Forward Focused Episode 3: Evan Kirstel

Evan Kohn: Hello and welcome to Forward Focused brought to you by Pypestream Digital Labs, a thought series on customer experience, artificial intelligence, and enterprise automation. I’m Evan Kohn from Pypestream and today I’m talking with a fellow Evan, Evan Kirstel. Evan’s a B2B thought leader and regularly ranked as a top influencer in AI, IoT, health, the cloud and telecom; and his clients include Ericsson, Samsung, Qualcomm, Panasonic, Intel, and AT&T Business who all seek his expertise across technology domains. Evan, great to have you with us today.

Evan Kirstel: Great to talk again, it’s great to talk to another Evan, maybe we could call ourselves the Evan and Evan show.

Kohn: Hey there you go, I love it.

Kirstel: Excellent.

Kohn: Evan you’ve covered a wide array of topics related to digital transformation, so much written about digital transformation today across industries, often with this underlying implication that many of the world’s biggest companies really need to constantly embrace change or they’ll go extinct. So, what do you see really being different about digital transformations today to, say, five years ago?

Kirstel: I think there’s a recognition that digital transformation means embracing change from the top of the organization to the bottom, you know, it’s not buying some consulting or the next IT process improvement, but it’s embracing a fundamental shift in the business. And it’s driven by a recognition that the competitive landscape is changing and that change is hard, and so companies are waking up to that realization from the top down, you know, from the CXO suite right through the organization. And so it’s a buzzword, of course, but I think it’s more than a buzzword, it really reflects a reality out there in the enterprise world today. So, I think that’s kind of my perspective on where we are. 

Kohn: Yeah and you see both the social and technical complexities of these types of transformations. Socially, you know, working to coalesce a wide array of stakeholders around an initiative, on the technical front, integrating systems that might not have traditionally talked to each other. Do you think it’s more often the social complexities, the technical complexities or a combination of the two where enterprises run into the most internal resistance? 

Kirstel: Yeah, it’s interesting, as all things in life there’s no black and white answer and I think it comes down to the impact of a change in culture, in people and process, and technology. And it’s only by embracing change in all those areas that you can see the expected outcome. We’re seeing companies now born digitally, we talk about people born digitally, you know, my children and others, but companies now are being born digitally and so, companies that are perhaps older school need to act accordingly. And that means not just being digital but transforming themselves into, sort of, a digital culture. 

Kohn: Well, jumping ahead three or five years from now when many enterprises have already gone through the digital transformations of today, what comes next? Is it a constant mode of taking on new initiatives, are there any breather periods, what do you think that looks like?    

Kirstel: You know, I can barely look around the corner to next week, next month, next year, things are changing so rapidly. When I get the three to five year question I try to think three to five years back and what we’re seeing now is almost unrecognizable, right? So, it’s really hard to look so far ahead which is part of the challenge of digital transformation it’s how far ahead can you look? And it’s really not that far, I mean, looking ahead more than a year or two is really tough in many industries. And so I think the key is adaptability and resilience and trying to experiment and embrace technologies and succeed and fail and to embrace failure. So, there’s a lot issues to unpack there.

Kohn: Yeah, and certainly it varies across industries too. From insurance companies really working to change the way they build direct to policyholder relationships; certainly in telecom between cable and streaming, you know, having programming that’s this always-on concept, 24/7, having consumers accessing your product, you know, how do you really build a relationship with them that’s ongoing? Which industries, do you think Evan, are under the most pressure to transform?

Kirstel: I think no industry goes unscathed here when it comes to change and pressure and competition. But I think some industries have been at it longer, I came up through 25 years in the telecom industry so I’ve seen the change and experienced it first hand as a professional, so that’s a great example of a really dynamic and frankly an old industry having to adapt to new technology, new consumer attitudes, new ways of working and delivering services. So, I think industries where there’s a good deal of competition whether it’s aerospace or, you know, travel or telecom, digital or web services. These are industries that were born in competition for at least the last couple of decades and have had to embrace these changes, but I wouldn’t be complacent if I was in healthcare or government or other sectors because change is a-coming and it’s not easy, you know, it’s really hard, you need to be prepared. 

