“I remember having a half hour conversation about building a sales team with our OneEleven office neighbour. He took me into a board room and wrote out everything that he learned and the mistakes he made in the nine months it took to build out his team. That’s just one example of our first value: humility. Admitting there’s someone 15 years younger who’s been in business way less than I have been, but who knows way more about this than I do,” she recalls.
Wong says values and the culture that emerges from them can help companies scale by bypassing cumbersome process and bureaucracy that can slow growing organizations. As Borrowell has grown from 4 to 45 employees, Wong says she has learned that values are more fixed — and crucial — than culture.
“In the early days, we talked about culture fit. Now we talk much more about culture contribution. [New team members] don’t have to fit into the existing culture. As we grow and change, the culture will too. The values are more important to hold true to,” she says.
Recently, John Ruffolo, the chief executive officer of OMERS Ventures, caught up with Wong to discuss why scaleups need to pay close attention to culture, how it impacts hiring and how to scale it as the company grows.
John Ruffolo: Why is culture so key for scaleups?
Eva Wong: There’s a really popular quote that says “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is what keeps larger companies agile. If people don’t intuitively do the right things on their own, you have to add process and that slows companies down. For us, as we grow, a really strong culture involves ensuring people understand how they help us continue to scale in a way that avoids bureaucracy.
Ruffolo: How would you describe the culture at Borrowell?
Wong: Culture isn’t about perks. It’s not about things we do for fun. Or how the company has shared interests. For us, it’s clearly tied to our values. Our values are:
- We’re high-performing and humble.
- We’re trustworthy and team-oriented.
- We love learning.
- Act like owners.
- Diversity makes us better.
Ruffolo: When the initial team came together, did all of you share those values?
Wong: I don’t think it was as explicit. When you come together as co-founding team, you just click. It was more implicit. We did read the Netflix culture deck and said “that’s what we want our culture to be!” We knew we’d have to articulate it one day because people were asking what our culture is and we wanted to be consistent in how we described it.
Ruffolo: How did the culture shift as you grew from 4 to 45 employees?
Wong: We didn’t have our values established or written down when we were four people. That came when we were maybe 16 to 20. It was a collaborative, organic, bottom-up approach where we asked employees, ”What’s different about working here than other places you’ve worked?” People shared different things and we came up with the values that way.
But as we continue to grow, culture is naturally going to change and we’re okay with that. It has to change. What we don’t want to change are the values. We want to add people to the company who add to the culture, not necessarily stick in the lanes. We recognize that as we grow and become more diverse those values can manifest differently. We still want people to act like owners, but it just might look different compared to where we were when we started.
One thing our VP Talent, Larissa Holmes, launched within the company is a competency matrix, which explains what behaviours we expect from team members at each level of the organization. For example, if you’re a senior director what does it mean to be ‘high-performing and humble’? It’s also a way for employees to know what competencies are needed to move from a manager to a senior manager to a director and how those things are tied to our values. Employees have to get better at exemplifying the values to move up in the organization.
Ruffolo: Do you think culture is playing a role for talent wanting to work with you?
Wong: One hundred percent it is. A lot of people will check out Glassdoor before they come in, so they already have a sense of our culture and values. We take the interview process seriously as well, since it will be their first real taste of our culture. On Glassdoor, people can actually post reviews of the interview process, even if they’re not hired. There are posts from people who we turned down but who wrote positive reviews of their experience. We try to make sure that people we are interviewing see and meet various team members from different levels within the organization. That’s important to us.
Part of the interview process is doing an assignment, which exemplifies our values as well. It’s not just about who can talk a good game. You have to produce good work, too.
Ruffolo: In interviews, how do you describe your culture to a candidate?
Wong: Like any company, you can put values on a wall. But you need to give specific examples of how you actually live them. Our value ‘act like owners’ is a pretty good way of encompassing us. We really do encourage everyone to think about what they would do to make the whole company successful — to put on their CEO hat and think about what’s best for the business. It encourages people to avoid thinking in a very narrow sense about their role.
Our ‘high-performing and humble’ value is a big part of who we are too. Humility helps us recognize that although we’re all really smart and capable, you can’t just operate as an island. You’re dependant on your teammates, and we need to listen to our customers. Humility allows people to be able to take a step back and have their ideas challenged by others.
Ruffolo: Is there one of your five values that needs to be taken to the next level?
Wong: The value — ‘diversity makes us better’ — is something that we’re working to improve on. Our goal is to have a gender-balanced company, and we’re not there yet. We’re currently at 40%, which is not bad, but it’s not evenly distributed within our company. We’re continuing to track as we grow as a team at different levels and different departments.
Obviously, diversity isn’t only about gender. There are a number of different metrics we measure, including the percentage of employees that are born outside Canada. Since we have this focus on diversity and inclusion, I think we’re more likely to attract and retain diverse talent and to promote people with different backgrounds and experiences.
