Building a Nervous System for Autodesk

By Adam Menter (Autodesk)

In order to survive in today’s world, organizations need to be able to listen deeply to their customers and act quickly based on the understanding and insights gleaned.

Organizational systems, structures, and incentives can get in the way of both listening and acting constructively. To succeed, the shape and structure of organizations may have to change.

I believe that more and better feedback loops can enable our institutions to evolve to become more responsive and empathetic organizations that work better for companies, customers, and ultimately humanity.

Learning and community are key drivers in this transition, both inside the walls of an organization and between a company and its customers. In today’s fast moving world, the success of both a company and its customers is linked to the ability to learn. xAPI is a movement whose goals are very aligned with this transformation.

I work at Autodesk, and am trying to do my part to help the company make this kind of transition. It’s an incredible business opportunity and an exciting time to be doing this work.

Part 1: Autodesk Helps People Make Things

Autodesk is a global leader in 3D design, engineering, and entertainment software. We make software for people who make things. The company’s vision is to help our customers Imagine, Design, and Create a Better World.

This vision statement is one of the big reasons I work there. On the best days, when you see what our customers do with our software, and talk with them about it, you can see and feel that vision coming true.

Autodesk software is used to help make and design just about everything around you: buildings, cars, city streets, and even movie visual effects. We build many of the tools that engineers, architects, designers, and artists use to do their work. AutoCAD is our oldest product, but we now have hundreds.

What our customers create using our software has tangible impacts on the world and on people’s lives.

Rendering of the Shanghai Tower, from the Autodesk Gallery website. This building was built by our customers Gensler & Thornton Tomasetti, using our building design, structural analysis, and computational fluid dynamics applications.

Rendering of the Shanghai Tower, from the Autodesk Gallery website. This building was built by our customers Gensler & Thornton Tomasetti, using our building design, structural analysis, and computational fluid dynamics applications.

I work in the learning and community group. I help build platforms and programs, with the goal of making our customers more successful with our software and realizing the value it promises.

Autodesk is a relatively large global corporation (~10,000 employees), so there are lots of silos to bridge in order to serve customers well, holistically and seamlessly. Furthermore, Autodesk’s learning ecosystem is vast, extending far beyond the walls of the corporation to partners, external publishers, and online learning providers.

To do my best work at Autodesk, I need to think like the designer and the caretaker for an ecosystem. Understanding organizational design and business architecture is key. The institution must evolve, and is evolving, to realize its potential.

A shift in business model renews focus on customer success.

Autodesk is a relatively mature tech company, at 35 years old. The business grew by selling software on discs through channel partners to users. We have traditionally been a business-to-business company. Our partners had the deeper relationship with our customers: understanding their business problems, selling software to fit their needs, and helping them use and deploy it in their work environments.

Several years ago, Autodesk decided to transform its business model. The company has been moving towards selling and delivering cloud-based applications more directly to users on a subscription.

Although there’s still a lot of room for partners to offer value-added services, Autodesk is becoming much more of a business-to-consumer company. We broker and feel the purchase cycles much more directly, and those cycles are much shorter. This has huge implications for how we do business, and how we think about customer success.

Our customers’ success with our software becomes much more immediately important. Top management identified “learning” as a key driver of this, and decided to invest in it alongside a shift towards “relationship marketing.”

Autodesk defines relationship marketing as serving customers more useful content based on their context, and nurturing them over time to become more proficient with the software. This connection between learning and our evolving marketing practice has been the key to securing investment.

How will we know if we’ve succeeded? Learning should lead to customer success, which leads to the renewals and recurring revenue that is essential for a subscription business.

Learning, community, and marketing need to be integrated.

To start down a path of building and catalyzing the right kind of learning programs for our customers, my team took a step back to understand how our customers learn. We completed a four-month long research-based design project.

In my presentation at the 2017 Learning Solutions Conference, Cultivating the Learning Ecosystem by Connecting with Customers, I share some of the insights and frameworks that came out of that project (PDF of presentation).

