Monday, December 21, 2020

The Future of Work is Happening Now Thanks to Digital Workplace Services

A transcript of a discussion on how Unisys, Dell Technologies, and their partners provide the time-proof means to secure applications intelligently regardless of location, device, or network.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Unisys and Dell Technologies.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect.

Businesses, schools, and governments have all had to rethink the proper balance between in-person and remote work. And because that balance is a shifting variable -- and may well continue to be for years after the pandemic -- it remains essential that the underlying technology be especially agile.

Stay with us now as we explore how a partnership behind a digital workplace services solution delivers a sliding scale of sorts for blended work scenarios. We’ll learn how Unisys, Dell, and their partners provide the time-proof means to secure applications intelligently -- regardless of location.

We’ll also hear how an increasingly powerful automation capability makes the digital workplace easier to attain and support.

To learn more about the latest in cloud-delivered desktop modernization, please join me in welcoming our guests. We’re here with Weston Morris, Global Strategy, Digital Workplace Services, Enterprise Services, at Unisys. Welcome, Weston.

Weston Morris: It’s great to be here, Dana. I look forward to the conversation.

We’re also here with Araceli Lewis, Global Alliance Lead for Unisys at Dell Technologies. Welcome, Araceli.

Araceli Lewis: Thank you, Dana. I’m so excited to be here with you all.

Gardner: Weston, what are the trends, catalysts, and requirements transforming how desktops and apps are delivered these days?

Morris: We’ve all lived through the hype of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Every year for the last eight or nine years has supposedly been the year of VDI. And this is the year it’s going to happen, right? It had been a slow burn. And VDI has certainly been an important part of the “bag of tricks” that IT brings to bear to provide workers with what they need to be productive.

COVID sends enterprises to cloud

But since the beginning of 2020, we’ve all seen -- because of the COVID-19 pandemic – VDI brought to the forefront in the importance of having an alternative way of delivering a digital workplace to workers. This has been especially important in environments where enterprises had not invested in mobility, the cloud, or had not thought about making it possible for user data to reside outside of their desktop PCs.


Those enterprises had a very difficult time moving to a work-from-home (WFH) model -- and they struggled with that. Their first instinct was, “Oh, I need to buy a bunch of laptops.” Well, everybody wanted laptops at the beginning of the pandemic, and secondly, they were being made in China mostly -- and those factories were shut down. It was impossible to buy a laptop unless you had the foresight to do that ahead of time.

And that’s when the “aha” moment came for a lot of enterprises. They said, “Hey, cloud-based virtual desktops -- that sounds like the answer, that’s the solution.” And it really is. They could set that up very quickly by spinning up essentially the digital workplace in the cloud and then having their apps and data stream down securely from the cloud to their end users anywhere. That’s been the big “aha” moment that we’ve had as we look at our customer base and enterprises across the world. We’ve done it for our own internal use.

Gardner: Araceli, it sounds like some verticals and in certain organizations they may have waited too long to get into the VDI mindset. But when the pandemic hit, they had to move quickly.

What is about the digital workplace services solution that you all are factoring together that makes this something that can be done quickly?

Lewis: It’s absolutely true that the pandemic elevated digital workplace technology from being a nice-to-have, or a luxury, to being an absolute must-have. We realized after the pandemic struck that public sector, education, and more parts of everyday work needed new and secure ways of working remotely. And it had to become instantaneously available for everyone.

You had every C-level executive across every industry in the United States shifting to the remote model within two weeks to 30 days, and it was also needed globally. Who better than Dell on laptops and these other endpoint devices to partner with Unisys globally to securely deliver digital workspaces to our joint customers? Unisys provided the security capabilities and wrapped those services around the delivery, whereas we at Dell have the end-user devices.

You had every C-level executive across every industry in the U.S. shifting to the remote model within two weeks to 30 days, and it was also needed globally. Unisys provided the security capabilities and wrapped those services around delivery, whereas Dell had the end-user devices.

What we’ve seen is that the digitalization of it all can be done in the comfort of everyone’s home. You’re seeing them looking at x-rays, or a nurse looking into someone’s throat via telemedicine, for example. These remote users are also able to troubleshoot something that might be across the world using embedded reality, virtual reality (VR) embedded, and wearables.

We merged and blended all of those technologies into this workspaces environment with the best alliance partners to deliver what the C-level executives wanted immediately.

Gardner: The pandemic has certainly been an accelerant, but many people anticipated more virtual delivery of desktops and apps as inevitable. That’s because when you do it, you get other timely benefits, such as flexible work habits. Millennials tend to prefer location-independence, for example, and there are other benefits during corporate mergers and acquisitions and for dynamic business environments.

So, Weston, what are some of the other drivers that reward people when they make the leap to virtual delivery of apps and desktops?

Take the virtual leap, reap rewards

Morris: I’m thinking back to a conversation I had with you, Araceli, back in March. You were excited and energized around the topic of business continuity, which obviously started with the pandemic.

But, Dana, there are other forces at work that preceded the pandemic and that we know will continue after the pandemic. And mergers and acquisition are a very big one. We see a tremendous amount of activity there in the healthcare space, for example, which was affected in multiple ways by the pandemic. Pharmaceuticals and life sciences as well, there are multiple merger activities going on there.


One of the big challenges in a merger or acquisition is how to quickly get the acquired employees working as first-class citizens as quickly as possible. That’s always been difficult. You either give them two laptops, or two desktops, and say, “Here’s how you do the work in the new company, and here’s where you do the work in the old company.” Or you just pull the plug and say, “Now, you have to figure out how to do everything in a new way in web time, including human resources and all of those procedures in a new environment -- and hopefully you will figure it all out.”

