Mr. Simon Bonk, Chief Research Officer and Director New Business Development is leading Telio’s approach to tackling the issues in prisons and rehab facilities with a distinctive strategy and steadfast leadership ability.
Until February of 2022, when Simon joined Telio, he had spent his entire career in the Canadian Public Service, just short of 30 years. He worked in three large operational departments: Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Correctional Service Canada (CSC). On his departure Simon was the Chief Information Officer for CSC. He had spent his final 6 years in this role prior to making the move to the private sector with Telio.
Simon chairs the IT Network of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA). International Corrections and Prisons Association is a non-governmental organization whose mission is to promote and share ethical and effective correctional practices to enhance public safety and healthier communities world-wide.
Simon is a Board Member of the Corrections Technology Association (CTA). CTA is a public, non-profit network of professionals actively involved in leveraging technology in the field of Corrections. CTA provides a forum to promote exchange of information, experience and knowledge among correctional agencies and partners.
Additionally, he is a member of the IT Working Group of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA). More than 40 years ago, APPA made a commitment: to provide national representation for the community corrections industry.
Telio: Connecting Lives Inside and Out
Telio is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and was founded in Hamburg Germany.
Connection and communication are one of the most important basic human needs. Each of us finds great comfort in communicating with others, sharing their experiences or concerns. This is especially true for inmates whose most important connections are physically far away and whose most important connection to family and the outside world has been the telephone.
Mr. Simon asserts, “Since our very beginning, it has been our constant goal to redefine and to modernize the penal system one innovative breakthrough at a time. Helping build the smart digital prisons of the future that connect inmates to more opportunities and enable officers to focus on high value work. Our solutions enable a more positive work environment, this is at the center of all we do.”
Telio works exclusively with Correctional jurisdictions in Europe, Africa, UAE and Australia. Mr. Simon is in fact their first North American employee as they consider market entry on this continent. “I chose to join Telio because I felt I could make a greater contribution to bettering corrections, and by extension societies, than as the CIO of CSC. Simply put, I thought working with others around the world would extend my ability to make a difference,” says Simon.
Telio develops, installs and operates communications and media systems that include but are not limited to video interaction platforms, digital phone services for correctional facilities, digital services for inmates and staff, and mobile phone detection and neutralization.
Telio’s approach is its differentiator. It offers a compassionate approach to the provision of services to inmates and their families. Telio further focuses on giving back through its foundation, supporting the children of those incarcerated.
“I would be remiss if I did not mention the foundation that our CEO has founded. Connecting Hearts focuses on supporting the children of incarcerated individuals. Telio is more than just a private sector entity; it realizes it has a social and moral imperative to give back. This really hit home when I was speaking with Oliver Drews, our CEO, when I was looking to move on from the public sector. When I worked in the public sector in Canada, I defined our bottom line as the difference we could make in the lives of Canadians. I wanted to continue my career with a private sector entity that valued and acted on this. Telio does and is a key reason why I am here today,”says Mr. Simon.
“We provide our services at reasonable and affordable rates as we recognize that often we are provisioning services to those who may not have the means to interact with their loved ones. Certainly, we are a profit-based corporation, but we operate in a humane manner,” says Simon.
Recently, Telio was speaking with Dean Williams, the former head of corrections for Colorado and Alaska. He stated that, “Telio’s humanizing approach to inmate communication and the associated technologies can shift the paradigm in this country.” This sums up what they at Telio are trying to do. They want to be the alternative to the status quo in North America and drive a change of how business can be accomplished in the sector.
Telio’s priority has been and always will be to facilitate correctional outputs of their partners, they engage in an interest-based approach. If the jurisdictions they partner with are successful, leading to stronger communities, then Telio will be successful. What they do impacts society at a macro-level. Their solutions contribute to, at the highest level of the value chain, stronger economies, racial equality, indigenous reconciliation and other societal outcomes.
Mr. Simon stated that, “I am currently working with academia to empirically demonstrate this. One of the attractions in joining Telio was their focus on more than just service provision. . They encouraged me to pursue and build on the thought leadership around modernizing corrections that I began at CSC. Telio has been engaged in transforming the landscape of how telecommunications has impacted corrections. Now, under my leadership, we are going beyond telecommunications and positioning ourselves as leaders in modernizing corrections. I have the good fortune to work/partner with academics and researchers around the globe to help facilitate this. Telio is more than telecommunications.”
With regards to their product offering, they are service oriented. Telio recognizes that jurisdictions have a duty of care, and they must be attentive to the partners’ needs. Corrections is a 7-24 operation and little things can have a significant impact on the environment of a prison. If their services go down, that must be rectified as soon as possible. Not being able to interact with family, as an example, can negatively impact the mental health of an incarcerated person and the ramifications of this can put the safety of staff and other incarnated people at risk. They pride themselves on ensuring a safe and healthy working environment for those they work with by a focus on service.
