ServiceNow’s Chief Innovation Officer on the role of ‘innovation’ in the COVID-19 economy

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 30, 2020
Dave Wright considers how knowledge bases are converging with the use of artificial intelligence. He also outlines some interesting ServiceNow use cases that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

The word ‘innovation' is thrown around a lot in the world of enterprise technology - often with little meaning or thought. And Dave Wright, ServiceNow's Chief Innovation Officer, is all too aware that the term has some interesting connotations for some people. For instance, what exactly does a Chief Innovation Officer do? How do you measure the success of ‘innovation'?

Wright hinted at some of this during a conversation with Ray Wang at Constellation Research's Connected Enterprise event, where he said that his job role is varied - and not all about technology. On the one hand Wright focuses on both thinking about the future role of the Now platform for ServiceNow customers, but also, critically, convincing people that these ‘innovation fixes' are necessary. He explained: 

I spend all my time looking at this technology and trying to work out, well, is that technology going to have an impact on us? Is it going to be something our customers can do something with? But it's not like having influence - it's not like I can say "we definitely have to do this". I've then got to persuade a lot of people. But that's kind of the key to innovation, persuading people to do things. 

Some of the role is also looking at what customers have done with the platform and saying, "Hey, is this something that could be productised? Is this something that other customers should know about?" And some of it is looking at gaps. Is there something that we could do to make the story more complete? Maybe we need to acquire software to do that? And maybe we need to build software to do it? 

Messaging also plays a significant role in the world of ‘innovation', said Wright. How do you actually explain to people what you can do with a ‘platform', for example? A platform can do anything. So Wright spends time with customers understanding - what are the problems? 

Innovation in a COVID-19 world

The ‘problems' that customers are looking to fix - or use the Now platform to solve - are now also evolving and adapting as we encounter structural changes in the economy as a result of COVID-19. We saw evidence of this week, off the back of ServiceNow's strong Q3 results, where CEO Bill McDermott highlighted that buyers are recognising the significance of the ‘workflow' in a distributed world and where enterprises are having to adapt how they work. 

Wright used his time to highlight two fairly interesting use cases that emerged in the early days of the pandemic, with two high profile US customers - the City of LA and the NBA. The use cases in question talk directly to what Wright spoke about previously, where he said that a ‘platform' can do a lot of different things. And some of what ServiceNow customers are using it for now could not have been predicted just a few months ago. He said: 

So we had the City of LA saying they wanted to build an app where they can test 4 million people and can hold the results in it. I know it's not something that we're known for, but they went out there and built it. And they did it in 96 hours. So it's all about agility. 

But the cool one was what the NBA did. The NBA went out and said, well we still need to play games. So they created this concept of ‘The Campus', where they wanted to do all the processing to be able to get games to happen. So what they did was they looked at a load of different products and then they said actually, if we could build all this on one platform that would be a better solution. So they actually used it to workflow all the medical tests, all the room bookings, getting people into the locations - and now it actually sits there as a workflow process for the NBA. So I don't think we ever expected that before COVID. 

Leveraging distributed knowledge 

Finally, Wright also had some interesting thoughts on the role of knowledge workers - and knowledge bases - in a world where enterprises are shifting to distributed modes of operation. Wright's belief is that the platform can also play a significant role in surfacing this knowledge in the future, if data is used correctly, but also that AI and machine learning will shift the conversation away from ‘problems of the past' to ‘solutions of the future'. Wright explained: 

When I think of knowledge bases, I always think of this whole concept as leveraging your heroes. If you look at most companies, there's like 10% of the people who actually know how to get things done. What you want to do is get that knowledge and put it out there, so everyone gets to share that knowledge. But the reality is you end up with all these knowledge bases and people haven't got the time to use them. 

Or now, which is more relevant, there's so much data to use and no-one cleanses it - you look at something and go "oh this is how we fix it", and then you find out that's how you fixed it in 2009, but not how you fix it now. So what people are starting to do now is say, if I have got that knowledge, why can't I use artificial intelligence to surface that knowledge and not have someone go away and search for a response and come back. Deliver that data to me in real-time. If someone else is doing the same thing as me, I want to know about it. If it's a problem that's happened 7,000 times and we know how to fix it, I want to know about it. 

I think the surfacing of knowledge is one thing. Once you find out what's happening and understand what's happening, the next stage after that is, how do we stop it happening? There's a big shift in the world of AI, where I see it moving from being predictive - everyone's got that now - to being more prescriptive. Give me something that's prescriptive. Give it to me so it says, "hey this is happening and this is what you need to do to stop it from happening". So I want the answer as well as the problem. 

Commenting specifically on the impact of COVID-19 on this thinking, Wright added: 

Talking about tribal knowledge, everyone at the start of the pandemic suddenly realised, where's my tribe gone? It's spread everywhere. So it started this big drive of people saying, well how can I build a digital workflow to actually get what we would have done before in the office done now? Some of it was just around needing to onboard people remotely, or needing to suddenly stand up groups in different offices that weren't there before. But then we have people that were very much focused on, what do we need to do now we're in this kind of COVID economy?"

Innovations are predominantly around providing solutions, and solutions are a way of fixing problems. But as soon as you get a big crisis like this, you get a load of new problems out there. So it starts to drive the way that people look at things, people are more open to innovation I've found in the last eight months than they were before. But if you think about it as a company level, it's about generating that spark, that initial idea. And then when you get that idea, how do you then start to magnify it? 

My take

It's nice to see that Wright is aware of the traps that the role of ‘innovation' can fall into, where it's more noise than anything else. However, talking to customers, understanding problems, thinking ahead to future use cases, considering the role of ‘knowledge' - none of that is about technology. And that's what I like to see when I think about innovation. Consider the people and the process first, then look to the tools to adapt. 

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