But with a cloud-based, virtual desktop capability -- especially with cloud-bursting -- you can quickly spin up as much capacity as you need and build upon the on-premises capabilities you already have, such as on Dell EMC VxRail, and then explode that into the cloud as needed using VMware Horizon to the Microsoft Azure cloud.

That’s an example of providing a virtual desktop for all of the newly acquired employees for them do their new corporate-citizen stuff while they keep their existing environment and continue to be productive by doing the job you hired them to do when you made the acquisition. That’s a very big use case that we’re going to continue to see going forward.

Gardner: Now, there were number of hurdles historically toward everyone adopting VDI. One of the major use cases was, of course, security and being able to control content by having it centrally located on your servers or on your cloud -- rather than stored out on every device. Is that still a driving consideration, Weston? Are people still looking for that added level of security, or has that become passé?

Morris: Security has become even more important throughout the pandemic. In the past, to a large extent, the corporate firewall-as-secure-the-perimeter model has worked fairly well. And we’ve been punching holes in the firewall for several years now.

But with the pandemic -- with almost everyone working from home -- your office network just exploded. It now extends everywhere. Now you have to worry about how well secured any one person’s home network is. Do they have their password changed or default password changed on their home router? Have they updated the firmware on it? And a lot of these things are beyond the average worker to worry about and to be thinking about.

But if we separate out the workload and put it into the cloud -- so that you have the digital workplace sitting in the cloud -- that is much more secure than a device sitting on somebody’s desk connected to a very questionable home network environment.

Gardner: Another challenge in working toward more modern desktop delivery has been cost, because it’s usually been capital-intensive and required upfront investment. But when you modernize via the cloud that can shift.

Araceli, what are some of the challenges that we’re now able to overcome when it comes to the economics of virtual desktop delivery?

Cost benefits of partnering

Lewis: The beautiful thing here is that in our partnership with Unisys and Dell Financial Services (DFS), we’re able to utilize different utility models when it comes to how we consume the technology.

We don’t have to have upfront capital expenditures. We basically look at different ways that we can do server and platform infrastructure. Then we can consume the technology in the most efficient manner, and that works with the books and how we’re going to depreciate. So, that’s extremely flexible.

You don't have to have upfront capital expenditures. We basically look at different ways that we can do server and platform infrastructure. Then we can consume the technology in the most efficient manner, and that works with the books and how we're going to depreciate. It's extremely flexible.

And by partnering with Unisys, they secure those VDI solutions across all of the three core components: The VDI portion within the data center, the endpoint devices, and of course, the software. By partnering with Unisys in our alliance ecosystem, we get the best of DFS, Dell Technology, VMware software, and Unisys security capabilities.

Gardner: Weston, another issue that’s dogged VDI adoption is complexity for the IT department. When we think about VDI, we can’t only think about end users. What has changed for how the IT department deploys infrastructure, especially for a hybrid approach where VDI is delivered both from on-premises data centers as well as the cloud?

Intelligent virtual agents assist IT

Morris: Araceli and I have had several conversations about this. It’s an interesting topic. There has always been a lot of work to stand up VDI. If you’re starting from scratch, you’re thinking about storage, IOPS, and network capacity. Where are my apps? What’s the connectivity? How are we going to run it at optimal performance? After all, are the end users happy with the experience they’re getting? And how can I even know that what their experience is?

And now, all that’s changed thanks to the evolving technology. One is the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of personal intelligent virtual assistance. At home, we’re used to that, right? We ask Alexa, Siri, or Cortana what’s going on with the weather? What’s happening in the news? We ask our virtual assistants all of these things and we expect to be able to get instant answers and help. Why is that not available in the enterprise for IT? Well, the answer is it is now available.

As you can imagine on the provisioning side, wouldn’t it be great if you were able to talk to a virtual assistant that understood the provisioning process? You simply answer questions posed by the assistant. What is it you need to provision? What is your load that you’re looking at? Do you have engineers that need to access virtual desktops? What types of apps might they need? What is the type of security?

Then the virtual assistant understands the business and IT processes to provision the infrastructure needed virtually in the cloud to make that all happen or to cloud-burst from your on-premises Dell VxRail into the cloud. 

That is a very important game changer. The other aspect of the intelligent virtual agent is it now resides on the virtual desktop as well. I, as an at-home worker, may have never seen a virtual desktop before. And now, the virtual assistant pops up and guides the home worker through the process of connecting, explaining how their apps work, and saying, “I’m always here. I’m ready to give you help whenever possible.” But I think I’ll defer to the expert here.

Araceli, do you want to talk about the power of the hybrid environment and how that simplifies the infrastructure?

Multiple workloads managed

Lewis: Sure, absolutely. At Dell EMC, we are proud of the fact that Gartner rates us number one, as a leader in the category for pretty much all of the products that we’ve included in this VDI solution. When Unisys and my alliances team get the technology, it’s already been tested from a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) perspective. VxRail has been tested, tried-and-true as an automated system in which we combine servers, storage, network, and the software.

That way, Weston and I don’t have to worry about what size are we going to use. We actually have T-shirt sizes already for the number of VDI users that are needed that have been thought out. We have the graphics-intensive portion of it thought out. And we can basically deploy quickly and then put the workloads on them as we need to spin them up or spin them down or to add more.

We can adjust on the fly. That’s a true testament of our HCI being the backbone of the solution. And we don’t have to get into all of the testing, regression testing, and the automation and self-healing of it. Because a lot of that management would have had to be done by enterprise IT or by a managed services provider but it’s done instead via the lifecycle management of the Dell EMC VxRail HCI solution.

That is a huge benefit, the fact that we deliver a solution from the value line and the hypervisor on up. We can then focus on the end users’ services and we don’t have to be swapping out components or troubleshooting because all of the refinement that Dell has done in that technology today.

