How We Build Cultivate

by | Mar 1, 2019 | AI in HR

At Cultivate, we know what we’re building — a platform that leverages a passive dataset of digital communication events to help managers lead better and with greater awareness — is unique and new to the HR tech space.  Therefore we get a lot of questions around how we build our technology.  In this post, we’ll provide an overview of some of the research we’ve used to develop the Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning models behind Cultivate.

Before we do so, let’s briefly revisit why we built Cultivate in the first place:

  1. We don’t think the workplace needs another survey platform
  2. Digital connectedness is changing the workplace as we know it

It is hard to believe that just a few years ago, workplace productivity tools such as Slack and  Microsoft Teams didn’t exist. Older generations may even remember a workplace without email.

Today, the widespread use of digital communication platforms is significantly impacting how teams operate, as well as your organization’s bottom line.

For example, more and more people spend at least some time working remotely. And millennials and Gen Z — technologically savvy generations — are now a large majority of our workforce.

For these reasons and more, our dependence on digital communications such as IM and email has increased in the last few years. In fact, reliance on digital communication has increased even in offices with open workspaces that are built to promote face to face interaction.

Digital communication is increasing and looks like it is here to stay… but how do employees feel about their digital interactions in the workplace?

From a global survey of 30,000 people working in virtual teams, we know:

  • 94% people considered inability to read nonverbal cues in virtual interaction very challenging
  • 85% cited an absence of collegiality in virtual teams
  • 81% found it difficult to establish rapport and trust
  • 90% indicated virtual team meetings do not help overcome above challenges given limited amount of time to build relationships.

Given that office workers are also increasingly reliant on digital communication, it is highly likely that they are feeling these effects as well.

To summarise then, we are increasing our reliance on digital communications but employees are struggling to assess nonverbal cues, and build rapport, trust and collegiality in digital mediums. This can have a serious impact on employee productivity and morale.

So what can managers do to keep employees committed, and motivated in this age of digital communication?

“A Salesforce for Human Managers”

Tools to help other functions in the organization better harness their digital communications have been around for years — think Salesforce for Sales Managers, or Zendesk for Customer Success Managers.

But there isn’t a lot available today to help people leaders do their job better when it comes to digital communication.

We have designed Cultivate to fill this gap. What does a manager need to do their job better when it comes to digital communications?

At Cultivate, we think of digital communication as an extension of the manager’s in-person interactions with their direct reports. For managers with remote teams, digital mediums might actually encompass the majority of interactions.

With that perspective, we designed Cultivate with two questions in mind:

  1. What qualities and behaviors are indicative of a good manager?
  2. To what extent, and in what way do those qualities and behaviors present themselves in digital mediums?

In order to develop our perspective on management, we have spent time reviewing many academic studies to determine what makes a great manager and what manager behaviors have the strongest impact on subordinates.

Whenever possible, we have sought out sources that describe manager behaviors in a digital context. However, given that the proliferation of digital mediums in the workplace is relatively new, academic research on the topic is, in our opinion, not yet comprehensive.

It is also worth noting that it is challenging to gain access to holistic datasets of workplace digital conversation data in an academic setting (one reason why Cultivate is in a position to push academic study on the field further). This is why the open-source, cleaned email dataset of ill-fated American energy company Enron is the most prolifically used by far.  Even Cultivate has done our own white paper on the Enron email corpus.

Thus, we have also allowed sources that do not explicitly address digital spaces to inform our design of Cultivate, and our perspective on digital management. In such cases we have allowed current technical capabilities of Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning techniques to enable, and constrain our features where appropriate.
This approach has at times encouraged us to exclude certain behaviors from our platform that we have determined are impactful for manager behavior, but are not feasibly extractable via digital communication at this time. For example, the importance of communicating high-level organizational goals and strategies to employees.

At the moment, we provide insights on ten managerial nuances grouped into three high-level behavioral categories:


Communication is the basis for interacting with your team. Managers use communication to share a vision, strategy, tasks, feedback and recognition with their team – it is also how they build personal relationships and trust with the team. It is the most basic and critical manager behavior.

Google in their research to determine whether managers matter found that listening and sharing information is a key behavior of successful managers. Further, managers who hold regular meetings with their teams have three times more engaged employees and engagement increases when there is daily communication with manager.

Given these research findings, at Cultivate, we provide input on 3 nuances – (a) responsiveness and thoroughness of your response — thoroughness shows you are listening; (b) frequency of interaction — research by Gallup shows that engagement is highest amongst employees who interact with their managers in some form at least once per day; and (c.) rapport or informal communication with employees — which is critical for relationship building and developing trust. We also nudge you if you are not reaching out to employees or spending enough time with them.


Well-being impacts job performance! In fact, well-being is a stronger predictor of performance than job satisfaction. But what is well-being and how do managers influence this?

Well-being is the degree to which an employee feels positive emotions at work — positive sentiment in employee exchange shows they feel more positive (more well-being). Many factors can influence well-being, in fact, negative interactions with managers have five times more impact on employee sentiment than positive interactions.

At Cultivate, we capture sentiment (conversational positivity) at two levels: (a) team level to provide you a sense of well-being in your team; and then we also give you an assessment of (b) your sentiment in your digital communication to help reduce impact of any negative sentiment you might be sending to your team. Apart from sentiment, working during non-work hours has also been associated with exhaustion, stress and lower well-being. This is why we also give you a read on (c.) how many times you reach out to your team outside of working hours to help create more healthy interaction times.


Developing and motivating employees has been identified as a critical characteristic of successful managers by many research studies. Managers who provide meaningful coaching have a positive impact on organizational performance. Within coaching behavior, it is important that managers enable employees to participate and make their own decisions and mistakes. At Cultivate we capture this by (a) looking at whether you (manager) solicit opinions from team members rather than tell them what to do. Coaching also involves (b) providing feedback and (c) recognition where relevant and Cultivate nudges you if you do not provide enough feedback and recognition. Finally, we ensure that you are (d) following up in 1:1 meetings with your team members by tracking your calendar.

We leverage these nuances to create a personalized leadership development experience for the digital workplace.

Managers generally scan emails and other digital communications for content not behavior, yet it is behavior that has the strongest influence on teams. Here, Cultivate is an asset – serving as a personal leadership coach for your digital spaces.

Cultivate quietly follows a manager throughout their day, observing their behavior in the context of their team and company, and providing awareness, feedback and subtle course-corrections as needed.

In our next post, we’ll discuss more about our ongoing research at Cultivate and how we’re leveraging our unique dataset to better understand digital communication in the workplace.


Cultivate is a digital leadership platform that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to provide in-the-moment feedback and management coaching to enterprise leaders. Beyond helping managers become more self-aware, the platform also offers nudges and tools to put that feedback into action.

Pin It on Pinterest