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Dreamforce 2023 - how to be an AI Pioneer, according to IBM's State of Salesforce study

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 12, 2023
This year's State of Salesforce report from IBM provides useful insight into the realities of AI adoption today.


Not since Moore’s Law have we seen a pace of change so exponential, which means that Salesforce users keeping pace with AI (in all its forms) is essential, not only to keep up, but to survive. 

That’s one of the conclusions to be found in this year’s State of Salesforce report from the IBM Institute for Business Value. The report is an annual fixture in the Salesforce world, based on ongoing research among nearly 3,500 users of the firm’s tech and provides genuine insight into, as it says on the tin, the state of adoption, trends and strategic thinking across the Salesforce Ohana.

This is a particularly useful study. It’s always been the case across the enterprise tech sector that there’s a balance that needs to be struck between the roadmap ambitions of the vendors and the reality facing customers trying to keep the lights on. In other words, if you’re a CIO struggling to get version 2.0 of a particular product to stand up and show some ROI, then having your a vendor bang on about all the great things in version 6.0 isn’t necessarily what you need to hear! 

This year has been the year of generative AI - or the six-ish months of generative AI, to be more precise. It’s also been the year of the (at times out-of-control) generative AI hype cycle. This is, according to many bandwagon-leaping tech firms, the silveriest of silver bullets that you ever did see and everyone needs to get on board with that idea pretty damn pronto!

Except it’s not necessarily happening that way. Yes, there’s been a huge buzz from the consumer side of the tent about what the likes of ChatGPT can do. And yes, there’s a lot of interest in how that sort of potential might be reflected at enterprise business level. But there’s also been a lot of understandable nervousness around rushing into such enterprise adoption and a great many as yet unanswered questions around issues such as trust and ethics. 

To be fair, while Salesforce has executed such a major pivot that this week’s Dreamforce is pitched as the world’s biggest AI conference and every major presentation is AI-centered, the firm has also explicitly acknowledged some of the hesitation that’s evident on the enterprise front line. One of the tricks that needs to be pulled off this week will to assuage some of those nerves while encouraging everyone to get with the generative program. 

So, against that backdrop, the findings of the State of Salesforce study around generative AI thinking is of particular note. 

The four Ps

The study breaks down users into four categories - Pioneers, Prepared, Prudent and Pensive, explaining:

Pioneers optimize value on all fronts. The Prepared experience bursts of value but because they’re not thinking across programs—at an enterprise level—they don’t achieve more than those sporadic bursts. The Prudent are stuck in silos, so they limit the value they achieve. And Pensives are truly  not getting their money out of the investments they’re making for a variety of reasons…but all are addressable with the right course of action. 

In terms of generative AI adoption, Pioneers have “integrated multiple generative AI use cases and are looking to scale"; Prepared users have “a defined AI strategy and have piloted a few use cases in isolation”; Prudent organizations are “dabbling in Salesforce AI”; and Pensive organizations have not yet acted on generative AI and are “waiting for innovation to happen, rather than creating it”. 

Clearly it’s the Pioneers to whom attention needs to turn in order to learn from their successes and, of course, from their failures. The IBM study makes a number of key observations about Pioneers, including that they are: 

  • Experimenting with generative AI use cases to increase overall profitability. The study finds that: 

Pioneers recognize using generative AI solutions to generate customer value creates the most impact right now; as a result, they are more bullish on generative AI than Pensives, with 34% more Pioneers believing it will increase topline revenue growth. 

It also notes that Pioneers are being selective and pragmatic about how they move forward: 

They aren’t settling for incremental gains. Instead, they are experimenting with use cases specifically to increase overall profitability and with an eye to freeing up their people for the higher-value, customer-focused tasks that can help drive it. 

  • Harboring big plans over the next two years for developing generative AI solutions to support their sales, IT, and service organizations: 

In the even faster-paced customer environment of tomorrow, a compelling customer experience is essential to optimizing AI - and AI is often essential to creating a compelling customer experience. Generative AI expands the scope of automation, particularly in administrative and service areas, as well as marketing. 

  • Making significant investment in AI. Budget for generative AI capabilities is expected to grow two to three times more in sales, service, and marketing functions. This has implications: 

Given the inflow of funds, hitting “pause” is less likely for any organization. 

  • Going beyond ‘out of the box’ tech to support long term strategic goals. The report notes: 

61% of [Pioneers] are looking beyond out-of-the-box generative AI capabilities to support their long-term goals. They want additional capabilities and more integration to gain clear competitive advantage. In short, Pioneers are more focused on using generative AI capabilities as a tool that’s part of a larger strategy rather than as a final product. 

How do I join the upper P?

So, if your organization falls more under the label of Pensive, what’s to be done to move up to the ranks of a Pioneer. The State of Salesforce report has a number of recommendations here. 

  • Approach generative AI as a team sport. IBM’s CEO research concludes that 55% of stakeholders, including customers, boards of directors, and investors - are urging CEOs to accelerate adoption of generative AI:

Pioneers are diving in head-first, using generative AI to secure competitive advantage, and are more likely to succeed when they empower teams with relevant skills building, tools training, and solution-sharing incentives to help the organization thrive with generative AI. 

  • Focus generative AI on high-priority workflows. This involves having a vision of how generative AI can have a holistic impact across the entire enterprise, which means have clear use cases for each business function: 

Resist the temptation to apply generative AI on an ad-hoc basis by selecting just a few use cases for each business domain. Then encourage innovation within that established high-priority focus area. 

  • Be pragmatic, but don’t settle for small scale. In other words, don’t limit your ambitions, but be aware that this is a long game: 

Full-scale enterprise-level AI, which has been around long before generative AI, has transfor- mational potential that extends well beyond current use cases and will last long after the generative AI hype cycle cools down. Realizing these more significant gains will take time, so set a reasonable pace and get started. 

My take

As ever, this is an excellent piece of research if you have any interest at all in the Salesforce world. I’ve focused here on the generative AI aspects of the study as that’s the conversation that’s dominating the corridors of the Moscone Center in San Francisco this week, but there are other insights to be had from the full report around industry cloud adoption, creating a change-ready organizational culture, and the importance of integration to dismantle data silos. 

Meanwhile, how the generative AI conclusions map onto the realities for the thousands of Salesforce users this week remains to be seen. The Pioneers will be on full show on the keynote stages, but the Prepared, the Prudent and the Pensives will inevitably outnumber them in the audience, this year at least. How much that changes before the publication of next year’s State of Salesforce study is another question for another day. 


For all the highlights from Dreamforce 2023, check out our dedicated events hub here.


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