The Zoholics experience

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I have just been to a Zoholics conference in London. I suppose I wanted to keep up with new developments at Zoho – its Zoho One toolkit is an excellent basis for business automation – but I must admit that I enjoy Zoho events. There’s a family-like culture at Zoho, which I always find reassuring (as opposed to the culture at some other companies, which often seems more like a cult).

I was talking about this with Sachin Agrawal, Managing Director, Zoho UK, and it seems clear to me that supportive culture and ethics are still very much the basis of the Zoho ethos. Just one example of what these means practically is Zoho University, which brings technology education to the disadvantaged, who may have missed out from further education earlier in life. And it is not just for the disadvantaged, Sachin says that people who could pick any University they wanted to go to are now coming to Zoho University, because of the practical usefulness of its program.

I think that organisational culture may well have an impact on the increasing use of AI in business. I have no formal research to base this on, but I feel that if an AI learns, it will learn company culture and ethics. Responsible – ethical – AI matters but it will be very difficult to implement an ethical AI-driven collaboration solution, say, if the developers only pay lip-service to collaboration and work within a blame-focused hero culture. Although I suppose it is always possible that the AI will teach good practice to the organisation using it….

Zoho has always had a strong AI focus and I also managed to talk with Ramprakash (Ram) Ramamoorthy, Head of AI Research, Zoho, about recent developments. For a start, I hadn’t realised that Generative Adversarial Networks were falling out of favour a bit in the AI world, in contrast to rising interest in, say, transformer approaches.

We also talked about the importance of explainable AI approaches – in business, it is usually important to know not only that what you are doing is right but also why it is right. Especially when regulators and lawyers come calling. Ram also sees the rising importance of “domain specific” models, trained to behave appropriately in a particular domain.

I also asked Sachin about changes in the evolving Zoho customer-base. He sees two groups, really, starting with small companies (often greenfield startups) that can manage collaboration face-to-face and need a cost-effective solution while they grow (and often become strategic Zoho converts from the success of small beginnings.) But there is an increasing appearance of larger, more established customers, who buy into the Zoho strategy and culture, and are interested more in introducing true collaboration in their business (as opposed to email chaos) than they are in keeping costs to the minimum (although that is doubtless welcome too).

As always, chasing value-add is usually more effective in the long run than chasing cost reduction.