The Challenge: Companies cannot capitalize on the promise of Automation Thinking for their business (AI and RPA) if they do not have the substantial data sets that are needed by these neural networks to crunch and inform highly accurate outcomes. The Solution: Online Communities. Paul Stillmank, CEO Innovation. That’s where the buck stops. No doubt about it. Innovation anticipates buyer needs, commands new markets, and completely disrupts business models. It is all about invention, modernization, and improvement. Looking past the potential to what’s truly possible. Looking through the possibilities that myriad trends of our age are shaping and getting out in front of them. Anticipating. Leading. Visioning. More than a decade ago, I had a eureka moment of my own. I saw a world being shaped by social. I just knew that everything would change once the social constructs amplified by new media swept through popular culture. Companies have been chasing after market share, increased revenues, and better productivity for as long as any of us can remember. And all of this time they have been asking the rudimentary questions “what” and “how”? What can we do to improve? How can we expand? What is the market asking for? How do we improve getting our product into the market? What should we do? How can we do it better? But the most essential question at the center of my thinking back then was asking “Who?” Customers, partners, and employees, that’s who! Can we enable them to build a business for a company? Social constructs said yes. That’s crowd-sourcing. That’s what people have become accustomed to. That’s what businesses now count on. This, itself, is simply incredible. The world has gone from “being social” to collaborating in entirely new ways. Even the most discrete of business processes is made more transparent, more measurable, and more efficient. This is a critically important evolution because a lot more has been happening over the past 10 years as well. We are, as a civilization, well past the front door of what has been labeled the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This revolution revolves around new technologies fueling and stemming from areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA), the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT), and innumerable other new sources of Big Data that continue to reshape the data management landscape as we know it – both producing and consuming this information in ways that will, no doubt, completely change the world that we live in. I see many smart companies that moved on this notion almost a decade ago. The Big Data movement spurred them on. Now they are ahead of the game. Others are now catching up through substantial R&D investments, acquisitions, or both. For those companies that either were not ready to invest or were too skeptical, there is still an opportunity to capture the most important data of all: the data specific to your own business, processes, and audiences. That’s your specific data and, properly harnessed, it can continue to propel your purpose, products, and services in a market that is about to become unsettlingly competitive. But we’re back to the question of “how”? The answer is simple: Communities. Communities are data. I’m not talking only about content, files, and dashboards. I’m speaking to the tacit interactions between the audiences consuming that information. How they work with them. How they consume them. How they collaborate with and through them. Those interactions between employees, partners, and customers revolve around a wide range of linkages: employee to employee, employee to partner, customer to customer, customer to employee, and customer to partner. And each of those audiences, each of those linkages, is interacting with processes, content, and data as well. That means more information, more data, and more insights. It is not a far leap, then, to understand that capturing these interactions is tantamount to applying automation thinking to your business. There is no better way to capture data than to put a community interface in front of the people performing the work. My own company, 7Summits, imagined a world with prebuilt, purpose-driven communities way back in 2009. Our brand promise: “to enable your customers, partners and employees to build your business for you,” delivers against the promise of AI and RPA. Nearly a decade after my eureka moment, we now sit at the forefront of community experience design, creating digital transformation solutions that unlock business value: Customer support portals afford self-service, raise conversion rates, affect product advocacy, and glean much-needed insights to fuel product roadmaps and go-to-market strategies. Partner networks streamline partner onboarding, serve up relevant content and tools, assist in matching leads, and provide important feedback to optimize channel performance. Employee social intranets provide a highly accessible and served knowledge base, drive open communications, crowdsource ideas, and turn every business process into an effective, efficient practice through collaboration. Developer networks open lines of communication between customers, driving tremendous value resulting in higher renewal rates. Alumni networks align mentors with mentees, match interests to opportunities, and share information at the opportune moment to serve both the alumnus and school in the most beneficial ways. The list goes on and includes solutions for every industry from manufacturing to high tech to healthcare to financial services. As your company advances its own use of Big Data and automation thinking, I invite you to consider how communities could enhance your digital transformation. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Robert Schuller that has inspired innovation in myself and many others, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” The preceding was edited for length from the original, which was the Foreword to Practical Guide to Salesforce Communities by Phil Weinmeister, available at apress.com or Amazon.