Ruffolo: Which entrepreneur inspires you the most and why?
Wong: There’s an entrepreneur named Kim Scott who has written a great book called “Radical Candor”. I admire her because she’s been very effective as a business person and operator without losing her humanity. She still cares very much about her team, and I think she would say those two things reinforce each other, whereas some people think you can either be a strong operator or a good person. She said in order to be an effective operator, you have to care about your team and have authentic relationships.
Ruffolo: Are there are books that helped you in your scaleup journey?
Wong: I read a book by Adam Grant called “Give and Take”. He talks about people falling into one of three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Within givers, there are smart givers and there are pushovers — those who give but not in a smart way. They tend to burnout and get taken advantage of. Of all those groups, those who do the best are the smart givers. At Borrowell, we ask ourselves: “how do I give smart without burning out or being taken advantage of?”
Ruffolo: What is your number one piece of advice for a founder in the scaleup stage?
Wong: Constantly reevaluate what you’re doing and make sure you’re still working on the highest value things. When you’re scaling, things are constantly changing and you have to keep reevaluating your role. Are you spending your time doing the most high value activities?
Digital transformation for a more sustainable world
Sure, they’re confronted with business challenges every day, but the world’s top business leaders have a significant part to play in solving the world’s challenges — economic, technological, societal and educational.
As Christian Klein, Co-Chief Executive Officer of enterprise application software company SAP succinctly puts it in a blog post for the World Economic Forum, “Companies today don’t just prosper based on their financial performance, but on how they make a positive contribution to society.”
Ahead of the World Economic Forum’s 2020 meeting — taking place Jan. 21-24 — Klein outlined how digital transformation can be a force for good in the world, and be a way to create a more sustainable world.
Critical minds, he starts, might wonder why companies would take the time, considering their primary goal of making money. “These critics should not underestimate the power of the consumer,” he argues, explaining that while customers do consider their decisions based on products or price, but the company’s values. Employees act in a similar way, choosing to join companies “that embrace their responsibility towards humankind and the planet.”
Almost every person on the planet knows that technology plays a profound effect on just about every facet of our lives, from jobs to wages to health to security. Meanwhile the need for business to undergo digital transformation, simply to stay relevant and alive, is hardly big news anymore.
“But transformation is also about a change of culture, which requires a radical rethinking of people, processes and technologies,” Klein writes. Included in this are “tectonic changes” that go into a company, and how employees interact within the whole system.
“And just like a business cannot digitally transform unless – or until – its people transform, I believe that, while they come with their own environmental costs, technology and digitalization can play a crucial role in developing solutions for a better tomorrow.”
Some examples? Blockchain’s potential to add traceability (and by extension, trust) to food supply chains. The empowerment of people with disabilities through AI, which, when properly applied, can reduce bias in the hiring process. Smart cities, powered by everything from sensors to open data to better supply services and protect resources.
[Related reading: How 5G and the Internet of Things can create a winning business]
“There is no doubt that technology and digital transformation break down silos and create transparent and unified data for objective decision-making,” Klein writes. “But even more so: they change how companies manage their relationships with the wider world.”
Creating a sustainable world requires us to look beyond corporate borders, toward the communities around us, creating an ecosystem of trust “that allows us to exchange ideas to create a safety net for the most marginalized.”
DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.
DX survey reveals high levels of enterprise-consumer disconnect
A new survey looks at the global investment and effectiveness of businesses’ digital transformation efforts. The survey shows a disconnect between enterprise investments and consumer experiences.
The survey is titled “The Kony Digital Experience Index (KDXi) Survey”, and the main takeaway is that while businesses have invested nearly $5 trillion on digital transformation initiatives, only 19 percent of customers have reported any significant improvement in the experiences offered to them.
The Kony Inc., survey included 1,600 responses from business leaders and customers across the U.S., Europe and Asia. The responses were used to gauge the target digital project implementation efficiencies in banking, retail, utilities and healthcare. The research showed a disconnect on both sides and a potential misalignment around investment priorities, and highlighted the impact this could potentially have for businesses.
Among other things, the study found that consumers are underestimating the number of businesses that are investing heavily in every customer experience outcome by at least 50 percent. This means that while business are spending money on digital transformation projects, consumers are not necessarily noticing a difference.
The survey also reported that 62 percent of consumers say that they spend more with companies that offer effortless digital experiences, while 56 percent of consumers indicate that they will switch if a retailer does not deliver the digital experience they want. This signals the necessity for businesses to continue to invest in the digital experience for the customer. However, in doing so they need to start making an impact.
As the report states: “It is critical for businesses to have a greater focus on understanding and aligning with customer needs and priorities to ensure that they are driving the agenda for the digital technology they create and fund.”
