Since featuring Cognisess in my recently published book, I was keen to talk to their Chief Scientific Officer, Boris again. Cognisess is a great example of how technology can enable organisations to scale up their efforts to build more inclusive workplaces. I started by asking Boris how he got into his current role.
“Originally I was a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Westminster. I’ve always been very much interested in technology and organisational development. Cognisess was already working with the university on different projects. They said if at any point I wanted to do slightly more geeky things, then I should give them a call and, one day, I did. That meant I could focus more on what technology can do for people and how we can use technology to provide a more level playing field for everyone.”
I asked Boris to explain what Cognisess technology does.
“Technically speaking, Cognisess is a predictive people analytics solution, but that doesn’t say very much to a lot of people. Basically, it is an online platform where people take different assessments that generate data about their skills and talents. Although we call them assessments, it’s mainly games including video, audio and other things. Imagine little mobile games but on steroids, because they’re based on science and properly done. We gather all that information to get a better idea about what makes people great at what they do. We can also highlight in an organisation where there might be a bias. With the data, we can confidently say that people would be fantastic in a role they have never been considered for and ask why not take that next step? We want to make sure everyone has got a chance to shine. In particular, we help larger organisations find the best candidates if they are the lucky ones who actually have too many applications to sift manually.”
I had actually worked with the Cognisess team previously, using the platform to build diverse teams because they outperform homogeneous teams. So I asked Boris how he thought technology can help businesses be more inclusive and then scale up what they’re doing around inclusivity.
“When we originally looked at cognitive diversity and general diversity in teams, I think we were ahead of the curve as it’s an idea that has now got a lot of traction. The technology generates data that shows where people have more potential. It provides much richer information than meets the eye when you are limited to only seeing what is on the CV.
Organisations have lots of information about their employees, but it’s dormant and they don’t do anything with it. To be honest, I think for most analysts, it’s just too vast, there’s too much there.
That’s where artificial intelligence comes in. It doesn’t tire and it doesn’t mind crunching all the data. It will flag challenges like, ‘This is a choice you made in your team building. This is a promotion choice you are making. Do you think these are right’?
The technology can hold up the mirror to ask, ‘Was that just randomness or do you have a very good reason that is bias-free and brings the best out in people?’. That’s a powerful tool to have.
Given the range of tools available throughout the employee lifecycle, I asked Boris his opinion about how organisations can pick the right ones to address their diversity challenges.
“How to pick the right technology is one of my favourite questions because that’s essentially what I studied for my PhD. The old school models for workplace technology say, ‘Well, if it has perceived usefulness and is relatively easy to use, people will use it and that’s just a fact.’
Unfortunately, that doesn’t really work. I’m not sure whether it ever worked, but it doesn’t work now, because most of our devices are bring-your-own. Your phone is often the same for work and social, and your laptop might be too. It’s actually all about the apps you use, and at which time you use them.
With less distinction between work technology and very little work technology actually mandated, there is a choice, and people will exercise that choice a lot. And that’s where we see the actual uptake. Unfortunately, when you ask people, ‘Are you going to use this technology?’ the correlation between what they say and what they actually do and it’s not brilliant.
So the best thing to do is not go down the logical route, but take the emotional route of choosing technology. People engage very quickly with their emotions which can be a real driving force, particularly when we look at diversity. Sometimes people get really frustrated about it, they feel angry about what’s happening. Emotion motivates people to do something, to make a change. And if you can have technology that is there in the moment when people feel something, it can’t be a long process. It can’t be convoluted. I think it’s essential that the technology is there to capture that energy to make change happen quickly.
If we trust technology, then we will use it. And if we do technology right, then there’s no difference between how we trust the technology and how we would trust a human being because the technology becomes invisible. It’s just a gateway to another person. It’s no longer only a device. I wouldn’t ask you whether or not you trusted your microwave because I’ve tried it in my research and people look at you funny, so I’ve given up on that, but you can see where I’m going with it.”
I can vouch for the fact that the Cognisess software is fun to use. I’ve learned a lot about myself by playing various games. As a team leader, I could get a dashboard on the team members and the collective cognitive diversity. So, if the data showed a team was introverted, I could learn the benefit of having some extroverted members or vice versa. Plus the software provides a great visual representation of all this.
I asked Boris how he thinks greater inclusivity provided by the data helps grow Cognisess and how he sees this also helping clients grow their businesses.
“We’ve been looking at our hiring decisions for new team members. I was thinking about the qualities that we actually have in the team. I feel very lucky and privileged to work with the people I work with because if I look around, there is not a person in the team who’s not special in their own way and a little bit, in the best possible way, an outlier. We bring very different things to the table. I don’t think we could deliver what we deliver in software development without all sorts of diversity, including cognitive diversity.
What’s also key is you can only build and support diversity if you’re as inclusive as possible. So we need to provide a solution that works for a broad spectrum of people. Unless we bring people on board who can show us where we fall short and where we have not quite hit the mark, because none of us actually thought that way, or saw a problem for the user, we won’t be providing software that is useful for most people.
For some of our largest clients, it’s absolutely heartening to see how seriously they take these things and how open they are in terms of the data and the analytics that we do. Where they actually step forward and say, ‘Challenge us. Show us the data. If there is bias in what we do, we need to know because we want to change it. It needs to be fair. It needs to be inclusive.’
It’s a familiar saying that any organisation’s greatest asset is its people, but organisations are waking up to it now. It’s no longer that 1980s quota game. I think organisations recognise they want people to be happy, and to help them be even better at what they do because there is so much untapped potential.
The predictive algorithms that you can run means failing is cheap because you can simulate how people are likely to work as a team before they even start to work together. For most companies, this is a massive leap as a lot of our clients have a reputation to lose with their clients. With the technology, they have that room for experimentation first.
To learn more about the products and services available from Cognisess visit cognisess.com as the starting point. There is another platform for individuals if you want to explore it for yourself. It’s called Yondur. It packs most of the punch of the professional services Cognisess Pro platform. We make that available for free so people can find out what they are good at.”