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Google’s former head of HR wants to help people act more human at work

Humu co-founders Jessie Wisdom, Laszlo Bock and Wayne Crosby. (Humu/Photo courtesy Humu)
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Google’s former head of its “people operations” has a new start-up, and one of its goals is a lofty one: to make software that helps managers and co-workers act more human.

Laszlo Bock left Google in 2016 after running its HR shop for a decade, during which he racked up “best place to work” awards, built a data-driven operation known as “people analytics" and wrote a bestseller. Last week, he revealed new details for the first time about Humu, a start-up he co-founded with two other former Google executives that has raised $40 million in funding.

The software, which combines behavioral science and machine learning to nudge managers and employees toward behavior change with time-based alerts, acts like something of a digital personal coach, prodding managers to give employees a shout-out for helping their team or to ask workers what they are looking forward to doing over the weekend.

Bock acknowledges there is a paradox in needing an electronic nudge for such things to happen.

“It’s definitely an irony,” said Bock, who founded Humu with Wayne Crosby and Jessie Wisdom, who were former engineering and “people analytics" executives, respectively, at Google with him. Yet based in part on the “nudge theory” made famous by Richard Thaler, the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, as well as psychological or organizational behavior research, Humu’s software takes in a variety of inputs — HR data, productivity information and personal surveys — to send out targeted emails, texts or messages to managers and employees to nudge them to take action in an effort to make work better.

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For example, colleagues might get an alert to give co-workers credit at their next meeting (with an explanation that research has shown people value peer recognition even more than being called out by a supervisor). Managers might get a nudge to thank a team member in writing, with a link for drafting a thank-you email. Employees might get a message reminding them about three questions to ask their supervisor in one-on-one meetings. A hotel breakfast attendant who has said in surveys she likes the entrepreneurial aspects of her job might get nudged on her commute home to remind her boss how she worked creatively that day.

Bock emphasized that the software allows companies and individuals to opt-in to the settings they want, choosing which systems Humu uses and giving individuals privacy controls. For instance, a manager might get a text message just before the meeting to encourage quiet teammates to speak up, a way of improving a sense of inclusion, but only if a company and individual chooses to give Humu access to their calendars. Another employee who is going to be in the room might get an alert just before the meeting urging them to consider speaking up early on.

Bock said those kinds of real-time nudges to multiple people are important for change.

“This is where traditional framing falls down,” Bock said. Employees might go individually to training sessions on negotiating, being a better manager or getting better at speaking up. “But then you go back to your work environment, and everyone’s the same. And your behavior is not going to change because there’s nothing reinforcing it.”

Analysts who cover HR technology say such software is gaining interest by employers who want to make the squishy subject of “culture change” more tangible, moving beyond traditional employee “engagement” surveys or pulse feedback tools that gather loads of data but do not necessarily offer answers for what to do about it.

“There’s a million tools collecting information, but very few that do anything with it other than giving it to the HR department,” said Josh Bersin, an industry analyst who studies workplace technology. “There’s this gap between understanding the data and knowing what to do with it. What [Humu] is doing is closing that loop.”

Still, Brian Kropp, vice president of the human resources group at Gartner, said one question is how much the alerts will really signal users to change their behavior or be seen as more noise.

“What’s not totally clear yet is: Will managers respond to it, or will it be an email that comes into your inbox that managers ignore?” Kropp said.

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Bersin raised similar questions. He compared Humu with the nudges people get from fitness or diet apps that track calories or exercise — something with which people have become comfortable — but worried the basic nature of some of Humu’s prompts, like reminding bosses to tell a story in a meeting since narratives are effective, could turn some people off as too simple. Over time, Bersin said, the nudges could get smarter as the software “learns” what’s effective and what’s not.

Bock said that indeed, Humu will adapt to how people respond — if someone does not respond to an email, say, they might get a Slack message or text message the next time — as well as learning which motivational techniques are effective or which actions are most relevant. Clients, which range from 150-person start-ups to 65,000-employee financial services firms, have also typically shown a 60 percent to 80 percent response rate based on nudges, according to Humu’s data, which has also shown nudges increase the likelihood of a behavior by as much as 250 percent.

Bock, who worked at McKinsey and GE Capital before his years as a top exec in Google HR, may not fit the typical Silicon Valley founder profile. But he comes from a family of entrepreneurs — he said his father started an engineering firm, and his mother created a bookkeeping service after they fled communist Romania when he was a young child and settled in the United States. His brother was also an entrepreneur, he said.

Bock, who is 45, left Google in 2016 for a few reasons, he said. He wanted to have a broader impact, he was looking for new challenges after 10 years there, and “the third part was, culturally I think the company was kind of shifting,” Bock said. “The weight of doing good versus making money was shifting. I’d always felt you could absolutely do both.”

After leaving, he advised start-ups, considered raising a venture fund and spent time with his family before reconnecting with Crosby and launching their idea. They named it Humu after the Humuhumunukunukuapua`a, the state fish of Hawaii, where Crosby and Bock met, but also because of its similar sound to words such as humor, humility and human.

Asked whether he wrestles with creating software for a problem that might be solved with just offering better coaching or installing better managers, Bock acknowledged the irony, pointing out its mission is to “drive behavioral change with the power of people science, machine learning — and love,” and is using a technology solution to do that.

But “the other approach doesn’t work,” he said, noting Gallup engagement surveys have not really changed in a decade. “Sometimes you have a good manager; sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you feel good at work; sometimes you don’t.”

But "the approach of 'send people to business school, send people to training, [say] 'I’m just going to do my best as a manager,’ — it doesn’t work. So you need a different solution.”

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