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Salesforce's Peter Doolan Reveals How AI Is Rocking Digital Transformation

How can enterprise companies leverage new AI capabilities without falling for the hype cycle or taking on excessive risk?

The "Trifecta of Change" — rapid advancements in AI technology, market volatility, and post-Covid work structures — has created a dynamic environment that demands adaptability and innovation from leaders.

The Overton Window has shifted. With generative AI and transformer technologies becoming mainstream, companies are expected to infuse AI capabilities into their products.

At Salesforce, Doolan talks about the Evolve Mindset, focusing on customer experience and employee impact—which can drive successful digital transformation in established companies by leveraging technology and harnessing the organization's superpower.

The last six months of explosive change in AI technology might make even the most seasoned leader feel like a freshman on the first day of university.

Not so for Peter Doolan, EVP of Digital Transformation & Innovation, who helps Salesforce customers harness this new technology at the enterprise level with EinsteinGPT, the world’s first AI for CRM.

Our conversation with Doolan takes place in a moment with so many variables, we’re calling it the "Trifecta of Change." First there’s the unprecedented rate of change in the technology, add to that the recent market volatility, and then there’s the tectonic shifts post-Covid in how work is structured.

Here, the two existential questions for every enterprise emerge: What are the viable use cases for AI? And how can they manage the risk without opting out completely, like Samsung?

Doolan’s answers lead to a broader theme: We’re entering a world where speed trumps size and drudgery of work is replaced with the thrill of innovation (maybe). Doolan envisions a future where companies are leaner and faster, and the capacity of each individual stretches beyond what was previously possible.

You mentioned that in light of the explosion of new AI capabilities the Overton Window has shifted for digital transformation. Can you explain this framework and how you make sense of these changes?

The Overton Window is a very simple framework, which says that societies have a window of what they believe is acceptable. It's acceptable for people to stop cars to stop on a crosswalk when the light goes red. If for some reason someone tries to take us outside of what we consider to be acceptable, it’s quickly rejected.

It's really important in the public sector, industry, and government, that policymakers understand where the window is in their constituency, what is acceptable or not acceptable, because it frames everything that you do, how you communicate, how you engage. And here we are: In the last couple of months, it feels like the Overton Window has fundamentally shifted in our industry.

What I'm talking about, of course, is generative AI and transformer technologies that are built upon prior decades of work, which we all kind of looked at but never really took that much attention to. Now all of a sudden, we're all AI experts. AI, which was once considered a fringe part of the IT industry is now mainstream.

And every single company is now supposed to have PhDs in machine learning and analytics and data, and to infuse all of that into your products. In fact, all products are expected to have quasi-magical features and capabilities that make the experience completely delightful compared to where it was in the past.

The world has gone from ordered to chaotic. I don't mean chaotic in a negative sense. I mean chaotic in a sense of changes happening constantly.

At every company on the planet there is a requirement to do more with less—from startups to the largest companies on the stock market. As a leader of growth and transformation for many years now at Salesforce, how do you drive the company forward to help implement that change in this environment?

I have a very simple framework that we’ve been using at Salesforce for about five years. We sort it into three, core leadership mindsets.

First is the Renovate Mindset. That means: pour some new technology over some old thinking. Fundamentally, the firm doesn’t change. That's the world where we most feel comfortable. Because we can refer back to what happened before. And it gives us a couple hundred basis points of improvement. This is where we get the acronym ROI: what's the return on investment for that piece of technology? You can go to business school and they'll teach you all about it.

Then there's a mindset of leaders who are impatient, they are audacious, they are looking for not just incremental change, they're looking for elemental orders of magnitude of change. Accelerating curves of change. And we call that a Transformational Mindset. Transformational mindsets work really well in Silicon Valley and for digital native companies—the Airbnbs and Netflixs of the world.

The transformation work mindset doesn’t tend to work very well in more established companies. You'll see this transformational leader come in, she or he will kick up a massive number of projects, lots of things will happen. Lots of outside partners will get involved. And I would say the success rate on that is not particularly good.

And why is that? Well, because they haven't understood the superpower of the company. The technology is interesting, but the people, the culture, the values are what really drive the core of a company. If you cannot harness that superpower, then you’re in real trouble, and you're gonna leave a lot of great people behind.

So we try to guide our customers to the Evolve Mindset. This moves away from the product-centric mindset and focuses on the experience of the customer. The human is at the center. When we see customers doing that for digital transformation—experience-led, human-led, empathy-led—that's when we see the take off moments for these companies.

This makes me reflect on the risk of doing technology for technology's sake, AI for AI’s sake. But you're saying that the timeless approach is to put the human at the center, and the technology comes second.

