May 19, 2020

The Sentient Enterprise: A new framework for data-led transformation

The Sentient Enterprise
Romily Broad
7 min
The Sentient Enterprise: A new framework for data-led transformation

In an interconnected, data-soaked and increasingly disrupted business world, companies are rushing to embrace digitisation. They’re rushing, in part, because they no longer have much choice. The upstart challengers troubling their comfort zones began digital. Forged in data, they were born in a hurry.

Disrupted enterprises are looking for answers. They’re pouring hundreds of millions a year into the deployment of data and analytics technologies. A recent TCS survey of companies across 13 global industries suggests the most progressive companies are spending $100mn or more annually on AI alone, and intend to ramp that spending by a further 30% by 2020.

It is investment provoked by the burgeoning availability of data itself, surging at a speed only automation and advanced analytics can hope to handle; mere humans are no longer capable of processing what they’re seeing. So, capturing and fully exploiting insight from data erupting from all corners of company operations is now globally recognised as an existential necessity.


But despite accelerating investment, companies that weren’t formed from data continue to struggle to live with it. Around two thirds of all enterprise-level software projects fail to deliver desired results, while - if one study is to be believed - up to 75% of executives think their projects are doomed to fail before they’ve even got started.

One solution may have now arrived in the form of a new book from two storied luminaries of the digital industrial revolution. The Sentient Enterprise, by Oliver Ratzesberger and Dr. Mohan Sawhney, aims to provide a map for navigating these treacherous waters. It plots a journey to ‘a new model for analytic capability, maturity, and agility at scale’, with a promise to ‘change the way everyone in business makes decisions’.

A bold claim, but it’s one the authors have some authority to make.

Ratzesberger is EVP and Chief Product Officer at Teradata, a company that’s been at the forefront of commercial data analytics for more than 35 years. Teradata can list 1,500 of the world’s largest and most data-rich companies among its clients, including the likes of Maersk, VW, HSBC, AT&T, and major airlines (practically all of them). Teradata has been deeply involved in the remarkable turnaround of US telco Sprint, too, which you can read all about here. Prior to joining Teradata, Ratzesberger developed a unified data platform at Sears Holdings and led data warehousing and big data at eBay, shepherding knowledge from trillions of website clicks and hundreds of billions of transactions.

Sawhney is the McCormick Foundation Chair of Technology, a professor of Marketing, and Director of the Center for Research in Tech & Innovation at the renowned Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He’s a globally recognised thought leader, scholar, consultant and speaker. He has written many books, now including this one.

The Sentient Enterprise methodically lays out a framework for a company’s digital transformation journey. It is designed to be applied by leaders in businesses of any size, and with Ratzesberger and Sawhney at the helm it’s a course informed by a qualified blend of hard science and hard practice.

“We’ll be a North Star for that journey, rather than and end point,” Ratzesberger tells Business Review USA. “It’s not something you arrive at and put a check mark against and say, ‘okay, I’m done’. It is the journey towards the ultimate goal of how to disrupt the rest of your industry, rather than be disrupted yourself.”

The “a-ha moment” for The Sentient Enterprise philosophy occurred to the pair as they shared wine and cheese in a Chicago bistro in November 2013. Four years of further contemplation – and not a small amount of advancement in analytics technologies - has resulted in a book that seems perfectly timed.

A tipping point has arrived, says Ratzesberger, where the convergence of data processing and increasingly universal sensorisation is fully upending entire business models and industries, confronting established players with radical challengers like Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, Square, and many others.

“Our journey started years and years ago. We have both had the opportunity to see early adopters do very specific work in this space. Over the last 15 years, I have had the opportunity as a practitioner to drive some of the more advanced companies. But it is now scaling so much faster than the capabilities of most companies around the world,” he says.

Articulating an approach to guide companies through the maelstrom has been a central goal in constructing the Sentient Enterprise concept, adds Sawhney.

“The paradox, or disconnect, that we have anchored on was asking: ‘How do you make decisions at the speed of data?’ If the velocity of data is exploding, humans simply don’t scale and can’t manually sense and respond to what we call micro-events as they take place in the enterprise environment.

“So that’s where we came up with this idea of an ideal state of where we need to get to from a capability standpoint and we have developed the model to complete that journey. The tipping point is here, but the root of the problem is in scaling your decision-making capabilities to match the explosion of data and speed and volume of things to which you need to respond.”

Hence the concept of a company that thinks autonomously – a sentient enterprise. An organisation that might be better called an organism, built to sense, process, interpret and respond, almost in real time. Ratzesberger and Sawhney are quick to admit this sounds “a bit sci-fi”, but are equally quick to stress that the means to create such organisational ecosystems already exist and what they lay out in their book is a methodology to obtain them.

Above all, they say, what they’re not describing is a simplistic and fantastical notion of companies replacing human decision makers with AI. Rather, they lay out what they call a Capability Maturity Model in five distinct stages, where technology and process are thoughtfully and holistically deployed by leadership to provide maximum possible utility to the people using them.

It begins with the development of an Agile Data Platform. This is a technology backbone that ingests, analyses, and presents data to the whole company in ways that break down traditional siloes and removes error. However, it also enshrines a principle of properly managed and very human, cultural agility that Ratzesberger and Sawhney say is the keystone to unlocking every other stage.

