Sunday, May 26, 2024

KNOW24: Canadian Productivity, Pilots, AI and Idris Elba: A Conversation with Chris Ellison

There are a lot of Canadians at Knowledge 24, ServiceNow’s annual customer conference, as there are at any AI gathering. One of the country’s most prominent tech executives is thinking about how his platform, ServiceNow, can help address our not-so-rosy productivity numbers. ”I think about it a lot,” said Chris Ellison, country manager for ServiceNow Canada. “There are ways in which our models can help make huge expansions in productivity in Canadian industries. And we need it. Productivity continues to drop [as we rely more and more on real estate and passive investments to drive growth].”  Ellison sees this as a moment when productivity can be improved on an enormous scale by adding into all kinds of industries models infused with AI.

It’s a fascinating thought, and given that a third of the AI innovations in the ServiceNow platform are coming out of Montreal, through the 2020 acquisition of Element AI, meaningful. We talked about this and more on Tuesday.

Jen Evans (JE): You’ve been here for four years now, and during that time, there’s been a significant adoption of the Now platform. Can you discuss the changes you’ve seen, particularly in awareness and business application in the Canadian market?

Chris Ellison (CE): Absolutely. The adoption and awareness of our platform have increased dramatically. In his talk today, Bill highlighted the ‘four corners’ of business, which we’re really starting to see embraced in Canada. Both private and public sector leaders are expanding their use of our platform across all business areas. As a result, Canada has been identified as one of the next billion-dollar markets for ServiceNow.

JE: That was highlighted in the media briefing yesterday. Congratulations. It speaks volumes about the potential growth here and your leadership. 

CE: Yes, it’s quite exciting, thank you. You’re seeing some of that investment firsthand with people like Ben, (gestures to the person next to him, a new team member in communications) who are key in expanding our team here, particularly in roles linked to public relations and government relations, among other areas.

JE: Shifting focus slightly, could you share any insights into the breakdown of private versus public sector involvement in Canada?

CE: While we don’t specifically break down the private and public sectors, I can tell you that we’re experiencing robust growth across all segments. Our continued and increased investments, especially in the public sector this year, reflect significant potential. Traditionally, we’ve seen great success in financial services and telecom, and now we’re pushing more into the public sector.

JE: With the rise of generative AI, a very edge technology still, what’s the reception been like among Canadian businesses? I know concerns about hallucinations are there, and Canada tends to be quite conservative.

CE: The reception is cautiously optimistic, reflecting a typically Canadian approach. We’re not seeing resistance as much as a careful, methodical consideration of what generative AI means for businesses. It’s about educating and exposing business leaders to its potential and implications, especially regarding security and the direct applications to their operations.

JE: It’s surprising caution in some ways given Canada’s rich history with AI, like Geoffrey Hinton and the acquisition of Element AI. How does this historical context influence current attitudes, particularly in the B2B versus B2C sectors?

CE: Our focus is primarily on B2B, and here, it’s all about the use case and the associated business outcomes. Montreal hosts our key R&D center for generative AI, contributing significantly to the innovations you see. This connection to historical AI developments does spur innovation but is matched with a thorough examination of practical business outcomes. Montreal produces a third of the generative AI innovations you see now.

JE: Regarding implementation timelines, how quickly are companies seeing tangible financial benefits from integrating these solutions?

CE: It varies by use case, but some implementations are indeed very quick to show value, like the Now Assist tool we showcased today. This ability to integrate deeply into existing platforms, combined with the security and governance frameworks already in place, accelerates time to value significantly.

JE: Yesterday at the briefing, Paul Smith was talking about pilots versus just go full bore from the outset. And it’s easy to see how AI is a challenging model to just pilot because you don’t know what you’re going to uncover and you don’t know what you’re gonna see. Do you think the pilot model is going to change? I mean, that’s been the dominant model of technology adoption, the enterprise forever. Do you think that’s going to change with AI or how are you seeing customers come onto the platform now? How does that sales process work and what kinds of things are you engaging with them to do? The earliest stages of the sales process? 

CE: I don’t see it changing right now in Canada. Stats bear it out and what we’re seeing in the market bear it out is certainly in Canada that Canadian leaders are taking I wouldn’t say cautious approach. But I think, you know, a very thoughtful approach to it.

 I do believe that the way we can accelerate that is by aligning your understanding of the business objectives, and having clear business outcomes for that generative AI use of it so if that means a contact center agent can handle nine times as many calls and that costs twice as much as it did before. That’s a four-and-a-half X return. So those are the ones I think that will get accelerated and done faster. I don’t think that any Canadian leaders are going to take any shortcuts or anything. 

JE: During the partner presentations it seems like everyone up there starting with something small and then has expanded into multiple different types of deployments. Is that discovery model, is that the plan, is that part of how generated AI is working for you,  uncovering some of those opportunities? 

CE: I think it even goes back to we’re seeing every year and almost every quarter, more and more of our customer transactions have more than one workflow. It used to be customers will buy one workflow, but they’re buying multiple workflows two plus workflows in their initial transactions, and in their subsequent investments.

JE: So they don’t sound like pilots. Those sound like commitments …

CE: I think what we’re going to see with generative AI is they’re going to look at it and go – I’m not just buying a generative AI solution. I’m looking at investing in multiple workflows to do a business outcome on the platform. 

