as these times and trends play out, and how they're evolving over the next weeks, months and next 3 years. 

With bimodal DX, strategy and roadmaps run in parallel, guided by a unified vision, but managed by two separate teams to: 1. Drive digital operational excellence (digitization); and 2. Foster business invention and reinvention (digital business model innovation, i.e., becoming a digital business). 

IT still plays a leading role, but now, stakeholders are equally influential in communicating business needs and supporting implementation. This isn't an IT or silo-led initiative any longer. This is sweeping, enterprise-wide, cross-function transformation. Executive oversight is no longer a luxury, it's mandatory. Organizational culture must now empower rapid decision-making, execution with short-term (and then longer-term) impact, and a test-and-learn modality to build new capabilities and prove out new ideas.

Together through bimodal DX, operational digitization and digital business model innovation represent the foundation for a new generation of digitally efficient businesses. DX also needs to align with executive-driven change management. This isn't just about technology, this is also where and how we direct the transformation of people, processes, and roles.

We have to break down the walls between IT and lines of business and we have to break down the silos that separate everything in between. We have to shut down politics. We have to shatter bureaucracy. We have to set aside egos and pride. We have to collaborate and empower people to re-imagine the future, to see the world through the lens of possibility, and believe they can make a difference, regardless of where they sit. 

Advice to IT professionals and business leaders as they collaborate around next-normal digital transformation?

Solis: To innovate, to disruption-proof any organization, technology needs a purpose to not only solve problems but also create value-added opportunities. As Albert Einstein once said, "We have to learn to think in a new way."
 
In this era of accelerated digital Darwinism, I think about the words of Leon C. Megginson, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change." 
 
It's survival of the fittest and the fitting. Moving forward, adaptability is par for the course. Digital and human empathy, speed, resilience, creativity, innovation, leadership, culture, all become organizational pillars that lead in developing the Novel Economy playbook. There's no going back to normal. Success, however you defined it in the past, was held to standards in a world that no longer exists. This is a time for reinvention, imagination, and innovation. COVID-19 is a force-functioning exercise. 
 
From here on out, operational digitization and digital business model innovation must be guided by a unified vision and mission. Then, as you develop your bimodal DX strategies and roadmaps, consider the following… are we investing in technologies and new processes that move us forward through iteration AND ALSO innovation or are we just taking iterative steps? This is key because to survive and thrive in the Novel Economy, you will need both.

  • Iteration: Improving internal standards, systems, and processes to enhance performance and increase scale and efficiencies. 
  • Innovation: Challenging internal and existing conventions to explore new digital-centric or digitally-informed products and services.

Combined, they can lead to disruption, which defines the standard for the next normal making previous standards and conventions obsolete. While they share common areas of technological investment, such as AI, cloud computing, data and analytics, and RPA and cognitive automation, they're each deployed to support very specific initiatives with direct outcomes. When executed with vision and purpose, the outcomes of iteration and innovation lead to a more effective future- and disruption-proofing.

Key takeaways you wish to share that help spark change and empower those here to lead it?

Solis: This is not just a moment for business transformation, but also personal transformation as well. Pay more attention than ever before to employees and customers, their needs, challenges, and aspirations, now and as times and trends progress. Employee wellness and customer wellness are so vital now.  Empathy, emotional intelligence (EQ), compassion, and benevolence are not only the right things to invest in. They also signal to the market what your leadership and brand stand for. 

I believe the brand and legacy of every organization will be measured (and judged) by how well they treat people at every step. COVID-19 represents a deep somatic marker in all of our lives, an emotional bookmark that permanently links memories to visceral, emotional responses. Somatic markers change behaviors immutably. Behaviors will only continue to evolve in each phase of recovery and growth. 

This is a watershed moment. It forces us to change course, to put people at the center of everything. What we do moving forward becomes the new foundation for customer experience and employee experience. It gives a new dimension to customer and employee truth. If we are to make this change meaningful, then we have to let these emotions inspire us to move forward with deep-rooted purpose. 

What if we choose to see these times, not as a disruption to our plans and expectations, but instead as an opportunity for a reset?  What if we looked at our current situation, not as disruptive to our previous trajectory, but as an invitation to grow in new directions?  Disruption, from here on out, is the new normal. But, it's what we do from here on out that defines our success today and our legacy tomorrow. 

  1. Be thoughtful
  2. Be creative
  3. Be experimental
  4. Be bold
  5. Be agile
  6. Be swift
  7. Be broad
  8. Be digital
  9. Above all else, be human

This article was co-authored by Brian Solis, global innovation evangelist at Salesforce