RBM Uncovers the Story Behind Saberr, the People Analytics Company: A Q&A with Founder, Alistair Shepherd

Company Culture, Maren Hogan

Q&A with Saberr Founder, Alistair Shepherd

By Maren Hogan:

At Red Branch Media, we build our teams up with our six company values at the core. As a digital marketing agency with a fine-tune focus on HR tech, we go bananas for companies with the same ambitions and ideals about workplace inclusion, productivity and engagement planning as us. Recently we came across quite the unique team, Saberr, a people analytics company based in the UK, who’s founder, Alistair Shepherd, built the company with one idea in mind: together, people are powerful. People are their business model. Naturally, I had to know everything about them, so we sat down with Alistar to learn more about his beginnings, core values and how it brought his team where they are today.

Have you heard of @saberruk? Tune in for a Q&A with founder @alistairshep to learn about the people analytics company: Click To Tweet

Tune in for the full interview below!

Q1: What are your biggest concerns with traditional workplace communication, productivity and leadership, sans technology?

The driving force behind Saberr is the idea that together, people are powerful.

Our economic, environmental, social and political challenges could be solved quicker and more easily if groups of people collaborated without friction. We’d have the opportunity to make faster progress, make important discoveries and the world could become a better place to live, but this requires teamwork.

This, of course, can happen without technology; teamwork is nothing new. But we don’t always work together as well as we could do. The very best teams have a dedicated coach, someone responsible for getting the best out of the team and ensuring sustained productivity. Be that sports teams on the training ground or executive teams in the office, in order to succeed as a collective, we often need support.

Our concern is that most teams don’t have access to this support, and therefore don’t achieve as much as they could do – we think technology can play the role of the coach and give every team the support they need to be massively more successful.

Q2: I understand you started building Saberr as a solution to workplace performance by looking at dating site data. Tell us more about that.

We started with the assumption that the relationships we have with our colleagues underpin a lot of team performance. Anecdotally this makes sense, bad relationships are emotionally incredibly draining. Good relationships give us more strength than we have as an individual.

So our goal was to see if; a) we could predict relationship quality between people who had never met and b) use that prediction to forecast the performance of new teams that had just formed. The first generation of online dating profiles, think match.com, eHarmony, etc, were a rich source of data on the characteristics of users, as well as their preferences in others. We used this data, combined with a lot of academic study on relationships and teams to come up with our first algorithm to predict relationships and thereby team performance.

The first test of this was at the University of Bristol, they were hosting a week-long business plan competition where student teams would compete to win fairly substantial prizes. We profiled the teams using our software at the beginning of the week and were stunned when we predicted the correct ranking of all eight teams come the end of the week. We did this without any knowledge of their skills, experience, demographic or the ideas they were working on – all we looked at was a prediction of the relationships they would form within each team.

The ability to predict team performance by analysing composition obviously has great application in hiring and in staffing decisions but the real question for us was, how can we help develop teams to perform exceptionally well regardless of how well suited they are to each other? CoachBot was born to solve that problem, and that’s where Saberr’s really clever stuff happens.

@saberruk is a people analytics company, built from analyzing dating site data. Learn more about it: #workplaceproductivity Click To Tweet

Q3: So you say robots have more to learn about humans, not the other way around. Explain how this philosophy can be applied to the workforce.

Absolutely, the rhetoric over the last decade has been, “hey humans you need to understand technology.” I think that needs to change to be “hey technology, you need to understand humans.” Humans have emotional needs and “the right answer” is not always the best answer. Technology needs to be sensitive to these needs.

A great example is the film Interstellar by Christopher Nolan. In the story, a handful of people set off on a dangerous voyage in a spaceship, the captain asks the ship’s computer what it’s “honesty parameters” are. The ship replies, “90%. Absolute honesty isn’t always the most diplomatic, nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings.” It’s funny because of the truth it hides, people need support not clinical judgement, even if we say we prefer the latter.

I think the second thing technology needs to understand about humans is that we need each other much more than we need technology, and so any AI designed to help a team improve team performance should aim to increase human interaction rather than decrease it. At the moment it seems that almost every new piece of “innovation” is automating away the need to interact with other people. If we continue in this fashion, tech will have a very detrimental impact on society.

Q4: What differences in performance outcomes do you see with bots compared to people?

If we take team coaching as an example, the biggest advantage that a bot has over a human is its ability to have cost-effective interactions. A bot can check in with you during your work day without it being a distraction. It can gather data little and often – it can also deliver coaching in the same manner, little and often without interrupting “real work.” A human coach can’t do this, or at least can’t do it in a way that’s commercially viable.

Being able to hijack what people consider real work, and ask simple questions such as, “is the work you’re doing today going to help you achieve your goals?” helps nudge people toward behavior change without it seeming like much effort. This is a real bonus.

Q5: What to you is ideal workplace performance?

In collaborative team environments (which is the environment most of us work in today), ideal workplace performance is when the team:

  • Is motivated by a common purpose
  • Has a shared understanding of clear and measurable goals
  • Has well-defined roles and responsibilities
  • Has strong psychological safety and open channels of communication

If the above factors are coupled with the right technical skills, then it’s highly likely the team will deliver a favourable outcome. The important part for me is to focus on the behaviours that lead to good outcomes, rather than the outcomes themselves. Behaviors can be repeated or changed, outcomes rarely can.

What are the latest and greatest workplace technologies you’ve heard of recently? We’d love to hear about them! Start the conversation: (@RedBranch).

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