One of the main insights from this work is that the customer community, and social learning, has a huge role in helping our customers use Autodesk software more effectively.

Autodesk software is used to solve unique and complex problems that are highly dependent on the context, team, and project. Making something as complex, special, and beautiful as the Shanghai tower pictured above requires a unique fusing of teams, tools, and processes. Industry workflows are complex and individualized, and people learn from other people in the context of their actual processes and projects.

Autodesk’s role is to provide strong basic documentation for our applications, good support, and a platform to host conversations and broker transactions within our customer community and partner ecosystem.

In this process, there’s a small group of our customers who weigh heavily in creating and scaling knowledge and skills to the rest of our customer base. In our research, we named them the “5% experts”.

These customers are the “design technologists” and “power users” within our customer base. They have a combination of both industry experience and a deep and strategic understanding of technology. They support project teams, choosing applications and defining processes that can ideally lead to better project outcomes. They are often the customers who are most active in Autodesk’s conferences, beta communities, and online forums.

As Autodesk works toward hosting these conversations,  there is a huge opportunity for us to listen through data and through our actual interactions with customers. We need to be part of the community to effectively learn from it and improve our products and services.

If we listen well, participate effectively, and evolve our marketing practices based on this learning and engagement we will have achieved  the core of “relationship marketing.” Our marketing frameworks are evolving beyond just delivering messaging and content.

If you reflect on what makes some of the most valued personal relationships in your own life, both listening and dialogue are probably core aspects to those relationships. You can’t get to understanding and empathy otherwise. The same is true for companies.

Part 2: Institutional Evolution is What’s Really Going On

An institution is a way of structuring human energy towards desired ends. How an institution is structured and operates has deep implications on the outcomes it’s able to achieve, and how people feel along the way.

The business model transformation underway at Autodesk is really our company aligning with the deeper realities of the future of work, the future of technology, and the future of doing business. Unless we get those things right, Autodesk will not be positioned to catalyze the Future of Making Things mentioned above.

We are part-way through that journey. As we transform our business, we’ll need to create structures and processes that are much more deeply integrated. This will put our employees in touch with the impact they’re having on their co-workers’ work, our customers’ work, and the world.

We can heal and understand our institutions as organisms.

Making companies work for customers and making them work for employees is two sides of the same coin. One of the challenges is that many feedback loops are currently broken: between the company and customers, between teams within the company, and between other ecosystem partners.

As we work to build better feedback loops (with big data and/or with xAPI), really what we’re doing is building a nervous system, or at best an endocrine system, for institutions. These are the systems that keep us responsive and healthy in a changing environment.

The nervous system includes the brain, of course. But it also includes the sensory neurons we need to make sense of our environment, and the motor neurons we use to act based on that stimulus. The nervous system coordinates us and our actions.

The endocrine system is the system of glands and hormones that work within us to keep things running smoothly and help make us who we are. In the context of organizational design, I think this is aligned with things like culture, governance, and politics. These systems are always working in the background to regulate our metabolism, control our moods, and shape our growth.

An institution can’t be healthy unless the teams and groups within it (like the organs in the body) are functioning well and working together.

With healthy and functioning feedback loops, an organization will be able to better understand two critical things: itself and it’s place in the world. Without this understanding, it will never truly thrive.

Architectures want to change to enable more effective and distributed value flows.

The products and services that organizations create are only as good and as effective as the dynamics of the system that created them.

In order to produce the next generation of products and services, the architectures of the institutions creating them must also change. Traditional management hierarchies aren’t fast enough, flexible enough, or resilient enough.

Power concentrates at the top of a hierarchy. This is far away from where the vital information is exchanged between the company and its customers. Strategy and execution can become disconnected, people in the organization can feel disempowered, and the company can become out of touch.

People within hierarchical companies become focused up and within their silos – while solving customer problems deeply and comprehensively requires them to be focused out and across the organization. This can tangibly limit the outcomes the organization is able to achieve.

I think management methods of the future will need to concentrate services at the middle, not power at the top. Services include data, standards, as well as tools and methods for collaboration. The result will be more effective and distributed value flows.

