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Unily CEO - ‘CX had the last decade, the next decade belongs to EX’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 18, 2023
Recently appointed Unily CEO, Chris Ciauri, says that the employee experience (EX) market is currently untapped and that there is now momentum across organizations to finally make some substantive change.

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The CEO of employee experience platform Unily, Chris Ciauri, believes that whilst customer experience (CX) has held the attention (and budgets) of enterprise buyers over the past decade, the next decade belongs to employee experience (EX). During his keynote at the company’s user event in London last week, Ciauri highlighted that over the past ten years just 2% of what was spent on CX was spent on EX, which he said is “not okay” and “not good enough”. 

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the nature of Unily’s platform. However, supporting this message was a number of high profile customers at the event - including the likes of Kerzner, Prudential, Wipro, and Pearson. In fact, given that Unily is still a relatively young company (in its latest iteration, at least), it’s done well to secure a number of big name clients that are looking to invest in technology to improve their EX - including the likes of American Express, British Airways, Estée Lauder, and Shell. 

But in some ways, employee experience is a much more difficult outcome to deliver on compared to customer experience. For one, customer experience (I would argue) has easier metrics to measure (conversion rates, revenue and NPS) against than EX. 

What an employee wants and how an employee defines a positive experience can be incredibly varied and unique to an individual. There are some obvious frictionless experiences that should be non-negotiable (such as easy onboarding and HR support), but others are harder to define. How do you use digital tools to foster a positive organizational culture, for instance? How do you even define culture? 

My colleague Phil Wainewright interviewed Ciauri shortly after his appointment to the company in June, where he discussed the role of the Collaborative Canvas in creating an effective employee experience. diginomica talks about the Collaborative Canvas as a concept that brings together messaging, content, workflow and apps. When Phil spoke to Ciauri, he pointed out that a missing element of that Canvas is actually knowledge management - which he said is fundamental. 

Now having had a few months to settle into his role, I sat down with Ciauri last week to discuss his ambitions for Unily, what he sees as the biggest challenges facing his customers and where he sees the market heading. 

Ciauri was previously President at Google Cloud EMEA and prior to that spent close to ten years as General Manager of Salesforce - bringing with him a wealth of experience to Unily (a British company). Commenting on his motivations, Ciauri said: 

I felt like my experience over the years would give me the opportunity to help an organization do something special.

I think the attraction to Unily was a few things. I actually started my career at PeopleSoft, but I think there are two pretty constant things with the companies I’ve worked for - they’ve either helped improve or automate employees or customers. I like both of those topics. I'm passionate about both of those topics. 

But the employee is probably my biggest passion. I saw this space and I said, wow, here's a horizontal space that has an unconstrained TAM. 

Ciauri replaced Will Saville, Unily’s co-founder and former CEO, after Saville approached the company’s Board and recommended that it find a replacement to take it through its next stage of growth. Ciauri said: 

They needed someone that was a bit more scale, go to market, general management, and professionalism. So I think that's the next step in our journey: how do we make sure that we sort of retain that ability to innovate from a product perspective? But get better at sort of ‘outside in’ and find a balance there.

A knowledge gap

Ciauri argues that when investment in customer experience started to accelerate a decade ago, organizations struggled because it seemed like the “mountain was so high and impossible to climb”. But ten years later, if we look back, it’s clear that technology and competition have driven significant improvements in the market. Unily hopes that this will be the case for employee experience, which Ciauri says is clearly under-optimized at the moment. He adds: 

We're all employees and we all know it.

I think part of what we're trying to do is give people information, to go back into their companies, and say ‘it’s now’. There are technologies that can help you do this. I think companies haven't figured out yet that this is a must have. That you should have some type of modern employee engagement platform. And they're going to figure it out. 

Part of this has been driven by the pandemic, which significantly changed how organizations and employees think about work (with the results of this still being figured out). A shift to distributed work meant that organizations could no longer rely on containment in a building to influence how employees think and feel about the company they work for. 

Investment in digital collaboration platforms and digitized workflows soared, and companies began to rethink how they engage with their workforce. Unily’s key differentiator in this market is its knowledge management, but it also is integrating with other technology vendors to unify work within a single digital engagement layer. Ciauri has some strong views about other vendors in the market who are ‘suddenly rebranding’ themselves as EX platform providers. He said: 

After the pandemic, there's something that happened - people are getting investment, people are creating pieces of what Unily does. 

The bigger companies, you're suddenly going to see them skin a section on their website and start talking about employee experience. Everyone's trying to get into it because they think companies are going to need to address this and there's going to be spend. 

For me, that's a positive. Bring it on. Help companies realize that this is important. And then I think the companies that actually have significant value to deliver and have proved it with customers, are going to jump. And I think we're well positioned for that.

Whilst the pandemic triggered a shift in how buyers think about their employee experience, the sudden advancements in generative AI will be the next big thing that Unily will need to think through. The company has already launched publishing assistants for its platform, and at its event last week it demonstrated some impressive generative AI tools to support communications professionals (given that much of Unily’s proposition is centered around content creation for enterprise customers, it’s unsurprising that generative AI is a big opportunity for the company). 

However, I raised some personal concerns with Ciauri about how generative AI - particularly for communications professionals - could potentially reduce their roles to that of content approval experts and prompt writers. It’s a common concern, but I’d argue that alongside providing the tools, Unily needs to provide leadership around where the future ‘employee experience workforce’ is going to deliver value. Ciauri said: 

If you're afraid of progress, then you won't have a seat at the table for the most important changes. That's kind of my mentality on this. I want Unily to be in the conversation and have a seat at the table. There's no way we've thought about all the ramifications, but I think we're trying to be really thoughtful about communicating to customers. I think in the midterm to long term we're gonna take out the more mundane work. 

May that mean less employees are required ‘here versus there’? Sure. But I just think we need to be thoughtful. You can't turn your back on it, but you’ve got to be responsible about the impacts that it has. 

Probably because I'm an optimist, I tend to find more excitement and possibility in it, than I do the gloom and doom of the human race. But I also want to listen to the experts and the ‘gloom and doom’ of the human race, because I want to understand everything that's possible, the positive and negative. 

One thing is clear to Ciauri though, that this AI revolution will be dramatic and fast. He argued that it will be more impactful than the internet, the smartphone, and social media - and that it will happen more quickly. If a platform is going to be a leader in employee experience, these companies need to bring with them a path forward for how work will look in the future. 

The cost of content creation will likely approach zero with generative AI in our near future - that will include everything from code, to video, to blogs - which means we all need to think through how employees will still hold value. 

My take

I had a thoughtful and interesting conversation with Ciauri. I always appreciate a CEO that doesn’t run from a script that he’s churned out to 50 other journalists/analysts and takes the time to consider what you’re asking. What’s clear is that Ciauri is thinking through how to scale Unily effectively and drive a message to the market that the time for employee experience is now. One point he highlighted, which I think will be critical, is working with the SI community to drive implementation beyond Unily’s current install base. That work is currently happening. 

But a tough path lies ahead for organizations and enterprise buyers, because ‘employee experience’ is no longer just a question of selecting the right technology platform, digitizing workflows and organizing teams in a different way. The technology itself is going to drive a fundamental shift in how people work and how work is delivered. With much of the value of work currently relying on people to create, what does work look like when the cost of creating content effectively approaches zero? Vendors will argue that this leaves time for employees to do the ‘valuable work’, but I’d like to explore more clearly with these vendors what that actually looks like. 

There’s lots of change ahead and I’d argue that the vendors that can provide clear paths forward that are optimistic for the future of the workforce, alongside effective technology, will be the big winners here. 

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