Salesforce.com and Innovation – Are Trailhead and Einstein Enough?

You know you’re on to something as a vendor when people show up to a keynote and give your speaker a raucous standing ovation when she walks on to the stage. It’s even more significant when you’re ramping up a populist developer program and your audience of developers act like they’d happily march off a cliff, if only their leader would tell them to do so.

This was the reaction when Sarah Franklin, who heads developer relations at Salesforce.com and is the GM of the company’s pioneering Trailhead developer engagement program, hit the stage at Dreamforce for the first-ever Trailhead keynote. Her applause was well-earned – Trailhead has emerged as the most energetic and engaged community of developers in the enterprise software space, particularly among Salesforce.com’s enterprise platform competitors, the likes of Infor, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP, among others.

But being first in energy, enthusiasm, and even hyperbole – Salesforce.com loves to brag about the near trillion dollar potential impact of Trailhead and its ability, potentially, to create 3.3 million jobs by 2020  — doesn’t mean Salesforce.com has its innovation strategy problems licked. On the contrary. What all this enthusiasm and interest in Trailhead has exposed is a fundamental weakness in the overall Salesforce.com platform/ecosystem strategy that needs to be fixed. Or Trailhead and its Trailblazers will be relegated to enabling a mere slice of the vast innovation potential that exists in the enterprise.

The weakness? A too-narrow focus on CRM for Trailhead and the company’s foundational platform and development technologies that limits who will be using Salesforce.com’s innovation technology and what that technology can be applied to. It’s a weakness that is, so far, too deeply entrenched in the DNA of the company – starting with its stock ticker symbol, CRM – to be easily remedied. But, without a remedy, Salesforce and its Einstein and Trailhead initiatives will fail to reach their potential, and that won’t be good for the company and its partners. Customers, on the other hand, probably won’t care – which is all the more reason the problem needs to be solved soon.

The problem of who develops innovation is part of the industry-wide shift to using technologies such as AI, ML, and IoT – though these three technologies are really proxies for all the coming net-new innovation in the enterprise. The “who develops” problem is about the fact that innovation is being led, or at least partially led, by experts in lines of business who are being tapped to define and help develop the next transformational business process or app. These experts are gravitating to a combination of design thinking workshops and citizen-developer tools as a way of embodying innovation in new apps: Pretty much everything I see that is transformational is coming from this grass-roots effort inside the enterprise. IT is no longer the default starting place for innovation, though IT is generally taking a seat at the table when it’s time to do some of the plumbing and inside wiring that is needed to move from concept to working app.

From a vendor standpoint, the formula for success in this new paradigm of innovation starts with having a IaaS/PaaS platform, and some great developer tools, and Salesforce.com has this down pat. You also need a decent and always growing innovation platform, and Einstein is arguably as good or better than most. And you need access to existing data and business processes that, at a minimum, can be used as a starting point for building new killer apps and processes. Derivative and additive are perhaps the best way to describe many of the newly emergent apps coming out of digital transformation efforts: they’re build on top of a combination existing and newly available data and processes. Very little transformation starts from a truly blank slate.

And this is where being the best CRM platform in the industry – a point co-founder Parker Harris insists on being one of the polestars of the company – and having the best engagement model for CRM developers, starts to fall short.

The seeds of digital transformation have to come from across the enterprise, and the resulting apps will span the enterprise as well. One of the most basic starting points for digital transformation is the breaking down of functional silos and the creation of cross-enterprise capabilities, and that means no single line of business will be in the lead all the time. For CRM-related transformations, those Salesforce admins who make up the bulk of the Trailhead membership could be the ones taking point, but they won’t necessarily be able to digitally transform the warehouse, the shop floor, finance, logistics, and other domains. That transformation will need input and support from experts in those LOBs, not Salesforce.com’s CRM admins.

To be fair, not all Trailhead developers are Salesforce admins, and not all developers look to Trailhead for guidance and inspiration. Heroku, a Salesforce platform, is used by a lot of startups and developer groups for building innovative apps that have nothing to do with CRM, and the company is increasingly opening up Trailhead and other developer resources to embrace the professional developer class.

Nonetheless, professional developer tools aren’t enough of a solution to the limits of a CRM-only focus. You need citizen developer tools in the hands of LOB experts – or at least wielded by teams that include these LOB experts – to truly realize the potential of  home-grown digital innovation. And for those apps that potentially span multiple LOBs, even if the transformation is skewed heavily towards CRM, a CRM platform isn’t necessarily going to be the go-to platform that bridges those silos: The experts in those silos will have their own most-favored platform – which won’t be a CRM system – and they’ll be wanting to use their own platform tools to build their innovative apps.

