How to be a responsible game changer
Insights into how Arm, a heavy hitter in mobile chips and artificial intelligence, aligns tech design with social responsibility.
Trying to be a resilient change leader in our ever-changing VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world is not easy.
We are being challenged by intelligence that is artificial, and there’s the growing threat that we someday will be replaced by robots. For perspective on how leaders and teams can factor social responsibility and sustainability into technology development, I interviewed Nathan Ott, founder of the Game Changer Index (GC Index), and Jem Davies, vice president, fellow and general manager of the machine learning group at Arm, the British company behind the chips in many of the world’s smartphones and tablet computers.
Being accredited in the Game Changer Index myself, I have seen the benefits to companies such as Arm of formally assessing the types of leadership in order to scale for transformational growth. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Shannon Houde: What are your tricks for scaling in a highly competitive IT components sector?
Jem Davies: The biggest question we ask ourselves at Arm is, "How do we maintain this successful business while also growing, accelerating and scaling?" We turned to our two top-level leadership teams, one of which I sit on, and asked how that team is set up for transformational change — incremental and revolutionary. It’s not an easy question to answer so we looked in the market for a cutting-edge assessment and found the GC Index. The GC Index is a powerful organomentric that enables organizations to align all of their people around transformational growth.
We will continue on the journey of transformational growth and now, with our one big shareholder, the game effectively won’t change — in terms of revenue, profits, turnover and touching the lives of more people on this planet. So, the trick is to shift the internal mindsets and align leadership teams around this post-acquisition. The GC Index gave the perspective around which leaders are strong in which areas — giving us a chance to accelerate the learning process of what people’s strengths and weaknesses are and where their inclinations lie.
We have to constantly weigh risk and reputation. Our technology touches pretty much everyone on the planet. So it is important for us to remember our duty to change the world for the better.
Nathan Ott: The trick is in pursuing the possibilities that aren’t simply an extension of what has gone on before. The GC Index identifies this sort of transformational thinking in individuals and teams.
Davies: We always thought that it didn’t matter who bought Arm as our culture is so strong that it would be difficult to change. As they say, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."
But there are three things all engineers want to do:
- Work with the best people in the world
- Work on the cool stuff
- Point at stuff in the shops and say, "I did that"
The GC Index was able to give us a language and framework directly contributing to our strategy change and transformational possibilities.
Houde: How can the new machine learning group at Arm help the world be more sustainable?
Davies: Machine learning (ML) is a new group within Arm, but Arm has been working on the products with ML capabilities for years. ML itself is not a new product. This technique has been around for 50 years, but people rush to say it is sentient robots. It is also about simpler things like predictive text on phones, part of people’s everyday lives. It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. The change here is that we now have the ability to do things because we have acquired the data to drive the ML. It is a technique for turning acquired data into decisions.
In terms of sustainability, there are a lot of axes to define this. ML can be used to make things more efficient — green principles of energy consumption — like smart thermostats. It will know when you are home or know you are going to be home in 20 minutes to minimize your energy consumption.
Another aspect of responsibility is that of privacy and personal data: Security is at the heart of everything Arm does. When we talk about personal data, we also need to talk about security: If we can track the time at which someone comes home, that data needs to be processed on local devices instead of big data centers.
Houde: What does scaling responsibly mean to you? How do you justify the ROI of building innovative products responsibly?
Davies: Actually, building responsible stuff pays for itself. It’s just good business. It is slightly longer-term because it may look cheaper not to do it in the next 12 months but look what happens when someone finds a critical flaw in the thermostat. We have to constantly weigh risk and reputation. Our technology touches pretty much everyone on the planet. So it is important for us to remember our duty to change the world for the better.
Houde: Nathan, how does gaining the insights from the GC Index help a leader like Jem to be more responsible as he grows a business?
Ott: One is that it’s fundamentally enabling Jem to align his people to achieve business outcomes more efficiently and effectively — those outcomes then drive sustainable scalability. The GC Index aligns the right people to do that. We help organizations gain individual, collective and organizational awareness.
Jem’s "aha" moment as a leader of the ML team was the recognition that the Western world has a one-dimensional view of leadership, and he doesn’t fit that traditional view. He believes that as a business that needs to scale, leadership needs to be less aligned with the corporate, strategic, incremental leadership and more about enabling the redefinition of leadership. The GC Index provides an accessible framework to enable this.
Houde: What positive impact do you see that machine learning will have on the environment and green computing? How will it "change the world"?
Davies: ML is a tool, like a designer hammer or pair of pliers, not like a car. It’s something used to build something else. We get better, more accurate, more efficient results when we use machine learning in things such as smart light switches, smart thermometers. If we do this responsibly, it will be transformational.
We are adopting a position of leadership to encourage people to act responsibly, but in the end, of course, we can’t force them to.
There are huge benefits to human health as well; it’s not all "big brother." As an example of ML in healthcare, we have seen a tiny device, Respiro, an asthma inhaler, which is like a washer that fits between the inhaler and the tube. It records the frequency of use and how it is used. This allows us to gather real data: something concrete that we can use to train people on how to use it better.
People lie or forget about taking their medicines. ML helps doctors and patients get more accurate numbers about who is taking what amounts of medicine and when. It is helping the medical sector revamp the baseline of how medicines are working or not working for the patient.
Houde: Nathan, from other companies you have worked with using the GC Index, who do you see is linking innovation to being a sustainable or responsible business?
Ott: Take Telefonica Alpha Health; they take health very seriously. Too often, health is described in terms of either illness or absence of illness, but it’s far more than this. Alpha believes in a definition of health that encompasses everyday happiness and satisfaction with life, and we recognize that such a positive definition of health is actually very personal.
Illness is also changing; in both developed and developing countries, the biggest killers and causes of disease are now the chronic diseases such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes and mental health disorders. Put simply: Since 2000, for every life saved from infections, we’ve lost two lives to chronic disease. In fact, in 2008 the leading cause of death became personal choices.
Another great example is the InnoEnergy part of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). Shannon, you know as an InnoEnergy coach that EIT has the responsibility of developing the future talent for the energy sector with 12 of Europe’s leading universities. The energy sector is going through a critical era of change, and the need to bring new ideas and new ways for a more sustainable energy future is paramount. Innoenergy is providing a game-changing impact program for over 250 masters students alongside their masters of science program each year that is underpinned by the GC Index language and methodology. Through the GC Index, every master's student has a clear focus and understanding of how they can maximize their individual and collective impact on a sustainable energy future when they enter the world of work. The requirements of the energy sector are changing faster than humans can adapt and the GC Index provides everyone with the language and framework to make the right impact at the right time.
Houde: Speaking of the next generation of energy and technology leaders in a time of AI: What advice would you give your 30-year old self in terms of finding, and achieving, your life’s purpose?
Ott: I love the quote, "I wish I knew what I know now when I was younger." Always look at others who are 10-15 years older — take the voice of experience into your decision-making process, but use your own lens.
Davies: I’m motivated by thinking, "Do it now while you have the energy." So I would say, buy the house you can’t quite afford.