Future Plans for Telio
As Chief Research Officer I am always on the lookout for new opportunities. There are few exciting things that we are working on.
When I was CIO at CSC, we embarked on a significant initiative to modernize our offender management system; it essentially underpins the operations of a correctional facility. This was a large project that required an estimated 9 figure investment. Our analysis suggested that there was not a silver bullet solution in the space. I share this because we are partnering to develop a modern OMS solution that sits on a contemporary platform and incorporates Artificial Intelligent throughout, it will modernize how prisons can be run. It will be a game changer.
We are planning to re-platform our digital service offering and add additional functionality that will elevate how corrections can be done. We want our technology to inspire jurisdictions to think differently about how they operate. Correction is heavily reliant on paper and our solutions will enable jurisdictions to leapfrog automation and move to hyper automation. A really great example is the grievance process in prisons. Today it is largely paper based and yes, we are incorporating automation into this by providing digital forms via tablets or kiosks. We are going a step further and working to incorporate AI and RPA into the solution. There are a lot of grievances in a prison, and it is time consuming work. Our solution will create efficiency and effectiveness gains that improve response times and free up officers to focus on higher value work. This is just one-use case where our new platform will drive greater value.
One area that I am particularly proud of, and it is not a service per se, is the thinking and work I have begun in partnership with my colleague Dr. Victoria Knight in the space of change and implementation management. Telio knows the stats around how the benefit proposition of modernization efforts are often not fully realized, and that is likely being kind. Telio has encouraged me to look at how we can aid our partners in maximizing their return on investment. We have engaged leaders across the corrections sector to gauge their views on the same. We heard this is a challenge and work here would be welcome. Hence my partnership with Dr, Knight. Granted we are in the infancy of our research but the goal is to develop corrections focused approaches to enable and realize change initiatives more effectively . Telio is in the business of thought leadership that will benefit the corrections sector. This may not benefit us directly but if we can enable effective change this will benefit the entire sector, by extension Telio. This in itself will further entrench us as the leader in modernizing the corrections sector.
Strategic Vision and Goals
Strategic vision and goals are essential for organizations because they provide direction and purpose. A strategic vision is a long-term, overarching statement of what an organization hopes to achieve in the future. It serves as a guide for decision-making and helps ensure that everyone in the organization is working towards the same objectives.
Goals, on the other hand, are specific and measurable outcomes that an organization aims to achieve within a defined time frame. They are usually derived from the organization’s strategic vision and serve as short-term targets that contribute to the realization of the vision.
Telio has its own Strategic vision and goals for the betterment shared by Mr. Simon Bonk with us.
Mr. Simon remarks, “This might sound unusual for a private sector organization but simply put, our vision is to enable jurisdictions to realize their correctional goals effectively and efficiently. If we are successful in this regard, then Teilo’s bottom line will be more than healthy. The great thing about what we do is that you can see the difference we make when we do our jobs well. As referenced earlier, we impact our communities in positive ways via reduced recidivism and effective rehabilitation. What we do internally is talk to people about what they do and how that contributes to an improved society. If we can’t make that direct link, then we really need to consider what that person is doing and the role they play. Sometimes it is not evident and when I speak to colleagues, I often explain the difference they are making. When you think about recruitment, retention and people wanting to make a difference we have an abundance of this at Telio. We need to continue to promote this at Telio and that happens through town halls which we have frequently, internal messaging like Yammer, virtual watercooler chats and frankly opportunities such as this article.”
Telio aims to continue to be a leader in modernising the corrections sector. We will accomplish with the following goals:
- Further promote and entrench a positive work environment.
- Continually modernize and evolve our services to elevate corrections and partner to realize correctional goals.
- Continue to expand our global reach through market expansion and mergers and acquisitions.
- Elevate our posture in thought leadership to drive change in the sector.
- Promote a humane approach to corrections.
Foreshadowing on the Upcoming Challenges for Jurisdictional Sector
Mr. Simon Bonk believes that it all starts with identifying the business problem or opportunity and then exploiting that. Not sure our sector does the best job at this. We treat symptoms rather than the root cause. I believe this comes down to three areas:
- Correctional departments are operational by nature, and this is where they are most comfortable. Similarly, they are often underfunded, more on that in a moment, and overcome with daily crisis. Correctional leaders are adept at managing crises, and this runs contrary to strategic change approaches. There is an inability to create space within organizations to properly engage in strategic planning. Often there is a lack of a documented vision and associated road map to realize the vision.
- There is a shortage of funding for correction jurisdictions and frankly a strengthened business case for investment is required. Correctional leaders are competing for investment with other departments that focus on security, the environment, health care, education and I can go on. The reality is that the political masters don’t get a lot of votes due to good corrections. The irony is that each of those governmental and societal priorities, corrections can and does contribute to. Our sector needs to come together to empirically demonstrate this. As chair of the ICPA Technology Network I am trying to convene a working group focussed on advancing that concept.