Look at all of the great durable brands that you can think of—what connects all of those brands? Whether they’re technology companies or consumer goods, airlines, rental car companies, hotels, fast food, fizzy water. Whatever it is, the durable brands, the ones that you are a raving fan for, they all put your experience at the center.

There’s one really important word we need to discuss at some point today, which is trust. With these new technologies, there are potential pitfalls for trust. AI opens up a challenge for all of us in the world of trust. The Overton Window may even elastically pull back a little bit because I think right now we're at the pinnacle of the hype cycle. When the consumers begin to realize how these technologies actually work, trust is going to be stressed.

Salesforce has been extremely fast in terms of positioning itself, vis a vis AI. But let’s say I’m leading an enterprise company, I don't know how to even get started on AI. What should I think about?

Great question. This feels like an 1864 moment. A gold rush to California moment. But this cannot be a gold rush for technology. This is not about being first. It's about doing it right.

We are all becoming very savvy technology users, both enterprise technology and consumer technology. It's not 10 years ago, when we were wowed by the first eCommerce websites that remembered who we were because of cookies. We are now much more sophisticated, our brains have been trained by very sophisticated supercomputers behind social media platforms.

This is a much more informed and aware consumer base. Trap number one to not fall into is the technology race to the bottom.

Start with the customer. Start with the experience and work your way back. Don't work from the product out. Work from the experience in. That requires you to really ask different questions.

As you're looking at transformation projects, how much is going toward automating, simplifying, and executing a digital design-led strategy for the customer experience? Then take the other half of your budget and invest it in the employee experience. So if I can do that in balance, you lead your company toward an evolved mindset where at every level the employees see the impact of the project, the customer sees the impact of the project, and it's a flywheel. It starts to accelerate.

Which can reduce the drudgery for employees, cutting down on mundane tasks.

Every Slack message is a very well labeled piece of information. We know who it was coming from and going to, we know it's probably linked to a case, a lead, an opportunity, an issue. Well, I can now feed that into a large language model that starts to guide the employee to reduce their drudgery to make it easier for them to get to the point we all want to get to, which is a high touch conversation, or interaction with a customer.

And the customer, likewise, is impatient. We're in a war for their attention. It's so hard to build trust in the first place and so quick and easy to lose it. But every interaction has to have this continuity where you know who I am, and you know how to communicate with me. And these generative AI are augmenting the way that we can provide these services.

It is a renaissance moment for the CRM industry. I genuinely believe this.

Not every company owns a product like Slack. But many large companies today have a plethora of data that used to be extremely expensive to extract intelligence from because you have to structure it. And today, with AI, it doesn't require that much of an upfront investment to start getting value. How do you think about that?

Every company out there has lots of data. If you have had Salesforce for more than just a few months, you have an extraordinary amount of well-labeled data. We took EinsteinGPT to the market as quickly as humanly possible. Why? Because I believe that we're entering into a new technology, an arms race for companies.

Technology is no longer limited to human speed. It's now at a digital speed. And therefore, our thought process is very simple. We believe that the fastest companies will succeed, not the biggest companies, or the most technologically advanced companies. It's the fastest companies.

If you have that evolve mindset, you realize you're sitting on a goldmine of information that you come at this with a beginner's mind outside and human force first empathetic mindset, you will pick the right projects to invest in. You will not renovate that old system and pour AI over the top of it. Instead, you'll reimagine that experience.

How do you build a company for speed?

I don't know about you, but I hate bad websites. I hate bad commerce experiences. I hate bad service experiences. I don't like being asked at the hotel if I stayed here before. I mean, I don't like buying cars, or having a mortgage, or going to the DMV, and having these horrible, horrible experiences.

For a long time, we kind of said, Well, you know what, that's just the way the technology is. It's going to incrementally evolve over time. It'll slightly get better.

The Evolve Mindset kicks in the antibodies of innovation and transformation. All of a sudden, the speed of change can actually happen very, very quickly.

Which means there's some fear and trepidation about these technologies. Only last week, there was a meeting of CEOs here in North America, and CEO after CEO got up and talked about how they had deployed these technologies already today in production, technologies that didn't even exist six or seven weeks ago. These are global brand companies. I was blown away.

So why is that important? When we did big technology shifts over the last 20-30 years, they took months, years, even whole careers to take hold. Certain technologies would take three or four years to get to an adoption rate of 100 million users. These technologies we're talking about right now are taking days and weeks and months to get to 100 million users. So there's something fundamentally different. It’s going to be an exciting time over the next couple of months to see the world change around us.

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