Build for change: 5 takeaways from the Airtable Leaders Forum

Build for change: 5 takeaways from the Airtable Leaders Forum

“We’re facing a new wave of transformation, and the biggest question facing companies is: How will you adapt?” — Howie Liu, CEO at Airtable

Imagination, adaptability, and the accelerating pace of change were front and center at the Airtable Leaders Forum in New York this week. The event welcomed customers, industry leaders, and analysts, and offered a dose of inspiration against a backdrop of economic uncertainty.

“Companies are being forced to work smarter and faster, often without the people and resources they were used to,” Howie Liu, co-founder and CEO at Airtable, said in his vision keynote. The resounding message of the conference? Leaders must re-envision the way we work.

Through every session, the consensus was clear: we may feel like we’ve entered a new era, but the pace of change won’t slow anytime soon. From economic headwinds to transformative technologies like AI, change will continue to challenge our organizations. No matter how diligently you plan your product roadmap or plot your marketing campaigns, you’ll need to stay agile and reimagine every facet of day-to-day work. The event’s speakers invited the audience to embrace this uncertainty by “building for change”—or creating a culture and processes that allow you to remain focused, efficient, and inspired.

These five takeaways from the Airtable Leaders Forum illustrate how leading organizations are delivering higher standards of work and reaching new depths of collaboration and connectedness. Surviving this “wave of transformation” requires you to reimagine the shape of your industry and how your customers behave. Most importantly, it calls on you to direct this imagination internally and reevaluate how you work and operate.

1. AI presents tremendous and urgent opportunity

AI is unlocking a new pace of creativity and productivity. “Those that struggle to adapt risk being left behind,” Howie said in his keynote, before hosting a conversation with Scott Belsky, author, investor, and entrepreneur.  

“Creative confidence is going up for humanity,” Scott said, predicting that AI will unlock a child-like playfulness when it comes to making art, designing graphics, and writing copy. It will “free the ingenuity of people” as we use AI to do more mundane, repetitive tasks. And it will help us better personalize web experiences and apps.

Finally, Scott believes that the “soul” in storytelling will become more important, not less, in a sea of AI-generated production.

Untapped potential aside, AI brings tricky questions around security and scale in the enterprise. To address this, Ilan Frank, VP of Product at Airtable, announced a new product feature that makes it simple for any team to implement AI across their workflows in Airtable—an embedded experience that paves a path for successful and sustainable AI adoption at large companies.

“Our next gen app platform will make AI accessible for everyone in an organization [and help them] get comfortable using these models in their everyday work,” Ilan said.

This resonated with Allie Plotsky, a fintech product manager in the audience, who commented: “I’m very excited about bringing AI into Airtable and seeing what we can do with that. I’m hoping it can speed up and enhance a lot of workflows we’re already doing today.”

2. Shared data unifies teams in transformation

Connecting teams with shared data allows them to move quickly, in unison. In a fireside talk, a leader at a large media and entertainment company said that solving silos was a huge necessity in transforming from a linear television strategy to multi-channel streaming.

“We had a variety of different marketing teams, across a variety of different brands, all designing and executing marketing campaigns. They all had somewhat similar processes, but they were all working off different data,” he said, adding that connecting this data “helped us to be more efficient, and more agile.”

For companies unsure of where to start in centralizing data, Brian Yablunosky, senior manager of digital channels and global communications at VMware, suggests: "First, lean into a use case you're familiar with. This is a powerful way to harvest curiosity and find efficiencies. From there, continue connecting use cases across the org.”

Brian also encouraged the audience to change the culture around sharing data: “It’s not one person’s datapoint; it’s the team’s information.”

Over lunch, facilitated discussions with the audience drilled further into the importance of trusted data that’s shared across multiple teams, with attendees from financial firms and ecommerce stores brainstorming ways to get their teams to care about data more holistically, beyond their  single use case. (They agreed that integrating Airtable with tools like Salesforce is a powerful way to show the potential of shared data; there were whistles in the audience when Ilan Frank announced two-way sync.)  

3. Rigid tools aren’t made to pivot

If AI allows you to create and produce more quickly, your processes and workflows need to be able to sustain this pace—especially now when you’re doing more work with fewer resources. One presenter, a leader from a grocery delivery company, asked and answered: “How can I set my team up for next generation growth? How can I take advantage of change to get ahead?”

Part of this involves moving from a hyper-growth mindset to an efficient growth mindset, and building apps and workflows that are designed to flex and adapt. “Broken processes manifest in a broken customer experience,” the leader said.

Previously, in a hyper-growth environment, you could solve a problem by hiring additional headcount or purchasing more tools. Now, you must prioritize the tools that are flexible enough to address multiple use cases, without sacrificing connection. You should be able to make data-driven decisions in allocating resources and prioritizing work. And, even if you’re forced to shift strategies quickly, you shouldn’t have to rebuild every workflow from scratch.

As Ilan Frank said in his earlier keynote, “Rather than using inflexible tools that are narrowly focused on project management, or buying a solution dedicated to one specific workflow, empower teams to build their own apps and workflows in one single platform.”

4. “Governance” isn’t a bad word

With employees empowered to build  apps for their specific use cases, a key question for our enterprise audience was how to balance governance and security within this decentralized model. Some standout tips from the sessions include:

  • Enable your team. Your team should know how to build in Airtable and feel ownership over their data and workflows. Consider running Airtable 101 sessions internally or building a community of users who can help and support each other as they learn.
  • Guardrails are a good thing. Governance shouldn’t feel scary or controlling, instead, the right guardrails should give your team the confidence to take ownership, move quickly, without the fear of breaking anything or putting company data at risk.
  • Governance must always evolve. It needs to change as your teams and your company changes. You learn as you go, and you need to constantly be tweaking what is in place so your teams can be successful.

A tactical example of this came from the communications team at VMware, where Brian Yablunosky said he strongly prefers his team to use existing bases in Airtable. Still, rather than act as a roadblock when people want to build new bases, he’s a “speed bump”—reminding them to drive carefully as they solve new use cases to avoid creating silos.

5. Operational excellence creates its own momentum

Even if the pace of change feels overwhelming, a promising trend emerged in almost every session: operational excellence is contagious. “As more people become more comfortable with Airtable, they see different ways to use it, spurring ideas for other use cases… which drives compounding value,” said Brian Yablunosky of his communications team at VMware.

Dafna Shochat, a digital workplace product owner in the audience, was also impressed by Airtable’s flexibility. “I like that you can build anything you want [in Airtable] based on what your use case is. It’s not just for project management, it’s not just for forms, it's not just for data. It brings together all those pieces” she said.

A single team can be the inspiration for change across the org. Leaders left the Forum freshly inspired to think through their own team’s workflows and processes, asking themselves, not only, ‘how will we adapt?’ But, ‘how can we build for ongoing change and opportunity?

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