Ep. 4: More than Meets the Eye


6 min read

Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I am Toby Mildon. I am joined by a fantastic guest today, his name is Boris. He is the Chief Scientific Officer for Cognisess, which is a piece of software that I featured in my book, where I have been looking at how technology can enable organisations to scale up, all that they are doing around building more inclusive workplaces. So Boris, welcome to today's show.


Thank you very much for having me.


So Boris, can you let us know how you got into your current role as Chief Scientific Officer for Cognisess? 


Well, I actually started out as a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Westminster. I was teaching there, I've always been very much interested in technology and the organisational side of things. And we started having conversations with different technology providers and different organisations. Cognisess were actually one of the organisations working with us in terms of different projects at the time. And we laughingly had a conversation to say, well, if at any point I wanted to do slightly more geeky things, then I should give them a call. So one day, I think it was a Thursday, I actually did. [chuckle] So yeah, that basically allowed me to take that step and actually focus a little bit more on what can technology do for people and how can we actually use technology to provide a more level fairer playing field for everyone.


Brilliant, and it gives you the opportunity to geek out.


Absolutely.


So what is Cognisess? 


Cognisess is, I think technically, it would be a predictive people analytics solution, which doesn't say very much to a lot of people. Basically, it is an online-based platform that allows people to go through different assessments and upload different data about themselves including video, audio and other things. We talk about assessments, but mostly, it's games. So if you think about little mobile games but on steroids, if you like, because they're actually based on science and they're properly done. We gather all that information and try to get a better idea as to what makes people great at what they do. And also to highlight where in organisations there might actually be a bias to say, these people would be fantastic in a role they have never been considered for, so why not take that next step? So overall, basically, we want to make sure everyone has got a chance to shine. And we help larger organisations in particular find the best candidates, if they are the lucky ones who actually have too many applications to sift just manually.


That's really, really cool. I've had a go at your system. We first met when I was working at the BBC and there's a couple of case studies that I was really interested in working with you guys on. So looking at how, for example, we form teams and getting diversity within a team, and then working on the hypothesis that more diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. And that's where your system can really help. How do you think technology can help businesses be more inclusive? 'Cause I'm really interested in this, because before I got into diversity inclusion, I spent the first half of my career working in technology. And so the work that I do now is almost like this intersection between diversity and inclusion and technology with user experience and design. So how do you think technology can help companies scale up what they're doing around inclusivity? 


I think particularly the work, looking at the teams and the cognitive diversity or general diversity in teams, when we originally started talking about it, I think we were very much ahead of the curve or at least everyone seems to have caught on to that now, because this is an idea that gets a lot of traction. In a way, I think the technology that is really helpful there is on the one hand, of course, how we generate that big data, how we actually generate the data to show that people have so much more potential than might meet the eye, or that people might just initially say there's much more to a person than what you would read on the CV. And particularly, bringing that together and understanding more about a person in a way that is actually from the data perspective, meaningful. I think technology can really help us there. So on the one hand, a lot of organisations already have what we call big data. They've got lots of information about their employees, but it's dormant, we don't do anything with it, because to be honest, for most analysts, I don't wanna do it in a disservice here, but I think for most analysts, it's just too vast, it's too much there.


But that's in a way, where artificial intelligence comes in, because it doesn't tire and it really doesn't mind crunching all the data and actually flagging you up to say, "This is a choice you made in your team building, this is a choice you made in terms of a promotion. Do you think that was right?" And actually holding up the mirror to say, "Was that just randomness or do you actually have a very good reason that is bias-free and allows people to actually bring the best out of them?" I think that's a very powerful thing to have.


It's really powerful. Now, the thing is there are so many tools that businesses can use to help them increase diversity and inclusion, all the way through the employment lifecycle, from talent attraction, recruitment, promoting people within the organisation. In your opinion, how should an organisation pick the right tools to address its diversity challenges? 


How to pick the right technology is one of my favorite questions because that's basically what I did my PhD on. So it is very interesting because normally, there are the old school models, if you like, for workplace technology, that say, "Well, if it has a 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 anymore now, because most of our devices, it's always bring-your-own. So your phone is probably the same for work and social, so it might be your laptop. So it's all about the apps you use, and at which time you use them.


And so there is not such a distinction anymore, [06:47] ____ work technology. And in most cases, very little work technology is actually mandated. So you have a choice, and people will exercise that choice a lot. And that's where we see the actual uptake of take of it. Unfortunately, when you ask people, "Are you gonna use this technology?" the correlation between what they say and what they actually do, I've investigated that and it's not brilliant. So the best thing we can actually do is to, I think, go down not the logical, but actually the emotional route of technology choice, in a way. Because people engage very quickly with their emotions, and they can be a real driving force. And I think particularly when we look at diversity. And you might feel that people get really frustrated about it, they feel angry about what's happening, they... I think something we spoke about before are the micro-aggressions and similar aspects of work life.


And I would say, in this instance, aggression is not... If there is anything like a negative emotion, it's not one of them, because it is an emotion for change. It motivates people to do something. And if you can have technology that is there in the moment where people feel something, it can't be a long process. It can't be convoluted. It can't require really, for people to logically think about it because that's not what drives change, or very rarely does. It sets out the direction, but it's not the driving force behind it. If people have something where they can very quickly move things ahead, then I think that is very much essential. And of course, it ticks the box for most technology, at least from what I've found in my research. 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 just becomes, if you like, it becomes invisible. It's just a gateway to another person. It's no longer just 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.


