The man running Baidu’s AI lab reveals a team-building strategy CIOs should steal

There’s a lot of time, money and talent being put into artificial intelligence, or systems that would act more like thinking human beings. Some, like Telsa’s Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, fear such advanced systems might eventually rise up against us. But what if, along with teaching machines to think, we taught them how to get along together, both with each other and with us?

I know what you may be thinking: Forget about AI, human beings haven’t even mastered that one yet.

Although there’s always a risk of perpetuating cliches, IT departments often come until particular criticism for being unresponsive, difficult to work with and unable to contribute to the business’s overall objectives. The job of CIOs to nurture a more collaborative attitude aren’t helped, of course, by conflicting priorities, the ongoing budget challenges and layoffs in many IT departments over the last few years.

That’s why I was intrigued by a recent interview with Andrew Ng, the man who led the Google Brain deep learning project, and who has since moved on to Chinese tech giant Baidu, where he is spearheading its $300 million AI lab. Although the discussion with Ng in the Huffington Post was wide-ranging, one comment around teamwork and building the right culture stood out:

At Baidu, we did one thing for the culture that I think is rare. I don’t know of any organization that has done this. We created a quiz that describes to employees specific scenarios — it says, “You’re in this situation and this happens. What do you do: A, B, C, or D?” 

No one has ever gotten full marks on this quiz the first time out. I think the quiz interactivity, asking team members to apply specifics to hypothetical scenarios, has been our way of trying to connect the abstract culture with the concrete; what do you actually do when a teammate comes to you and does this thing?

It may seem curiously analogue and quaint for such a forward-thinking company, but what a fantastic way to encourage the right behaviours. Just imagine some of the scenarios that could be used to create an IT-specific version of the Baidu quiz:

A business leader wants to launch a new mobile app for his department or customers but his requirements are insufficiently vague. In response you: 

A) Send him away until he has completed the organization’s standard brief and submitted it through the ticketing system
B) Explain the current backlog of related projects and discuss reasonable timelines for further discussion and execution
C) Refer him to the CIO or appropriate designate
D) Schedule a brainstorming session that will bring together the relevant stakeholders to ensure the project starts off correctly

Maybe this is a poor example — and depending on the culture of the organization, any one of those answers could be correct — but there are many others that could be used. They could range from simple help desk situations to more complex moments in which IT troubleshooting is required or strategic decisions need to be made.

The Baidu quiz is probably not intended merely for IT departments, of course, but CIOs could start here, maybe as part of a quarterly team meeting or strategic planning exercise. Much like situational leadership, which I’ve personally found has helped identify some gaps in my management style, this isn’t a bad way to coach employees towards the kind of habits that make an organization thrive. And if it works, maybe we can start teaching it to the robots.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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