What will work look like when everything is digitally transformed, artificial intelligence is optimally deployed and robots are embedded in every aspect of our economy? That’s hard to know, but one company that’s focused on making work work better, and helping businesses digitally transform, is Box.
Box, which went public in 2015, still acts very much like a Silicon Valley startup. Except, of course, grown up, with partnerships with Google and IBM and just about any other important company you can think of.
And 95,000 customers, including 69% of the Fortune 500.
I had a chance to interview Box CEO Aaron Levie at BoxWorks, the company’s annual conference where it unveils new products, new relationships and new ways of transforming the business of work.
This is a lightly-edited transcript of our discussion.
John Koetsier: You often talk about digital transformation. What percentage of the US economy do you think is digitally transformed?
Levie: I would say very small percentage.
John Koetsier: Can you put a number to it?
Levie: No. False precision is a waste of time. I have no idea. I’m sorry to be lame. But I would say a very small percentage.
And I think that it’s evidenced by the fact that the majority of our interactions with companies is still largely done in a fairly traditional manner. You know, I’m getting on the phone, I have a website that’s not very interactive, things aren’t personalized to me, I go into a store and it’s still hard to navigate. And so I think we’re probably still pretty early in this in this journey.
I mean, just the easiest example is trying to change an airplane flight.
How long would that take you … would it take you two minutes? Or would it take you two hours? And given that the underlying operational work is only two minutes, until the user experience gets to two minutes, then we’re not really digitally transformed, right?
So I think we’re just very early in this journey right now.
John Koetsier: Same thing on the global economy, I’m assuming?
Levie: Yeah, it varies by country, right? Certainly, I think if you if you look at China, they’re probably much further ahead in terms of consumer apps, in a lot of respects.
But now it’s still so very early, with a high degree of upcoming change.
If I think about the amount of investment and change that people are making to their business models and their cultures, I think we’re in for a decade of transformation ahead.
John Koetsier: What changes when a company successfully becomes digital first?
Levie: The way I kind of think about it is how narrow of a gap is there between my time and energy, and my output.
Think about just how many hours in a day are you doing things that a computer could do more efficiently? Because the user experience of how you’re interacting could just be way, way simpler, right? Like, how many hours a day do we have in wasted communication or searching for data? We’re asking the system for answers …
John Koetsier: Or doing something in five steps that should be one.
So imagine if you just got to the utopian state where the computer can do all the parts that it can do best, and the people do the parts that we do best … and you’ve got a great kind of harmony. That’s that’s what I think a digitally transformed workplace looks like.
And with instant sharing and collaboration between teams and people to get access to data instantaneously. So I think we’re seeing what that can look like.
I think small startups have an advantage because they can on day one adopt Slack and Box and Google and start working in as close to this modern way as possible. A Fortune 500 company, you know, might have two or three or five years of change. And some of that’s going to be technological change.
But a lot of it is going to be cultural change.
For example, what happens in a world where I, as a user, have way more transparency around what my colleagues are working on? Does it change what the company prioritizes? Does it change the communication style of the organization? So there’s a lot of cultural change on that front, and we always have to balance the technological change with the cultural change. And I think most companies are going through that.
John Koetsier: Let’s talk about the future of work. The future of work stresses a lot of people out: automation, robotics, AI, potential job loss … does it stress you out?
Levie: I think it stresses me out that it stresses other people out. So I think I’m probably more of an optimist on this by default.
I was talking recently to a CEO of a major logistics and servicing company. And his number one problem – and this is a Fortune 500 company, not a small business – his number one problem was finding truck drivers.
Like literally, they cannot hire enough.
So I think that we’ve sort of painted this very bleak picture of a world of AI and world of jobs being completely disrupted. It’s just my optimistic view but actually, I think what’s going to happen is that individual tasks will be automated, but full jobs, it’ll take far, far longer.
And that will give us more time than we think for the economy to evolve through this.
