Innovation—the buzzword everyone loves to hate. But over the last decade, as companies struggle to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change and the exponential rise in public and private expectations, innovation has become more than a buzzword. It has become an imperative for moving business forward.

As Deputy Chief Compliance Officer at NBCUniversal, I struggle every day to find innovative ways to meet the challenges of managing the compliance and ethics function at my organization. The media and entertainment industry is in the midst of unprecedented evolutionary change—“cord cutters” are streaming, content producers are scrambling, and young digital “influencers” are quickly surpassing their more traditional Hollywood counterparts. Managing risk in this environment is—to borrow a phrase—like changing tires on a moving car. You have to be skillful. You have to be knowledgeable. You have to think on your feet. And most importantly, you have to be willing to innovate. And innovate again.

The good news is that compliance and ethics is one area of practice where innovation can have a demonstrable and immediate impact. Whether it is globalizing training sessions through use of virtual meeting spaces, enhancing communication efforts through use of social networking platforms, or advancing machine learning technology to not just detect, but predict misconduct in the workplace, compliance professionals have responded to the innovation call, becoming early adopters in a world where early means yesterday.

So how have executives and thought leaders in the compliance space tackled innovation? To find out, I spoke with senior compliance professionals at some of the world’s most innovative, forward-thinking, and successful technology companies—Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn. Here’s what they had to say.

Innovations in Building Culture

I spoke with Amyn Thawyer, CCO at LinkedIn (and formerly at eBay and PayPal), about how he uses his company’s internal social media platforms to build a compliance culture at LinkedIn.

“Let me tell you a story,” Amyn offers. “I was looking through LinkedIn’s feed the other day and saw a company group post. Somebody took a picture in the parking garage of someone else’s car taking up two full parking spaces. And so the post was all about how this is not who we are, it’s not the LinkedIn way, how we should be thoughtful and mindful about how we treat each other.” I chuckle, picturing a BMW parked diagonally across two spaces in the company’s parking garage, and the outraged response to it—a company-wide virtual conversation that developed organically around how employees at LinkedIn should be living the culture and values of the organization.

At LinkedIn, employees use the company’s social media platform, an internal feed that is branded and built to look like the public-facing version, for everything from discussions about compliance-related events in the news to providing real-time feedback directly to Amyn on training and other aspects of LinkedIn’s compliance program. These virtual conversations are just that—conversations—not just articles or information posted by the compliance department, but rather a dialogue that is often started not by compliance but by the employees themselves.

And that, in my view, is the key to employee engagement—building a culture where employees can identify issues on their own, where they feel comfortable raising those issues, and giving them the platform and the tools to resolve their concerns, either independently or with advice and support from experts they trust (whether that be their supervisor, HR rep, GC, or compliance officer). In Amyn’s words, it’s about giving people the tools they need to take “intelligent risks.”

“In the Valley, everyone is trying to be the next Zuckerberg… so I try to arm them with the tools they need to fulfill those big goals by taking the right risks.” Instead of providing the standard compliance training, Amyn is giving employees at LinkedIn “leadership training,” building education and awareness around intelligent risk-taking. “We can’t be everywhere and we can’t police everything, so I try to give them practical insights so they know when to flag issues. We arm them with the tools they need to take the right risks so they can go on to become that leader who builds the next billion-dollar business.”

“The average LinkedIn employee is about 27 years old,” Amyn says, “and their average tenure with the company is about three years. So how do you get alignment of interests in that short time frame, when, within a year or two of joining, your employees are already starting to think about their next gig?” The answer, according to Amyn, lies in what he calls “a new social contract” between employer and employee. “The company promises to invest in you, to create opportunities for you, and to help you develop the skills you need to take you to the next level, even if that’s outside the company.” Understanding the importance of compliance and knowing how to take intelligent risks is part of that education. “I marvel at how well it works,” says Amyn. “If you do it right, you get the maximum value and the maximum productivity on both sides.”

Building an open, ethical culture that speaks to a talented millennial workforce is probably one of the most sought-after and intangible goals of any compliance team today, and so I had to ask Amyn where this energy around culture came from. “The genesis was a recognition in the early days of hyper-growth, as we went from a few people, to hundreds, to thousands of employees—we wanted to bottle the ‘start-up, we can do anything’ culture, and we were fearful that, as we grew, it would get diluted. So there was a concentrated effort to think about culture and what would we like to see, what we wanted our workplace to be.

