the ConversAItion: Season 3 Episode 19

Salesforce’s Brian Solis on Digital Darwinism and continuous innovation

Bestselling author, digital anthropologist and Global Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce Brian Solis has dedicated his career to helping businesses identify opportunities for growth and transformation. He joins this episode of The ConversAItion to explain a threat he calls Digital Darwinism, share how businesses can avoid obsolescence and break down the difference between innovation and iteration—and why companies need both. You can find Brian on Twitter @briansolis.
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“Digital Darwinism says that as technology evolves and accelerates, its impact on society evolves and accelerates. And as a result, markets change, people change and your organization, whatever it is that you do, has to continually adjust, it has to evolve. Going back to Darwinism, you have to evolve to be either with the change or ahead of the change. If not, then you become obsolete.”
Brian Solis

About Brian Solis

Brian Solis is Global Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce, where he studies global digital trends and their impact on growth and innovation in market dynamics. Previously, Brian served as Principal Analyst at Altimeter Group. He’s also a renowned keynote speaker and eight-time bestselling author, exploring what he calls “Digital Darwinism.” You can find Brian on LinkedIn here, Twitter here, and his personal website here

Short on time? Here are 5 quick takeaways:

  1. As a digital anthropologist, Brian studies changes in technology and consumer behavior to guide businesses.

    After getting his start in enterprise technology, Brian set out to become a digital anthropologist in the ’90s when the consumerization of the internet took off. He noticed that companies were now directly targeting consumers with technology, and he knew this would change their behaviors, decision-making and even values. He wanted to be on the forefront of understanding these shifts in order to help executives reverse-engineer their products and services to meet evolving customer needs. 

    After more than twenty years of analyzing and rethinking the future of business and work—as an analyst, author and speaker—in March, he joined Salesforce as the company’s first Global Innovation Evangelist.

  2. As Global Innovation Evangelist, Brian focuses on challenging convention to help executives think bigger.

    As Global Innovation Evangelist, Brian’s main objective is to inspire executives and decision-makers to think bigger about how technology can transform their business. This means challenging conventional thinking, and at times leaving behind traditional best practices in order to meet evolving customer expectations and begin building a business of the future. In turn, Brian says hearing directly from decision-makers about the on-the-ground challenges they face helps inspire new ideas for him, starting the cycle over again.

  3. Digital Darwinism is a major threat to organizations; digital transformation is the solution.

    Brian has identified something he calls “Digital Darwinism” as a major threat to organizations. Digital Darwinism is the idea that technology, and the world, are evolving so rapidly that most organizations struggle to keep up. The ultimate consequence of failing to keep pace with innovation is obsolescence.


    The challenges of Digital Darwinism are often exacerbated by executives’ inertia. When a business is doing well and has momentum, it can be a difficult decision to divert resources and attention to move in a new direction, even if that short-term loss could set the company up for long-term success. Brian cites Blockbuster’s refusal to purchase Netflix for $50 million, and its subsequent bankruptcy, as a prime example of Digital Darwinism at work.  

    To avoid becoming obsolete, Brian believes companies must invest in digital transformation. He defines digital transformation as using technology for a greater good; i.e., looking for opportunities to enhance or streamline operations and business models using technology to advance an organization. Brian also stresses that digital transformation needs to be outcome-based; in order for a business to “move forward” it needs to first know where it’s going.  

  4. Businesses need both innovation and iteration.

    Brian says businesses tend to think of every new thing they do as innovation—but that’s not necessarily the case. There are two major categories of change in business: innovation and iteration.

    Iteration involves deploying technology—AI, machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA), etc.—to improve an existing process, making it more efficient, more scalable or even autonomous. Innovation, though, is unearthing entirely new opportunities for creating value, something that the organization and the market didn’t have before. Both are critical to business success, and Brian emphasizes the importance that they operate in parallel. 