That's really cool. What I really like about your software is it's really fun to use. I've played some of the games. As an individual, I learned a lot about myself. And then as a team leader, I can also get this... I've done up this dashboard of every one on my team and the cognitive diversity that my team has, and then I can dial up or dial down on certain aspects. I can say I'm actually... I'm running a team that's quite introverted, but maybe we would benefit from a couple of extroverted people on the team, vice versa. And actually, your software gives me that visual representation, which is really helpful. So this is a kind of a cheeky question, but what is your favorite app? And you can't say Cognisess.


[laughter]


My favorite app. I think the app that I use most and actually would hit the requirements in terms of it actually... I use it most but is actually quite invisible for me when it works well, is [10:01] ____ on my phone, Android phone. Given my work cycles and family life, I need to be quite flexible when I work, but I still wanna be able to sleep. So I've got an app, I believe it's called Twilight, and that allows me to set my screen preferences and automatically manages it. So even if, for some reason, I can't sleep in the middle of the night and think, "I might as well get half an hour's work in before my son wakes up in the morning," then I can still do that without feeling that I get completely out of my comfort zone. I think in terms of the best app that actually works for me is probably that. I have to say to keep the spirits high is probably gonna be 9GAG just to get at a little bit of light relief [chuckle] and a bit of comedy value. But it's not an app that I would put down remotely as work-related.


That's great, that's great. I've got loads of apps on my phone that I'm afraid I'm gonna be really boring and say that my favorite app is probably something like Todoist. That just helps me get through [chuckle] my long list of things that I need to do. And I like to have a daily game of Ludo with people on the other side of the world.


Excellent [11:18] ____. Given that it's a running gag, running joke in the team that my, should I say, life admin, it leaves something to be desired. Maybe Todoist should become my new favorite app. It might actually make a difference.


I can give you a crash course on that. I know all the shortcuts. How do you think greater inclusivity will help your business grow Cognisess. How do you think it will help you? 


I was contemplating about that after we last spoke, actually, when we were looking at our new hiring decisions in terms of bringing new people onto the team. And I was thinking about the qualities that we actually have in the team. And I think I'm very... I feel very lucky, very 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 are all quite different. We bring very different things to the table. And I don't think we could deliver what we deliver without that diversity. So diversity of all sorts, cognitive, in terms of background and otherwise. So I think it is absolutely essential, some of the things that, for us in terms of our software development, is of course, also key is you can only get diversity and help diversity if you're as inclusive as possible. So we need to provide a solution that works for a broad spectrum of people. And unless we bring people on board who can show us where we fall short and where we have not quite hit the mark, maybe because none of us actually thought that way, or thought, "Oh, this might be a problem for someone." If we don't have that, then we won't get to the point where we want to get to, which is, yeah, providing a software that is useful for most people.


That's really cool. And then you're in a really good position because you work with a number of organisations and clients. And how do you see greater inclusivity helping those clients grow their businesses? 


So for some of our largest clients, actually, 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. Challenge us on whatever we do. Show us the data. Show us bias. If there is bias in what we do, we need to know. If it's not, if it doesn't look right, we need to know, because we want to change it. It needs to be fair. It needs to be inclusive, and we want to really leverage that." And I think if... And I know, it's the all-saying of, "Any organisation's greatest asset is its people," but I think now is where our organisation are actually waking up to it. It's no longer a sort of '80s quota game, which was just, yeah, [chuckle] something else. I think now it's actually people saying, "We see that in the work we are being commissioned to do," that organisations say, "We have got fantastic people here. Help them be happy, and help them be even better at what they do, because there is so much untapped potential here. We see that in terms of what they actually show interest in. Let's bring them together in a way that is actually better for us."


And a good way in terms of having the simulations that you can run, the predictive algorithms that you can run is, of course, now failing is cheap because you can simulate how people are likely to work together before they even start working together. So you don't have to find a hopefully cheap and not-so-prestigious project that people can fail on. You can actually see it in advance, which for most companies, I think, is really a massive leap in terms of why they should even consider it, because unfortunately and quite understandably, a lot of our clients have a reputation to lose. They don't have that room for failure and experimentation otherwise.


Why, I've really enjoyed our conversation today. So if somebody wants to get in touch with you and learn more about what Cognisess can do for their organisation, how do they get in touch with you, and how do they learn about your products and services? 


I would say just to get a general idea, cognisess.com is a good starting point. I would say anyone is, of course, absolutely free to email me, boris@cognisess.com. But as I said, my admin abilities are not on par with the rest of the team necessarily. So probably, if you email our support group first, they're probably quicker at hunting me down. Otherwise, there is another platform if you want to explore it for yourself. It's called Yondur, and it packs most of the punch of our professional services, Cognisess Pro platform, but for the individual user. So just to find out what people are good at, we make that available for free.


Excellent. I'll have a go at that myself, actually. Well, Boris, thank you ever so much for joining me on today's episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I've enjoyed... As always, I've enjoyed my chat with you. And thank you for tuning in to the Inclusive Growth Show today, and I hope you can join me on the next episode. Until then, goodbye.


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Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.