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GETTY/NEILSON BARNARD
Laszlo Bock, HR rock star.
WINK, WINK (NUDGE, NUDGE)

After two years in stealth mode, the former head of HR at Google reveals his new startup

Simone Stolzoff
By Simone Stolzoff

Technology Reporter

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Laszlo Bock is the closest thing the HR world has to a rock star.

After a decade of running human resources at Google, a perennial favorite on everyone’s “Best Places to Work” list, he wrote Work Rules!, a New York Times bestseller about building company culture. Then, he started a company of his own, Humu.

For the better part of two years, Humu operated in stealth mode. Though it rarely missed an opportunity to discuss its mission—”to nudge people towards being their best selves, every day”—it offered scant detail about what the company actually does, even after announcing in May that it had raised $40 million in venture funding.

Today, the secret is finally out.

In a blog post, Bock described Humu’s flagship product, called Nudge Engine. It’s an app that uses behavioral science and machine learning to deliver workers personalized “nudges” throughout the workday. Nudges can be simple reminders to thank a coworker who has been doing a good job or to seek out the opinion of a quieter team member during a meeting.

Though the word “nudge” might have a soft connotation, the theory that underlies Humu’s technology comes from hard science. Professor Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in economics last year for his research on “nudge theory,” which proved that small prompts can have a big impact on people’s behaviors.

“There are millions of interactions between employees each day—from meetings to evaluations to just holding the door open,” Bock said. “At Humu, we believe everyone can do their part to change each one for the better.”

A platform for warm-and-fuzzy push notifications might not seem like the basis for a robust business model, but employee engagement is one of those dark arts that is hard to track and important to measure. Productivity, retention, and morale are all directly tied to how engaged people feel, or don’t feel, at work.

Humu fits into a larger trend of coaching networks, where companies are implementing AI-tools to guide employees throughout their workday. Chorus provides real-time feedback for salespeople. Textio lets hiring managers know the best language to use in their job posts.

Though technology can certainly augment the work of HR, or sales managers and copy editors, office culture is ultimately shaped by humans. Whether workers will feel compelled to adhere to the machine-driven suggestions is, ultimately, up to them.