  5. Digital transformation opens up new opportunities for creativity.

    Ultimately, Brian wants the world to break up linear thinking and empower creativity. Technology will inevitably change the workforce, as automation takes over the most monotonous tasks. The value of this disruption is that it opens up more space for curiosity and imagination throughout an organization. With greater bandwidth, employees can dedicate their time to high-level questions about how their operations may be improved, where there is room to expand or how to better stack up against competitors.

Read the transcript



Jim Freeze: Hi! And welcome. I’m Jim Freeze, and this is The ConversAItion, a podcast airing viewpoints on the impact of artificial intelligence on business and society. 


Jim Freeze On today’s episode, we’re joined by Brian Solis, an eight-time best-selling author and renowned thought leader on digital transformation. We’ll be speaking about AI’s role in helping businesses keep pace with evolving trends during times of change, like our current pandemic.

In March, Brian joined Salesforce as the company’s first-ever Global Innovation Evangelist, where he identifies organizational and customer behaviors to more effectively guide Salesforce leaders in their digital transformation investments. 

 Brian, welcome to The ConversAltion. We’re thrilled to have you.

Brian Solis Thank you, Jim. I was just thinking that the bio that you had. I would like a copy of it because I would like to use it internally.

Jim Freeze We’re happy to provide that bio to you. So we did a good job then you like that?

Brian Solis Yes, great. Thank you.

Jim Freeze Good, good. Yeah, well, we try to add some additional value here, so I’m glad you’re happy with that introduction. So you’ve had a long career of helping businesses identify opportunities for growth, and obviously with a heavy focus on how technology can enable that. Can you walk us through your background a bit?

Brian Solis Yes. Well, it wasn’t charted. It was a series of observations and pivots based on where I felt I needed to focus without necessarily, I don’t tout this as a strategy, but without thinking about the ROI of those pivots, just the belief in that the future was unfolding right before us and that it needed documentation and understanding. Almost as if you’re walking around and you just feel like you need to take a turn on this corner and bring out your camera and start recording just because something’s going to happen. 

And so that goes back to the ’90s with the consumerization of the internet. I had been working in Enterprise Tech, the consumerization of the internet brought forward all of these incredible startups. But what I had noticed with the consumerization of the internet was that we started to go after consumers directly with technology. And that led to me realizing that with consumer behaviors people were going to change their behaviors, their values, their decision-making and their aspirations. And so I started to basically become a digital anthropologist so that I can understand how technology was going to impact it in specific areas and reverse engineer that so that I could better guide executives and also helping enterprise companies reimagine the future of business and their future of work if they didn’t have to think about technology first, but technology has a mechanism for change.

So that’s been the foundation for my whole career. And as you can imagine, there’s been massive waves of transformation and disruption in Web 1.0, Web 2.0, social media, mobile, real-time. And it continues to this day. Now, it’s too hard to keep up with all of the massive waves, all right.

Jim Freeze It is, it is.

Brian Solis I do focus on key areas with AI being one of them to help them reimagine the future of business and the future of work again.

Jim Freeze Yeah, I lived through all of those technology changes. I’ve worked in tech for a very long time, and I’ve lived through a lot of those waves of technology changes. And I have to say that I’m a huge fan of career pivots as well. I started out initially as a computer programmer and then I became a lawyer and now I’m a tech marketing guy. So I’m all for pivots.

Brian Solis All right virtual high fives. Virtual-

Jim Freeze Yeah exactly, exactly. So a very impressive background. Now you have a new role which I think is very interesting when you recently joined Salesforce as the company’s first ever Global Innovation Evangelist. And it seems like an incredibly timely and very relevant position. Can you talk a little bit more about what you do on a day-to-day basis in your role and why it’s important to a company like Salesforce?

Brian Solis Well, I’ll tell you it’s, it’s a dream job for sure. And before Salesforce, just so that you can… There’s context to the pivot. I was a digital analyst in addition to being a digital anthropologist. I had been a partner at the Altimeter Group, and when you’re an analyst you have to have specific beats or areas of focus. And those areas for me were digital transformation, customer experience, corporate innovation which at the time wasn’t actually being formally studied, which was fascinating. And then I also dabbled in understanding digital influence and even though that might seem completely odd given the other subjects oh, and lastly, the Cognitive Enterprise AI as well.

