Work the way people work

Katz Kiely, digital innovator and founder of software startup beep, thinks we’re at a crossroads. Technologists need to focus their energy on designing solutions that pave the road to a people-centred future. Here she explains why.

Katz ProfileTechnology gets smarter every day. We learn more daily about how the brain works. Affordable data means we understand social behaviours better than ever. And of course we are more connected than at any other time.

This could be the most exciting moment in the history of mankind – if we choose to harness technology to travel towards a future we want our children to grow up in.

But everywhere we look there is a bubbling concern about a dystopian future: technological unemployment, rampant robots and insurgent AI.

We’re at a crossroads. If we continue to walk blindly forward in the current trajectory, we will head to nowhere good. We need to design and embed systems that harness our collective smarts to continuously improve the world that we live in. Which is why I decided to step off the treadmill to set up beep: a software startup that will answer one of many burgeoning problems: how can we unlock productivity, not by taking inefficient human resource out of the picture, but by unleashing the full potential of people?

My story starts in Nevada, at Burning Man. The founders invited me to join them at the world’s most interesting social experiment. It was mind-boggling to see what people are capable of, in the right conditions: what they can achieve, together, when they want to, and are empowered to get on with it.

Then I found myself in hospital. At Burning Man. My best medical experience ever. The volunteer medics were efficient but happy. They said they felt appreciated. Freed from process they could get on with the job.

I became obsessed by thoughts of the way companies are run.

With all of the tools at our disposal: the data, connectivity, the increasingly intelligent tech, only 13% of employees are highly engaged at work. Productivity and trust levels are at lower than ever.

Why? Looking through the lens of behavioural science, the way that most companies operate makes no sense.

The human brain has hardly changed since the beginning of mankind. We have two key states: In the reward, social, state we are collaborative, creative, communicative, and innovative. Then there’s the threat state, which we evolved to avoid being eaten by hungry carnivores. In the threat state people are stressed, make mistakes and bad decisions. We want to run away and hide.

Survival is crucial. Collaboration is nice. So human brains have six times more neural pathways constantly looking for threat.

Every time change appears unexpectedly the threat state kicks in. Stress is contagious. Every initiative leaves people more stressed, less engaged, less productive, and less efficient.

Certain conditions trigger the reward state: empathy, trust, transparency, connectedness, autonomy, respect, and purpose.

These are hardly the first words that to come to mind when describing corporate cultures: decisions are made from the top by leaders who don’t listen to employees. Processes get in the way of judgement. People are told to do what they are told to do, even if they can see a better way.

Look at the stats again: 67% of the worldwide workforce is disengaged. That means 32 million people spend 10 hours every day doing something they just don’t care about. Understanding how important purpose is for well being that is terrible for business, and for people.

C-level leaders from the world’s most successful companies also go to Burning Man. Companies like Airbnb and Facebook that are thriving when so many fail. Because they understand that in the connected world, culture is key to success. They are experimenting with new operating models that allow people to be the best they can be.

Culture is core to commercial success. Changing culture is really hard. Humans are hard wired to resist change.

Luckily, I’ve built technology that drives engagement, collaboration and culture change my entire career and know what works and what doesn’t.

So, a year ago I decided to do something about it– and jumped both feet into my startup. We’ve built a prototype, run it past industry leaders, technologists, and psychologists, tweaking, improving and testing feasibility and are ready to start building. beep (The Behavioural Enterprise Engagement Platform) is the world’s first mobile-first problem solving toolset. It’s based on cognitive science.

The basic premise? People don’t like having change done to them. They do like to moan, and to be heard, to fix things collaboratively, to feel connected, recognised and rewarded.

Beep Logobeep enables all that and more. It encourages people to report things that get in the way. Continuous improvement is done by people rather than top-down change being done to them.

beep proactively drives engagement, finds, refines and solves problems. It is a listening and doing platform that makes workers feel valued and want to advocate. Best of all it feeds an intelligent memory so companies stop with never ending, increasingly frustrating, and games of whack-a-mole.

Every time we sell a corporate licence, one will be gifted to a not-for profit. Doing good business while doing good. We know how important purpose is to people.

We’re at a crossroads. New kinds of emergent systems and frameworks are needed. For the first time in human history, we have the knowledge and tools we need to unleash the full potential of people. We need to design new ways of using technology to strengthen communities and allow people to be the best they can be. I decided to sit forward and do something about it. You should do the same.

Katz Kiely is the founder and CEO of beep. This article is based on a talk on ‘ethical codes for a digital age’ at BoraCo’s Breakout17 event at London’s Shard this month.