Why I’m Bullish On Workday Again: The Innovation Summit

Why I'm Bullish On Workday Again: The Innovation Summit

Why I’m Bullish On Workday Again: The Innovation Summit This week I attended the Workday Innovation Summit and there’s a lot to discuss. Having just celebrated its 19th birthday, the company is embarking on a major transformation . And it’s not just product innovation that’s happening, the company is greatly expanding its business model. Workday Has Been A Product Led Company Much of Workday’s success goes back to its focus on being “born for the cloud.” Rather than build business apps in a typical database-centric architecture, Workday developed its own object-oriented data system, integrated workflow system, and global security architecture from scratch. Nobody knew the cloud would be so big nor that we’d have “superscalers” like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon as platforms. Nor could we predict the advent of global data governance, AI, or data and apps distributed across thousands of servers. Well Workday, led by Aneel Bhusri, pulled this off. And not only did they sell architecture, they sold “the Power of One.” In Workday, unlike other ERP business systems, all the applications were designed to work together. No acquisitions, no integrations, no open systems: just a beautifully designed, easy-to-use, scalable enterprise application. (I noted that it reminded me of the i-Phone at the time: beautiful, easy to use, and closed.) This “beautiful walled garden” served Workday well. While Oracle, SAP, and other vendors struggled to redesign their client-server apps and acquire missing pieces, Workday grew like wildfire and is now a global ERP vendor with more than $7.3 Billion in recurring revenue, 10,000+ enterprise and mid-market customers, and a brand known for trust, customer focus, and quality. And all this happened with a founding team that was largely still in place. Last year Workday’s co-founder and CEO Aneel Bhusri decided it was time to step back and the company brought in Carl Eschenbach to be CEO. And now things are starting to change. The company is becoming a “markets-led” business. The “product-led” focus for Workday was both good and bad. Workday was not easy to integrate, there were few APIs for developers, and the company limited its partners. As part of its mission to be pure, Workday prevented many vendors from “partnering” and forced integrators to pay large fees and certify dedicated teams. This “scarcity” strategy created high demand and high prices, and customers actually appreciated it. All was good, until things started to change. Today, with many competing vendors at all levels of the ERP stack, Workday is becoming more pragmatic. And as I’ll explain below, they’re changing their message from “The Power of One” to “Workday is a Platform.” Workday Is Becoming A Markets-Led Company The HCM and Financials market is complex. There are dozens of sub-markets, application areas, and industry solutions to address. An HR system designed for a large hospital system is unlikely to need the same features as a system for a global insurance company. So Workday started to realize its system, while integrated and highly functional, couldn’t keep up. And within HR itself there are hundreds of vendors who sell recruiting tools, career systems, learning platforms, engagement tools, mobile apps, benefits, and data analytics systems. And each of these sub-markets are being transformed by AI. (Our upcoming research on Talent Intelligence, for example, will show you how fragmented this is.) Workday was having a hard time keeping up. The company embarked on a series of acquisitions (Platfora, Mediacore, Adaptive Insights, VNDLY, Peakon, HiredScore, and others). This forced the product teams to focus on user interface and architectural integration, somewhat slowing the feature expansion. And many partners who wanted to integrate with Workday (which customers demand) were ignored. Well under Carl’s leadership, all this is changing. Workday is now fully open to partners, ISV’s, resellers, and industry solutions. Almost 25% of the entire Innovation Summit was focused on Workday’s open partner strategy. And the big message was this: Workday is not a “system,” it’s a “platform.” What does this mean? It means that if you buy Workday you’re buying a platform like the i-Phone. It works amazingly well, it’s safe, and will sport a family of industry apps to help you build a total solution. This worked for Apple and Salesforce and it’s likely to work well for Workday. SAP has a similar offering, but its level of integration is far more complex. This lets Workday move deeply into new domains and sub markets. (Workday highlighted its new integrations with Shiftwizard in healthcare, Auditoria and Kyriba in finance, and many others. These are not just ISV relationships: Workday is reselling these products. But there’s much more. Workday Unveils Its AI Strategy At last year’s event Workday really waffled about AI. They gave us a lot of arm waving discussions of “Workday AI” but it didn’t make a lot of sense. Well they’ve figured it out, so let me briefly explain. Enterprises don’t want AI for its own sake and they definitely don’t want crowdsourced data which creates legal risk. They want AI solutions that work on their own data. Well Workday has now embarked on a wide variety of AI features, each delivered through its own “micro-LLMs” trained on a company’s own data. (Very similar to how we implement Galileo, our AI HR expert assistant.) And for larger AI capabilities they use a global LLM with local weights and biases for each client. (This is similar to how the Microsoft Copilot works.) So your enterprise data trains your “version” of Workday without sharing any data with others. In some cases (the Skills Cloud, for example), customers can opt to share data anonymously. This lets Workday build a “global skills database” which everyone can share. Vendors like Eightfold, Lightcast, and Draup do this at a massive scale (far beyond what Workday does today), so Workday is now moving into this “talent intelligence” market. (Lightcast is now a Workday Skills Cloud partner.) Many of these features are simple (rewriting a job description or matching invoices to purchase orders) but powerful. All over Workday you now see a little AI icon to help you complete a task. In fact Workday has already re-engineered about 280 different tasks and is working on around 2,000 in total. Customers constantly tell me Workday is difficult to use, and it’s largely just because the system is quite complex. These AI-enhanced experiences are slowly going to make the system more and more “I-Phone like.” Many New Talent Features Now that the product teams have a strong underlying architecture, they’re going crazy with features. Workday is introducing a new “Intelligent Job Architecture Hub,” for example, to help companies simplify and improve job names, levels, descriptions, and skills. (It also shows trending skills in the external market.) Everyone is going to use this. The Workday Talent Marketplace, which is not widely used yet, is being enhanced through HiredScore: employees will get Teams or Slack messages recommending jobs. This is an example of “orchestration,” a new buzz-word among AI systems. (Imagine AI booking your trip including hotels, air, car, etc.) The Workday Manager Hub now shows managers detailed employee engagement data (Peakon has more than 18 billion responses now) and will gives managers “Conversation Starters” to help them start performance coaching, all based on feedback from other employees. There is a major focus on contingent, gig, and contract workers. For the first time I believe Workday can handle most professional services businesses (including pricing projects based on staff pricing), healthcare and retail (AI-powered scheduling and shift management), and many deskless worker needs. It turns out that healthcare and retail are two of Workday’s biggest industries, so these talent-constrained industries are now a good market. Let me talk briefly about HiredScore. This company built an in-line “talent orchestration system” that uses AI to show recruiters who is most suited for a job, explain why it made its decisions, and use this data to find and source internal candidates automatically. While this type of technology is widely used in systems like Eightfold, Beamery, Phenom, and others, the HiredScore system is workflow-oriented. Recruiters love it and it greatly improves hiring speed, quality, and internal mobility. And by the way, despite lots of complaints from users, Workday Recruiting is starting to dominate the ATS market. With more than 4,000 customers it’s becoming a more “safe buy” as companies rationalize their old ATS systems. As David Somers (head of product) put it, HiredScore is the acquisition that “keeps on giving.” In other words the AI team at HiredScore is now going to work with Workday’s Skills Cloud team to evolve and improve that system. The Skills Cloud, while beautifully visioned and named, has had limited success. With HiredScore’s help (and the leadership of Athena Karp, founder and CEO), this system will get more attention. (That includes more content partnerships and a broader set of tools.) This means Workday’s recruiting system (which is one of the most critical business systems in today’s talent shortages) is now highly coupled with the internal mobility and job architecture system, something customers desperately want. I still believe systems like Eightfold and Gloat are far more advanced, but Workday is catching up. Management Culture And Trust And then there’s the biggest issue of all: Workday’s leadership. I spent some time chatting with Carl Eschenbach and he has a very different persona than Aneel Bhusri. Carl clearly wants Workday to go after new markets: new geographies (EMEA, Asia, Japan), new industries (healthcare, pharma, retail), the mid-market segment, and channel partners. Workday is now actively searching for resellers, mid-market integrators, and ISVs to round out the solution. As always, the leadership team at Workday is highly aligned and much more pragmatic. Many times I would attend a Workday event and feel a slight sense of arrogance at the top. As with all successful software companies, it’s easy to think you’re always right when things are going well. I believe this has changed. I actually found Workday to be humble, attentive to new issues, and open-minded to new ideas, new partners, and self-inspection. This, to me, is a bullish sign. And from top to bottom the company is focused on trust, AI safety, and customer service. One more thing I want to point out: the “Workday as a Platform” idea. The company now realizes that this highly proprietary, business-optimized system can no longer be sold as a beautifully walled garden. The company is building a massive set of easy to use development tools, expanded APIs, and programs to attract software developers, partners, and integrators. Now, when customers ass for functionality Workday can look for a partner to resell or embed. The company is losing its “if we didn’t build it we don’t trust it” mentality. I also believe this leadership team really likes each other. As many of you know, team culture is massively important in the tech space. Things change so fast and there are so many competitors the company has to stay aligned. I sense everyone really understands what’s going on. Growth Potential Will Workday accelerate its growth above its respectable 17% per year? Well the company has challenges. Many of its legacy clients have found a plethora of advanced tools around Workday and I know large companies that are switching back to SAP. And despite all the new features, Workday is an older, complicated, rigid system. That all said, I think the company is managing its transformation well. Let’s watch to see how all this plays out. Additional Information Enterprise AI At Work: The Talent Intelligence Primer Will Chatbots Take Over HR Tech? Paradox Sets The Pace.