And the element of digital influence was interesting, and this is the bridge to Salesforce, was that it’s been happening for forever. Going back to the ’90s it was very clear that people were looking to make decisions in B2B, B2C, you name it, healthcare, finance, based on how their peers shared insights and experiences online, right? So today it’s social media, in the ’90s it was early before they were even blogs. If people would actually develop websites using like things like NetObjects Fusion, and Front Page, and essentially create the precursor to blogs. And would hyperfocus on certain areas and then dedicate their spare time, or eventually their full-time helping people make decisions in certain areas.

And so I started observing that as well, because that was essentially a key factor in decision-making and reshaping customer journeys. And along the way with eight books and my own blog, and I think launching in 2004, being a speaker on the circuit about the same time I had become a trusted resource in the areas that I had been studying.

So in between all of the research and just sharing ideas, like what if? What if this? What if that? And so that built a real big platform over the years, and Salesforce, I had a relationship with them going back my whole career, but they appreciated the ideas. They appreciated the provocation but what I think they really appreciated was the ability to help inspire decision makers in a time of information overload, is probably a good way to put it.

And so I came in not as an analyst, but as someone who could help challenge conventional thinking, help executives, help customers, help our own account executives think bigger about their engagement with Salesforce. 

We can help change businesses to meet or exceed the expectations of this rapidly evolving digital customer. So essentially to build a business of the future right now. So I get to share my ideas directly to decision makers and help inspire them in ways to deploy Salesforce that helps them transform business. So it goes beyond the software. And so it’s completely fascinating. Of course all of that work, hearing all of their challenges, hearing all of their ideas, hearing all of their successes that comes right back to me to continue to inspire new types of work. So I get to influence externally and also internally. It’s incredible.

Jim Freeze Yeah. It sounds like a really cool job and I have to say, I was kind of reminiscing back to the early ’90s when I heard you talk about kind of these communities developing online, because one of my former employers I spent over 10 years at a company called CompuServe and we used to call those forums, and of course AOL and then took it to a next level and then the internet took it to well beyond that. So I was very much relating to what you were talking about. There’s an area of the expertise you have and a trend that you’ve identified, which I think it’d be really interesting to talk about. And something you characterize as a real threat to organizations and that’s the notion of Digital Darwinism. Can you explain what that is and the role of digital transformation in addressing it?

Brian Solis Oh, absolutely. Look, Digital Darwinism is something that goes back with me to the very beginning of my work and basically the whole purpose of digital anthropology. When I became a digital anthropologist, I could tell not only the things were changing, but things were going to continue to play out in ways that were going to accelerate and then eventually surpass an organization’s ability to keep up. And I referred to that as Digital Darwinism. And it essentially said that as technology evolves and accelerates its impact on society evolves and accelerates and as a result markets change, people change and your organization, your business, your company, whatever it is that you do, has to continually adjust, it has to evolve. I mean going back to the Darwinism you have to evolve to be either with the change or ahead of the change if not, then you become obsolete.

And that was a way of humanizing that story without fearmongering, without saying hey, that the world’s changing and you’re not, saying here’s how the world is changing, here’s how you can change to keep up with it, and then here’s what we would need to do along the way. And then help them here’s how we measure success or here’s how we create new business models that you’re keeping up. Digital Darwin has been successful in terms of its purpose. But we still come down to the humanity change, which is especially if your company has momentum, it’s very difficult to see that you need to carve off some of that momentum to start moving  in new directions.

Jim Freeze Yeah. As you’re talking about that I’m thinking about 15 years ago who didn’t love their Blackberry? And of course now what’s a Blackberry, right? I mean as you’re talking that’s exactly what I’m thinking about. You know the tech landscape is just there are relics of that once were dominant and didn’t, you’re right, didn’t think of this notion and the need to change, even though they were dominant at the time. And I guess that’s one of the great things about disruptive technology. Is it disrupts.

