Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri
Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri

Workday’s Aneel Bhusri Unplugged: Riffs on Employee Well-Being, UIs, and Rise of the Corporate Soul

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As he’s built Workday into a highly strategic partner for the world’s top corporations that has a $4-billion annual run rate and a market cap of $54 billion, Aneel Bhusri has also created a corporate culture that has won every possible type of acclaim and award for being a superb place to work.

So I was not at all surprised that Bhusri used a significant portion of our 1-on-1 conversation last month to talk about very human issues and his personal sense of how the pandemic has changed in profound ways not only what corporations do but how and why those behaviors are evolving so rapidly. 

To listen to the audio version of our conversation, click here.

(Workday is #8 on the Cloud Wars Top 10, and you can find our comprehensive analysis of the company and its prospects at Workday Doubles Down on Planning, Analytics and ML to Rip and Replace Legacy IT.)

Bhusri and I spoke late last year as part of Cloud Wars’ new CEO Cloud Outlook 2021 series. I’ve known Aneel for about 15 years and while he’s always thoughtful and open, it was immediately clear in our conversation that the world-rocking events of 2020 have had a deep impact on his sense of perspective and priorities.

Rise of the corporate soul

Replying to my opening question about the state of the business world in the wake of the pandemic, Bhusri almost off-handedly noted that “our business has held up pretty well” before getting to what clearly was his primary point.

“I’m very proud of our employees—they really came together,” Bhusri said.

“Working from home is not for everyone. It’s definitely not for me—but they’ve made it work and we’re in business to take care of our customers and [our employees] have done a phenomenal job taking care of those customers.

“But I think the biggest thing in the business world, which is something that is maybe a silver lining of being in a health crisis and a social crisis and an economic crisis at the same time, is that I think companies and businesses found their soul, where we all have a greater purpose than just to deliver results for shareholders,” Bhusri said.

“We need to make sure our employees are healthy. We need to have a view that is much more around stakeholder capitalism than just for shareholders, and I hope that one of the few silver linings of 2020 will be this awakening of business that we need to have a soul, we need to be involved in solutions for our communities, for our employees, for our customers.”

Alluding to the regular conversations he has with CEOs across multiple industries, Bhusri said, “We’re all realizing we have to take on more and more responsibility for our employees’ health and well-being, including mental well-being, and that’s obviously an issue that’s surfaced during COVID, mental health. 

“It is tough working remotely for eight months now when you’re used to a collaborative, in-person environment. At the end of the day, we’re social creatures and making sure that our employees still feel connected and engaged is really critical. 

“And if I were to telegraph—and I’m trying to stay away from stuff that’s commercial for Workday—but if I were to telegraph anything, it definitely raises our awareness and interest in moving into the health and wellness space as a provider because HR is the organization that’s front and center for all of these issues.

“We’re taking a larger role in vaccinating our employees just for this flu go-around, and we want to make sure that it’s an easier process. Ironically, people came into the office to get vaccinated in an office that’s been closed for eight months—but that’s the right thing to do and again, it’s that broader view of what a company is supposed to do than just a narrow view of ‘we work for shareholders.’ ”


Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri


Opportunity on-ramps

Touching again on the evolving and expanding notion of the strategic role HR can and should play, Bhusri also advocated for HR to deliver huge value in a way that’s generally not associated with HR: driving economic opportunity.

“For Workday, given our roots, we think our most important role to play is to be an enabler of more economic opportunity. Making opportunities available for all, rather than for a few, is a big part of what an HR platform can provide,” Bhusri said.

“We capture the data around diversity. We have our own index we call VIBE—Value, Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity—which is our way of trying to track sentiment around the initiatives around diversity. Our customers are all leaning in on this topic and trying to figure out how they can be better. I think, again, it’s really an awakening and a great time.”

Bhusri described those efforts as part of the way to create “opportunity on-ramps” that can offer “ramps for people from maybe the less traditional, less advantaged paths into the workforce. It’s been an awakening for companies and for their employees.”

Consumer-class UIs

While 2020 generated those seismic shifts on a global level, it was also a year in which Bhusri drove a management change that is allowing him to focus more of his time and energy on his primary passion: products. 

Late last year, Workday named global field operations leader Chano Fernandez as co-CEO, a move that gives Bhusri the latitude to drive strategic initiatives inside the development organization. 

