Workday's Aneel Bhusri on why companies need a soul, and closing the acceleration gap

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 29, 2021
At Workday's annual customer event, held virtually again this year, co-CEO Aneel Bhusri emphasized the importance of companies having a soul, and the centrality of data

Aneel Bhusri, Workday - screengrab from Conversations session
(screengrab from Conversations session)

Soul and purpose were big themes as cloud finance and HCM vendor Workday kicked off a two-day virtual event yesterday, Conversations for a Changing World, in place of its annual customer conference. Aneel Bhusri, Workday co-CEO and Chairman, set the tone in his opening remarks, stating:

I believe it's more important than ever, for companies to have a soul. Yes, we all need to create value for our shareholders. But having a soul means that we truly care for all of our stakeholders, including our employees, our customers and our communities, both in good times and especially during a crisis. People put their trust in us. And we have a duty as leaders to honour that trust by taking swift action.

Continuing the theme, the first keynote session saw Ayesha and Stephen Curry talking about their Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation, which aims to help unlock the potential of children in Oakland and other communities. Shortly afterwards, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney asserted that "human rights are a business's business." Employees and customers increasingly expect it, she explained:

I think many companies ... from what I see, the employees have different expectations now. They want their company to be doing good in the world, or at least not complicit in evil. I think customers, clients just have that expectation. There's been this fundamental shift where I think people understand businesses can be a force for good, and increasingly they are expected to be that as well.

It was only after these contributions and others from celebrity chefs Guy Fieri and José Andrés about their humanitarian initiatives, and Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, who spoke about leadership and business transformation, that Bhusri finally returned to speak about Workday product strategy. Here he emphasized the centrality of data to business success. As he explained:

Data is a differentiator between leaders and laggards. What I mean by that is that those companies that can use data to get better leading indicators and more intelligent insights — which are served up by all these advances we're seeing in machine learning — they will pull ahead and be next-generation leaders.

Every company has a point where they're becoming the 2.0 version of themselves. I know that sounds corny, but we're all challenging the ways that we've operated and the systems we've relied upon in the past.

Continuous recalibration

As pretty much everyone realizes by now, the experience of the past year-and-a-half has increased the pressure for transformation because it has underlined the importance of agility. This in turn demands better access to up-to-date information, so that decisions can be based on the latest data. He elaborated:

The pandemic moved us into the mode of continuous recalibration. There was a time companies could do an annual plan, execute on that plan, check back at the end of the year and see how they did. That reality, which was only a few years ago, is now long gone. We're now in that plan-execute-analyze cycle that we repeat on a constant basis, because conditions are changing day by day.

In later sessions, customer stories provided real-world examples. In a retail industry discussion, Jenny York, Senior Director IT, ERP & PMO at specialty grocer chain Sprouts, spoke about the value of store leaders across its 360 outlets having visibility to financials at a time when they had to manage extra labor costs and bonuses for frontline workers and rising PPE expenses. Instead of having to wait until after the monthly close to get reports, they could track progress throughout the month. Meanwhile, as trading patterns changed, it was invaluable to be able to track the consolidated view. She explained:

Having our finger on the pulse of what that looked like at a consolidated level was extremely helpful. And then lastly, our e-commerce business grew exponentially from a very small percentage of our overall sales to a quite substantial percentage. Being able to track and monitor that with the agility that we did, kind of throwing it in and being able to get reports out on that spend, was really critical.

Closing the acceleration gap

For many companies, however, data remains trapped in separate systems across the business. Workday has coined a new phrase to describe this challenge. Bhusri continued:

We've coined this term, the 'acceleration gap'. Unfortunately, a lot of businesses are saddled with legacy systems that just can't keep up with today's needs. Data is sitting in siloed systems, processes are difficult to change and require an outside consultant and six-month lead time to even update the system. It takes five analysts to interpret what's happening with your forecasts. And it's running on stale data.

We need to move from a world when you were working for your data, to one where your data actually works for you.

This is a future that demands what diginomica would call a Frictionless Enterprise architecture, where data is able to flow freely between applications. Bhusri put it this way:

The next generation is data-infused applications, erasing boundaries to run businesses better. Think about this — is Workday planning an HR application? Is it a finance application? It shouldn't really matter. The next generation is about blurring the lines between applications that people need to run their businesses.

Other ingredients include the use of cloud apps that run on constantly evolving hyperscaler platforms, along with aggregated datasets across millions of users that can yield new insights and recommendations through machine learning. Even a company's soul can be calibrated with data, he argued:

I personally believe ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] is a version of companies having a soul. Our vision is that Workday is that data hub for ESG. Collect data across your organization, build strategy frameworks, ensure you're audit ready and report with confidence.

Workday already offers the ability to report on greenhouse gas emissions, measure belonging and diversity outcomes, and report metrics such as tax, board diversity, compensation and compliance training, he explained.

My take

This week's event provides an opportunity for Workday to elaborate on messaging that it first tested out in April, when it declared RIP ERP. That confrontational language is banished, but you won't hear the ERP acronym crossing the lips of Workday speakers during this week's event. The preferred term, introduced back in April, is the Workday 'enterprise management cloud', enabling 'data-infused applications'. That emphasis on the free flow of data is a sensible one, as it's a topic that's front-of-mind for enterprise IT leaders at the moment and one that plays to Workday's strengths — a point reinforced by today's news that Google is significantly expanding its use of Workday applications

Talking about 'soul' is also a place where Workday can make an authentic pitch, but it's one that it knows is front-of-mind for its HCM customers and prospects. Apart from the business case that Clooney cited, in terms of the ability to recruit and retain younger employees, being able to identify with a common purpose is one of the ways businesses can motivate and unify an increasingly distributed and diverse workforce in these turbulent times.

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