And generative AI is a key piece of that. So if you think about any of our workflows, whether it’s a service management workflow, a customer experience workflow, generative AI is like the rocket fuel on top of that, so there’s already value in what we do with our customer service management, that’s where we see the business outcome. So if there are multiple workflows being invested at the same time, I think that’s what we’re gonna see what generative AI is that is that multiplying factor that way.

JE: Given the sort of intelligent nature of generative AI, is it itself uncovering opportunities? Are you seeing that the way that the data is being processed through the platform is helping your customers see other ways they could use the platform?

CE: if you look at the, at the call center, the contact center, the traditional customer service experience, we’ve probably all had that experience where you call in. They know you are Jen. They know your number, they double-check it again and then they go can you please hold for a couple of seconds, which hopefully is only a couple of seconds, but what are they doing then? They’ve probably got all your data, on you. But that human needs a few seconds to summarize what the last five cases are on you. Like, would you you know, to give the billing issue data or whatever we’re seeing? That’s something that generative AI can do in a matter of seconds. So when you look at what that that opportunity is for that use case, I think it’s uncovering things like that, that we might not even know when our customers didn’t even know what the power is. And then, you know, I’m excited to them today. You know, what announcements announcements today was host called summarization. So we just talked about how there can be better insights and information available for call center agents pre call. Now imagine as they go and interact with you. And that post-call summarization generally generates a post-call summary. Instead of that agents writing that whole thing. They just look at the highlights and go yeah, check for accuracy. That’s good. Make maybe one or two edits, and that post-case summarization is in there. So I think that’s the kind of opportunities our customers are discovering, and yet to be discovered, even with generated AI.

JE: And that’s a huge value-added relationship. I mean, that must make your sales process much easier than it would in normal circumstances. How does that contribute? How is it different from other sales cycles that you’ve been involved in?

CE: They’ve already got a business value assessment, we’ve got a clear roadmap of what this is going to deliver and what the costs and benefits are. So if that’s helping us make it easier, it’s probably because we’ve been able to identify the right opportunities. You know, every time we work with a customer, we, we have a team that comes in to understand, what’s the business, what’s the problem, what’s the use case and what’s the business value that we can drive. We do that with our customers and our partners do that with with us as well. So anytime that we go through an engagement with the customers, before that action, go and make a commitment to investing further in the ServiceNow platform.

JE: I was at the SnowflakeDB office launch in Toronto recently, and they are doubling their office space. Is ServiceNow experiencing similar growth in Canada?

CE: Absolutely, our Canadian operations have expanded significantly, about 35% in just the last year. We’re outgrowing our current spaces in Toronto and Montreal, fueled by growing demands for our services and an increase in customer and partner engagement activities.

Jen Evans: How is ServiceNow applying its own technologies internally in Canada?

Chris Ellison: We use our own technologies extensively. For example, since deploying our internal AI tools, we’ve seen about a 48% deflection rate in queries that would have gone to human agents. This has drastically improved our innovation speed, particularly with AI-driven coding tools.

JE: Speaking of partners, how integral are they to ServiceNow’s operations in Canada?

CE: Our partners are absolutely vital. Not just in terms of service delivery but as key players in our global strategy, focusing on collaboration with major firms like Deloitte and KPMG. These partnerships are crucial as they help us tailor our offerings to meet industry-specific needs. We also engage with local Canadian partners who provide insights and services tailored to distinct markets and use cases within Canada.

JE: It’s a truly symbiotic kind of partnership, down to full transparency on your product roadmap so partners know exactly what the white space looks like and where they can apply their own development without fear of competing directly with you. Talk a bit about that.

Chris Ellison: Our partnerships in Canada reflect our global strategy, focusing on collaboration with major firms like Deloitte and KPMG. These partnerships are crucial as they help us tailor our offerings to meet industry-specific needs. We also engage with local Canadian partners who provide insights and services tailored to distinct markets and use cases within Canada.

Jen Evans: Moving to a different topic, you have an amazing celebrity spokesperson. Idris Elba is not just a spokesperson, he’s a customer using the platform to drive the production of a smart city in Sierra Leone. He is married to a Canadian. Has there been any discussion about involving him in ServiceNow initiatives in Canada?

Chris Ellison: He is?! I don’t think we had any idea. That is so cool and exciting. There hasn’t been any discussion yet but we’d certainly love to bring him to World Forum if we can! 

Jen Evans: Lastly, considering the NHL is one of your clients and you’re based in Toronto, any thoughts on the Leafs’ performance?

Chris Ellison: (heavy sigh) Well, you got me there.  As a Canadian and a hockey fan and a dad, it’s tough to see any team struggle. The Leafs have a passionate fanbase that includes me, and like many sports discussions, it’s an emotional topic for fans.

Jen Evans: Chris, thank you for sharing these insights on ServiceNow’s operations and strategies in Canada.

Chris Ellison: Thank you, Jen. It’s been great discussing our work and vision for Canada with you.


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Jennifer Evans
Jennifer Evans
principal, @patternpulseai. author, THE CEO GUIDE TO INDUSTRY AI. former chair @technationCA, founder @b2bnewsnetwork #basicincome activist. Machine learning since 2009.