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Workday Rising 2019 - Machine learning holds the key to a changing world

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 15, 2019
Machine learning takes center stage at Workday Rising 2019 as the finance and HCM vendor unveils automation tools for a changing world

Aneel Bhusri at Workday Rising 2019

Workday has unveiled a big move to harness machine learning in product announcements at its annual Workday Rising conference today. Highlights include new automation tools for finance teams, a personalized user experience in its people tools, a new talent mobility offering based on a skills graph, and a blockchain-based system for automatically verifying credentials.

In the event's opening keynote, CEO Aneel Bhusri reiterated his view that adoption of machine learning is becoming an existential imperative for enterprises:

It's very clear that this is the way the world's headed. [Machine learning] will automate tasks and save time.

If you don't embrace it as a company, I personally believe your companies will be left in the dust, this is such an important technology. If your competitor's using machine learning to make better business decisions, better product decisions, moving faster, and you're not, you're going to have a hard time competing.

In a fast-paced, one-hour keynote interspersed with prerecorded customer testimonials on video, Bhusri and colleagues proceeded to explain how the new machine learning capabilities built into Workday's forthcoming products would help save its customers from that fate.

Big data and machine learning in finance and HR

Several announcements bring the fruits of Workday's big data analytics platform, Prism Analytics, into its core applications to help automate repetitive processes, along with machine learning.

  • Workday Accounting Center is based on an accounting rules engine that will automatically post operational transactions from third party applications such as loan origination or claim systems into the GL as journals. Reports and analysis can be run with full access to associated data from the external system.
  • Discovery Boards will be made freely available to both Financials and HCM customers. This drag-and-drop data discovery capability makes it easy to create reports. Early adopters report that it cuts the amount of time it takes to create a report by three quarters, says Pete Schlampp, General Manager of Workday Analytics.
  • Several traditionally labor-intensive processes in finance are automated using machine learning, including supplier invoice automation, applying OCR to identify data in expenses submitted via Slack, or detecting anomalies in accounting entries as they occur.
  • New features in Adaptive Insights use machine learning to catch potential data entry errors in plans. There's also deeper integration with Adaptive Insights, allowing the publication of budget plans direct to Workday Financials, or the automatic creation of open positions in Workday HCM once headcount budgets are approved. Planning has also been boosted by new elastic cube infrastructure so that analysis can scale to match the needs of Workday's larger customers.
  • Workday People Analytics, first announced last year, builds on Prism to deliver insights from data using natural language. A similar capability is in the works for Financials.

People Experience and a skills graph

A new adaptive user experience in Workday HCM called People Experience uses machine learning to personalize what a user sees at any time, and which learns from interactions to improve the accuracy and relevance of the experience over time. It provides contextualized information, including guidance in career development and personalized content.

There is also a digital assistant which provides answers to questions directly from an integrated knowledge base or can create tickets in a built-in case management system. Building on previously announced integrations, the UX can also be accessed from within Slack or Microsoft Teams. There's a big emphasis on providing help and guidance in the form of short video clips.

Two new applications build on a skills graph that Workday has been building out over the past few years. Skills Insights is a new feature in Workday HCM that lets HR managers evaluate the skills they have available within their organization and what gaps exist. Early adopter Patagonia reports a rise from 28% to 73% in skills information on its employee population as a result of using the machine learning built into the application.

A second app, Talent Marketplace, facilitates internal mobility by matching employee skills gaps and interests with potential opportunities within the organization. At launch the application supports temporary assignments to internal projects, with plans to extend it in the future to add internal job transfers and connections into external talent communities.

Building the muscle of continuous adoption

As trailed earlier this year, Workday has also introduced Workday Credentials, a blockchain-based platform for automating the validation of an individual's credentials such as their qualifications and experience. Workday customers can now use the platform to issue credentials to employees, enabling validation of their qualifications, identity and experience. When moving to another employer who uses the same platform, individuals will be able to have those credentials automatically validated.

Workday also launched the Wayto application, which gives individuals control over who can access to credentials. All Rising attendees are able to download and try out the app, with their Rising attendance as their first credential. This is notable as Workday's first venture into a consumer application. It already has 13,000 users and a potential user base of 40 million in the Workday ecosystem.

The keynote ended with Emily McEvilly, SVP Global Customer Services, announcing new initiatives to help customers "build this new muscle of continuous adoption" so that they can get the most out of their Workday instances. She spoke about new templates and customer configuration in the Customer Central portal to help jumpstart productive adoption.

She also revealed a new offering of Workday Success Plans, which will help customers map a path towards achieving their goals with Workday. This is a response to customers feeling they're not keeping up with the functionality Workday has to offer:

No matter how skilled your team is we've heard that sometimes you may need help and keeping up with all the innovations that we're delivering ...

Yes, change is hard, but we're your partner here to support you at every step of your journey in a way that makes the most sense for your organization and your people. The partnership is a two way street. While Workday, we commit to delivering innovative products and services to help you thrive in this changing world, I want to ask all of you to make a commitment to unlock the untapped value that's waiting for you in the Workday applications.

My take

There was a lot of detail to digest here — Workday is elaborating further in product keynotes today and tomorrow — but the overall message was delivered briskly. The format made for a well paced keynote that covered a lot of ground in just 70 minutes. It was good to see several customers validating the messages, but they were all brought on as video clips which helped maintain the pace.

The overall theme though may be difficult for customers to swallow. Workday is not pulling any punches with its message of constant change and the need to harness machine learning to keep up. But that may be forcing a pace that customers are not yet ready to adopt. It's no accident that the keynote ended with a pitch for services to help customers adjust more rapidly to what's coming down the pipe.

As I noted when I had my first glimpse earlier this year of what it has planned, Workday is going to have to work hard to bring its customers along the path it has mapped out for them. It is prodding them towards the future at a much faster pace than I've seen from other enterprise application vendors.

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