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The Connected Enterprise

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New Plateaus of Productivity: Alex Rooney on Machine Learning, Automation, Mobility, and the Future of Enterprise Technology

Posted by Vision33 on May 9, 2019 4:15:43 PM

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Carl: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast, where our guests share how they stay connected in their business lives.

Carl: I'm your host, Carl Lewis from Vision33, and today my guest is Alex Rooney, also from Vision33. So, Alex, welcome. Glad to have you on the podcast. Tell us about your background and work at Vision33.

Alex: Hey Carl. Thanks for having me. I’m actually a transplanted Canadian, but I've lived in Southern California for 20+ years. Academically, I come from an education, or an engineering background from an education perspective. I drifted more to business development from a sales and marketing perspective.

Alex: At Vision33, I run our American-based SAP solutions team. I’m responsible for approximately 14 SAP solutions teams across America.

Carl: That sounds like it keeps you busy.

Alex: Very busy.

Carl: Well, Alex, you're involved in the daily parts of the business – the details and things like that – but you're also strategically involved in what's happening in IT and our industry at large, and you talk with high-level people about long-term planning and such. What I want to know is: what do people want to get ahead of so they're building longevity into their businesses?

Alex: I'm a co-founder of Vision33, and I spend my time thinking about the next three to five years and what they mean for Vision33. I look back at our first 15 years, where we went from being a small organization to a global organization with over 400 people on two continents. I think about what's next and keep track of trends.

Alex: I do it in several ways. One, I participate in a global partner executive counsel with SAP, so we get global exposure with SAP leadership, and we understand where SAP, as a business application software publisher, is heading. I get valuable information I use for Vision33’s strategic planning. I spend as much time as I can with our customers to learn where they're taking their business and their goals so we can, as a consulting organization, help map direction to their needs.

Alex: Our industry moves fast. Business application software, if you look back through the last couple of decades, it was about business process automation within our own ecosystems – making things more efficient and automating things to run your business daily. Ten years ago, we talked more about the digital transformation … Web 2.0, mobile came into play, analytics, what do we do with this data, how do we glean information from it to make better business decisions? And now, the trend is the ‘intelligent enterprise,’ which you call the ‘connected enterprise.’

Alex: I was just in Silicon Valley at a two-day conference. We visited some of the AI work there, artificial intelligence from Google and Videa, and trends we try to translate back to our business applications – how do we use natural language and voice communication? How is that changing the industry? What trends are based on that? Examples are what we're doing with Honeywell, such as voice automation in a warehouse. Those are the trends our customers are interested in.

Alex: Machine learning, big buzz word. There's a tremendous amount of activity, with thousands of startups in Silicon Valley as we speak. There's a lot of venture capital. How it monetizes in the small to medium space will manifest itself in many ways. Some of the big tech giants are early adopters of the technologies. Google, Facebook, etc. And SAP, for example, has its Leonardo studio, which is about taking advantages of artificial intelligence. But there’s a lot of debate about how that will trickle down to the small to medium space. It's hard to interpret how it will manifest, but there's a lot of chatter about that right now.

Carl: When you talk about things changing – when you and I first met, we both used Blackberries! I haven't even seen one in a while.

Alex: They're still out there.

Carl: With machine learning in particular, there’s a lot of interest. What do you see as the big challenges for small to medium businesses as they look at deploying these things?

Alex: Part of the challenge is resources. You need data scientists, which is a category of IT that specializes in data and helps interpret the petabytes of data into meaningful things.

Alex: But I think, as it becomes more commercialized and we skip the hype and get down to tangible applications, you can use some of the data to make meaningful business decisions. When I was in Silicon Valley, we had an artificial intelligence/machine learning presentation at Google. They tried to make the point that the tools are readily available and, at a simplistic level, they're even available to you and me, to the average person.

Alex: It fascinated me when they showed us, rudimentarily of course, a basic example using four relatively available tools. Twitter, Slack, Monkey Learns (a machine learning platform available online), and an application called Zapier. We saw how a user took information from Twitter, organized it on Slack, put the data through the Monkey Learns algorithm, and then created “Zaps” in the Zapier application. With just these four readily available cloud applications, users can filter tweets into meaningful information about marketing problems they’re trying to solve.

Alex: Here’s an example: a sunglasses company had an excess supply and was looking for trends as to where they could unload that inventory quickly. You might think, “Everyone wears sunglasses. Send them to Miami and they'll sell fast. Send them to Palm Springs, etc.” But the algorithms of the machine learning came up with a result you wouldn't expect. Now, you being a Pacific Northwest guy, what is Seattle not known for?

Carl: Well, it’s known for rain, not sunshine.

Alex: Right – so the data was almost counterintuitive because it said they could unload the sunglasses at the beginning of summer in the Pacific Northwest because, in the sunny areas, everyone carries their sunglasses all the time. I live in Southern California; I always have a pair of sunglasses with me. But in Seattle, you can go so long without seeing the sun that, when the sun comes out, you probably lost them or don't have them handy, so you buy new ones.

Carl: I drive a convertible, so I always have my sunglasses handy, too.

Alex: The other interesting example was that in grocery stores, putting the beer next to the diapers was a good way to sell more beer. The guys with small kids in diapers figure, “If I'm going to change diapers, I deserve beer, too!”

