Nina Barakzai, General Counsel for Data Protection and Group Data Protection Officer, Unilever

A privacy professional, Nina Barakzai shares her unique perspective on innovation at Unilever and the imperative of staying abreast of ever-changing technological demands and opportunities.

GC: What are the main themes running through Unilever’s use of technology?

Nina Barakzai (NB): Firstly, that tools should help us work more efficiently; secondly, implementation is a journey and we must see benefit; and thirdly, technology is disruptive but helps us build our professional competence as an in-house legal team supporting the business.

GC: Can you give any examples of technology initiatives used at Unilever?

NB: At Unilever, there are numerous technology initiatives spread across different business functions. We aim to be at the top of the list when it comes to talking about tools to help us work more efficiently. Some parts of our business use blockchain for certain types of activities; others have introduced a chatbot with machine learning to continuously improve the systems they use. Legal is building knowledge management tools to get to a single source of truth – a lot of the technology we’re using, because we’re operating at scale, supports us when we need to have information held reasonably accessible so that everybody can rely on them.

Implementation of this new capability is an ongoing journey to embed benefits and continue to develop and improve our processes and contract management. For example, Procurement implemented a contract lifecycle management tool. During that implementation phase, we found that the learning process was as much about adjusting to the realities of the software, as it was about doing what we needed to do. We have general terms and conditions and smarter contracting to tailor the generic terms, where appropriate. Internally, this shrinks contract life cycles, to deliver a consistent, end-to-end, contract automation process.

GC: What are some of the challenges of rolling out new technology?

NB: There is an enormous appetite for doing things efficiently. It’s obviously challenging if we’re in 190 countries and generate 190 country contract processes along the way. We have about 80 preferred partners worldwide who are working alongside us, who design things with us. That creative engagement is absolutely vital, because we design processes with our partners and us in mind. Together, we make space for collaboration.

Some of the billing that we get with our preferred external law firms has been adjusted so that we both can work within those formatted structures, and we use platforms that are well established in the market. Our focus is to help ourselves and our partners manage how we work together, so that we know when they are getting certain information, and we know how to keep everything running smoothly. We’re working, adjusting, enhancing, improving and making it more efficient.

There is an enormous appetite for doing things in a way that will run efficiently.

For some, anything new is a challenge to understand, learn and embrace. Others ask what will make life easier and want it immediately. There’ll be others who like to experiment and gradually incorporate new tools into their activities. We may not always have the luxury to deep-think every activity because sometimes we have to deliver advice and work with the business to execute specific outcomes. I think everybody goes through this type of experience at some stage. But I haven’t found anybody who doesn’t use any technology yet. I’ve found many people who are using lots of different technologies in lots of different ways, which I think is thrilling.

From my perspective, I like working with technology that is disruptive. It means I get to experience exciting developments as part of my work, with the added benefit of making my life easier. I think everyone who is in a fast-paced environment works to stay relevant and up to date, or risks disempowering themselves or being less effective. I’m conscious that not everyone thinks of these things in the same way or with the same enthusiasm. Working with technology needs to be made accessible. It’s easy to switch people off by making them feel they are somehow less capable because they cannot work a particular system, application or device. That doesn’t mean they’re bad lawyers, it just means they may need to have the information presented in a way that they understand.

GC: What does new technology mean for you?

NB: I’m tuned into how I can make better use of technology because that’s my work: I want to be able to handle data responsibly all the time, every day, every minute. I will always look for tools that keep me up to date and enable me to deliver privacy advice smoothly. Staying up to date means doing constant professional development. Practice makes perfect, but add in CPD and it reinforces the professional drive to stay up to date to do the best job for your clients. I want and enjoy doing a better job for my clients, so I work hard to understand the environment in which my clients are operating. Clients are doing more with more data, and that brings scale and complexity. I need to understand that.

One of my tasks is to help design control solutions in a privacy context. If there is a quick, easy way of determining whether, say, control 623 is more relevant than control 17, when working with, say, hundreds of controls, that will help me. People are more likely to make errors when operating in teams, running at speed to deliver cybersecurity and privacy controls. If internal advisers are on the move in factories or out in the field looking at tea crops, raw materials and other front-line activities, how do we make sure that they can see privacy advice and have information in bite-sized chunks, at their fingertips? So, just as in our everyday lives we look at platforms like YouTube to see how to work the cooker or to understand instructions for flat-packed furniture, we are making more video blogs and developing alternative ways for the business to access information on legal, privacy and cybersecurity topics. I’m looking at how to make things available via mobile, on devices. A key requirement is to make sure these alternatives work across multiple jurisdictions, making it easier for people to learn from the materials and leverage their own skills.

GC: Is there any technology you would like to have in future?

NB: Looking forward, I would like an AI bot for developing what I nickname a ‘privacy university’. People may think up creative ideas for dealing with privacy needs in their business areas; others may feel anxious that, although they are experts in one or more areas of law, they don’t have a good grasp of privacy laws. My hope is that, through the use of technology, my colleagues can ask a simple question all the way through to a more complex query. A privacy bot that can give a quick answer, in a tailored business context, could help a colleague along an entire spectrum of knowledge, simply by being a starting point for additional resources. Colleagues can work with confidence, knowing where to look and who to ask. My task in privacy is to help change their inner thought of ‘I don’t know what the question means’ to a feeling that they know where to get guidance, get help in understanding the question or, better still, find an answer that can be tailored and made relevant for the issue on which they are working.