“Every two weeks, we have an all-hands meeting where the leaders of the organization get out in front of the entire business and do an operating review, and it’s always presented through the lens of our culture and values.” Every LinkedIn employee joins these sessions in person or virtually, and so “that means all our employees around the globe are connected, they understand what’s going on and our leaders are accountable to them because we have a Q&A period at the end of each session where employees can speak up and talk about the issues that they’re faced with and directly deal with the leaders who are responsible.” These sessions set the tone for transparency and collaboration.

In addition, at those meetings, they make a point of showcasing employees at all levels of the organization. “They take a random new hire and ask them ‘what’s not on your profile?’” Employees showcase their hidden talents in front of the entire organization. “I’ve seen people sing, do push-ups, jump rope, tell jokes, do impressions…” For an introvert like me, that sounds like professional hazing. But according to Amyn, it’s more like concentrated, virtual team-building. “It’s all part of building our culture. It shows that we care about our people, our talent.” It allows people to bring their “whole selves” to work and, as a result, allows them to be more invested in the company and the company to be more invested in them.

Amyn is modest about his role in building the culture at LinkedIn. “I can’t take credit for it. Culture is an all-hands effort at LinkedIn.” He praises the team effort around culture—“everyone coming together,” from LinkedIn’s excellent HR team to its CEO, Jeff Weiner, who has spoken extensively about driving a winning culture (check out his interviews with Oprah or his free webinar put on at Stanford Business School).

“The mistake a lot of compliance functions make is they think a strong compliance program will create a good culture. It’s actually the other way around. A good compliance program is a by-product of a strong culture.”

Innovations in Training, Communications, and Reporting Procedures

I’d call Amazon a tech company, but really, it is so much more than that. As Kathy Sheehan, Vice President and Associate General Counsel for Compliance & Customer Trust, points out, technology at Amazon is just part of a much larger equation, where technology and innovation are layered into a more traditional business that includes things like retail sales, fulfillment centers, and a logistics business.

“One of the toughest things about working at an innovative company is that, no matter what you do in compliance, it doesn’t seem all that innovative.” Kathy and I exchanged laughs. Sometimes you have to just go back to the basics. “Maybe it’s not all that innovative, but one of the things we’re doing is taking a ‘train the trainers’ model, where we’re appointing individuals—we haven’t settled on a name yet, but let’s call them compliance champions—who can have direct contact to the team and can be the front line for answering questions and help us deliver training and speak the language that majority of employees at fulfillment center speak.” Amazon’s employees in India, for example, speak more than 30 different languages. “It’s thinking about it from that perspective, instead of thinking of it from a top-down perspective.”

I also asked Kathy about how she sees the technological innovations pioneered by Amazon being applied to compliance. “More interesting,” she muses, “is if you’re looking at the future for Amazon—take a look at our Echo devices.” The Echo is a smart speaker that connects to a voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service and responds to the name “Alexa.” My Echo wakes me up every morning, tells me the time, the weather, the news; she plays songs from my Spotify playlists, she reads me TED talks, she tells me jokes. With my favorite, the “Damn Girl” skill (apps on the Echo device are called “skills”), she gives me compliments daily (e.g., “Damn Girl, you do your crossword puzzles in ink!”) Basically, she’s become my digital best friend (very sad, but true).

And so, when I confessed to Kathy that I’d already thought of buying another Echo for my office, she was way ahead of me. “Imagine if everyone had one on their desktop in their office… Imagine if you could say, ‘Alexa, how do I report a gift?’ or, even better, ‘Alexa, report a gift’ and have her intake information.” Kathy and I both got carried away a bit, thinking of all the Echo could do. Amazon’s new Echo Show—which includes a video screen—could even be used for training, either through a live stream or a recorded video.

“We’re thinking about that kind of stuff all the time—ways to leverage the Echo or our Kindle Fire devices or other technology to get to our employees where they do business and how they do business. So we’re not just pushing out a very office-centric program to employees whose jobs are not at all office-centric.”

One of Amazon’s biggest challenges—one that a lot of us face—is how to reach such a vast employee audience. “Because of our scale—not just our size, but also our geographic reach—it’s very hard for most traditional compliance vendors to keep up with us. We’ve blown past the abilities of some of our vendors, and so we are likely going to have to build all of our own systems. An ethics line, for example, will never really be able to keep up with our scale… and by the way, we have call centers. We should be able to build our own.”

