Salesforce evangelist talks AI, AR innovation

Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist, Salesforce

In a recent visit to Toronto, Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist at Salesforce, sat down with InsightaaS to share some thoughts on the technology forces that are driving enterprise innovation, and the challenges and opportunities for CIOs looking forward.  An engineer and inventor, Afshar has gained expertise in a variety of technology areas, ranging from networking and infrastructure to CRM and IoT. Over time, he has become a recognized expert in digital business transformation, with interest in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and mixed reality. Excerpts from his conversation with InsightaaS are presented below.

Denise Deveau:  What do you feel are the overarching areas of technology that will challenge executives in the months to come?

Vala Afshar: At a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum, we tried to formulate a thesis around the fourth Industrial Revolution and the technologies shaping it. Out of that came the belief that AI will be the definitive technology of the 21st century, whether it’s in manufacturing or, as in our case, CRM.

Innovation moving forward is not about a chatbot or mobile app. It’s about understanding customer needs, which requires mass customization that can scale. That’s simply not possible without AI. If by 2020 a company does not have AI as part of its sales, marketing and/or service, they will be “Netflixed” or “Amazoned” out of existence.

In today’s world, no company is immune to disruption. You only need to consider the fact that 52 percent of Fortune 500 companies have disappeared since 2000. If companies fail to react to industry changes and stick with a product line that is currently generating profits, they will often ignore disruptive technologies.

Deveau: What gaps exist today?

Afshar: A key challenge is the significant educational gap. Studies have shown that 59 percent of companies are not ready for AI, IoT, 3D printing and a number of other technologies that will shape the future. Companies will need to bridge the digital divide through training. Salesforce, for its part, has invested in a free online learning program called Trailhead that provides free training on basics such as machine learning to increase adoption.

Predictive analytics capabilities is another emerging area. Analytics has long been about describing the past. AI will helps us move from descriptive use of analytics to why things happened (diagnostics) to what will happen tomorrow (predictive analytics). Those algorithms will allow us to gain insight into what customers will desire tomorrow, and what the businesses need to do to make that a reality.

Deveau: What is happening on the augmented and virtual reality front and why does that matter?

Afshar: There’s a reason why virtual and augmented reality is generating so much interest. Just about every industry – including higher education, healthcare and financial – is looking into it.

Consider sports and entertainment. There’s talk about stadiums using virtual reality so ticket purchasers can get a sense of where they want to be seated land the quality of sound prior to a concert.

One of our clients, Oral Roberts University is using mixed reality images to enhance complex subjects like biology and chemistry. There are large retailers using virtual reality to teach home improvement best practices in store.

Some organizations are now working with virtual and augmented reality for installation and training of field staff; and automobile manufacturers are using it with potential buyers so they can get a better sense of the look feel and sound of the car they are considering purchasing.

Deveau: What are the barriers to adoption?

Afshar: The good news is, there is an abundance of options. However companies need to adopt a beginner’s mindset as part of their cultural DNA. The reality is people are not afraid of failure. They are afraid of blame. So when exploring new technologies, do you have a safe space where people can experiment? A common theme I am seeing in Canada is separating innovation into a digital lab or innovation Centre of Excellence.

The next barrier is talent shortages. McKinsey estimates that by 2020, there will be a shortage of 186,000 data scientists in the US alone. That means apps of the future will have to be powered by AI because businesses won’t have the budget or capabilities in terms of manpower.

The third is the technology itself. There are tweaks that will need to take place. For example, with augmented and virtual reality, they are working on issues around reading comfort, motion sickness and wireless connectivity. But when we get to the promise of 5G networks, there will be massive disruption.

Deveau: Any final thoughts?

Afshar: The most innovative companies in the world know that it’s not about modernizing existing legacy infrastructure or a product or service innovation. It’s about business model innovation. Classic examples of this include Uber, Airbnb, AWS and Netflix – all business models that generated incremental sources of revenue from net new channels.

The problem is, all too often we talk about shiny objects, rather than outcomes. Experience has shown that it is better to reverse engineer from anticipated outcomes to understand how to develop your technology investment.

One last thing. Succession planning will change. Considering the challenges that lie ahead, I believe the CIO is poised to be the next CEO, because they are both tech savvy and have the planning experience.



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