“If you don’t manage to get good at agility, nothing else will happen,” says Ratzesberger. “Agility is this misunderstood thing that often turns into a wild west in companies. So many companies are so quick to declare that they are agile, but when you ask them some of the very basic questions you see that actually all they’re doing is running fast. That may work for 30 or 90 days, but in a year’s time they realise that they have created so much debt in their organisation that it overwhelms them and stops them in their tracks.”

Only when the technology, culture and effective governance of agility is in place can you move on to tackle the four other stages, each as human as it is technological:

  • Pivoting data analysis and company mindset around customer satisfaction instead of customer transactions in the Behavioural Data Platform;
  • Distributing data insight across the organisation via social-media-like applications to elevate ideas, projects and people in the Collaborative Ideation Platform;
  • Embrace what Sawhney calls “data ergonomics” by leveraging the exploding app economy to provide simpler, more effective access to data insight with the Analytical Application Platform;
  • And finally, the ultimate goal, the Autonomous Decisioning Platform – a sentient enterprise where culture and technology have matured to the degree where tactical decisions can happen autonomously, freeing people to focus less on data sifting and more on critical strategy.

In The Sentient Enterprise Sawhney and Ratzesberger succeed in articulately expanding on the detail within each stage of their transformation journey. At each turn, they qualify their methods with real-world examples drawn from their own experiences and from interviews with leading practitioners at the likes of General Motors, Uber, Dell, Siemens, Verizon, and many more.

The result is something akin to a Six Sigma approach to driving data-driven success – an analogy they are happy to make within its pages.

“To build The Sentient Enterprise we spoke with 300 C-level executives over the last two or three years about the concept, and many of them walked away saying: ‘Oh my god, you’ve just given me my next seven-to-10 years of work to focus on!” says Ratzesberger.

“We believe that executives are not looking for theoretical scenarios, they’re looking for a very practical approach to this. They want to benchmark themselves against what could be seen as world class, and then lay out a roadmap as to how they get there.”

The Sentient Enterprise: The Evolution of Business Decision Making is available in hardback or e-book now via publisher Wiley and other major retailers.

Share article

Jun 12, 2021

How changing your company's software code can prevent bias

Lisa Roberts, Senior Director ...
3 min
Removing biased terminology from software can help organisations create a more inclusive culture, argues Lisa Roberts, Senior Director of HR at Deltek

Two-third of tech professionals believe organizations aren’t doing enough to address racial inequality. After all, many companies will just hire a DEI consultant, have a few training sessions and call it a day. 

Wanting to take a unique yet impactful approach to DEI, Deltek, the leading global provider of software and solutions for project-based businesses, took a look at  and removed all exclusive terminology in their software code. By removing terms such as ‘master’ and ‘blacklist’ from company coding, Deltek is working to ensure that diversity and inclusion are woven into every aspect of their organization. 

Business Chief North America talks to Lisa Roberts, Senior Director of HR and Leader of Diversity & Inclusion at Deltek to find out more.

Why should businesses today care about removing company bias within their software code?  

We know that words can have a profound impact on people and leave a lasting impression. Many of the words that have been used in a technology environment were created many years ago, and today those words can be harmful to our customers and employees. Businesses should use words that will leave a positive impact and help create a more inclusive culture in their organization

What impact can exclusive terms have on employees? 

Exclusive terms can have a significant impact on employees. It starts with the words we use in our job postings to describe the responsibilities in the position and of course, we also see this in our software code and other areas of the business. Exclusive terminology can be hurtful, and even make employees feel unwelcome. That can impact a person’s desire to join the team, stay at a company, or ultimately decide to leave. All of these critical actions impact the bottom line to the organization.    

Please explain how Deltek has removed bias terminology from its software code

Deltek’s engineering team has removed biased terminology from our products, as well as from our documentation. The terms we focused on first that were easy to identify include blacklist, whitelist, and master/slave relationships in data architecture. We have also made some progress in removing gendered language, such as changing he and she to they in some documentation, as well as heteronormative language. We see this most commonly in pick lists that ask to identify someone as your husband or wife. The work is not done, but we are proud of how far we’ve come with this exercise!

What steps is Deltek taking to ensure biased terminology doesn’t end up in its code in the future?

What we are doing at Deltek, and what other organizations can do, is to put accountability on employees to recognize when this is happening – if you see something, say something! We also listen to feedback our customers give us and have heard their feedback on this topic. Those are both very reactive things of course, but we are also proactive. We have created guidance that identifies words that are more inclusive and also just good practice for communicating in a way that includes and respects others.

What advice would you give to other HR leaders who are looking to enhance DEI efforts within company technology? 

My simple advice is to start with what makes sense to your organization and culture. Doing nothing is worse than doing something. And one of the best places to start is by acknowledging this is not just an HR initiative. Every employee owns the success of D&I efforts, and employees want to help the organization be better. For example, removing bias terminology was an action initiated by our Engineering and Product Strategy teams at Deltek, not HR. You can solicit the voices of employees by asking for feedback in engagement surveys, focus groups, and town halls. We hear great recommendations from employees and take those opportunities to improve. 


Share article