Kohn: Well let’s talk about AI specifically, that’s at the center of so many transformations, lots of buzz around AI. It means a lot of things to a lot of people now between machine learning, deep learning, neural networks, natural language understanding, so many startups say they’re at the intersection of AI and something, you know, very few companies now don’t have an element of AI infused within them. What are some companies that you think really get it when it comes to producing concrete value out of their technologies?

Kirstel: Yeah, that’s a great question, I think concrete value is the key word, you know, we’re stuck in the Hollywood perspective of AI, you know, being a transformer robot or a T9000, and that’s really the consumer’s perspective. But in business we see very practical applications of AI and real world applications whether it’s FedEx or UPS routing your package or collaboration tools enabling you to be more productive at work or hospitals leveraging patient data to predict patient outcomes, so they’re very practical use cases based on available data that are quite evolutionary on one hand but revolutionary in terms of techniques and tools and machine learning, deep learning process. So I just see that creep, every day, every week, there’s this gradual, incremental approach to, you know, application of practical applications of AI and that’s what excites me, it’s not, you know, this revolution we keep hearing about because at the end of the day, a lot of these technologies and techniques have been in practice; we’ve hit a kind of virtuous circle of research, application, tools, methodologies, and startups like Pypestream, we’re taking some of the best of breed out there and applying it to real world applications like customer experience, customer service, customer engagement. So that’s kind of what excites me, is how do you apply this stuff to our world. 

Kohn: Well, lots of headlines around AI, we see a lot shared on social media, questions around the new AI economy, what does it mean for different businesses. I’d say, Evan, to call you active on social media would be an understatement. You’re a B2B influencer, many folks may think of influencers as exclusively those on Instagram promoting skincare or protein bars, but it’s really grown into the tech sphere. What’s it like as a B2B influencer, traveling to conferences every week, engaging with an audience with a digital reach in the tens of millions?

Kirstel: Yeah, well, it’s a personal obsession obviously, which has translated into a professional lifestyle. What’s always intrigued me about social and digital is the chance to meet new people. We met on social media, I meet investors and analysts and journalists and amazing clients and intriguing individuals on social. It brings people together in a positive way that you simply wouldn’t be able to replicate in the real world and so despite all the negative news around social and digital and disruption and challenges that go along with it in terms of everything from harassment to abuse to political machinations — I try to look on the bright side and I see a tremendous community out there of folks who are engaging and meeting each other and sharing and curating news, that’s where I spend my time when it comes to social and digital. And, for me, it’s been a journey, it’s been a learning experience, and whether it’s a platform like Twitter or Linkedin or Instagram there are great communities of interest that you can tap into and whether it’s for personal interests or professional use there’s always something new and exciting to achieve there. And so, I’m kind of an optimist when it comes to social once we can work through a lot of the trust and privacy and political issues that we’re seeing out there right now. 

Kohn: Well, so many companies are working hard to create relevant content whether it’s blogs or videos or articles, you name it. Which enterprises or publications are best today at capturing the attention of consumers and really uncovering the stories behind what’s really going on in the tech world?

Kirstel: Yeah, there’s sort of a new saying, don’t sell, tell, you know, the days of advertising and selling in a traditional sense of pushing your product or your message are kind of coming to an end. These days it’s about storytelling, it’s about educating, it’s about informing your audience, and it’s about connecting in a, sort of, very personal or human way. And so brands, big and small, are really waking up to that reality and adapting accordingly, from the CEO level whether it’s a Marc Bennioff at Salesforce or a John Legere at T-Mobile, they’re taking the reigns of social in a very, sort of, first person, intimate way reaching out to customers and the wider audience in terms of who’s who on social and digital, journalists, et cetera these days. It’s an amazing change and it’s part of this digital transformation journey and the move from paper, print, outdoor traditional advertising to digital is part of this amazing shift and whether you’re an employee on the ground floor or a CEO in the C Suite you’re having to adapt to this kind of brave new world. 

Kohn: Evan, we’ll leave it there, thank you for joining us today, hope we can do this again soon. Where can our listeners find you?

Kirstel: Well, they can not only find me, they can engage with me. I’m, of course, prolific on Twitter at evankirstel and also on Linkedin, there are some great communities and forums I’m active in, and, of course, at Evan Kirstel on Linkedin. And I hope to see you there. 

Kohn: Thanks again, Evan. Listeners, thank you for tuning in today. You can access more Pypestream Digital Labs content at pypestream.com/insights, we hope you join us for the next Forward Focused podcast. 

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