Morris: Araceli, the first time you and your team showed me the cloud-bursting capability, it just blew me away. I know in the past how hard it was to expand any infrastructure. You showed me where, you know, every industry and every enterprise are going to have a core base of assumptions. So, why not put that under Dell VxRail?

Then, as you need to expand, cloud-burst into, in this case, Horizon running on Azure. And that can all be done now through a single dashboard. I don’t have to be thinking, “Okay, now I have to have the separate workload, it’s in the cloud, this other workload that’s on my on-premises cloud with VxRail.” It’s all done through one, single dashboard that can be automated on the back end through a virtual agent, which is pretty cool.

Gardner: It sure seems in hindsight that the timing here was auspicious. Just as the virus was forcing people to rapidly find a virtual desktop solution, you had put together the intelligence and automation along with software-defined infrastructure like HCI. And then you also gained the ease in hybrid by bursting to the cloud.

And so, it seems that the way that you get to a solution like this has never been easier, just when it was needed to be easy for organizations such as small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and verticals like public sector and education. So, was the alliance and partnering, in fact, a positive confluence of timing?

Greater than sum of parts

Morris: Yes. The perfect storm analogy certainly applies. It was great when I got the phone call from Araceli, saying, “Hey, we have this business continuity capability.” We at Unisys had been thinking about business continuity as well.

We looked at the different components that we each brought. Unisys with its security around Stealth or capability to proactively monitor infrastructure and desktops and see what’s going on and automatically fix them via the intelligent virtual agent and automation. And realizing that this was really a great solution, a much better solution than the individual parts.

We could not make this happen without all of the cool stuff that Dell brings in terms of the HCI, the clients, and, of course, the very powerful VMware-based virtual desktops. And we added to that some things that we have become very good at in our digital workplace transformation. The result is something that can make a real difference for enterprises. You mentioned the public sector and education. Those are great examples of industries that really can benefit from this.

Gardner: Araceli, anything more to offer on how your solution came together, the partners and the constituent parts?

Lewis: Consistent infrastructure, operations, and the help of our partner, Unisys, globally, delivers the services to the end users. This was just a partnership that had to come together.

We were getting so many requests early during the pandemic, an overwhelming amount of demand from every vertical and industry. We had to rely on Unisys as our trusted partner not only in the public sector but in healthcare and banking.

We at Dell couldn’t do it alone. We needed those data center spaces. We needed the capabilities of their architects and teams to deliver for us. We were getting so many requests early during the pandemic, an overwhelming amount of demand from every C-level suite across the country, and from every vertical and industry. We had to rely on Unisys as our trusted partner not only in the public sector but in healthcare and banking. But we knew if we partnered with them, we could give our community what they needed to get through the pandemic.

Gardner: And among those constituent parts, how is important part is Horizon? Why is it so important?

Lewis: VMware Horizon is the glue. It streamlines desktop and app delivery in various ways. The first would be by cloud-bursting. It actually gives us the capability to do that in a very simple fashion.

Secondly, it’s a single pane of glass. It delivers all of the business-critical apps to any device, anywhere on a single screen. So that makes it simple and comprehensive for the IT staff.

We can also deliver non-persistent virtual desktops. The advantage here is that it makes software patching and distribution a whole lot easier. We don’t have all the complexity. If there were ever a security concern or issue, we simply blow away that non-persistent virtual desktop and start all over. It gets us to our first phase, square one, and we would otherwise have to spend countless hours of backups and restores to get us to where we are safe again. So, it pulls everything together for us and being a user have a seamless interface for the IT staff who don’t have the complexity, and it gives us the best of our world while we get out to the cloud.

Gardner: Weston, on the intelligent agents and bots, do you have an example of how it works in practice? It’s really fascinating to me that you’re using AI-enabled robotic process collaboration (RPA) tools to help the IT department set this up. And you’re also using it to help the end-user learn how to onboard themselves, get going, and then get ongoing support.

Amelia AI ascertains answers

Morris: It’s an investment we began almost 24 months ago, branded as the Unisys InteliServe platform, which initially was intended to bring AI, automation, and analytics to the service desk. It was designed to improve the service desk experience and make it easier to use, make it scalable, and to learn over time what kinds of problems people needed help solving.

But we realized once we had it in place, “Wow, this intelligent virtual agent can almost be an enterprise personal assistant where it can be trained on anything, on any business process.” So, we’ve been training it on fixing common IT problems … password resets, can’t log in, can’t get to the virtual private network (VPN), Outlook crashes, those types of things. And it does very well at those sorts of activities.

But the core technology is also perfectly suited to be trained for IT processes as well as business processes inside of the enterprise. For example, for this particular scenario of supporting virtual desktops. If a customer has a specific process for provisioning virtual desktops, they may have specific pools of types of virtual desktops, certain capacities, and those can be created ahead of time, ready to go.

Then it’s just a matter of communicating with the intelligent virtual assistant to say, “I need to add more users to this pool,” or, “We need to remove users,” or, “We need to add a whole new pool.” The agent is branded as Amelia. It has a female voice, through it doesn’t have to be, but in most cases, it is.

When we speak with Amelia, she’s able to ask questions that guide the user through the process. They don’t have to know what the process is. They don’t do this very often, right? But she can be trained to be an expert on it.

Amelia collects the information needed, submits it to the RPA that communicates with Horizon, Azure, and the VxRail platforms to provision the virtual desktops as needed. And this can happen very quickly. Whereas in the past, it may have taken days or weeks to spin up a new environment for a new project, or for a merger and acquisition, or in this case, reacting to the pandemic, and getting people able to work from home.

