Community minded

Rob Bernshteyn, CEO of global technology giant Coupa Software

Hi Rob, thanks for speaking to Digital Bulletin. You’ve just launched ‘Smarter Together: How Communities are Shaping the Next Revolution in Business’, could you give our readers a flavour of what the book is about?

At the centre of the book is the idea that there’s simply nothing more powerful than Community Intelligence. Put another way, none of us is as smart as all of us. The idea of Community Intelligence isn’t new. But what is new is the amount of data at our fingertips, the ability and willingness to share it, and the supporting IT infrastructure and technology that allows for dynamic collaboration. The book is about how we can leverage Community Intelligence to reshape the way we work. 

Today, the green shoots of this revolution can be seen all around us. Community Intelligence is already shaping our daily decisions, whether it’s where to go and how to get there, where to eat, what to buy, or how to stay fit. I think it’s something we’ll see companies and industries relying on more and more, and I predict you’ll see Community Intelligence tools getting built into more and more software platforms as a result.

How long have you been thinking about the topics you cover in the book and how long has it taken to write?

It took about a year to write, but it was the product of about 20 years of hard thinking about what it takes to solve big problems and manage complex systems, and how technology can be leveraged to help. But I was especially motivated to write this book now, in part because I think it serves as a corrective for the way we think about information technology today.

Public perceptions of information technology have taken some wild turns. I think many of us were swept up by the dream of the internet weaving humanity into a single community. But that was before the misinformation and the disinformation and the trolling and the hate. And so, people are a lot more cynical now about it, and I understand that.

But I think there’s something lost in the sweeping generalisations and the legitimate concerns. I think there’s a more nuanced reality, which is that for all its shortcomings, the software now powering our lives has the potential to do incredible good for the whole of humanity. I think that potential for good is on display in every aspect of our lives, and I think it speaks to a path forward for companies and industries of the future.

What is ‘Community Intelligence’ and why is it important?

Community Intelligence is the wisdom of the collective, which has always played an essential role in the development of societies. We used to pass down this intelligence orally, through stories around a campfire. Then we got the printing press and could fill libraries with the wisdom of generations that could be passed on and built upon. The information age would later transform by incomprehensible orders of magnitude, the amount of information available to the community. And today, we can use artificial intelligence to make sense of all of this data in aggregate, delivering Community Intelligence in instant, actionable, and prescriptive ways. Put another way, we’ve mastered the ability to transform information from the many to create insights for the one.

Think about Community Intelligence like a neighborhood watch programme. What you give up, your time to patrol or some money for a service, is outweighed by the value you get in return, which is safety in your neighborhood. The concept of communities sharing and learning together is particularly important for companies navigating an uncertain economic environment. The intensity of competition is accelerating, and by some estimates about half of the S&P 500 will be replaced in the next decade. Companies need new ways to see around corners, and I think increased applications of Community Intelligence provide the answer.

Coupa manages some $2 trillion of spend data in its ‘Business Spend Management’ system. Could you talk about how many of your clients are embracing ‘Community Intelligence’ and the insights they are able to glean from that approach?

Many, if not most of our customers are embracing Community Intelligence, and the numbers are growing by the day – it’s been rewarding to see. We have companies that have cut their workflow cycle times in half by benchmarking themselves against the community. We have companies that have increased their operational efficiencies by as much as 70% by adopting the digital practices of the community with their suppliers. A company recently came to us for advice after it learned that its best-in-class peers had achieved on-catalog spend that was 28 times higher than its own. And these are just a few of the examples.


Let’s get into some of the questions you raise in the book, what sort of insights can businesses expect to have access to if they collaborate on data sharing?

I mentioned some more broadly, but specifically with regard to Business Spend Management, I’d say it comes down to the following four things:

Benchmarking: Data generated by Community Intelligence allows a company to not only see how they stack up against another company but gives them the ability to make real-time adjustments to help them compete.

Best Practices: Businesses will be able to identify patterns that will help them drive great performance across their organisations.

Improved IT: They’ll get direct insights on their product so they can improve them, fine tune them, and make them relevant.

Spend Smarter: With Community Intelligence, companies will know they are getting the best prices from the best suppliers who deliver what they promise on time. That means their costs should go down, as well as their risks of receiving late deliveries or less than acceptable merchandise.

You make a strong argument against data privacy in the book, could you outline your objections to many common concerns around data privacy and explain why being open is better?

I definitely wouldn’t say that I’m against data privacy at all. Data privacy is critically important. But let’s be clear about what that means, data privacy means you should have the ability to consent before your data is shared in any way, anonymised or not. I think that’s a given. The question is, when should you give permission to share that data? And the answer is, you should share it when it provides you with value to do so. At Coupa, nearly all of our customers have agreed to contribute to our Community Intelligence capability, where they share sanitised and anonymised data with us, because they know that what they are getting is more valuable than what they are giving.

How do you believe employees can harness data to further their careers?


If you’re leveraging data through Community Intelligence, the bottom line is that it’s going to make you smarter. It’s going to make you better at your job. And it’s going to make the people you work for notice.

A lot of people I talk to in our community describe a familiar problem: They’re not expected to be prescriptive and provide insights to their boss, but they’re not going to be promoted if they don’t. So what do you do then if you don’t have the tools to add that value? Usually the answer is that you stagnate.

Community Intelligence tools give you the ability to become the decision-making force in your company, and to do it with confidence. At the end of the day, that’s going to be good for your career. And frankly, it’s also just good for your quality of life. If you’re leveraging community, it means a lot of headaches you never have to have, and a lot of busy work you never have to do.

Which departments of enterprise do you see as already changing because of AI and big data?

Currently, you see a lot happening with the medical industry. Since COVID-19 hit, several companies have realised the value and necessity for sharing data across organisations to achieve breakthroughs more quickly. But I think you can see this across all sorts of categories. In retail, for example, where physical locations are increasingly disappearing, leveraging AI and big data is the core way that retailers are using to personalise their offerings and really get to know their customers. That’s a way to deliver meaningful value that will certainly help them thrive.

How do you see the future being influenced by Community Intelligence? You outline an interesting scenario in the final chapter of the book?

In the last chapter of the book, I give an example of what dating could look like in 2025. The whole genesis of the example is that throughout our days, technology is going to give us recommendations based on all the data we create.

So, let’s say you’re going to do a workout class at home in the afternoon. Your choice app is going to recommend your favourite music to listen to, the best instructor for the workout you want to do, and it’s all going to seamlessly integrate in your calendar, so you have plenty of time to get ready for the date.

Then for the date, a whole new set of recommendations will be presented to you, from where to eat, to how long it will take to get there, to how many calories you might want to stick to based on your workouts. The idea is that all of this is seamlessly integrated into your life so that you’re taking advantage of Community Intelligence without ever even noticing it.


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