Carl: That's funny. So, all those things are on the horizon, and if we learn to use them, we'll make decisions to benefit the products we sell – in theory. But what's going to make them work consistently well?

Alex: I think it's anything in technology. You go through these pivots, and if you follow DARPA, they always track the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment, the plateaus of productivity. These trends will follow the same way where there's a lot of hype – there are a lot of companies making a lot of acquisitions. The acquisitions at AI today are incredible in Silicon Valley and California in general. These companies buy talent and know-how because time to market is essential.

Alex: We’ll eventually evolve and, through the power of entrepreneurship and capitalism, we’ll discover which technologies work well, and we can build a commercial model around them. I think we’re at a peak of inflated expectations around machine learning, but we're still two to three years away from some of the mainstream stuff you asked about.

Carl: Those years go by faster than anybody can imagine, though. So, it feels like it’s around the corner.

Carl: Let's talk about the daily life of Alex Rooney. You had the nickname 'Crackberry' at one time, but you can't have that without a Blackberry – so how is most of your personal business communication done today? Is it changing?

Alex: I do 60 to 70% of my daily business on my mobile device because I travel a lot. I always think, “Do I need my laptop for this, or can I handle it on a mobile device?” And as we look at technology investments for our company, I think of it through a similar lens.

Alex: We're an interesting study at Vision33 because if you look at how we used to conduct business – say, five years ago – we were a model of the whole best-of-suite argument in terms of the business application; back in the day when you ran all your support programs, we did it all in SAP Business One.

Carl: Yep.

Alex: We did everything in Business One because Business One is our core product offering and our area of expertise, so we wanted to practice what we preach. But as the years have gone by, Business One has become a digital core. This platform we migrated to the cloud, which enabled us to almost take on a best-of-breed approach as opposed to a best-of-suite approach. The cloud allowed us to do that, which enabled me to do more business on a mobile phone.

Alex: Today Business One is the heart and soul and central nervous system of our entire enterprise, but we do project management on a cloud application called SmartSheets, which I run on my mobile. I can see the health of over a thousand projects. We use HubSpot as our cloud-based CRM, which I access on a mobile device and shows me all our deals and all our business lines across all 25 offices in North America and Europe. We use Zendesk to support our 1,000+ SAP customers and our enterprise and E-Government customers, which I can also access on a mobile device.

Alex: Those examples speak to our transformation as an organization and how we do our communication today. That's how it's changed.

Carl: Sometimes I find myself sitting in front of my laptop and still answering something on my mobile device because it's more convenient, even if I'm right in front of the bigger screen.

Alex: We have a portfolio on our IP, and that's a core part of our strategy, too – whenever we look at developing a piece of IP, we look at it through a lens of, “How is this going to work in a mobile world, too?” Which sounds like common sense, but it's not always how people think with business application software, especially at the consumer level. But the consumer experience has almost driven the business experience.

Carl: Yeah, it feels like we're catching up with that demand. Definitely mobility is at the core of this, but what are some of the challenging parts? You still have to communicate and collaborate with people outside and inside the organization. What's the most challenging part of communicating and collaborating with critical people at critical times?

Alex: Time zones are challenging; for example, I had a meeting with the UK team this morning. You have to get in early in California to overlap the end of their day. We get an hour together overlap, basically. And then it's outside business hours. So, if you require voice to voice and real-time interaction, that's an obstacle. And technology hasn't brought us a time zone equalizer yet.

Carl: I'm not sure how we'll solve that one! We talk about the connected enterprise – everyone's trying to automate things. Make stuff happen faster (with less overhead), be more efficient, drive scale better. Are there places in Vision33 we’ve succeeded in automating our business relationships and transactions?

Alex: Absolutely. A big part of success is continuous growth, year over year, with the ability to automate and establish processes. You know our president, Tony Whalen, and his operations team have done a brilliant job in terms of making our organization tick to the extent possible in the GAR business, but, automation end to end, we eat, sleep, and breathe it. We deploy a lot of the genesis for our own intellectual property in our portfolio as a necessity. A simple example is expense report automation. Remember when it was spreadsheet-based? Now it's online through cloud applications and workflow automation.

Alex: Things like that bring great value to our organization; we can measure that. Then we go out and figure out how to make that productive and say, hey, other companies could benefit from these automations. And we have, too. One of our core values is "We believe in the promise of technology." That could mean many things to many people, but what it means for Vision33 is that we pledge that technology can improve your business. And improvement can be measured in many ways. It can be that the no-brainers and instant answers are more efficient and more profitable.

Carl: Yep.

Alex: But it's even more. It's about employee satisfaction and giving competent people the right tools to deliver a great service to the customer. That's a core tenant of the promise of technology, so it's baked into our DNA, and it's in everything we do. But we're not done yet.

Carl: The change is too fast. We'll hear the next thing probably next week.

Carl: This has been a great conversation. You and I don't get to sit down and talk about these things often.

Alex: You should have me back.

Carl: I will sometime. And I'm sure many people will appreciate the things you spoke about today and enjoy learning about Vision33's perspective on the world. It's easy for podcasts to get long, but we try to keep them short. I'm thankful for everyone listening today.

Carl: And just one piece of advice – stay connected.

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