By the same token, when the end users open up their virtual desktops, they connect to the Horizon workspace, and there is Amelia. She’s there ready to respond to totally different types of questions: “How do I use this?” “Where’s my apps?” “This is new to me, what do I do? How do I connect?” “What about working from home?” “What’s my VPN connection working like, and how do I get that connected properly?” “What about security issues?” There, she’s now able to help with the standard end-user types issues as well.

Gardner: Araceli, any examples of where this intelligent process automation has played out in the workplace? Do we have some ways of measuring the impact?

Simplify, then measure the impact

Lewis: We do. It’s given us, in certain use cases, the predictability and the benefit of a pay-as-you-grow linear scale, rather than the pay-by-the-seat type of solution. In the past, if we had a state or a government agency where they need, for example, 10,000 seats, we would measure them by the seat. If there’s a situation like a pandemic, or any other type of environment where we have to adjust quickly, how could we deliver 10,000 instances in the past?

Now, using Dell EMC ready-architectures with the technologies we’ve discussed -- and with Unisys’ capabilities -- we can provide such a rapid and large deployment in a pay-as-you-grow linear scale. We can predict what the pricing is going to be as they need to use it for these public sector agencies and financial firms. In the past, there was a lot of capital expenditures (CapEx). There was a lot of process, a lot of change, and there were just too many unknowns.

These modern platforms have simplified the management of the backends of the software and the delivery of it to create a true platform that we can quantify and measure -- not only just financially, but from a time-to-delivery perspective as well.

Morris: I have an example of a particular customer where they had a manual process for onboarding. Such onboarding includes multiple steps, one of which is, “Give me my digital workplace.”

But there are other things, too. The training around gaining access to email, for example. That was taking almost 40 hours. Can you imagine a person starting their job, and 40 hours later they finally get the stuff they need to be productive? That’s a lot of downtime.

After using our automation, that transition was down to a little over eight hours. What that means is a person starts filling out their paperwork with HR on day one, gets oriented, and then the next day they have everything they need to be productive. What a big difference. And in the offboarding – it’s even more interesting. What happens when a person leaves the company? Maybe under unfavorable circumstances, we might say. 

In the past, the manual processes for this customer took almost 24 hours before everything was turned off. What does that mean? That means that an unhappy, disgruntled employee has 24 hours. They can come in, download content, get access to materials or perhaps be disruptive, or even destructive, with the corporate intellectual property, which is very bad.

Through automation, this offboarding process is now down to six minutes. I mean that person hasn’t even walked out of the room and they’ve been locked out completely from that IT environment. And that can be even be done more quickly if we’re talking about a virtual desktop environment, in which the switch can be thrown immediately and completely. Access is completely and instantly removed from the virtual environment.

Gardner: Araceli, is there a best-of-breed, thin-client hardware approach that you’re using? What about use cases such as graphics-intense or computer-aided design (CAD) applications? What’s the end-point approach for some of these more intense applications?

Viable, virtual, and versatile solutions

Lewis: Being Dell Technologies, that was a perfect question for us, Dana. We understand the persona of the end users. As we roll out this technology, let’s say it’s for an engineering team where they do CAD drawings as an engineering group. If you look at the persona, and we partner with Unisys and look at what each end-user’s needs are, you can determine if they need more memory, more processing power, and if they need a more graphics-intensive device. We can do that. Our Wyse end-clients that can do that, the Wyse 3000s and the 5000s.

But I don’t want to pinpoint one specific type of device per user because we could be talking about a doctor, or we could be talking about a nurse in an intensive care unit. She is going to need something more mobile. We can also provide end-user devices that are ruggedized, maybe in an oil field or in a construction site. So, from an engineering perspective, we can adopt the end-user device to their persona and their needs and we can meet all of those requirements. It’s not a problem.

Gardner: Weston, anything from your vantage point on the diversity and agility of those endpoint devices and why this solution is so versatile?

Morris: There is diversity at both ends. Araceli, you talked about being able to on the backend provision and scale up and down the capacity and capability of a virtual desktop to meet the personas’ needs.

Millennials want choice on how they connect. Am I connecting from home? Do I want to have access to a thin client when I want to go back to work? Do I want to come in through a mobile? And maybe I want to do all three in the same day. They don't want to lose work in between. That all is entirely possible with this infrastructure.

And then on the end-user side, and you mentioned, Dana, Millennials. They may want choice of how they connect. Am I connecting in through my own personal laptop at home? Do I want to have access to a thin client when I want to go back to work? Do I want to come in through a mobile? And maybe I want to do all three in the same day? And they don’t want to lose work in between. That is all entirely possible with this infrastructure.

Gardner: Let’s look to the future. We’ve been talking about what’s possible now. But it seems to me that we’ve focused on the very definition of agility: It scales, it’s fast, and it’s automated. It’s applicable across the globe.

What comes next? What can you do with this technology now that you have it in place? It seems to me that we have an opportunity to do even more.

Morris: We’re not backing down from AI and automation. That is here to stay, and it’s going to continue to expand. People have finally realized the power of cloud-based VDI. That is now a very important tool for IT to have in their bag of tricks. They can respond to very specific use cases in a very fast, scalable, and effective way.

In the future we will see that AI continues to provide guidance, not only in the provisioning that we’ve talked about, not only in startup and use on the end-user side -- but in providing analytics as to how the entire ecosystem is working. That’s not just the virtual desktops, but the apps that are in the cloud as well and the identity protection. There’s a whole security component that AI has to play a role in. It almost sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s just going to make life better. AI absolutely will do that when it’s used appropriately.

Lewis: I’m looking to the future on how we’re going to live and work in the next five to 10 years. It’s going to be tough to go back to what we were used to. And I’m thinking forward to the Internet of Things (IoT). There’s going to be an explosion of edge devices, of wearables, and how we incorporate all of those technologies will be a part of a persona.