There’s no question, there are certain jobs where it’s just going to be really tough sledding. 20 years ago that would have been the travel agent on a telephone bank. That specific job did not have a bright future. So you have to find an industry that’s growing as opposed to one that’s declining because of technological transformation.
I think that we’re going to see more surprising upside on jobs because of automation and advancements in AI. In many aspects of work today, if you could make the job more efficient, you wouldn’t necessarily hire fewer people, you would just have those people go and work on more important things.
I rarely run into a company that is getting optimal output from its employees. There’s a lot of areas of our lives where we’re actually artificially under-consuming something … and we would actually consume that service more if it was delivered more efficiently to us.
I think healthcare is a perfect example.
Personally, I try to avoid the healthcare system at all costs. If healthcare was in a much easier, more efficient experience, then maybe that wouldn’t be the case. Maybe we would actually like getting more involved in the healthcare system.
John Koetsier: 30 years ago, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff said that everything can be automated, will be. Agree?
Levie: Well, if you don’t add a time frame, then I would say it’s more right than not. But again, the time frame is the important part.
Because what tends to happen is you take one thing, and you automate that, and a new set of things occur because of that automation, that now are not automated. And then I go to automate those things. And it’s literally definitely never-ending. And so any individual tasks that we see today that can be automated probably will be automated, but the tasks that get created from those tasks being automated, will not be automated yet.
And so we’re always in this ever evolving sort of race for more and more efficiency. And that’s just what capitalism does.
John Koetsier: What processes should never be automated?
Levie: Well, I’m a new father. And so I think I actually have an increasing appreciation for parts of the economy that frankly, we have under-invested in. Childcare is a great example. Think about how many millions of people could have childcare if you could deliver it for more people.
That’s a job that’s not gonna be automated, that’s not going to be an app, it’s not gonna be a robot that rolls around. That’s people. That’s empathy. And that’s creativity.
So much of this sort of AI myopia, I think, comes from Silicon Valley. We’re just like, well, why wouldn’t somebody want to interact with a computer for that task, instead of working with a human? But, actually, people like to interact with people. I mean, we’re sort of a social species!
So the idea that you’re going to go to a restaurant and never see a waiter, because it’s just so efficient to do it from an iPad – well, maybe in some cases – but it will probably be a hybrid model for almost forever. Because there’s probably going to be plenty of people that want human interaction.
John Koetsier: As we do automate more and more and add AI and robotics, do we need to change our economic model in some way to account for that? For instance, universal basic income, taxing robots and so on?
Levie: Well, I don’t think the robot taxing makes sense, because I think that it’s better to let businesses decide which things they need to make more efficient and not have an artificial constraint on how you would run an efficient business.
That being said, I think that it’s very, very possible that the economy and how the economy runs in 50 years looks very different than today.
I think that it absolutely is our responsibility to make sure that people are protected in those types of situations. I would just say, though, that it’s so hard to anticipate that stage because we’re not yet seeing it. We only have anecdotal examples. And it’s great to get ahead of it. So we should have lots of policy ideas and re-education programs, but I’m a little bit skeptical of getting overly negative and and dystopian around this future when we’re just in the early stages.
But what I’m seeing and what everybody I talk to says is that we’re actually running into a shortage of talent in many areas of our businesses.
John Koetsier: One last thing. YangGang?
Levie: I watch him with complete curious interest. I listen … a lot of his policies are very provocative and very interesting.
Personally, I would love a world where you could run experiments on a Warren country, a Yang country, a Cory Booker country … and then we could just see like, which one would work best.
John Koetsier: A/B testing presidents?
Levie: If we could do multivariate testing for presidents that’d be really fantastic. Because I think there’s plenty of good ideas there. I have no idea what the unintended consequences of some of these things are.
I think that having more more regulation is a good thing. So a lot of what Warren is pushing for, I think it makes a lot of sense. I think a lot of what Yang is pushing for around jobs and thinking about the future of income, no matter what happens to you … it makes a lot of sense to go and try out and see what are the results of that.
John Koetsier: Thank you for your time.