While at Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent conference recently, I took the opportunity to speak with Chandan Sharma, AWS’ executive in charge of global enterprise and business vertical growth. I was interested to chat with Sharma since AWS is seemingly very focused on both broadening the reach of its enterprise footprint and deepening its coverage within individual enterprises and sectors.

I was particularly interested to hear how AWS is helping its more traditional customers to embark upon the digital transformation journey – if one accepts the suggestion that every organization faces its own existential crisis as new and disruptive technologies, businesses and models threaten to disrupt its existing market, then AWS has some massively applicable experience and patterns that it can help its customers and prospects deploy to secure their futures.

I asked Sharma about how AWS is helping its customers to embark upon this digital transformation journey and I a response which is indicative of AWS’ eagerness to not overstep and gild the lily, but rather to deploy more pragmatic and muted approaches, he told me that AWS’s conversations with customers are always centered around “innovation” rather than “digital transformation.” While this could be seen as simply semantics, this messaging and way of articulating what it does is actually pretty telling.

I was particularly interested to chat with Sharma, and to contrast, the way AWS approaches this opportunity, from the way Salesforce does. I’ve been watching Salesforce for close to a decade now, and, in particular, have been interested in just how much they invest in telling a highly aspirational digital transformations story. This is arguably easier for Salesforce for two reasons: firstly, its CEO, Marc Benioff, is a legendarily charismatic leader who people are used to hearing an evangelical message form. Secondly, since Salesforce is generally selling to non-technical business users and executives, its message can be nuanced to be lighter on technology, and heavier on business transformation.

AWS is in a different situation and, while its annual revenue is around twice that of Salesforce’s, it sells primarily to a technology set. Whereas Salesforce’s conversations are with the sales, marketing, and other business-facing C-suite roles, AWS’ are with CIOs and CTOs. That changes the opportunity measurably, and means that AWS needs to position itself in a different way – ergo the “innovation” versus “digital transformation” messaging.

Sharma explained to me that, whereas other companies might use a highly conceptual and aspirational approach, AWS’ is very much steeped in the world of measurable results. Again, as a direct reflection of their organizational approach and culture, AWS prefers to have its people and customers identify a tangible project to use as a proving ground for the approach, and to grow wider from there. So AWS agents working with customers might find a small application, or a distinct part of the IT operation and look to create a degree of “muscle memory,” applying new approaches and processes. From there, the new way of doing things can grow wider throughout the organization.

Narrower but more real, versus wider and fundamental

I spent some time thinking about the relative merits of Salesforce’s versus AWS’ approach with regards helping customers innovate. it’s hard to argue against the contention that Salesforce’s approach really does help organization rethink far more broadly – it is an approach that screams, from the rooftops “innovate or die, your organization needs to be reinvented to survive in this new world.” AWS’ approach is more muted and, while because of this it is more likely to generate quick wins, it could be argued that these wins are somewhat siloed in nature, and potentially miss the opportunity to really move the needle for the organization more broadly.

There is no easy answer here and the two vendors’ approaches are a result of their corporate DNA, their product portfolio, and the sort of customers they sell to. But it is interesting to compare and contrast as it gives an indication of future potential.

Taking Amazon cultural norms

One aspect of the approach that I like is using Amazon as a proof point and best-practice guide for customer journeys. Amazon’s two-pizza rule is legendary, and less well-known, but equally impactful is the Amazon approach of “working backward.” When developing a new product or service, AWS produces the final press release and FAQ documents and refines these to create the market offering, the messaging and to clearly develop an understanding of the pain point they’re trying to solve.

This approach, one of absolutely focus on the customer need, is one which can prove exceptionally useful to customers, especially those who have more traditional (read slow and top-down) approaches towards product and service development. Re-setting the cultural norms by gaining an insight into the principles and norms that Amazon itself uses can be hugely valuable to customers.

Valuable, but value left on the table?

I came away from the conversation with a far deeper understanding of the consulting work that AWS does with customers, and an appreciation for the value it brings. I also came away feeling that, at least to an extent, there was still massive value left on the table.

I’d never suggest that AWS should become driven by marketing spin and sell customers on some conceptual notion that can’t ever be realized, but there is a difference between that, and helping customers develop an aspirational vision. The work I’ve done in the past around design-led thinking leads me to a belief that organizations can’t hope to really transform unless they think more broadly about the opportunities – while resolving a single pain-point or opportunity is useful, and undoubtedly helps a wider story around transformation, it is a slow and fraught process. It strikes me that AWS has the ability to talk both bottom-up and top-down – carry on the lower level strategy of picking off distinct opportunities, but in parallel be having the conversation at a strategic level around organizational-wide transformation.

While AWS is a technology vendor first and foremost, as we all know, technology is an enabler for organizational change. by not strongly talking this higher-level narrative, AWS is not only impacting upon its own opportunity size but also potentially denying its customers the ability to think far more broadly about the opportunities at hand.

I suspect that, over time, AWS will change this approach and develop a dual strategy which sees both bottom-up and top-down conversations happening contemporaneously – watch this space.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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