Typically, we’re going to be carrying our work everywhere we go. So, how are we going to integrate all of the wearables? How are we going to make voice recognition more adaptable? VR, AI, robotics, drones -- how are we going to tie all of that together?

Nowadays, we tie our home systems and our cooling and heating to all of the things around us to interoperate. I think that’s going to go ahead and continue to grow exponentially. I’m really excited that we’ve partnered with Unisys because we wouldn’t want to do something like this without a partner who is just so deeply entrenched in the solutions. I’m looking forward to that.

Gardner: What advice would give to an organization that hasn’t bitten off the virtual desktop from the cloud and hybrid environment yet? What’s the best way to get started?

Morris: It’s really important to understand your users, your personas. What are they consuming? How do they want to consume it? What is their connectivity like? You need to understand that, if you’re going to make sure that you can deliver the right digital workplace to them and give them an experience that matters.

Lewis: At Dell Technologies, we know how important it is to retain our top and best talent. And because we’ve been one of the top places to work for the past few years, it’s extremely important to make sure that technology and access to technology help to enable our workforce.

I truly feel that any one of our customers or end users that hasn’t looked at VDI, and hasn’t realized the benefits across savings, and keeping a competitive advantage in this fast-paced world, that they also need to retain their talent, too. To do that they need to give their employees the best tools and the best capabilities to be the very best. They have to look at VDI in some way, shape, or form. As soon as we bring it to them -- whether technically, financially, or for competitive factors -- it really makes sense. It’s not a tough sell at all, Dana.

Gardner: I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. You’ve been listening to sponsored BriefingsDirect discussion on how the partnership behind a virtual digital workplace solution delivers a sliding scale of blended work scenarios. 

And we’ve learned how this joint-solution between Unisys, Dell, and their partners powerfully leverages intelligent automation to deliver securely desktop environments and applications regardless of location. 

Please join me in thanking our guests, Weston Morris, Global Strategy, Digital Workplace Services, Enterprise Services at Unisys. Thanks so much, Weston.

Morris: Thanks for the invitation. I appreciated the conversation.

Gardner: And a big thank you as well to Araceli Lewis, Global Alliance Lead for Unisys at Dell Technologies. Thank you so much, Araceli.

Lewis: Thank you, Dana and Weston. It’s an absolute pleasure.

Gardner: And a big thank you as well to our audience for joining this BriefingsDirect digital workplace innovation discussion. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host throughout this series of Unisys- and Dell Technologies-sponsored BriefingsDirect discussions.

Thanks again for listening. Please pass this along to your IT community, and do come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Unisys and Dell Technologies.

A transcript of a discussion on how Unisys, Dell Technologies, and their partners provide the timeproof means to secure applications intelligently regardless of location, device, or network. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2020. All rights reserved.

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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Why Customer Experience Management Has Never Been More Important or Impactful

Transcript of a discussion on discerning customer preferences to best fulfill customer wants and needs and inform digital business imperatives.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: SAP Ariba.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect.


Our next digital business innovation discussion explores how companies need to better understand and respond to their markets one subscriber at a time. By better listening inside of their products, businesses can remove the daylight between their digital deliverables and their customers’ impressions.

Stay with us now as we hear from a customer experience (CX)  management expert at SAP on the latest ways that discerning customers’ preferences informs digital business imperatives.

To learn more about the business of best fulfilling customer wants and needs, please join me now in welcoming Lisa Bianco, Global Vice President, Experience Management and Advocacy at SAP Procurement Solutions. Welcome, Lisa.

Lisa Bianco: Hey, Dana, thank you so much for having me join such an incredible program. I am so happy to be here.

Let’s look back and get some context. What was the catalyst about five years ago that led you there at SAP Procurement to invest in a team devoted specifically to CX innovation?

Bianco: As a business-to-business (B2B) organization, we recognized that B2B was changing and it was starting to look and feel more like business-to-consumer (B2C). The days of leaders dictating the solutions and products that their end users were going to be leveraging for day-to-day business stuff -- like procurement or finance – we found we were competing with what an end-user’s experience would be with the products or applications they use in their personal life.

We all know this; we’ve all been there. We would go to work to use the tools, and there used to be those times we would use the printer for our kids’ flyers for their birthday because it was a much better tool than what we had at home. And that had shifted.

But then business leaders were competing with rogue employees using tools like versus SAP Ariba’s solution for procurement to buy things for their businesses. And so with that maverick spend, companies weren’t having the same insights that they needed to make decisions. So, we knew that we had to ensure that that end-user experience at work replicated what they might feel at home. It reflected that shift in persona from a decision-maker to that of a user.

Gardner: Whether it’s B2B or B2C, there tends to be a group of people out there who are really good at productivity and will find ways to improve things if you only take the chance to listen and follow their lead, right?

Bianco: That’s exactly right.

Gardner: And what was it about B2B in the business environment that was plowing new ground when it came to listening rather than just coming up with a list of requirements, baking it into the software, and throwing it over the wall?

Leaders listen to customer experience

Bianco: The truth is, better listening to B2B resulted in a centralized shift for leaders. All of a sudden, a chief procurement officer (CPO) who made a decision on a procurement solution, or a chief information officer (CIO) who made a decision on an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, they were beginning to get flak from cross-functional leaders who were end-users and couldn’t actually do their functions.

In B2B we found that we had to start understanding the feelings of employees and the feelings of our customers. And that’s not really what you do in B2B, right? Marketing and branding at SAP now said that the future of business has feelings. And that’s a shock. I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to leaders who say, “I want to switch the word empathy in our mission statement because that’s not strong leadership in B2B.”

The truth is we had to shift. Society was shifting to that place and understanding that feelings allow us to understand the experiences because experiences were that of people. We can only make so many decisions based on our operational data.

