Executive panel: Culture, human skills drive tech innovation for good
- 29 October, 2019 06:03
Technology is an enabler but it’s ultimately humans who dream and make the decisions that create positive – or negative – tech-fuelled innovation.
That was the consensus of four leading female executives speaking on a panel at today’s Trans-Tasman Business Circle event, Tech for Good. The Sydney event followed on from a recent tour taken by 35 Australian female executives of leading Silicon Valley technology companies, where two themes emerged: Culture and capability for learning and growth; and fusing people and AI.
As WPP chief customer officer and Tech for Good participant, Sunita Gloster, pointed out, technology isn’t good or evil by itself, it’s what you do with it that makes all the difference. As the artificial intelligence (AI) race builds, the accountability mandate has to rise with it, she said. And that’s something very much sitting in the hands of humans.
“Tech for Good is about putting trust and responsibility at the forefront,” the experienced marketing and media leader said. Referring to the leadership of IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty, Gloster said those building and using technology in customer-facing engagement have to ensure any emerging technology is ushered in responsibly and safely.
“This is to ensure we understand the impact of the technology we use,” Gloster said. A case in point is AI, something that’s still new to many of us and has many definitions.
“Because it’s so new, we’re focusing on the near-term, which includes its misuse or impact, whether it has bias, the ethics, future of workforces, and reskilling our people to work with machines,” Gloster said.
Founder and MD of The Dream Collective, Sarah Liu, said before we can ask whether technology is being used positively, we need to ask the question: Are we humans for good? It’s a lesson particularly pertinent given more and more data is being harnessed by advanced and intelligent technologies such as AI and machine learning, panellists agreed.
“Technology is a reflection of who we are,” Liu told attendees. “It’s important to remind ourselves technology is an instrument, enabler, and a tool to achieve what humans dream of. When we talk about tech and things like biases, it’s a reflection of who we are.
“We need to bring the focus to the problems we are trying to solve as humans. The second thing is we need to help people see the good in technology… In the market right now, there are a lot of questions about what tech means for me, my job and my security.
“As leaders, it’s our responsibility to help people see and experience the good in technology.”
Within the marketing and media sphere, Gloster noted public sentiment changing towards data utilisation and privacy has become heightened through regulatory focus at all levels on online data tracking, storage and usage; new legislations such as GDPR and the California Consumer Data Act; and state and federal-level privacy and digital platforms inquiries in Australia.
“It’s a really fragmented regulatory landscape. You have corporates who are leaning closer into bias and decision making and trying to identify if it exists in their businesses,” Gloster continued. “Then you have big tech players still trying to determine where they sit in the debate between exceptionalism and obligation around consumer and individual privacy.
“For our industry of marketing and media, that landscape is a really fragmented one to navigate. It represents compliance issues, cost and complexity. When it comes to technology, we all try to bring that responsibility lens to bear so we really understand adverse impact or unintended consequences in market.”
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do until technology is in use, Gloster admitted. “It’s one thing we’re all challenged by – having responsible foresight into how this will be used when it’s in market and what we need to put around it to ensure we deliver trust and deliver responsibly,” she said.
This is where human characteristics such as emotional IQ, inquisitiveness and empathy become so important, panellists said.
“We need to think carefully about the problems we are trying to solve for and we need humans to do that,” ANZ general manager retail broker, Simone Tilley, said.
Re-imagining workforce culture and skills
And that’s where the criticality of culture and capability as drivers for positive technology innovation and adoption comes in, Tech for Good panellists said. Perspectives on this were also collated into a report by Capgemini and featuring the 35-female tour participants.
Tilley saw purpose and ‘intentional culture’ leadership as key pillars, noting a common thread across Silicon Valley companies around attracting, developing and retaining talent.
“For a country like Australia, in order for us to achieve our tech potential, we need to think carefully about instilling programs at primary school level so we have stronger tech learning in this country; and broader alignment with government, academia and business and how that plays out,” Tilley said. “And we need to open new pathways to talent.”
For Liu, what also sets Silicon Valley companies apart is failing fast in order to grow, a cultural element she didn’t see being replicated in Australia. Instead, Liu claimed local entrepreneurs are more often asked about proven use cases.
“We can’t grow unless we are willing to embrace the new and unknown,” she said. “Everyone talks about failing forward and fast, but one thing we were reminded of during the tour is Silicon Valley tolerates smart and honest failures. As business leaders, we can’t focus on growing at the expense of failing fast and learning.”
Given technology is now shaping the world, Twitter Australia managing director, Suzy Nicoletti, saw every nation and company needing to reskill in order to thrive. Managing the workforce of the future presents distinct leadership challenges, she said, particularly when teams are increasingly decentralised and global.
“You need people to feel included and have that sense of purpose.” Because what ultimately drives people to innovate is culture, Nicoletti said.
“The next wave of culture is about purpose,” she added. “Having CEOs with strong vision and values who are constant with those is key.
“You only create that ‘all-in’ culture with your teams when you have clear and transparent vision and values.”
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