Brian Solis Oh yeah. Well, you look a disruption. I like to talk about disruption as an outcome. Silicon Valley likes to talk about it as a mission statement.

Jim Freeze Yes.

Brian Solis A couple of books ago, I think it was either End of Business As Usual, or What’s the Future of Business. I created an infographic that had documented all of the major organizations that failed to pivot in terms of innovation. And that were gone. And look, quite famously, if you think about it like Blockbuster had an opportunity to buy Netflix I think for $50 million, and didn’t. And there’s that type of story everywhere. Also with your Blackberry example, remember Steve Ballmer quite famously said that no business was going to buy an iPhone because it didn’t have a keyboard and its price point was too ridiculous. But even Apple itself was disrupted, right? I mean iTunes disrupted the whole music industry but then Spotify came along and completely disrupted not only the music industry, but also consumer behavior and expectations of their relationship with music. And then that as a result, transformed the business of music itself. And well in that way, if the pandemic is affecting the business of music, but-

Jim Freeze The pandemic’s affecting everything. And actually, on your notion of Digital Darwinism, I’ve got to believe and I certainly, I think we’ve seen that at my company, that the pandemic is really seeming to accelerate the notion of digital transformation and your notion of Digital Darwinism.

Brian Solis You’re right. So digital transformation is an interesting term. I did launch some of the original research around the subject at a time where Capgemini, this is how our partnership had formed early on. Capgemini was the loudest voice in the digital transformation game at the time but they were really focused on CIOs and IT. I get it, look that’s my audience as well but I also couldn’t help but weave in the Digital Darwinism component of this, because IT and CIOs and CTOs who were emerging at the time, weren’t going to change the nature of the business, they were going to enable it. So I also needed to write my research towards the C-suite, the CEO, the CMO, and every CXO that cross-functionally would be able to guide the business toward modernization and also innovation.

And so the way that I started to define digital transformation was essentially using technology as an enabler for a greater good, which was improving operations. But also introducing new digital business models, looking for ways to enhance processes and policies and ways of working, but also organizational models.

So digital transformation was the means of which to become a better business moving forward you had to know what that business was going to become and had to be outcomes based. And I had noticed that the number one catalyst for successful digital transformation was customer experience specifically looking at how to digitize, but also modernize experiences for the digital customer. And I had called that Customer – Generation C where the C stood for connected, because I was able to show that not only were they increasing in size and eventually becoming the majority, but we could also show what their customer journeys look like. So that we knew how to be better, we knew where to be great, and we knew where to innovate. So that gave the business case to digital transformation and that has been the foundation. And also it is where my work continues to focus today.

Jim Freeze Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean we sit at Interactions, we’re applying artificial intelligence to CX, that’s what we do. My next question really relates to something I read in a recent article that I think you’ve published on ZDNet. In it you say AI should not be seen as a tool to optimize traditional business processes rather it aids in creating and accelerating new business processes. And that when I read that, I was like, oh, that is so right. We see that all the time where we interact with customers or prospects who have a notion that they need to apply AI to an existing process and just make that process a little better. We always advise, take a step back and don’t focus on the way you do things today, but take a step back and ask yourself what’s the outcome you’d want? And design around that design for the outcome. And so I very much relate to your comment about AI not being seen as a tool to optimize traditional processes, but one that really should create new ones and accelerate new processes.

Brian Solis Oh, Thank you, thank you. I often talk about things in two ways, one is iteration and the second is innovation, and we need both. The challenge is that businesses tend to think about all new things that they do as being innovation. When in fact, it could, could very well be iteration. The difference is that iteration, we can take AI, machine learning, we can take automation, RPA, anything really.

