Don’t disrupt, transform – how Salesforce sparks diffusion


Forget disruption – Salesforce Ignite delivers projects that get enterprises started on transformation. It’s all about diffusion, explains Denis Pombriant

Flame igniting a row of matches © Gregory Johnston - Fotolia.comThere has been a great deal of discussion in the last two years about disruption – or digital disruption, to be alliteratively correct. It’s a familiar story that could have come out of the election. Disruptive technologies are changing jobs – if not eliminating some and downsizing others – all of which is not good if you are a human with a mortgage.

But there was a starkly different narrative at Salesforce’s recent analyst summit, which brought together a select group of us just after the holidays in San Francisco. The company doubled down on its DreamForce messaging on Einstein, analytics and machine learning ideas and products – but with a somewhat subtle and important twist that coincided with the evolving customer business model.

From the get-go with a talk by Chief Adoption Officer Polly Sumner, disruption was not de-emphasized so much as treated as an insufficient explanation. According to Sumner and the speakers who followed, transformation was the order of the day rather than simple disruption – and for good reason. Disruption is something that happens to you while transformation is a conscious choice to improve in a particular way. True, failure to transform leads to disruption. But rather than using that stick, Salesforce was all carrot.

So Salesforce’s message is really about transformation. Sumner said there are five types that the company is pursuing with customers, at two levels. First, the five types of transformation:

  • Intelligence with Einstein
  • Speed with platform
  • Productivity with Quip
  • Mobility with Salesforce1
  • Connectivity with IoT Cloud

Thus in Salesforce’s vision, the products form the first level of transformation. The second level is knowledge delivered by its Ignite program. This delivers what can best be described as a free, short-duration, proof-of-concept project, sponsored by a customer company’s CEO to give their organization a view of what transformation could look like for them.

Ignite sparks diffusion

Ignite projects might be free but there is an obvious expectation that subscription sales will happen down the road. There’s nothing unusual about this approach but it does bring into sharp relief an idea that, so far as I am aware, is not often discussed in the technology world. This concept is diffusion and it takes some explaining – so bear with me, because it’s worthwhile.

Technology and business model adoption curves might look very similar but if you consider the x-axis, which is usually labeled time, you can see some sharp differences. The more a new technology relies on the customer to build infrastructure, the longer it often takes for the technology to fully diffuse into society.

For example, Edison began electrifying lower Manhattan in the 1880s but full distribution of electricity took many decades, even after the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Utilities found they could bring electric service to a street, but because homeowners were responsible for wiring their homes and purchasing lights and appliances, adoption took additional time. Therefore diffusion was slow. The story is much the same in transportation, considering the evolution of the automotive age, and other areas.

Closer to our own time, the so-called ‘year of the network’ took most of the decade in the 1980s, not simply because the technology wasn’t ready but also because businesses had to pay for running network cabling and buying PCs for every desktop. So I think Salesforce has some of this in mind as it embarks on a quest to teach about transformation and not simply disruption.

The end points of transformation vs. disruption are also different. For instance, parrying a disruptive moment might simply mean looking for better economies, which can, in many cases, come from bending the cost curve by moving existing applications to the cloud. But nothing much changes in that scenario.

In a transformation, by contrast, the opportunity might be to move a company from on-premise to cloud, while also transforming it from a product company to one that provides its products as services. The service orientation makes a business more attentive to customer needs and requires not just cloud but all of the other things — intelligence, speed, productivity, mobility, and connectivity – that Sumner started with. It’s a heck of a story.

My take

In two days of meetings, some of which were confidential, we heard mostly about roadmaps for product development in the year ahead. We can look for inflection points with general availability happening with product releases already scheduled. But the big takeaway for me was the first discussion that talked about transformation and the Ignite program. That was the what. The rest of the time was certainly worthwhile but it dealt with the how.

Salesforce’s news this year and going forward will come from the success of Ignite and the businesses, including many household brands, that raise their hands as they commit to an Ignite program.

I like the idea of transformation much more than disruption because transformation speaks of future potential driven by present investment. Disruption might get you to the same spot but it is a less hopeful approach that can leave a business leader feeling alone. Transformation, on the other hand, is proactive and comes with a well-designed path.

Image credit - Flame igniting a row of matches © Gregory Johnston -

Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner and paid the author's travel expenses to attend its analyst summit.