We need to re-focus on people to navigate change.

In our shift towards more empathetic organizations, we should focus on making institutions work for people, not just fitting people to work for institutions. This is an important scope of work for Human Resource and Learning and Development departments.

The pace of change that’s needed for companies to stay competitive can feel deeply uncomfortable for people, and the depth of that change can require fundamental restructuring. Can HR and L&D more strategically and proactively facilitate people and companies through this change?

My sense now is that L&D departments are marginalized communities who rarely work on things that deeply impact employees beyond orientation and onboarding. That’s where these functions are placed by the rest of the organization, who don’t deeply value their contributions or potential contributions.

So much more is needed by HR and L&D to steer through the evolutions I’m trying to describe here. But it’s not more of the same. This is both exciting and scary, and it could spell the future for a much more vital and valuable HR function.

Feedback loops are key to enabling effective actions and evolution.

To create environments where we can thrive and grow – both individually and collectively – we must create more meaningful, immediate, and actionable feedback loops.

Making feedback loops powerful and actionable requires at least three things:

  1. Knowing what to measure, based on what you want to accomplish for both the business and customer. This requires a strong sense of self, system, and purpose.
  2. Connecting insights to actionable leverage points in the system.
  3. Catalyzing action through the right incentives, roles, systems, and accountability structures.

xAPI is a compelling and inspiring tool and movement poised to help with this. A lot of the values that xAPI is built-on are required for the fundamental changes I see:

  • Community-based
  • Interoperability built-in
  • Focused on individual growth and success
  • Expanded context, and the recognition that learning and growth happens everywhere and is an ongoing process

xAPI can help build the feedback loops we need, but it doesn’t automatically solve all of our problems. Using a tool like xAPI well requires understanding humans and their intentions, and how that drives actions.

xAPI measures human action and activity in the context of human growth, learning, and evolution. These same dynamics are important at an organizational scale. I think these feedback loops can and should be coupled. Employee and customer learning must help enable the organization’s growth, learning, and evolution.

I think we can connect human hearts and minds to our data, and to each other, in more meaningful ways. This is key to solving problems together.

Part 3: This is a Huge Opportunity for Autodesk

Recently my team has been working to better understand not just learning and community, but how learning and community drive adoption and retention of our software.

One of the most important feedback loops for Autodesk to understand is how, and how well, our customers are adopting our software, especially our new software and new features of existing software.

To help customers get more value from our products and services, we need to help our customers learn how to use our tools more deeply and more strategically, to achieve improved outcomes. We also need to understand and help customers overcome the challenges they face.

When done well, this will create more value in the world, and our business will be able to capture more of it. This may appear to just be self-serving for Autodesk. But if we get the dynamics right, it has the potential to add real and lasting value to the world. When project outcomes improve, more beautiful, elegant, and efficient buildings, cars, city streets, and movie visual effects are made. In other words, the things around us all improve.

In accomplishing this, our customers will be learning and growing as individuals. Our leading customers will be driving advances in industry practice, and all of our customers will be more effectively keeping up with the tools of their trades.

The things around us are becoming more complex and smarter, and the world is moving fast. If Autodesk tools are going to be involved in making that world, our tools need to continue evolving to be up to the task.

The optimist in me believes that Autodesk has a role to play in helping humanity create the future we want. To effectively play that role, the company will need to get through the transition it’s in the midst of. Our first job is to build the feedback loops that will enable learning and growth, both for our own company and our customers.

Adam Menter ( helps coordinate and lead the company-wide online learning strategy for Autodesk’s customers. He works with groups throughout the company to create improved learning experiences to empower, architects, artists, and designers worldwide to do better design work with Autodesk tools. Prior to this role, Adam managed Autodesk’s learning programs for sustainable design. He has worked as a design strategist at Jump Associates and holds both a mechanical engineering degree and an MBA from Vanderbilt University.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author/ presenter and are not those of Autodesk, Inc., its officers, directors, subsidiaries, affiliates, business partners, or customers.