In terms of what businesses should be doing, the basis of a strategy includes:
- Embracing innovative thinking, ambition and a commitment to improvement
- Prioritizing investment in digital outcomes, not digital initiatives
- Getting their foundations right before evolving
- Building for now, but investing in a roadmap that leads to the future
- Saying no to silos and yes to integrated digital strategy
- Setting a customer-centered digital transformation agenda
This means companies should work to provide web experiences that make it easier for users to navigate, and for websites to be more engaging and intuitive to use. There also needs to be comprehensive online and mobile facilities so that users can do everything online or via their mobile device. Furthermore, to truly step forwards, businesses need to begin offering digital experiences such as AI, chatbots and augmented reality.
Summing this up, Thomas E. Hogan, chairman and CEO, Kony, Inc. states: “Improvements in costs and efficiencies are always welcomed and clearly important to project funding, but the real returns and real impact of digital starts and stops with its impact on the customer experience.”
‘Ethical AI’ matters — the problem lies in defining it
News that Microsoft will invest around $1 billion to examine ethical artificial intelligence signals that the tech sector is thinking deeper about the ethics underlying transformative technologies. But what is ethical AI?
Microsoft is to invest around $1 billion into the OpenAI project, a group that has Elon Musk and Amazon as members. The partners are seeking to establish “shared principles on ethics and trust”. The project is considering two streams: cognitive science, which is linked to psychology and considers the similarities between artificial intelligence and human intelligence; and machine intelligence, which is less concerned with how similar machines are to humans, and instead is focused on how systems behave in an intelligent way.
With the growth of smart technology comes an increased reliance for humanity to place trust in algorithms, that continue to evolve. Increasingly, people are asking whether an ethical framework is needed in response. It would appear so, with some machines now carrying out specific tasks more effectively than humans can. This leads to the questions ‘what is ethical AI?’ and ‘who should develop ethics and regulate them?’
AI’s ethical dilemmas
We’re already seeing examples of what can go wrong when artificial intelligence is granted too much autonomy.Amazon had to pull an artificial intelligence operated recruiting tool after it was found to be biased against female applicants. A different form of bias was associated with a recidivism machine learning-run assessment tool that was biased against black defendants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recently sued Facebook due to its advertising algorithms, which allow advertisers to discriminate based on characteristics such as gender and race. For similar reasons Google opted not to renew its artificial intelligence contract with the U.S. Department of Defense for undisclosed ethical concerns.
These examples outline why, at the early stages, AI produces ethical dilemmas and perhaps why some level of control is required.
Designing AI ethics
Ethics is an important design consideration as artificial intelligence technology progresses. This philosophical inquiry extends from how humanity wants AI to make decisions and with which types of decisions. This is especially important where the is potential danger (as with many autonomous car driving scenarios); and extends to a more dystopian future where AI could replace human decision-making at work and at home. In-between, one notable experiment detailed what might happen if an artificially intelligent chatbot became virulently racist, a study intended to highlights the challenges humanity might face if machines ever become super intelligent.
While there is agreement that AI needs an ethical framework, what should this framework contain? There appears to be little consensus over the definition of ethical and trustworthy AI. A starting point is in the European Union document titled “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI“. With this brief, the key criteria are for AI to be democratic, to contribute to an equitable society, to support human agency, to foster fundamental rights, and to ensure that human oversight remains in place.
These are important concerns for a liberal democracy. But how do these principles stack up with threats to the autonomy of humans, as with AI that interacts and seeks to influencing behavior, as with the Facebook Cambridge Analytica issue? Even with Google search results, the output, which is controlled by an algorithm, can have a significant influence on the behavior of users.
Furthermore, should AI be used as a weapon? If robots become sophisticated enough (and it can be proven they can ‘reason’), should they be given rights akin to a human? The questions of ethics runs very deep.
It is grappling with some of these issues that led to the formation of OpenAI. According to Smart2Zero, OpenAI’s primary goal is to ensure that artificial intelligence can be deployed in a way that is both safe and secure, in order that the economic benefits can be widely distributed through society. Notably this does not capture all of the European Union goals, such as how democratic principles will be protected or how human autonomy will be kept central to any AI application.
As a consequence of Microsoft joining of the consortium, OpenAI will seek to develop advanced AI models built upon Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform. There are few specific details of how the project will progress.
Commenting on Microsoft’s big investment and commitment to the project, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella does not shed much light: “AI is one of the most transformative technologies of our time and has the potential to help solve many of our world’s most pressing challenges…our ambition is to democratize AI.”
Do we need regulation?
It is probable that the OpenAI project will place business first, and it will no doubt seek to reduce areas of bias. This in itself is key to the goals of the partners involved. For wider ethical issues it will be down to governments and academia to develop strong frameworks, and for these to gain public acceptance, and then for an appropriate regulatory structure to be put in place.
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