Remember that account control is a myth across the enterprise software market. Virtually all medium to large-size enterprises have multiple enterprise software systems – the overlap between Salesforce.com and Oracle or SAP is huge. And they increasingly have multiple platforms as well, including Azure, AWS, Google Cloud Platform, and others that are also competing for the hearts and minds of developers. The result is that winning – as in getting a customer to build digital transformation apps on a given platform – isn’t going to be about which vendor has the best technology stack. It’s about how many developers you can bring to a given platform vendor’s digital transformation party.

To be fair, the problem of enticing and connecting with future digital transformation developers is shared equally by Salesforce.com’s platform competitors. SAP has a huge presence in many LOBs in many companies, but there are plenty of LOBs that don’t use and may not even like SAP. Same with Microsoft: tons of presence all over the enterprise, but not every LOB is ready to use Azure as its dev platform. As proof of how no one has a lock on innovation, I have seen the same elevator company logo on presentations about distinct digital transformation apps from both SAP and Microsoft. Different parts of the company follow different polestars and therefore use different technologies to advance them towards their innovation goals. That’s going to be what the evolution of digital transformation will look like for the next few years, if not forever.

But at least SAP and Microsoft (and Infor) are present in multiple LOBs. Salesforce.com is another case altogether: I think it’s safe to say you won’t find a Salesforce user, much less a Salesforce admin-cum-developer, hanging out in non-sales and service LOBs ready to tackle digital innovation projects. They may be at the table – and probably should be – when the transformation at hand touches CRM, services, marketing, or any of the target LOBs that Parker’s “best CRM platform” encompasses. But will they be able to direct the development effort towards Einstein and Lightning, instead of SAP’s Leonardo and Fiori, or Microsoft’s PowerApps and Azure, or IBM’s Watson or Infor’s Coleman for an app that isn’t primarily focused on enhancing a core CRM function? It’s not likely if they’re using a CRM platform and CRM-focused tools.

This scenario is why I say that the customer won’t care one way or the other. They’ll get their apps built no matter what, using what someone in the target LOB thinks is the best platform for the job. Only their vendor will care… And the IT department, which has to make sure the new app makes technical sense and may try to influence this choice, though their influence will be limited.

What’s the solution to Salesforce’s innovation problem? That’s going to be tricky – developing a presence in the LOBs not touched by Salesforce.com won’t be easy. There are some partners that can help – FinancialForce is a good example of an LOB-focused product set that can help Trailhead and Einstein reach other LOBs, like finance and professional services. But that probably won’t be enough to make a huge difference without some air cover from the mother ship.

Salesforce.com could definitely take a page out of SAP’s Leonardo book and showcase as wide a range of examples of innovation as possible with Einstein and other tools, emphasizing, as is possible, the applicability of the Salesforce approach outside its core LOB. I was recently at SAP’s latest Leonardo Live event, and it was the first time Leonardo was presented by showcasing a number of truly amazing new apps, instead of just going on about the theory of what Leonardo could do. Assuming Salesforce can prove its mettle in non-CRM lines of business, this will be a credible first step towards a broader developer base.

The company could also buy its way into other LOBs, though the existing candidates that could make a difference are becoming increasingly hard to find. Or it could make a more concerted push to build use cases for its platform outside CRM, and try to show by example why a new warehouse management system should be built on a Salesforce platform, instead of something else. Maybe there’s even a way to put more CRM into the warehouse that would make Salesforce.com’s tools the logical choice. Maybe.

Of course Salesforce could just hunker down and focus on being the very best CRM platform provider – and there’s a wealth of opportunity out there in CRM-land. But I’m doubtful the company’s leadership would be content stopping there, and it’s not really a good idea to cast so narrow a shadow. The universe of potential transformative apps and processes that touch CRM is huge, but it would only be huge enough if Salesforce.com can expect to capture a decent percent of that potential. My concern is that those apps won’t necessarily be seen as CRM apps, any more than a next-gen asset maintenance app won’t necessarily be seen as an ERP app. And Salesforce.com’s big developer bet will hit a wall it can’t get through.

It would be a shame to see the best developer engagement program in the industry hit this kind of wall, but without some effort to be more than just the best CRM platform in the industry, I believe it will. Sarah Franklin will probably still get the applause, and the job creation stats for Trailhead will probably still be impressive, and the examples of how CRM can be extended using AI, ML, and IoT will grow at a decent pace . But if Salesforce.com’s platform play is going to be the vehicle for expanding outside of the company’s CRM base, and growing net new revenue, and otherwise challenging its big competitors in this new digital transformation battlefield, then something will have to change. CRM as an acronym doesn’t really tell the story of where digital transformation has to go. And having the best and most engaging CRM developer story simply won’t be enough. Salesforce.com, Trailhead, Einstein, and the rest will have to figure out a way to do more. Or settle for less.

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