But the truth is we had to shift. Society was shifting to that place and understanding that feelings allow us to understand the experiences because the experiences were that of people. We can only make so many decisions based on our operational data, right? You really have to understand the why.

We did have to carve out a new path, and it’s something we still do to this day. Many B2B companies haven’t evolved to an experience management program, because it’s tough. It’s really hard.

Gardner: If we can’t just follow the clicks, and we can’t discern feelings from the raw data, we need to do something more. What do we do? How do we understand why people feel good or bad about what they are doing?

Bianco: We get over that hurdle by having a corporate strategy that puts the customer at the center of all we do. I like to think of it as having a customer-centric decision-making platform. That’s not to say it’s a product. It’s really a shift in mindset that says, “We believe we will be a successful company if our customers’ feelings are positive, if their experiences are great.”

If you look at the disruptors such as Airbnb or Amazon, they prioritize CX over their own objectives as a business and their own business success, things like net-new software sales or renewal targets. They focus on the experiences that their customers have throughout their lifecycle.

That’s a big shift for corporate America because we are so ingrained in producing for the board and we are so ingrained in producing for the investors that oftentimes putting that customer first is secondary. It’s a systemic shift in culture and thinking that tends to be what we see in the emerging companies today as they grab such huge market share. It’s because they shifted that thinking.

Gardner: Right. And when you shift the thinking in the age of social media -- and people can share what their impressions are -- that becomes a channel and a marketing opportunity in itself. People aren’t in a bubble. They are able to say and even demonstrate in real time what their likes are, what their dislikes are, and that’s obvious to many other people around them.

Customer feedback ecosystem

Bianco: Dana, you are pointing out risk. And it’s so true. And this year, the disrupter that COVID-19 has created is a tectonic shift in our digitalization of customer feedback. And now, via social media and Twitter, if you are not at the forefront of understanding what your customers’ feelings are -- and what they may or may not say -- and you are not doing that in a proactive way, you run the risk of it playing out socially in a public forum. And the longer that goes unattended to, you start to lose trust.

When you start to lose trust, it is so much harder to fix than understanding in the lifecycle of a customer the problems that they face, fixing those and making that a priority.

Gardner: Why is this specifically important in procurement? Is there something about procurement, supply chain, and buying that this experience focus is important? Or does it cut across all functions in business?

Bianco: It’s across all functions in business. However, if you look at procurement in the world today, it incorporates a vast ecosystem. It’s one of those functions in business that includes buyers and suppliers. It includes logistics, and it’s complex. It is one of the core areas of a business. When that is disrupted it can have drastic effects on your business.

We saw that in spades this year. It affects your supply chain, where you can have alternative opportunities to regain your momentum after a disruption. It affects your workforce and all of the tools and materials necessary for your company to function when it shifts and moves home. And so with that, we look from SAP’s perspective at these personas that navigate through a multitude of products in your organization. And in procurement, because that ecosystem is there for our customers, understanding the experience of all of those parties allows for customers to make better decisions.

A really good example is one of the world’s largest consulting firms. They took 500,000 employees in offices around the world and found that they had to immediately put them in their homes. They had to make sure they had the products they needed, like computers, green screens, or leisure wear.

They learned what looks good enough on a virtual Zoom meeting. Procurement had to understand what their employees needed within a week’s time so that they didn’t lose revenue deploying the services that their customers had purchased and rely on them for.

Understanding that lifecycle really helps companies, especially now. Seeing the recent disruption made them able to understand exactly what they need to do and quickly make decisions to make experiences better to get their business back on track.

Gardner: Well, this is also the year or era of moving toward automation and using data and analytics more, even employing bots and robotic process automation (RPA). Is there something about that tack in our industry now that can be brought to CX management? Is there a synergy between not just doing this manually, but looking to automation and finding new insights using new tools?

Automate customer journeys

Bianco: It’s a really great insight into the future of understanding the experiences of a customer. A couple of things come to mind. As you look at operational data, we have all recognized the importance of having operational data; so usage data, seeing where the clicks are throughout your product. Really documenting customer journey maps.

If you automate the way you get feedback you don't just have operational data; you need to get that feelings to come through with experience data ... to help drive to where automation needs to happen.

But if you automate the way you get feedback you don’t just have operational data; you need to get the feelings to come through with experience data. And that experience data can help drive where automation needs to happen. You can then embed that kind of feedback-loop-process in typical survey-type tools or embed them right into your systems.

And so that helps you understand some areas where we can remove steps from in the process, especially as many companies look to procurement to create automation. And so the more we can understand where we have those repetitive flows and we can automate, the better.

Gardner: Is that what you mean by listening inside of the product or does that include other things, too?

Bianco: It includes other things. As you may know, SAP purchased a company called Qualtrics. They are experts in experience management, and we have been able to move from and evolve from traditional net promoter score (NPS) surveys into looking at micro moments to get customer feedback as they are doing a function. We have embedded certain moments inside of our product that allow us to capture feedback in real time.

Gardner: Lisa, a little earlier you alluded that there are elements of what happens in the B2C world as individual consumers and what we can then learn and take into the B2B world. Is there anything top of mind for you that you have experienced as a consumer that you said, “Aha, I want to be able to do that or bring that type of experience and insight to my B2B world?”

Customer service is king in B2B

Bianco: Yes, you know what happened to me just this week as a matter of fact? There is a show on TV right now about chess. With all of us being at home, many of us are consuming copious amounts of content. And I went and ordered a chess set, it came, it was beautiful, it was from Wayfair, and one of the pieces was broken.

I snapped a little picture of the piece that had broken and they had an amazing app that allowed me to say, “Look, I don’t need you to replace the whole thing, it’s just this one little piece, and if you can just send me that, that would be great.”

