Recently I made the reluctant decision to buy a Nintendo Switch for my kids.
They never had a console before and I’m afraid they would spend the whole day on gaming and nothing else.
But some relief sinks in when I got to see three of them playing co-op in Mario.
They were helping and learning from each other at the same time. They were engaged.
Which reminded me of the 2014 study by the American Psychological Association in which they concluded that video game play may provide learning, health and social benefits.
Importantly kids today look at play differently from my generation, where we grew up where we could be playing skipping, five stones or marbles for hours.
The same can be said about the modern workforce ever since the first foosball table got introduced to the office.
I speak with Mun Choong to learn more about his perspective on employee engagement and the backstory that led to creating an award-winning employee engagement platform:
For the readers who are not familiar, could you give an introduction?
Considering my IT degree, MBA and personal interest in psychology, you could say I’m an entrepreneurial software engineer with a passion for understanding human sciences.
I left a corporate career in 1997 to co-found the first of 3 entrepreneurial ventures: a system integration (SI) company in Jakarta called Jatis Solutions.
Then in 2010, I took a stake in the software company Nettium Sdn Bhd, and built it from an 8-man startup to an IT business employing 400 employees across Singapore and Malaysia.
What motivated you to start SelfDrvn?
Growing my own business, I realized that the fulfilment of my company’s vision depended on the quality of talent I could attract and retain to execute that vision and that as a startup, I would need something different to set us apart from established, ‘branded’ companies competing to hire the best talent.
SelfDrvn was my self-tested platform to create that difference.
When Nettium began expanding so rapidly, I didn’t really give much thought to the office environment.
We had leased a 4000 sqft commercial unit for the first 40 employees, and as the size of the team grew, I simply leased the neighbouring units to accommodate the growing team.
One day as I was heading into the office, a young man entered the lift with me and headed to our floor.
When he arrived at our floor, he took one look at the office’s external façade and turned on his heels to get back into the lift.
Thinking he might be lost, I offered to help him get his bearings.
Instead, obviously not knowing who I was, he told me that he was there for a job interview, but that he was put off by the office exterior and had changed his mind about applying for the job.
At that moment, I realized in spite of the rapid expansion of my business, future talent and possibly even future customers would make snap decisions about the value proposition of my company based on a variety of intangible factors that I had previously not considered – not just the ‘look’ of the office, but whether my brand resonated with the value systems of the talent and customers I hoped to attract.
I thought about how the likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon would have a much more established employer brand as well as much bigger marketing and recruitment budgets to attract the technical talent I needed to fuel my growing business.
As a much smaller player, I could not possibly compete with their budgets, and knew I needed to create the word-of-mouth ‘pull’ that would entice talent to join us, organically, leveraging on our key assets of existing employees.
Knowing that I also needed to effectively retain current employees before they could become strong ambassadors for our company, I began researching gamification techniques on how to engage and motivate existing employees.
Being a startup, we are always on the lookout for the cheapest ways to test new ideas.
So in the beginning, armed with little more than an Excel sheet to track employees’ points for positive behaviours, and a Powerpoint ‘leaderboard’ that we used to display reward ‘badges’ at company Townhalls, we kicked off a campaign to publicly recognize and reward high performing employees.
Earned points were redeemed for a selection of attractive prizes, much like the reward point redemption schemes used by credit and loyalty cards of bigger businesses.
This generated so much positive buzz that at the point we had hired 300 Nettium employees, about 50% had come through internal employee referrals.
I found out that other tech companies were paying higher referral fees than us but still getting fewer employee referrals – proving my point that highly engaged, existing employees acting as brand ambassadors are your best, most cost-effective recruitment tool.
It got to the point that employees were asking for an app to continue the rewards and recognition program in a more sophisticated manner.
As we could not divert technical resources away from key customer deliverables to focus on this, several employees volunteered their personal time, above and beyond their day jobs, to upskill themselves and create the desired app – thus birthing an early version of what would eventually become the SelfDrvn platform.
‘SelfDrvn’ as a name derives from my belief that for a truly high performing and sustainable enterprise, every employee should be self-driven, not boss-driven, and this was certainly my experience with the employees who volunteered to create the prototype SelfDrvn platforms.
How exactly does SelfDrvn work?
Going back to my earlier point that highly engaged, existing employees were our best, most cost-effective recruitment tool – it made sense that creating a workplace environment where the talent I had already painstakingly hired could thrive and perform at their best, was a key priority.
Winning in the marketplace first means winning in the workplace, and the SelfDrvn platform helps companies develop a thriving workplace by using real-time feedback, social media, rewards, data analytics and gamification to influence 6 fundamentals of enterprise success: Performance, Learning, Culture, Collaboration, Wellness and Innovation.
We’ve built the SelfDrvn platform to address the needs and pain points of the entire employee experience, using elements important to the young workforce of today, to build great employee performance, recognition, retention and ultimately, true engagement.
