Leaders, representatives and spokespeople for today’s innovative businesses face a much wider range of questions than ever before. Significant political, social and economic trends are forcing technology communicators to embrace, act upon and provide insight to far wider issues than just the promotion of their products and services. Asking the right questions at the outset will help set a narrative that adds sustainable value to the business.
Last week Hemant Taneja, managing director of General Catalyst Partners, published an article on HBR.org entitled ‘The Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” is over.’ It sets out a set of important and powerful questions that investors should be asking of technology entrepreneurs, and that entrepreneurs should be asking of themselves. The eight questions boil-down to considering the longer-term, and wider impacts of technological advances. Taneja recommends that the old model of ‘minimum viable product’ be replaced with ‘minimum virtuous product’. He argues that racing “to put our products in consumers’ hands as fast as possible, without regard for the merit of – and rationale for – offline systems of governance, “is no longer tenable. This is because not only are today’s emerging technologies increasingly complex (and thus have significant potential for unintended impacts), but the general public is also increasingly weary of the perceived abuses of technology companies.
Two other august sources point to the importance of this sea change. Taneja himself references Larry Fink’s letter to CEOs. The CEO of BlackRock writes to all of his investees each year outlining key trends of relevance to business and investment. This year he states;
"Unnerved by fundamental economic changes and the failure of government to provide lasting solutions, society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues. These issues range from protecting the environment to retirement to gender and racial inequality, among others." https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/investor-relations/larry-fink-ceo-letter
This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer – launched as usual to coincide with Davos shows a striking change on previous years:
Globally, "my employer" (75 percent) is significantly more trusted than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent), government (48 percent) and media (47 percent).
CEOs are expected to lead the fight for change. More than three-quarters (76 percent) say they want CEOs to take the lead on change instead of waiting for government to impose it. And 73 percent believe a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates. Employees expect prospective employers to actively join them in advocating for social issues (67 percent). https://finance.yahoo.com/news/2019-edelman-trust-barometer-reveals-233000871.html
There are significant communications challenges associated with these trends and insights. It is clear to me that any entrepreneur, or indeed any spokesperson for a business in or relevant to the technology space must now expect questions on socio-economic and political topics including data security, privacy, the role of regulation, impact of technology on jobs, diversity, access and reducing digital divides. Beyond simply communicating about their latest products, they must have compelling and consistent responses to these questions.
Taneja’s first question to entrepreneurs is “What systemic, societal change do you aspire to create with your product?”
I love this question. It forces technologists to get out of the weeds of the bits and bytes of their solutions and really think about how and why they can make a difference. This is at the heart of any good corporate narrative and should pervade every single communication to every audience. Transformation is a much over-used word in the technology space, but as Taneja counsels – leaders must appreciate the transformative potential of what they are doing not just on initial customers, but the wider ecosystems and communities around them. Both positive and negative potential must be considered and honestly discussed.
This theme is closely related to his second question; “How will you sustain the virtue of your product?”
My interpretation of this question is that as well as communicating the benefit delivered to most people, you must be cognizant of the damage that a minority could cause with your product. Technology’s version of the old NRA defence “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is even less valid in today’s environment. Technology firms must anticipate and plan to mitigate the potential harms that can occur through mis-use of their products. They need to communicate transparently from the start about the risks and how they are managing them.
Around data specifically, Taneja asks: “What’s your framework for leveraging data and AI responsibly?”
As I have written elsewhere, AI is one of the most loaded terms in today’s technology lexicon. Not only can it add double digit valuation gains to a new company, but it can terrify both consumers and politicians. The issue is in explaining it simply without dumbing it down to a meaningless level. As Taneja says:
“Innovators should be able to explain, in relatively simple terms, why their complex algorithms tend to reach the conclusions they do. […] If a founder can articulate their complex AI footprint in simple, understandable and honest terms, their products will be more sustainably successful.”
The opposite is also true. The financial crash and the subsequent destruction of trust in the banking system were linked in some ways to the inability to explain (or understand) complex investment algorithms. Unless AI is carefully explained to regulators, politicians and civil society, regulation, rising distrust and suspicion may well be levelled at those who create or use it.
Being prepared to answer these types of question, to put your technology into much wide context and be transparent about the potential impact is now becoming fundamental to technology communications. It is no longer all about the product, nor even about the product benefits for its intended market. Today’s tech communicators need comprehensive narratives that weave their products, purpose, vision and aspiration into a thick contextual landscape. They need to be prepared not just to deflect or avoid difficult questions, but to proactively engage with them to show that they fully understand the full implications of what they are doing.
It’s never been a more challenging, nor exciting time, to be developing communications campaigns for innovators!