And they are like, “You know what? Don’t worry about sending it back. We are just going to send you a whole new set.” It was like a $100 set. So I now have two sets because they were gracious enough to see that I didn’t have a great experience. They didn’t want me to deal with sending it back. They immediately sent me the product that I wanted.

I am, like, where is that in B2B? Where is that in the complex area of procurement that I find myself? How can we get that same experience for our customers when something goes wrong?

When I began this program, we would try to figure out what is that chess set. Other organizations use garlic knots, like at pizza restaurants. While you and your kids wait 25 minutes for the pizza to be made, a lot of pizza shops offer garlic knots to make you happy so the wait doesn’t seem so long. What is that equivalent for B2B?

It’s hard. What we learned early on, and I am so grateful for, is that in B2B many end users and customers know how difficult it is to make some of their experiences better, because it’s complex. They have a lot of empathy for companies trying to go down such a path, in this case, for procurement. 

But with that, what their garlic knot is, what their free product or chess set is, is when we tell them that their voice matters. It’s when we receive their feedback, understand their experience against our operational data, and let them know that we have the resources and budget to take action on their feedback and to make it better.

Either we show them that we have made it better or we tell them, “We hear what you are saying, but that doesn’t fit into our future.” You have to be able to have that complete feedback loop, otherwise you alienate your customer. They don’t want to feel like you are asking for their feedback but not doing anything with it.

And so that’s one of the most important things we learned here. That’s the thing that I witnessed from a B2C perspective and tried to replicate in B2B.

Gardner: Lisa, I’m sensing that there is an opportunity for the CX management function to become very important for overall digital business transformation. The way that Wayfair was able to help you with the chess set required integration, cooperation, and coordination between what were probably previously siloed parts of their organization.

That means the helpdesk, the ordering and delivering, exception management capabilities, and getting sign-off on doing this sort of thing. It had to mean breaking down those silos -- both in process, data, and function. And that integration is often part of an all-important digital transformation journey. 

So are you finding that people like yourself, who are spearheading the experience management for your customers, are in a catbird seat of identifying where silos, breakdowns, and gaps exist in the B2B supplier organizations?

Feedback fuels cross-training

Bianco: Absolutely. Here is what I have learned: I am going to focus on cloud, especially in companies that are either cloud companies or had been an on-premises company and are migrating to being a cloud company. SAP Ariba did this over the last 20 years. It has migrated from on-premises to cloud, so we have a great DNA understanding of that. SAP is out doing the same thing; many companies are.

And what’s important to realize, at least from my perspective -- it was an “Aha” moment -- is that there is a tendency in the B2C world leadership to say, “Look, I am looking at all this data and feedback around customers. Can’t we just go fix this particular customer issue, and they are going to be happy?”

Most of the issues our customers were facing were systemic. There was consistent feedback about something that wasn't working. We had to recognize that these systemic issues needed to be solved by a cross-functional group of people.

What we found in the B2B data was that most of the issues our customers were facing were systemic. It was broad strokes of consistent feedback about something that wasn’t working. We had to recognize that these systemic issues needed to be solved by a cross-functional group of people.

That’s really hard because so many folks have their own budgets, and they lead only a particular function. To think about how they might fix something more broadly took our organization quite a bit of time to wrap our heads around. Because now you need a center of excellence, a governance model that says that CX is at the forefront, and that you are going to have accountability in the business to act on that feedback and those actions. And you are going to compose a cross-functional, multilevel team to get it done.

It was funny early on, in our receiving feedback that customer support is a problem. Support was the problem. The support function was awful. I remember the head of support was like, “Oh, my gosh. I am going to get fired. I just hate my job. I don’t know what to do.”

When you look at the root cause you find that quality is a root-cause issue, but quality wasn’t just in one or another product -- it was across many products. That broader quality issue led to how we enabled our support teams to understand how to better support those products. That quality issue also impacted how we went to market and we showed the features and functions of the product.

We developed a team called the Top X Organization that aggregated cross-functional folks, held them accountable to a standard of a better outcome experience for our customers, and then led a program to hit certain milestones to transform that experience. But all that is a heavy lift for many companies.

Gardner: That’s fascinating. So, your CX advocates -- by having that cross-functional perspective by nature -- became advocates for better processes and higher quality at the organization level. They are not just advocating for the customer; they are actually advocating for the betterment of the business. Are you finding that and where do you find the people that can best do that?

Responsibility of active listening

Bianco: It’s not an easy task, it’s for few and far between. Again, it takes a corporate strategy. Dana, when you asked me the question earlier on, “What was the catalyst that brought you here?” I oftentimes chuckle. There isn’t a leader on the planet who isn’t going to have someone come to them, like I did at the time, and say, “Hey, I think we should listen to our customers.” Who wouldn’t want to do that? Everyone wants to do that. It sounds like a really good idea.

But, Dana, it’s about active listening. If you watch movies, there is often a scene where there is a husband and wife getting therapy. And the therapist says, “Hey, did you hear what she said?” or, “Did you hear what he said?” And the therapist has them repeat it back. Your marriage or a struggle you have with relationships is never going to get better just by going and sitting on the couch and talking to the therapist. It requires each of you to decide internally that you want this to be better, and that you are going to make the changes necessary to move that relationship forward.

It’s not dissimilar to the desire to have a CX organization, right? Everyone thinks it’s a great idea to show in their org chart that they have a leader of CX. But the truth is you have to really understand the responsibility of listening. And that responsibility sometimes devolves into just taking a survey. I’m all for sending a survey out to our customers, let’s do it. But that is the smallest part of a CX organization.

It’s really wrapped up in what the corporate strategy is going to be: A customer-centric, decision-making model. If we do that, are we prepared to have a governance structure that says we are going to fund and resource making experiences better? Are we going to acknowledge the feedback and act on it and make that a priority in business or not?

