Given the turmoil of the past several months, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in our history. Organizations have the opportunity to refresh their company’s mission, products and practices during this transition. What should we be doing and whom will we look to for leadership during these times? Several technology leaders come to mind. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella inspires us with a mission “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. We strive to create local opportunity, growth, and impact in every country around the world.”
Microsoft has done wonders recently in terms of creating accessibility in technology, defining standards for AI ethics and focusing on products to support what it calls first line workers. Additionally, in June, it took on the looming skill gap crisis when it launched a skills initiative program to help 25 million people worldwide acquire the digital skills needed in a post-COVID-19 economy. It will use its treasure trove of data to identify in-demand jobs and the skills required to fill them. It provides free access to learning paths and content to help people develop the skills these positions require. The program also offers low-cost certifications and free job-seeking tools to help people who develop these skills pursue new jobs. While financial aid may assist individuals in the short run, we must reskill individuals for a future of work that is technology-driven.
Key takeaway 1: Every organization should define a strategy for upskilling their existing employees.
Diversity and inclusion take center stage
Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco Systems Inc., provides another example of an executive we can look to for inspiration in these times. At the recent Cisco Live event, Robbins took the opportunity to address the world’s issues with the pandemic and equality. For many years, Cisco’s mission statement was to “to shape the future of the internet by creating unprecedented value and opportunity for our customers, partners, shareholders, and employees.” Its vision statement was, “Changing the way we work, live, play, and learn.” Today, companies like Cisco are evolving their efforts. At Cisco Live, Robbins spoke of how the company’s purpose had evolved to “powering an inclusive future for all”.
Another inspirational leader, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, shared how Apple created the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative. At the WWDC event, Cook announced Apple will distribute $100 million to “challenge systemic barriers that limit the opportunity for communities of color in the critical areas of education, economic equality and criminal justice.”
Tech companies such as Dell, Intel and many others have also made financial commitments to various organizations to support equality. In non-tech sectors, companies such as Walmart announced that it would contribute $100 million over five years to create a new center for racial equity.
While committing dollars to a cause is beneficial, real change occurs when a company makes systematic changes throughout its organizational processes. It starts with the language of the business and moves up from there. Cisco announced the company would rewrite its documentation to eliminate words and phrases that imply bias such as white list and blacklist or master and slave. Github also announced similar efforts.
Many companies, including Cisco, have Corporate Social Responsibly (CSR) programs. These programs started with a heavy emphasis on sustainability. Many efforts also extended to deeper commitments that support the fair and ethical treatment of labor globally and creating equal pay within roles. However, these promises are useless if an organization doesn’t develop a system for uncovering inequalities and holding themselves accountable to take action.
In 2016, Cisco was one of 28 companies that signed the White House Equal Pay Pledge along with Airbnb, Amazon, Glassdoor, GoDaddy, Salesforce, Slack, Spotify and others. To drive accountability and auditing, Cisco built an internal pay parity framework using analytics to identify factors and root causes influencing pay equality and proactively monitor disparities over time. In another example, Apple, AT&T, and AutoDesk were among 13 companies to pledge support for CA Equal Pay Pledge, a new initiative designed to help achieve pay equality for women in 2019.
In Cisco’s last CSR report, it defined these efforts as a “Conscious Culture that provides an environment where trustworthiness and ethical conduct are expected and supported. Conscious Culture means being aware of the environment we’re part of, and feeling accountable, empowered, and expected to contribute to a culture where we feel safe and can thrive.”
Michael Dell provides another example with the inclusivity goals listed in Dell Technology Inc’s Progress Made Real report. Within that timeframe, Dell has committed to developing a workforce where 40% of global people managers are women, 25% of the company’s U.S. workforce and 15% of U.S. people managers would be comprised of black/African American and Hispanic team members. It plans to educate 95% of all team members on an annual basis about unconscious bias, harassment, micro-aggressions and privilege. It’s also added systems to track its progress.
Key takeaway 2: Diversity combined with meritocracy can create better business outcomes. Inclusivity is a business imperative everyone should embrace. Put teeth behind it with metrics and measurement tools.
Bridging the gap where ethics and technology meet
Yet, as we embark on a world where AI fuels all of our systems, we face a new set of challenges where leaders need to proceed thoughtfully. For example, we must be aware of the unconscious profiling that we’re building in systems. AI may factor biases into models that derail your company’s effort to hire diverse talent.
When we’re building models to make critical decisions that involve people, we need to ensure these models are explainable and ethical because you’ll need to explain why that individual didn’t get a loan, a job, or a promotion. We need to consider that we may be training systems with a biased set of data and attempt to rectify the situation by augmenting data sets. We’ll need to test our models routinely to ensure a malicious security attack didn’t corrupt them.
As we look at contract tracing and social distancing solutions, we need to consider the privacy aspect of collecting and managing data. If we’re handling personally identifiable information, we can’t be lax about our security policies for that information. As we build customer profiles, we need to be selective about what data we want to collect and why. The more information you gather, the more complicated it becomes to safeguard it and create obfuscations that protect a person’s privacy.
Your company may choose to use computer vision analytics within a facility or track the time your employees spend on various tasks to improve efficiency. As leaders, you need to understand the psychological impact those analytics will have on your employees. As business leaders, we must take responsibility for the effects of the technology we build and use.
Key takeaway 3: Responsible use of technology is a new frontier. Get ahead of the problem.
What should you do?
The workplace has evolved in more ways than the need to support remote work. The struggle for quality talent is real. Individuals wants to work for organizations with missions they believe in. A mission must be more than a hollow statement that lives on a hallway at your headquarters. A mission that matters isn’t synonymous with operating a non-profit, nor attempting to save the world.
It means that you are delivering a product or service for profit but you’re doing it in a way where you treat people with dignity, respect and empathy. It means you try to do the right thing and will correct mistakes when they inevitability happen. It means you will use technology responsibly and consider the consequences. It requires asking questions such as, “Yes, we can do this, but should we? Does it make sense and what are the long-term ramifications of these actions?” We’re entering unchartered territory. As a business leader, you must act fast, monitor the situation routinely and course-correct quickly.
A word about role models.
Are any of the company’s mentioned in this article perfect? No, then again, none of us are. Are these examples of companies trying to make a profit while being better citizens in the world? Yes. These are also just a small subset of companies that are evolving their businesses. As we reevaluate the processes and technologies we put into place over the next several months, it’s an opportunity to reimagine our mission, products and practices. Now is the time for every business leader to define how you’ll reach your new goals in an ethical, empathetic and responsible way.