Our deep understanding of behavioural analytics and the gamification mechanics of points, levels, achievement badges and leaderboards allow us to help businesses motivate all employees to improve their performance, upgrade their skills and make required behavioural shifts – whether it be generating ideas to innovate the business, increasing the completion of online courses, encouraging employees to take more steps in a day to increase employee wellness, or creating a safe and fun environment for employees to give and receive constructive feedback.
Additionally, in any company, open communications between all stakeholders are key to success, and even the most established companies make the mistake of equating the sending/receiving of emails with the communication, and understanding of, information.
In contrast, SelfDrvn helps employers and employees engage in an honest and constructive manner by leveraging on the technologies of mobile apps, social media, big data and artificial intelligence, delivered through a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) platform.
Not only does this make it more engaging for employees to receive important company-wide announcements, but an anecdotal example of how SelfDrvn has made a difference to how companies operate was relayed to us by a client with staff spread out across the region.
After employees became better acquainted with the personalities of their colleagues through the social media-like features of the platform, colleagues in different regional offices connected to collaborate in ways they were not previously motivated to do.
We’ve now been privileged to be implemented in businesses across a wide range of industries – from IT to logistics, banking and insurance and oil & gas.
Since 2018, Gartner, the global research and advisory firm that companies refer to for top business insights, has recognized us as an emerging HR Tech vendor to watch out for, featuring us in their Hype Cycle Reports for Employee Experience Tech and Human Capital Management systems.
How did you get funded?
We are currently 100% self-funded.
There have been several approaches being made by potential investors, but we are still in the market for the right kind of partnership.
Who do you see as your close competitions?
There are various players in the US and European markets that offer subsets of what we offer, at subscription costs that would likely not be economically viable for business owners in this part of the world.
For example, some players may offer the feedback mechanism, but not have the rewards portion.
In contrast, SelfDrvn offers a comprehensive solution, that can either be implemented in its entirety as a holistic Employee Experience system or potentially integrated into a modular fashion to existing systems already installed within a company’s IT framework.
SelfDrvn being established and expanding in this part of the world, also means that cost structures are more accessible for burgeoning Asian enterprises, cautious with how they want to mobilize their investment dollars, and also savvy enough to recognize an investment in optimizing the operating environment for their people can only yield benefits down the line.
Who’s your biggest customer(s)?
Two clients of note are a global professional services company and a regional financial institution.
The regional bank’s broad objective was to break down interdepartmental silos and remove the barriers to agility and innovation which prevented its 38,000 employees spread across 14 countries from collectively addressing the challenges presented by fintech disruptors.
With further consultation, we also discovered that they needed to enhance their existing workplace to engage and retain smart, young talent who were keen to express their ideas freely, challenge accepted practices and have those ideas be considered by senior management.
What we uncovered was that because of the silos, there was currently no mechanism for teams to even understand each other’s products and services, let alone offer constructive suggestions for improvement and/or collaboration.
To encourage interdepartmental/inter-functional learning, SelfDrvn worked with each department to create a series of ‘Get to Know Us’ courses consisting of overview information that could be easily digested in 10 minutes, followed by a 5-question quiz for each course.
Teams were encouraged to take as many quizzes as possible to learn about team functions across the organization, and a monthly dashboard was created for C-suite management team members to see the participation rate among teams.
Over a period of 6 months, the gamification element of this learning initiative drove an 80% participation rate, with more than 50 quizzes taken that would ultimately pave the way for cross-functional discussions on how teams could work together to take the organization to the next level.
Other examples of wins using the SelfDrvn algorithms and platform was an ability to measure the level of influence of senior leaders and identified high potential talent using metrics such as:
- participation in learning initiatives
- coaching activities
- the giving and receiving of feedback
- the giving and receiving of recognition
What gets measured gets done, and with clear indicators of which leaders/talent were actively acting on desired behaviours, the company was empowered to reward the role models and encourage these behaviours among a wider population.
Another SelfDrvn feature successful in driving required organizational behaviours was the usage of the Message-in-a-Bottle anonymous feedback feature which allowed the company to poll employees for their preferred charity to support, ultimately increasing buy-in and employee participation in annual CSR initiatives.
With the global professional services company, the cultural shifts were more subtle but no less important to the sustainability of their operations. Their main objectives revolved around encouragement of:
- a culture of wellness and self-care, not normally associated with busy consulting firms
- managerial recognition of high performance
In the first instance, the company leveraged on SelfDrvn’s Step-a-Thon feature, encouraging employees to complete 10,000 steps/day, demonstrating that the company prioritized employee wellness and that lack of equipment or a costly gym membership was not a barrier to colleagues emphasizing fitness.
On a deeper level, the company used this initiative to send a broader message to managers that employee wellbeing was important, and that managerial styles that put undue pressure on employees and prevented them from operating at their best were frowned upon.
This complemented the secondary objective of the SelfDrvn solution for the professional services company – to encourage managers to actively recognize high performing team members using the reward and recognition features on our platform.
By clearly tracking managers who did not give any recognition within a period of 30 days, and creating an online rewards catalogue to standardize how employees would be incentivized to perform, we initially had a 20% participation rate among managers in this exercise.