Oftentimes leaders get caught up in, “I just want to show I have a CX team and I am going to run a survey.” But they don’t realize the responsibility that gives them when now they have on paper all the things that they know they have an opportunity to make better for their customers.

Gardner: You have now had five years to make these changes. In theory this sounds very advantageous on a lot of levels and solves some larger strategic problems that you would have a hard time addressing otherwise.

So where’s the proof? Do you have qualitative, quantitative indicators? Maybe it’s one of those things that’s really hard to prove. But how do you rate customer advocacy and CX role? What does it get you when you do it well?

Feelings matter at all levels

Bianco: Really good point. We just came off of our five-year anniversary this week. We just had an NPS survey and we got some amazing trends. In five years, we have seen an even greater improvement in the last 18 months -- an 11-point increase in our customer feedback. And that not only translates into the survey, as I mentioned, but it also translates with influencers and analysts.

Gartner has noted the increase in our ability to address CX issues and make them better. We can see that in terms of the 11-point increase. We can see that in terms of our reputation within our analyst community.

And we also see it in the data. Customers are saying, “Look, you are much more responsive to me.” We see a 35-percent decrease in customers complaining in their open text fields about support. We see customers mentioning less the challenges they have seen in the area of integration, which is so incredibly important.

We see a 35-percent decrease in customers complaining in their open text fields about support. We see customers less challenged by integration, which is so incredibly important.

And we also hear less from our own SAP leaders who felt like NPS just exposed the fact that they might not be doing their job well, which was initially the experience we got from leaders who were like, “Oh my gosh. I don’t want you to talk about anything that makes it look like I am not doing my job.” We created a culture where we have been more open to feedback. We now relish in that insight, versus feeling defensive.

And that’s a culture shift that took us five years to get to. Now you have leaders chomping at the bit to get those insights, get that data, and make the changes because we have proof. And that proof did start with an organizational change right in the beginning. It started with new leadership in certain areas like support. Those things translated into the success we have today. But now we have to evolve beyond that. What’s the next step for us?

Gardner: Before we talk about your next steps, for those organizations that are intrigued by this -- that want to be more customer-centric and to understand why it’s important -- what lessons have you learned? What advice do you have for organizations that are maybe just beginning on the CX path?

Bianco: How long is this show?

Gardner: Ten more minutes, tops.

Bianco: Just kidding. I mean gosh, I have learned a lot. If I look back -- and I know some of my colleagues at IBM had a similar experience – the feedback is this. We started by deploying NPS. We just went out there and said we are going to do these NPS surveys and that’s going to shake the business into understanding how our customers are feeling.

We grew to understand that our customers came to SAP because of our products. And so I think I might have spent more time listening inside of the products. What does that mean? It certainly means embedding micro-moments, of aggregating feedback, in the product to help understand -- and allows our developers to understand what they need to do. But that need to be done in a very strategic way.

It’s also about making sure that any time anyone in the company wants to listen to customers, you ensure that you have the budget and the resources necessary to make that change -- because otherwise you will alienate your customers.

Another area is you have to have executive leadership. It has to be at the root of your corporate objectives. Anything less than that and you will struggle. It doesn’t mean you won’t have some success, but when you are looking at the root of making experience better, it’s about action. That action needs to be taken by the folks responsible for your products or services. Those folks have to be incented, or they have to be looped in and committed to the program. There has to be a governance model that measures the experience of the customer based on how the customer interprets it -- not how you interpret it.

If, as a company, you interpret success as net-new software sales, you have to shift that mindset. That’s not how your customers view their own success.

Gardner: That’s very important and powerful. Before we sign off, five years in, where do you go now? Is there an acceleration benefit, a virtuous adoption pattern of sorts when you do this? How do you take what you have done and bring it to a step-change improvement or to an even more strategic level?

Turn feedback into action

Bianco: The next step for us is to embed the experience program in every phase of the customer’s journey. That includes every phase of our engagement journey inside of our organization.

So from start to finish, what are the teams providing that experience, whether it’s a service or product? That would be one. And, again, that requires the governance that I mentioned. Because action is where it’s at -- regardless of the feedback you are getting and how many places you listen. Action is the most important piece to making their experience better.

This requires governance because action is where it's at -- regardless of the feedback. Taking action is the most important piece to making the customer experience better.

Another is to move beyond just NPS surveys. Again, it’s not that this is a new concept, but as I watched the impact of COVID-19 on accelerating digital feedback, social forums, and public forums, we measured that advocacy. It’s not just the, “Will you recommend this product to a friend or colleague?” In addition it’s about, “Will you promote this company or not?”

That is going to be more important than ever, because we are going to continue in a virtual environment next year. As much as we can help frame what that feedback might be -- and be proactive -- is where I see success for SAP in the future.

Gardner: I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. You have been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect discussion on how companies can better understand and respond to their markets -- one subscriber at a time.

And we have learned that by better listening inside of products businesses can remove the daylight between their digital deliverables and their customers’ impressions to best fulfill those customers’ wants and needs.

So a big thank you to our guest, Lisa Bianco, Global Vice President, Experience Management and Advocacy, at SAP Procurement Solutions. Thank you so much, Lisa.

Bianco: Thank you, Dana.

Gardner: And a big thank you as well to our audience for joining this BriefingsDirect digital business innovation discussion. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator throughout this series of SAP-sponsored BriefingsDirect discussions.

Thanks again for listening. Please do come back next time, and feel free to share this information across your IT and business communities.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: SAP Ariba.

Transcript of a discussion on discerning customer preferences to best fulfill customer wants and needs and inform digital business imperatives. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2020. All rights reserved.

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