- I have mentioned change and implementation earlier, so I won’t repeat myself here. This last one is something I have been exploring and it relates to the notion of diversity of correctional leaders. When we think of diversity we gravitate to racial, gender and other groupings with the desire to incorporate different views and perspectives into the workplace. I believe correctional organizations embrace this. What is missing is the diversity of work experience. Corrections is a very closed sector and culture. People spend their entire career in the sector. There is good and bad with this. As an outsider into corrections, it took a bit for my ideas and perspective to be embraced. Corrections could do with more outside in thinking.
Mr.Simon says that, “I joined Telio because I thought they were different from others in the space. As I described, the risk that Telio has taken to how they want to participate in the market is predicated on understanding and appreciating the feelings for others. Telio and I are aligned on the importance of empathy. It allows us to have a greater connection to those we have a relationship with. This is true when you lead as well. Being able to understand multiple perspectives and recognize the feelings that decisions or approaches will have is critical.”
“Be vulnerable and have the courage to invite alternative perspectives. It will only enhance outcomes for all.”
Telio’s strength is its people and their commitment to making our societies stronger. They enable our humane approach to corrections. Their day to day contributions, their dedication, their commitment and their subject matter expertise sets them apart. Correction is a 7/24 operation and the men and women who work in the prisons have a duty of care. Littles things impact the mood of a prison in a significant way, when they can’t connect to their loved ones this has an impact. At times, lives can be at stake. Telio realizes this and its people take it to heart. They put in the effort to ensure we effectively contribute to a safe, secure and well run correctional facility.
In terms of risk taking, the fact that we recognize that Telio is more than a technology company in the correctional space is a corporate risk. The recognition that we have a responsibility to have a social conscience is risky. You might say, “why is that a risk?”. If you look at the long game perhaps it is not. However, in the short term we may not maximize revenue. We want to offer fair rates for inmates and their families to make phone calls, and want to enable rehabilitation. There are other approaches in the space, our approach is to be humane. We believe our service and philosophy of corrections will propel us as the partner of choice in the space.
Leading with Purpose: Keeping Employees Motivated and Clients Happy
Mr. Simon always looked to hire people that were different from himself. He likes to think he was aware of his strengths and more importantly his weaknesses.
“You surround yourself with people who possess a variety of perspectives and who are not afraid to share them. Diversity of perspective results. That’s half the battle, you then need to listen and really hear what people are sharing. Take it all in and move forward collectively. People want to be heard, they want to drive value and be empowered. When they feel this happening they are motivated and productive. You will also be more successful because now you have the views and guidance of the many as opposed to that of the one. At times it creates a healthy tension, when there are conflicting views or strong personalities. That’s ok, embrace it. It just can’t devolve to something disrespectful,” says Mr. Simon.
I like to think that at Telio we drive customer satisfaction because we hire people with domain expertise and awareness. Telio values industry experts. This extends beyond the highly skilled staff who advance our technology solutions. Telio embraces individuals such as myself who have worked in or with jurisdictions and have an intimate understanding of the corrections sector. We are able to bring this perspective to influence how we and our jurisdictional partners do business. Again, our services are integral to having a safe and healthy prison. Our service provision needs to be above reproach and we embrace that.
We are constantly talking with and listening to our clients. Our organizational model is, we stand up a local presence in every country that we are in. This ensures we are on the ground and appreciating the local nuance. We are agile enough to adapt in real time, our business line demands that.
Advice for Aspiring Business People
When questioned about his professional advice for those wishing to enter the industry, Simon states, “As mentioned earlier I believe leaders need to possess the courage to make space in their organization to overcome the status quo, to create the space to evolve their organizations. They need to embrace a strategic perspective to change. Often this means knowing when to ask for help and embrace perspectives that are not traditional to your sector. Undoubtedly there will be push back, people are comfortable with what they know and overcoming this inertia takes a dedicated focus on change. Asking for help is perhaps the greatest evidence of self-awareness, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers. At times, this could be construed as weakness. In fact, it might be your most powerful strength.”
“The other piece that is critical is knowing the problem or opportunity you are trying to realize. My favorite quote is from Henry Ford and goes something like, “if I gave people what they wanted I would have invented a faster horse.” I interpret this to mean that we must understand the need and not the want. Understand and do the work to not solve symptoms and rather get to the root cause.”
Finally, strive to instill a culture of accountability. Too often we substitute process for accountability which leads to inefficient and ineffective organizations. We hire competent staff and managers, empower them. If things go sideways there will be learning opportunities and corrective actions that can be taken. I believe you will find that the organization will become more agile and create a work environment where the team will feel valued. This will lead to higher productivity, improved recruitment opportunities, stronger retention and generally speaking a healthier organization, regardless of how you want to measure that.