Building Culture in Language Services Companies: An interview with Mark Brayan, CEO of Appen

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Edmund Blogg

Adaptive Globalization speaks with thousands of professionals in the language services and technology industry every year about their career ambitions and development.

Alongside job specifics such as responsibilities, location and pay, corporate culture is one of the major topics raised by of those exploring new career options. Often when discussing job opportunities Adaptive’s recruiters are questioned not only on culture as regards the local office space in which a candidate would be working, but on the role that corporate culture plays in the hiring company’s business operations and overall identity.

For some organizations, culture is only peripherally addressed at a leadership level, with top and bottom-line considerations driving daily decision-making. For others, culture is a foundational component of business success and a key aspect of strategy.

Defining and implementing corporate culture can be challenging, especially within a global business where international offices and local cultural differences must be factored in.

To learn more about how to address these challenges, Adaptive spoke with Mark Brayan, CEO of Appen.

AG: The first step in building a successful corporate culture is to have a clear vision for what culture means within an organization. How is this interpreted at Appen?

MB: Culture is how people work together, how they get things done. If the culture isn’t going to achieve business objectives, it will fail. Strategy needs to be supported by culture – you can have the most elegant strategy in the world, but if you don’t have an enabling culture, that strategy won’t get implemented.

When developing business plans, culture is a fundamental consideration as both culture and strategy have to be aligned in order for the organization to be successful.

AG: How is culture created at Appen?

MB: You can’t write down culture on a piece of paper and make it so – you have to create conditions, and culture creates itself within those conditions. Conditions can be formal, such as business structures, or informal, such as respect for the customer.

As a business, you don’t create culture – you create conditions for culture. Where the business can help shape, culture is through creating the right structures and via the leadership of the business displaying the desired cultural behaviors.

To reinforce this, Appen does have formalized culture and value statements, which in fact preceded my joining the business. These do have a physical and online presence around the business, and there is a system of encouragement to adopt these standards via employee awards based around the values.

AG: Is culture within Appen static, or does it evolve? How is this evolution managed?

MB: We shape the direction of our culture through ongoing feedback. We try to continually integrate employee input through tools such as engagement surveys. The primary values which emerge from these as important to Appen’s teams are respect for each other and respect for customers, and we work to ensure these are built into our norms and behaviors.

Another major way in which culture should evolve is in accordance with shifting stakeholder requirements. When Appen transitioned from a private to a public company, a new group of stakeholders had to be integrated. From staff and customers, we then had to ensure that investors were considered and positively impacted by our culture.

There are internal leadership meetings to discuss cultural goals and propagating culture – understanding what people value and what binds them to the company. it’s talked about, it’s an active part of dialogue, but it’s up to leadership to adopt it and work to implement it.

AG: The first step in building a successful corporate culture is to have a clear vision for what culture means within an organization. How is this interpreted at Appen?

MB: Culture is how people work together, how they get things done. If the culture isn’t going to achieve business objectives, it will fail. Strategy needs to be supported by culture – you can have the most elegant strategy in the world, but if you don’t have an enabling culture, that strategy won’t get implemented.

When developing business plans, culture is a fundamental consideration as both culture and strategy have to be aligned in order for the organization to be successful.

AG: Much of the discussion around corporate culture happens from an internal viewpoint. How does Appen’s cultural and value mix impact customers?

MB: There is a definite benefit for customer, with regard to quality of work, time-frames, responsiveness and other aspects. Appen’s corporate culture is, in many ways, almost more customer-facing than internal-facing.

The mindset is “how do we help the customer?”. There are direct links between culture, how Appen works with customers, and how the company performs. Good corporate performance is good for culture – it attracts talent, provides challenge and opportunity, and strong financial performance feeds culture.

But if a company is struggling, then strong corporate culture is also vital – culture can be relied upon to support periods of poor performance.

AG: What allowance is made for international variance in corporate culture?

MB: Appen has offices in Australia, the Philippines, the US and the UK. That gives us a very rich set of cultures. However, there is consistency in those core corporate cultural elements that define Appen as a business.

We have a wealth of cultural nuance around regions of the world which are a benefit in adding color and diversity to our teams.

However, how people work together, how we treat each other, how we get things done – that’s the variable we work to keep consistent.