Iteration is taking those tools to do something better at scale more efficiently maybe without even human input. Innovation though, is doing those things to explore and unearth opportunities to create new value, something we didn’t do before and something the market didn’t have before. And those two things are very different, but very important in orchestration. So they have to operate in parallel. You need iteration, you need innovation because the combination of those two can lead to disruption, which is doing those things that make the old things obsolete. And so you could see though that when it comes to automation AI, RPA, machine learning in many ways it’s being deployed with that iterative vision, we also need that innovative vision as well.

Jim Freeze Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more and it’s actually one of the things we try to get that notion across in dealing with customers because I think sometimes the art of the possible is hard for folks to kind of to think about it and we really try to do that. So I very much relate to that comment. I’ve got one last question for you. I’d love to get your thoughts on kind of the future of The Enterprise. What’s the role of AI in The Enterprise five to 10 years from now?

Brian Solis Yeah. Well, it’s funny you should ask. Actually the minute I wrap up with you I’m going to go write that article or at least the outline for it. So let’s play on this a bit.

I’ve always taken a human-centered approach, obviously with digital anthropology, but I’m also a really, really big proponent of creativity, curiosity, imagination. I was a big fan of Sir Ken Robinson and his famous, famous TED Talk around the Importance of Reintroducing Creativity, not only into education, but also into the workforce. And the reason for that tee up there was because when you have AI and automation and essentially cognitive technologies, we are going to within 10 years have organizations that can be self-driving, as my friend at Aira Technology, Frederick likes to talk about.

And the truth about that then is you bring up naturally the conversation around, well, what do we do with the workforce? And are we going to lose jobs? Does that mean technology is going to take all of these roles and what’s going to happen to these employees? And look at this reality is that yes, automation right now even in its most basic levels like RPA are taking jobs because it’s taken the repetitiveness away from the everyday role. But there’s an important thing that leaders have to think about, which is how do we rescale an organization to unlock creativity, to let people explore new opportunities in their roles to deliver greater value inside and outside of the organization? 

For example, my friends at Aira, they have an incredible platform for helping supply chain and logistics back ends. You have people with 30, 40 years of experience, the only ones who know how to do all of the backend, now could have first augmentation, but eventually self-driving. And so then that means, well, what happens to certain roles? Well, those roles can then look at how do we be more strategic with our supply chains? How do we think more differently about the products that we create and distribute? 

And so that’s where I want the world to go. I want the world to empower creativity, I want it to break up linear thinking, I want it to allow and empower employees to rescale and learn and unlearn. And we incentivize them to do that so that we are the beneficiaries as an organization of that new talent not just the talent coming out of schools, but the talent that we have who care about the company so that they can actually add new value that doesn’t exist today.

Jim Freeze I think that’s a great vision for the future and hear, hear on it. I hope that’s exactly what happens. I think it’s a very optimistic in a very bullish view on the future. And I’m anxious now to read your article that you’re going to be outlining. So you’ll have to send me a copy of it when you’re done. I’m going to be really interested in reading it.

Brian Solis You got to give that now. Now there’s no pressure whatsoever.

Jim Freeze Yeah. Brian, thank you so much for joining us today. You know as a strong advocate for digital transformation, I love connecting with other fellow enthusiasts to hear more about kind of the growing impact of tech on business practices and businesses in general and society in general. So we really appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.

Brian Solis Yeah. Thank you for the opportunity, Jim. I really enjoyed this conversation and I was serious about that bio, send it over.

Jim Freeze It’s on its way. All right. Thank you again.

Brian Solis Thank you.

Jim Freeze On the next episode of The ConversAItion, we’re joined by Pascal Bornet, a 2019 LinkedIn Top Voice in Tech and a recognized author, expert, and thought leader on Intelligent Automation. We’re excited to hear from him about the current and potential impact of Intelligent Automation on our world—in particular, its ability to save lives, enhance education and even eliminate hunger.

This episode of The ConversAItion podcast was produced by Interactions, a Boston-area conversational AI company. I’m Jim Freeze, and we’ll see you next time. 



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