It was the social and human behaviour aspect which really made the initiative take off, because as the employees of the managers who DID participate started talking to their colleagues in teams where managers had not yet ‘got with the program’, and those employees started questioning their managers, “What do I need to be recognized like my colleague in the other team?”, participation shot up to 80%.
The social media-friendly nature of these initiatives also helped address another, previously untackled issue: that of an overly hierarchical culture that prevented junior employees from approaching partners and creating that freedom of interaction so important for the fast flow of insights and information within any company that hopes to remain relevant in today’s agile economies.
In the case of the professional services company, with the transparency of scores displayed on company-wide leaderboards, when junior employees overtook seniors in any initiative, they would proudly share such ‘achievements’ on their social media accounts, tagging partners who would then take such sharing in a good-natured manner and encourage future interactions that would not have been possible in the past.
What has worked well for you in marketing your solution?
By far the most successful approach is to deliver a tailored solution that hits the needs of the particular business – and let their word of mouth do the future selling for you.
One small example was an enquiry that we received from a client who had obtained our contact after attending an alumni gathering and seeing the massive physical transformation of ex-colleagues who had actively participated in the Step-a-Thon wellness challenge.
Or clients who became curious about achievement ‘badges’ that had been shared on social media pages.
As is often the case, when satisfied customers are your brand ambassadors, it really opens doors for us to create value for other progressive-minded businesses.
What is your proudest moment in the history of SelfDrvn?
The impact of SelfDrvn’s work has recently been recognized with awards in the categories of Best HR Tech Startup and Best Employee Engagement Platform at Singapore’s HR Vendors of the Year 2019 Awards, as well an award in the Best Employee Engagement Platform category in the Malaysian equivalent of these awards.
These wins complement ongoing recognition for digital innovation that we have received from the likes of IBM Watson Asia Pacific, Create @ Alibaba Startup Contest and Plug & Play Singapore.
But what I am most proud of is that we are continually refining a platform that drives people to adopt meaningful behaviours: whether it is encouraging people to speak up, convert on-the-go learning into on-the-job performance, move relationships between managers and employees beyond transactional interactions, or enabling the CEO to hear feedback from the ground that (s)he would otherwise never have been aware of.
Beyond all the awards, it is the on-ground impact on employees that ultimately translate to business success for enterprises that I am most proud of and keeps me pushing forward.
The path of an entrepreneur is full of ups but mostly downs. How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
With SelfDrvn being such a flat organization, with our rapid growth, one of the challenges I faced was that I was interviewing literally every candidate who would potentially join our team.
One of the biggest learnings for me personally is to be more aware of the biases I adopt that become ‘mental shortcuts’.
I initially made many recruitment mistakes because I had no mechanism to ‘check’ my biases, so now I find bringing in a diverse interview panel is helpful in ensuring I am making hiring decisions looking at multiple perspectives.
Another related learning for me is that many times we fall into the trap that simply having experience is enough, but in today’s reality, the ability to be agile matters more.
What worked the first time you make a particular decision will not necessarily work in follow-up decisions.
So again it ties back to being aware of your personal biases and putting a check and balance in place to mitigate these biases.
Do you have anyone that is a major professional influence?
I have always been inspired by the work of Josh Bersin.
A lot of the fundamental principles of SelfDrvn were influenced by his insights that traditional learning and performance management models no longer work, and need to be updated with mechanisms for instant feedback, recognition and microlearning.
Any book or books that have greatly influenced your life?
One book that particularly resonated with me was Elon Musk’s book, “Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future”. Musk’s visionary thought process perhaps helped ‘justify my own insanity’ – i.e. my continuing to reinvest money I earned in previous endeavours in yet another start-up.
He was always doubling down, throwing more money into ‘the next thing’, which would never be ‘the obvious thing’.
For example, when existing green car battery technologies became the bottleneck that limited his vision for Tesla, he built an entirely new supply chain for what he wanted.
And with Space X, he role modelled a trait I very much admire: the continual learning and self-training that enabled him to essentially become a rocket scientist, taking on the biggest challenge affecting humankind (humans killing the very planet that ensures our current survival as a species), turning that into the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars as the (next) evolutionary home for mankind.
In the last 12 months, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
I find that the more I practice mindfulness, the greater my awareness of the environment I operate in and the calmer I am in my day-to-day interactions.
Cumulatively this helps me be more consistent in how I lead my team and the company, and it also helps me sleep better at night!
Any part of your work that you are putting in extra hours to improve on?
I suck at sales-related tasks – I find my leadership energy is sapped when I have to do a constant administrative follow-up or answer a thread of questioning over the course of 20 emails for e.g.
Thankfully, I have a great sales team who takes that load off me!
What’s one productivity hack you can’t live without?
I find I am more productive when I purposefully schedule 1-hour spurts where I try to get as much as possible done, in an environment that is designed for minimal distractions.
For me, that often means doing my ‘deep work’ in an external café rather than the office where I tend to be sought after for multiple discussions; and no phones, no disruptions and focused attention for that 1-hour duration.