A few days ago, Randy Guard was sitting in a quiet boardroom in San Diego’s Grand Hyatt where, only steps away, some of his biggest and most marquee customers were discussing their IT and business strategies as part of his firm’s Analytics Experience. The SAS CMO didn’t need any software, however, to know what was most likely top of mind among many of them.
“One of the ongoing topics we’re hearing a lot about is role creation and role displacement as it pertains to AI,” he said in an interview with B2B News Network and other media outlets. “We believe AI will help us as practitioners, not displace us. If you did the classic bell curve, it’s pretty clear there is going to be a whole group of people who will be part of a (corporate) function that previously didn’t exist.”
Guard is by no means the only executive to take an optimistic outlook on how AI will change business, but as SAS CMO he has more at stake in the debate. SAS is an unusual company. After decades in business, it is still led by its original founder, Dr. Jim Goodnight. Despite the mania for tech IPOs, it remains the largest privately-held software company in the world. And while it was arguably helping address big data long before the term came into use, it represents a brand now trying to find its place in a field where AI represents the Holy Grail of using technology as a competitive advantage.
“From a marketing standpoint, we have two big pillars,” Guard said. “We want to have reach and awareness with other audiences we didn’t engage with five years ago. Analytics is now prevalent in their mindset.”
The second pillar, Guard said, is continuing to improve the customer experience with SAS. “If they are an organization that has used SAS before, they have a baseline perception and we want to build on it. If they’re net new to SAS — if they’re within a line of business that hasn’t worked with analytics before — we need to look at how best to engage with them. Maybe it’s IT that needs to stand things up and break things down. Maybe it’s the business side that wants additional capabilities and pushes on us to understand their needs.”
SAS made some significant AI-related announcements this week, including a survey with Intel, Accenture and Forbes that suggested AI is not only being adopted by 72 per cent of organizations in at least one area, but that many are also focused on the ethics around the technology. From a brand positioning standpoint, however, SAS is competing for attention among potential AI customers with IBM, SAP and countless other vendors. Guard admitted this brings its challenges.
“We’ve have core capabilities that are machine-learning based. We’ve been doing this for 40 years — but that’s not to say this (AI trend) is no big deal,” he said. “It’s okay to have experience as a baseline but this is a massive innovation wave that we’re part of.”
As advanced as its analytics applications are, meanwhile, SAS also faces competition from the open source community, where frameworks and tools are offered for free or at a fraction of the cost of more traditional products. Guard, however, said SAS will avoid “either/or” messaging to put itself in opposition with open source advocates.
“We have a fundamental belief that open source is a concept that is going to allow a customer to innovate and succeed,” he said. “No one is interested in operating in a world of silos. Those debates may be interesting for an individual but they’re not beneficial for a company.”
Beyond releasing new products, Guard suggested SAS is marketing itself in new ways by targeting the kinds or organizations who would traditionally have lacked analytics expertise to tackle their business challenges. Last year, for instance, the company launched SAS Results, a “Results-as-a-Service” offering that would offer on-demand and scalable consulting help based on a particular issue and data set.
“This is not the licensing of software — though we could look at that over time — but the solving of a problem,” he said. “Initially this was white space. There were so many mid-sized companies that just felt they couldn’t invest in the technologies.”
Another priority for the SAS CMO is helping businesses understand the limits of analytics, AI and related technologies so that they don’t experience some of the disappointments that characterized the early days of business intelligence (BI) tools.
“Describing reality is fundamentally our job,” he said. “We need to make sure we can convey what it is, the value potential, and figure out how do we create the right environment do it in — whether that’s a phone call or when we have a customer on stage telling their story of how they’re using the technology we’ve described. We need to show and tell and convey that reality, whatever the medium might be.”