It’s still about the people: How technology and corporate culture shape each other

Publication | April 2018

Robots are not (yet) taking over the world. This doomsday scenario has become ingrained in the collective subconscious to the point of spawning a new breed of automation anxiety amongst workers. However, the critical risks of increasingly ubiquitous technology in organisations are actually about people.

Technology choices are generally based on a multi-variable equation: strategy and budget, legacy systems still in use and resources available for a digital transformation. Yet in most cases the rate of success for technology implementation, and for the subsequent change management process, is defined by the degree of compatibility between the technology and ‘the way we do things around here’. It would appear that after culture eats strategy for breakfast, it proceeds to having technology for lunch and, in some cases, the executive team’s reputations for dinner.

To better outline the risks arising at the intersection of disruptive technology (that is, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, virtual reality and more) and of corporate culture we have brought together our cyber, employment and ethics experts. Each of the following articles discusses a specific case study, and outlines the great opportunities that come with new ways of working and the risks that inevitably accompany them.

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Chatbots, job interviews, and unconscious bias

Research into human behaviour and unconscious bias backs up popular wisdom: like hires like. And while this may serve an organisation well if and when top performers hire similarly gifted individuals, it is also likely to directly contribute to a lack of diversity in experience and mindset, and in extreme cases to the creation of sub-cultures which differ substantially from the organisation’s conduct line, resulting in considerable risk.

One tech giant is taking action to address this in an innovative fashion: in addition to encouraging voluntary employee groups, they have launched Diversity Core, an initiative which allows employees to spend 20% of their time on attracting female and minority talent into the company.

Interestingly enough, while this tech giant decided to mobilise their human talent as ambassadors, a growing number of global firms are relying on algorithms to identify and select potential hires. Artificial intelligence is embedded into recruitment technology, and firms are choosing to train their AI on core criteria to be applied throughout the selection process. Recruitment platforms deliver considerable time and financial savings. However, a major risk of transferring traditionally ‘human’ activities of talent selection onto AI is, ironically, unconscious bias.

Humans train AI, and risk imprinting their unconscious biases, and even the ‘untold’ cultural specifics of their organisations, into the technology. A classic example is that of an otherwise qualifying candidate, who ticks the educational, experience and skillset boxes, yet is discarded due to a career break – due in many cases to parental leave, or simply to a sabbatical. AI may not, depending on its training, actually regard career breaks as legitimate, a bias that can result not only in discriminative hiring practices, but more pragmatically in a dearth of diverse talent.

To manage this risk, companies should pay particular attention to the talent platforms they select, as well as to recruitment techniques and AI training plans.

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Freewill no more. What are the limits of performance management in the age of big data?

When comparing the use of big data across different business functions, we generally see large differences not only in the way analytics are employed, but most importantly in the type of data used to make strategic decisions.

For example, new product development relies on strict KPI’s on revenue, margins and market share, all areas surveyed jointly by finance and marketing leaders. What if the similar performance metrics were set onto workers, and data used to identify the famous 2% top performers and closely monitoring the actions of remaining contributors? 

While it may seem dystopian, it is only a step further from Ford’s classic manufacturing process, and a possible complement to the increasing use of automation and the Internet of Things in production lines.

One firm is taking things further already with a patent recently granted in the USA for a wristband tracking body movements and interacting with employees to direct each step in the process. The use of such a  device would clearly limit the scope for human error, and increase productivity per capita. However, firms keen to enhance productivity through technology will need to strike a balance between a workplace culture of openness and transparency, and data-driven performance.

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Employees = Consumers

Most companies have traditionally differentiated between their consumer practices and marketing management, and their talent strategy and employer branding. Nevertheless, the two are closely connected, and some firms are taking major steps to align their messages and channels, and better leverage their talent.

Firstly, recruitment and brand building, both of which are increasingly taking place online. Some firms are limiting their reach to setting a social media policy, and occasionally including certain clauses into their employee agreements.

Yet others are connecting the dots, and viewing their employees as recruitment ambassadors with extended networks that can be combined to identify potential talent and key influencers, in a similar fashion to companies using word-of-mouth on social media to sell their products.

Today, most recruiters pick up their phone, or send an email to close associates who may have in their network certain individuals with the required skillsets. But what if in the future a recruiter could simply tap a screen to see, within the amalgamation of thousands of social networks, where required skillsets are located, and how to best reach them? Privacy standards and data security will provide the trust guarantee, and the technology basis for such an interconnected talent network to thrive.

A different take on technology, and on the impact it may have on corporate culture, is the ‘Bring your own Device’ (BYOD) policy, which most times goes hand-in-hand with a flexible way of working. Hailed to be a pre-condition to hiring and retaining Millennials, flexible working allows global talent to collaborate on projects, innovate and deliver results in real time, whether from the office, beach or plane. Nevertheless, individuals are entitled to installing applications and software on their personal devices as they see fit. Some of these may pose a significant cyber security risk. Companies will need to balance cost efficiencies, convenience and privacy standards to address this challenge.

Companies are increasingly reliant on technology to recruit, develop and retain talent for the digital age. Yet whom they recruit, how they monitor performance, and what the boundaries of work-life overlap are remain questions that are intrinsically about people and culture.


Contacts

Helene Lee

Helene Lee

Melbourne
Bernard O'Shea

Bernard O'Shea

Melbourne