Salesforce’s primary Dreamforce metaphor using the Industrial Revolution is the surest sign that the company is in full pivot. They’ve declared a Fourth Industrial Revolution involving IT, big data, and especially analytics driving IoT and there’s a lot to like about that positioning.
It clearly says that the old era of IT as a record-keeping paradigm is rapidly giving way to IT as a helper, as automation for a variety of business processes. It also suggests some of dangers of seeking historical parallels but this shouldn’t hinder rollout of the basic message that the times have changed and we all need to figure out how to take advantage of the obvious opportunities inherent in the changes.
All metaphors break down at some point and the fourth industrial revolution is a metaphor that serves well enough. As an example of the breakdown, Salesforce’s view of history is that the first industrial revolution was an age of steam and rails but most historians would suggest that the original Industrial Revolution was about inventing the factory where textiles could be produced by newly invented machines driven by stationary steam engines. No matter.
The factory became possible because of several other inventions that were largely paper based and intellectual such as the joint stock company with limited liability aka the corporation. Other inventions included the rule of law, private property, and modern communications including road improvements, a mail service, and the modern newspaper.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution sits on the shoulders of those innovations as well as on the more modern footings of silicon and IT and especially cloud computing. Thus situated, Salesforce becomes an ideal messenger for this story. Where the metaphor gets a little shaky is in the ability to claim all of this a disruptive change that can drive revenues and profits (it can) as well as new jobs in new industries (probably).
The issue is how all of this automation will create more jobs than it consumes. The primary obstacle to hitting the trifecta lies in the ability to imagine the future with those new industries. But if you look around Dreamforce you can see those industries and their jobs emerging.
In industry after industry as disparate as shoes and car tires you can see the emergence. Michelin, the great French tire company, is focusing on gathering data from tires even to the point of beginning to embed chips in them to better understand things as prosaic as tire pressure and wear. This might not seem like much but I was told that about one third of truck breakdowns have to do with tires, not engines. Tire pressure is inadequate in 90% of those cases.
So a tire company seeking to build a better customer relationship will find ways to help customers see the importance of maintaining pressure. Doing this can easily spark a line of business that delivers tires, and their proper maintenance, as a service. That’s not a new industry but it will help new jobs to emerge and such emergence from the spaces between current products and services is most likely the stuff of the early part of the fourth industrial revolution. Prosaic, sure, but needed and value adding.
Throughout the Dreamforce show floor you can find other examples. Adidas, the German shoe giant, has a database of 90 million customers that it seeks to track for purchase history, use patterns, and emerging needs. Reducing the data from that many people is not a small job but it is the thing that can yield insights that drive product development and generate right offers at right times. In that you can see emerge an end-to-end process for product development and sales.
Again, this isn’t radically different from what the shoe industry has always done except that such an approach can squeeze out a good deal of dead-end experimentation that was the staple of market research before big data.
There is good opportunity in optimizing business through these insights and technology insertions and they will propel modern businesses for some time. For many, these examples are the heart of digital disruption and a necessary part of streamlining for the 21st century. But there are also bigger fish to fry.
The Salesforce approach to data gathering and analysis applies equally to employees and, of course, customers.
On Monday morning analysts were treated to a program focused on trying to imagine the company of the future. Not the distant future with robots doing our work but the near term. For instance by the middle of the next decade Baby Boomers will be in full retirement mode and Millennials will make up roughly 75 percent of the workforce.
The research presented about this shift showed several things. First, all workers are more engaged with companies that give them a sense of making a contribution to the betterment of their world. That may be a shift from a work world from the late 20th century in which making a paycheck was the key benefit.
But in an age when the work life balance blurs thanks to technology and people spend more time than ever dedicated to a job, that job has to deliver on satisfaction in ways not previously contemplated. Salesforce was happy to make the connection between these emerging realities and its 1:1:1 approach to philanthropy but with a twist.
Those employees who gain a greater sense of integration into the community also engage more and better with customers. The upshot of all this is that happier employees are better engaged with customers who are themselves more engaged with a brand, more loyal, and more likely to make purchases. This is the ultimate proof of doing well by doing good.
It is obvious that Salesforce is at an important pivotal moment. Adopting the Fourth Industrial Revolution metaphor even with its minor flaws provides context and has enabled it to tell a more or less comprehensive story about a future of business in which vendors can actually know quite a bit about customers, without being creepy, and support employees in ways that drive job satisfaction and customer engagement. Many of the industries of the future and the jobs they support might still be ill defined but if you walk the show floor, you can see their outlines emerging and that’s enough to give us all confidence to pursue them.