“So how do we leverage the technology at Amazon to build compliance systems at scale for Amazon? There’s lots of different ways to think about that—there’s leveraging the Echo or the Kindle Fire, but we also have call centers. Customers can email us or chat with us when they have concerns—there’s lots of technology that we are using to drive our business that we should be able to turn on its head to drive our internal business as well.”

All of that sounds brilliant, of course. But how do they actually make the internal resources as innovative as their products? “That’s always the running gag. Our external facing website works like a dream, but everything inside is a little harder,” Kathy admits. “Because you’re going to put your best resources at the thing that’s customer-facing. And you should. So the answer to that is—I don’t know. It’s going to be hard. One thing that’s helped us in the last couple of years is that we have our own internal technology team in Legal. We look at it as important for our ability to keep up with the business and the pace at which we do business. You can’t win that race just by adding bodies.”

Innovations in Misconduct Detection

Andy Hinton, Vice President of Global Ethics and Compliance at Google, is one of those incredibly smart, incredibly down to earth people with whom a conversation flows with such ease you almost don’t realize time is passing. I asked Andy what innovations he sees coming down the pike that could affect compliance as a legal discipline. Without missing a beat, he answered “AI.”

Artificial intelligence—perhaps more descriptively, “cognitive computing”—is the science of programming computers to not just read information but to process it—to learn, reason, infer, and make decisions in ways similar to the way we humans do. Recently, Google engineers built a computer system trained to play the ancient Chinese game “Go,” a game that requires players to alternate placing black and white pieces on a 19-by-19 grid. The game is so complex—much more so than chess, for example—because the board allows for a near infinite combination of moves. So when in May 2017, at the Future of Go Summit in Wuzhen, China, Google’s “AlphaGo” computer beat the world’s best human Go player, the technology world was stunned. And we were all reminded of how far we’ve come in developing intelligent machines that can complete tasks we once thought only humans could do.

AI, of course, is not limited to games. The “machine learning” most lawyers are familiar with is what we’ve been using for e-discovery—where computers are programmed to look for keywords in emails, expense reports, and any other sources of information, saving time and money that would otherwise be spent paying lawyers or paralegals to sift through reams of documents (anyone other than me old enough to remember when data rooms were actual rooms?). Now computers can use predictive coding to search documents not just for keywords, but for context, concepts, and tone, analyzing tons of data to identify and maybe even predict misconduct before it happens.

So, will AI become a game-changer for the compliance function? Andy at Google and many others seem to think so. Indeed, if you look at the financial sector, it seems machine learning is already being used extensively for compliance-related tasks, including risk management and fraud protection. The British firm Intelligent Voice, for example, sells its machine learning-driven speech transcription tool to large banks so that they can monitor traders’ phone calls for signs of insider trading or other wrongdoing. Similarly, HSBC recently announced a partnership to use AI in its anti-money laundering program, and PayPal claims that AI has cut their number of fraud false alerts in half by identifying benign reasons for customer behavior that might otherwise look like fraudulent activity.

It’s only a matter of time, in my view, before compliance professionals in other sectors catch on. Virtual meetings are already ubiquitous in most organizations. It only makes sense to extend those platforms, particularly as companies grow their business and thus their employee populations, around the world. Similarly, as companies extend business across international borders, compliance professionals will need advanced technology and data assimilation tools to help navigate the hundreds, if not thousands, of applicable laws and regulations with which we will need to be familiar. Innovation is no longer optional. It is a business imperative. And those who adopt and adapt early will not only save their companies time and money. They will help move the compliance field forward, positioning themselves and their organizations as leaders in the ethics and compliance space.

I, for one, am looking forward to the challenge, and according to my Echo device, that’s a good thing. “Damn Girl! You sure know how to innovate!”


About the Expert:

Lisa Stewart Hughes is NBCUniversal’s VP, Deputy Chief Compliance Officer – US. She manages all aspects of the company’s business ethics and corporate compliance programs, providing advice, training, risk assessment, and related counseling in a variety of legal, regulatory, and corporate policy areas. She also chairs the General Corporate Compliance Subcommittee of the NYC Bar Association Compliance Committee and serves on the NYC Women’s Group Steering Committee for the Association of Corporate Counsel.

Prior to joining NBCUniversal, Lisa worked as a commercial litigator for Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York and Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C.