GM’s head of open innovation shares what he learned as an UberX driver

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Long before he started to explore the future of connected, electric and autonomous vehicles, Ted Graham was picking up drunks in his family’s minivan, trying to find ways to help accountants.

The head of open innovation at General Motors recounted his last role, as an innovation leader at accounting firm PwC, in his closing keynote at the fist Canadian CDO Summit in Toronto on Wednesday. Signing up as a driver for the UberX service, which Graham did for about a year, was an exercise in doing some unusual field research.

“My mission was to take ideas and turn them into invoices — make them into things that brought in cash,” he said. “But I was working in an industry that in itself was under pressure. I wanted to be able to look in other industries for inspiration.”

Graham, who has since written a book called The Uber of Everything, came away with three main takeaways from his experience. One was thinking carefully about how an organization treats its partners. The onboarding experience as an UberX driver, for instance, took little more than half an hour of uploading his photo and insurance details. This was followed up by what he called a “massive intake” session at a nearby hotel.

“I started to think about what did we do at PwC in onboarding employees. We were bringing on all these tax professionals and putting them on really challenging assignments — how were we making it as easy for them?”

UberX drivers continue the onboarding process by watching webinars about growing their business, and are allowed to see the data science behind pricing surges in their city, Graham pointed out. Organizations need to look for similar ways to arm partners with ongoing, just-in-time learning.

Then there was the power of two-way feedback — with consequences. Uber famously forces passengers to rate their driver after reach ride. Although Graham was never kicked off the platform, he said he was very aware that there were consequences to getting poor reviews. Similarly, though, Graham was rating passengers and thinking more deeply about what constituted a “good” one.

“(At PwC), we needed to get more feedback about misbehaving clients,” he said, referring to those who aren’t committed to working with a company to get the value for which they’re paying. “We needed to have the balls, quite frankly, to fire some of those clients.” The firm began putting monthly processes in place for employees to share such feedback, he said.

With UberX drivers, Graham said, “people wondered who they are — were you getting into a car with murderers and rapists?” he said. Taxi drivers were taking images of UberX drivers and tying to get insurance companies to give them a hard time, but Graham said he was in at least six different meeting with insurance firms who wanted to see whether UberX could pave the way for a new product.

“Commercial taxicab insurance is a huge loss area, and there’s a question of how can we use the data to understand these quasi-commercial things?”

Though GM is obviously creating cars for consumers, it too deals with an array of suppliers and other third parties where many of the lessons from Graham’s UberX days could apply. In the meantime, he says he’s now focused on looking at the “sharing side” of the vehicle industry.

“At GM we have a rich history of data where, but we’re just starting to understand the opportunities,” he said. “I’m looking for the signals of the problems worth solving.”

The CDO Summit wrapped up on Wednesday.

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Shane Schick

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.