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The series: We look at decision makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

There’s a lot of talk about innovation these days. At the World Economic Forum in February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to it as “what’s between our ears.” Almost half of the 1,757 global executives surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in 2013 said it was a “competitive necessity” for their organization. The Conference Board of Canada doesn’t think Canada does enough of it, while the Canadian Federation of Independent Business thinks the country’s small businesses do it well.

Even if we don’t all agree on what innovation actually is, there is a consensus that it’s important.

Solving a problem ...

After introducing a system to track project tasks in order to replace a spike in e-mails as people tried to stay looped in on projects as the company grew, it"realized that the data about the tasks was almost more interesting than the tasks themselves,” says Jay Goldman, the co-founder and managing director of Sensei Labs, the division of Klick that offers consulting services and technology solutions to clients in biotech and other industries. The internal system, called  Genome, became “a full enterprise operating system." (Photo: Courtesy of Klick)

For a company like Klick Inc., a global health marketing agency, innovation meant developing a solution to a problem, and then going a step further to transform it into a product now being sold globally.

“In our mind, innovation is when something transformative takes place that either increases productivity or is able to grow the company or expand the market,” says Corinne Pohlmann, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ senior vice-president of national affairs and partnerships. The CFIB represents more than 100,000 small and medium-sized business owners across the country.

The organization recently conducted an innovation survey of more than 6,000 small business owners across all sectors and provinces.

“When we did our innovation study,” says Ms. Pohlmann, “the biggest factor that motivated businesses to become innovative was trying to address an issue or problem that they wanted to deal with – and they needed to come up with new and creative ways to do that, whether that was new technology or a change in process.”

For Klick, innovation involved both.

In 2001, Klick had fewer than 100 employees. It was a small company still in its relative infancy, but had grown enough that it needed to expand its office from one room to two. People who were used to easy, face-to-face communication with their peers now found themselves dealing with a physical barrier – even if it was just one wall. Co-founder and chief operating officer Aaron Goldstein noticed a huge spike in inter-office e-mail as people tried to keep themselves looped in to projects.

... became a product

Genome’s internal success led to a demand from other companies. This led Klick to pivot from being a services company to being a services and software company and tweak Genome to become a product, called SenseiOS, available to external clients. There are currently 10 companies around the world running the platform. (Photo: Brian Jackson/iStockphoto)

“We believe e-mail is a great way to let other people organize your day for you,” says co-founder and chief executive officer Leerom Segal. So they banned e-mail as a way for Klick employees to communicate with each other. (Of course, they still use e-mail to communicate with clients.) In its place, they introduced a ticketing system as a way for employees to manage the work flow on client projects.

Not only did employees stop feeling out-of-the-loop, and productivity increase, but Klick found other benefits to the software.

“Leerom and Aaron realized that the data about the tasks was almost more interesting than the tasks themselves,” recalls Jay Goldman, the co-founder and managing director of Sensei Labs, the division of Klick that offers consulting services and technology solutions to clients in biotech and other industries. “How does work flow through an organization? How many people touch it? Where does it get held up? They realized that the more data the system knew about the organization, the better it could become about being predictive using machine learning.”

As Klick continued to grow – it now has 650 employees in Canada, and has client services and strategists in key markets across the United States – so did Genome. “It’s now a full enterprise operating system,” says Mr. Goldman. “It powers everything we do, from applicant tracking to work-flow communication to learning to performance enablement. It’s really the backbone of our organization. Or the DNA, which is why we call it Genome.”

The CFIB’s Ms. Pohlmann says that “one of the biggest barriers to innovation is lack of skilled labour: finding the people who can incorporate the new technology, who can operate the new technology and who can help train others – that’s an important feature that can be really challenging.”

Klick’s employees embraced Genome, says Mr. Goldman, in large part because the corporate philosophy of openness and transparency gave them access to data relating to almost all the company’s activities. (Employee compensation is a notable exception.) The data reveals surprising insights.

“It helps to identify experts at things,” says Mr. Goldman, “and they get the opportunity to teach their fellow Klicksters things.” Klick doesn’t have an HR department, calling on employees to serve as “experiential recruiters” who decide on new hires. Genome can, for example, analyze which employees conducted interviews with the candidates who turned out to be exceptional hires. (“Promotion velocity” is another metric that Genome tracks.)

“You might be a fairly junior Web developer, but you’re recognized as an excellent interviewer,” says Mr. Goldman. “That gives you the opportunity to teach interview skills to other people in the organization [even if they’re your senior] and to help them learn and grow.”

Genome’s success recently led Klick to another deciding moment.

In 2014, Mr. Goldman, Mr. Goldstein, Mr. Segal and Rahaf Harfoush wrote The Decoded Company, a guidebook for companies that want to build a data-centric, talent-centric work culture. Mr. Goldman says they wrote the book “because we had people asking us to tell our story – not what we do, but how we do it. How we were able to so consistently deliver 40-per-cent growth, year over year, in terms of both our head count and our revenue.”

Decoded led to a speaking tour: Google, Twitter, TED, Harvard. “Every time we would come off the stage,” recalls Mr. Goldman, “there would be people waiting for us to ask where they could buy Genome. And the answer was: They couldn’t. Genome was a proprietary solution we’d built for ourselves.”

Seeing a new marketplace, Klick made the decision to “pivot from being a services company to being a services and software company. And that is not an insignificant pivot by any means.”

Code-level changes were made (Genome had never needed to understand time zones, for example), and data security and privacy issues addressed. Genome became SenseiOS for external clients, and is now coming to the end of its second year on the market. Ten clients, located around the world, are running the platform, and Mr. Goldman predicts more to come.

Klick will celebrate its 20th birthday in April. “We’re a mature company,” says Mr. Goldman, “but in some ways, we really view ourselves as a startup – and I think we’ll always be in startup mode.”

Editor’s note: The commercial version of Klick's Genome program is called SenseiOS, rather than Genome, as it appeared in a previous version of this story. As well, Klick’s Sensei Labs provides services to clients in other industries as well, not just in the biotech sector, as appeared in a previous version of this story. This is the corrected version of the story.
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