A couple of years ago, Bhusri described himself as the “Pied Piper of ML within Workday” by pushing the ML agenda relentlessly until it became a self-sustaining initiative. And how, Workday’s very own Pied Piper is calling a new tune: consumer-class UIs.

Recalling that metaphor with a laugh, Bhusri said, “That’s exactly what I did for machine learning and I’m still doing that but now I’m also championing an elevated user experience. 

“When I look at the user experiences for different systems, there’s a new bar being set by the consumer internet almost every day, and then there’s a new bar being set by the new generation of cloud companies like the Zooms of the world. 

“We just have to make sure that we’re always on that leading edge, that cutting edge of user experience because the most valuable systems aren’t necessarily the most powerful—although that helps—it’s the ones that people like to use.

“So that’s my new Pied Piper job.”

Planning, planning, planning

And as we chatted about some of Workday’s products—primarily its HCM suite, Financials suite, and Prism Analytics—it became very clear that Workday Planning is taking on a larger role within Workday because so many customers have had to become planning fanatics during The Year of Disruption that was 2020.

“When you think about how a business runs or how any organization runs you come up with the plan, you execute against that plan, you analyze the results, you look at those results and then it impacts the way you plan the next time around. That worked well for many years when we were doing annual planning,” Bhusri said.

“In today’s world you throw out the annual plan in March and it probably changed at least a dozen times between—I know our plans changed a dozen times between March and October and my guess is probably more than that. So now planning is front and center and if you have the wrong plan it almost doesn’t matter what you’re executing against.”

And the upheavals of 2020 have clearly underscored the mission-critical nature of planning as a permanent fixture in modern business.

“So planning has definitely spiked an interest. We now have over 4500 customers using planning,” Bhusri said.

“The vision that we have is tying together that loop I talked about in a closed loop way: planning, execute, analyze. So the plan gets represented in the execution plan in HR and in financials and in procurement. Then the results are analyzed through Prism Analytics, and those results are fed back into the plan, and you get to this mode of continuous planning.”

Last year served as an accelerator to a trend that was already unfolding, Bhusri said.

“Independent of the pandemic, I think we’re getting towards a world of rapid planning anyways because the world is changing so fast and business cycles are so fast, but with the pandemic your business is going through ups and downs that are just so hard to predict so you just have to be very nimble in the way you plan and then you want to make sure that plan is represented in your transactional or execution systems like HR and finance immediately. 

“You can’t wait for the data to get moved over and to worry about whether the data is of high quality or not. You just have to assume that that works and that’s really the problem we’re trying to solve. 

“But it all starts with planning. It all starts with planning.”

In turn, that heightened recognition has clarified for Bhusri the strategic direction Workday will pursue in 2021.

Customer-driven solutions

“What we see from our customers is that we’re an applications provider—they want us to build applications,” Bhusri said.

“So the first application we came to market with were people analytics and there’s been great reception to those people analytics and it’s the same thing with spend analytics and finance analytics down the road as we roll out those SKUs.

“Customers aren’t looking to Workday necessarily for a technology platform as much as they’re looking for solutions, and it’s a good reminder that’s the place we’re at in the market. So the more that we’ve actually come up with prepackaged analytics, the more value we’re able to bring to our customers.”

And once again, Planning popped into the conversation.

“Planning is a really powerful technology and modeling engine. The value comes out of financial planning, workforce planning, operational planning,” Bhusri said. 

“It’s actually the functional layer on top of the planning engine that drives the value for our customers and it’s the same thing in analytics. So the two really do go hand in hand as they are these applications that front-end and back-end the core HR and accounting applications.”

And thereby completing the circle.

It also underscores Bhusri’s emerging view of how he thinks about Workday and its place in the world, a view that’s been crystallized by the events of 2020.

Final Thought

“When I look to what Workday can be, I don’t look to our competitors. I look to some of these leading-edge consumer internet companies that are driving really amazing customer experiences, I look to some of the emerging startups,” Bhusri said.

“So there’s all this inspiration out there about what we can do with the cloud…. 

The cloud accelerated in ’08, ’09. I think anything that’s cloud and modern is getting accelerated right now. 

“So I’m optimistic that we’re on the right path and there are a lot of other vendors on the right path.”

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