Sentient, meaning “aware of one’s surroundings,” is a quality we associate with living things. From working with customers in my job at ServiceNow, and from teaching MBA students about technology strategy, I’ve come to appreciate how the word can also be used to describe companies.
In fact, I believe sentience may be the single most important attribute a company can develop if it hopes to survive in this era of rapid, massive digital disruption. That’s why the future belongs to what I’ve come to call the “Sentient Enterprise.”
To understand what a Sentient Enterprise is, let’s first describe a traditional one. The typical company has two main characteristics. First, its work is carried out in siloed departments—marketing, finance, product development and all the others—that don’t always coordinate with one another.
Second, employees must actively seek out the information they need to make decisions, especially if they’re not the ones collecting it in the first place. The data they obtain can be outdated, and often tell only a small piece of the story they need to hear.
In a Sentient Enterprise these two dynamics are flipped on their heads. Work isn’t done in siloed departments. Instead, the entire company collaborates on the processes needed to fulfill its mission.
Information isn’t sought out in little dollops. Instead, it’s automatically routed to the people who need it. Technology plays a major role in allowing this to happen, because a Sentient Enterprise uses sophisticated tools, like machine intelligence and Internet of Things sensors, to ensure that the most current information ends up in the right hands.
A good example of the difference between an old‑fashioned company and a Sentient Enterprise might involve a transportation business running busses or trains. Obviously, ticketing is central to such a company’s daily business.
In a traditional organization, many different departments are involved in this core ticketing process. The finance department crunches the numbers to determine how much tickets should cost. Schedulers keep tabs on passenger habits so they can plan the optimal times for busses or trains to depart and arrive. Operations determines the proper staffing levels for ticket booths and call centers. And IT implements and maintains a self‑service ticketing app.
One department rarely has full visibility into other departments. In many companies, employees in different departments rarely talk to one another.
A Sentient Enterprise, by contrast, would handle the core process of ticketing in an entirely different fashion, using sophisticated tracking devices that help managers visualize the entire system at any given time so they can adjust resources to meet shifts in demand.
By pairing real‑time data from IoT sensors with machine learning systems, our transit company could detect, diagnose and communicate information involving both sudden fluctuations and gradual shifts in demand.
If a nearby airport closed suddenly, for example, operations could add more agents. IT could make sure there was enough server capacity so the self‑service app didn’t crash. Schedulers could put additional busses on the road, and finance could raise prices to balance new demand with the available supply.
The Sentient Enterprise has the intelligence it needs to take this real‑time business data, and—acting as a cohesive, integrated unit—make all of the necessary operational adjustments to keep the ticketing process running smoothly.
Speed of innovation
The Sentient Enterprise might come off as a Zen‑like being with total awareness of the world around it. In a manner of speaking it is. But there’s nothing mystical about making a company sentient. All that’s required are a few concrete steps. First, you need to reinvent your core. Next, you need to innovate for the future.
Just as you can’t build a Lamborghini on a Yugo chassis, you can’t build a Sentient Enterprise using the structure of a traditional company. Instead of organizing your company by departments, organize around the functions that your company needs to perform, like ticketing in our transit company example.
Then design workflows that enable these functions. Once you’ve automated the information‑gathering processes, you end up with an environment where people use data dynamically to get things done.
With this foundation in place, you can proceed to the most important step: Innovation. Because you’ll have a real‑time, 360‑degree view of your company, you’ll be able make changes to your products, or even your entire business model, as soon as the data indicate they’re necessary.
In today’s fluid business environment, speed of innovation can be the difference between life and death. Consider the fashion industry. A generation ago, the “season” was the main unit of time in fashion. Designers worked months in advance planning their next lines, and would wait many long weeks to learn if they had correctly guessed what people would want to wear.
Now consider the “fast fashion” that rules fashion today. The product cycle has been reduced from seasons to hours. An Instagram post by a celebrity influencer can instantly send vast throngs of shoppers to their favorite stores or websites. That means designers need up‑to‑the‑second information about what’s hot. They also need supply chains that can turn on a dime to satisfy these sudden spikes in demand.
Both require a Sentient Enterprise. A traditional company can’t keep up in this environment, which helps explain why we’re currently reading so many obituaries about once‑dominant retail chains. Tracking demand in real time allows you to change consumption and business models. You can quickly evolve how you create and deliver products, and deliver new services via new channels.
Those new channels might resemble nothing that exists today. Imagine what getting dressed might be like 10 or 15 years from now. You go to your closet, where an imager performs a 3D body scan to get your up‑to‑the minute size, including that extra helping of dessert you had last night. The data is uploaded to the cloud, where your favorite designer takes your measurements and pairs it with the very latest style, adjusted to suit your unique personal tastes. A pattern gets sent back to your bedroom, where a 3D printer “sews” the garment for you while you’re in the shower. What could be more up‑to‑the‑minute?
The development of biological sentience gave human beings an enormous evolutionary boost. It’s our core competitive advantage and the reason why we’re called Homo Sapiens, which is Latin for “wise man.” Future business historians will write about the Sentient Enterprise in much the same way. Companies that develop it will survive and prosper. It’s my belief that those that don’t will find themselves on a fast path to extinction.