The study of what makes us human – our behavior, biology, culture, and the traces we leave behind – ought to be more prominent in technology development. Sometimes it is, yet on other occasions the tech sector appears remote from disciplines such as anthropology, and springs more from humans’ on/off romance with binary processes. The problem is humanity can be more complex and messier than simple yes/no processes.
In these instances, technology can become a reductive force rather than a cohering and collaborative one; it can lure us into silos or echo chambers as a by-product of dumb design. “We see that you once Liked ‘X’. Here are 100 more examples of ‘X’, courtesy of our advertisers who want to sell you ‘X’ yet again”. It’s a problem familiar to billions of users of Facebook and Instagram, who might simply have Liked ‘X’ in passing without any deep interest in it.
If we’re not careful, these algorithms and platforms can leave us looking at the vast landscape of human experience through a pinhole, whereas technology ought to present us with the widescreen picture, whether we want to zoom in or out from the detail. In an ideal world, no sensible person would put an advertising sales business, such as Google or Facebook, at the core of global communications. But we are where we are.
Yet technology can also help fix endemic problems by presenting us with new views of the data we gather, and new insights into human behaviour and organisations. Well-designed technology can help us become archaeologists in the layers of data beneath our enterprises, helping us to build a more accurate picture of the cultures we have created, and how well an organization is really functioning over time.
This brings technology much closer to disciplines such as anthropology – the study of human behavior, rather than that of machines. At least, that’s the view of Angelique Mohring, the Canadian founder and CEO of software company GainX. Its products are designed to help strategic executives manage transformation programs and make better decisions. Among other things, its aim is to provide C-suite leaders with insights on the likely outcomes of their actions.
Mohring is also the founder of Leave No Human Behind, an organization that seeks to advance the digital economy without leaving humans stranded or disenfranchised by it, and the co-founder of the Global Resilience Organization (GRO), which launches this year. Mohring is clearly a woman on a mission about organizational change. During the pandemic she returned to Canada, but says she is shortly heading back to the UK where she sees real opportunities.
Her path to being a software CEO at GainX was diverse, circuitous, and unusual, which makes her a harbinger of transformation herself: of new voices, perspectives, and world views entering the tech sector, from a place other than just coding. She explains:
Twenty-five years ago, I would never have seen myself running an AI company. My career started in business, and then I went to school to become a lawyer. I wanted to work in First Nations [with indigenous peoples] in Canada, to help drive further economic growth.
Then I ended up switching gears, and I was incredibly fortunate to be working with some amazing professors who invited me to work with them in Peru on some archaeological digs. At that time, when you became an archaeologist – it's still true for many universities today – you had to become an anthropologist as well. So, I became a bio-archaeologist. It was fun. I would help reconstruct old economic trade routes through the health of mortuary remains. Essentially, I dug up a lot of dead people and was able to assess the health of that [ancient] community, show how they moved across massive distances, and what that meant. And I was also able to start bringing that back into what happens in our current economic models.
I discovered that the value of anthropology – when I went into consulting, which brought me into technology – was that it taught me to look at cultures that were different from mine, and to step back, as objectively as humanly possible, and examine them. It's impossible to be 100% objective, but it allowed me to facilitate some truly phenomenal change without being disruptive to the cultures that I was working with. Nowadays, that includes corporate cultures.
Over the years her rich CV led her into FinTech, mentoring, and consultancy, particularly when large corporate mergers and acquisitions had run aground. She explains:
They would parachute me in to help stop-gap the crisis that often occurs when you bring two different companies together. When sales or customers drop off, or processes completely break, it always comes back to people.
Every single role I've had, and all of my experience, has been looking at what I would call complex ecosystems or complex networks. [Until GainX] I’ve never had a single role where I'm the head of marketing or the head of finance, right? It's always been cross-operational, whether it's working for the government or global enterprises.
It was all of that experience that brought me to this; building an enterprise platform where I can help more than one company at a time, with the problems that I've been solving for many years.
Artificial Intelligence is at the core of GainX, and is also central to discussions in academia, business, and policy circles about technology’s role in our society. Diversity and ethics are one strand of that critical debate. Not just in terms of ethnic and gender diversity – the lack of which can create biased systems, especially from flawed data – but also diversity of background and experience in the developer and management teams. Mohring says:
It is a concern of mine that AI is built upon, and then built upon again, without checkpoints in place. In anthropology we’ve moved on, over the centuries, from where bias was built into early anthropological studies. A hundred years later we're still unfolding some of those biases. Introduce women, for example into anthropology, and suddenly assumptions that were made and built upon for years [by men] have been undone and turned on their head. With AI, my concern is what's the damage that's going to be done today, because it's moving at such a pace that policy is having a very difficult time keeping up with it.
As to where GainX fits into all this, Mohring says:
We're in the age of the network, everything is connected. So, the way that information flows right now between people and between the work that they do – whether you call it work streams or projects – and between the systems and all those tools that they're using, is so incredibly complex. It is no longer humanly possible, genuinely not humanly possible, to process all of that [without help from technology].
GainX exists to help CEOs take low-risk, smart, strategic decisions, she claims, by helping them predict the outcome of their strategy – be it an M&A, a market expansion, a restructuring, or new product lines. GainX seeks to predict both the outcome and the hidden costs of executive decisions. Mohring says it can also identify duplicate effort within an organization and the costs associated with that.
Part of the problem facing executives today is that corporate information is often locked in silos, she explains. But is that really a bad thing? Aren’t silos repositories of depth, expertise, and experience – deep knowledge, rather than the surface noise we find ourselves surrounded by?
We live in an age where in-depth information and original research is still available – more so now than ever – but most people just don’t read it. Instead, they share tweets about tweets, and headlines about news stories sourced from executive summaries. The source and original research go unread. Surely, we should value our silos more – if they contain real depth and expertise? Mohring argues:
If I think about it from a network perspective, what looks siloed is likely siloed in a way that is creating costs unnecessarily, costs that are driving slower economic growth. So, whether you're running a city, a government, or a corporation, you've got different silos, and that allows Marketing to inspire other Marketing people, and Finance people to share the latest tips with other Finance people. That's a positive thing. But the deep expertise you talk about is not getting shared outside those silos in an effective way.
Silos, to me, are the barriers that are pulling economic benefits away from us. But below that, information is still flowing across those silos. So, when you're not connecting them and the information is hitting those barriers, you're losing huge opportunities.
The difference that we bring, besides having this technology, is we always keep the human at the center of what we do. That's the anthropology piece. We never remove the human and what's happening in the organisation from a behavioural perspective, and its influence on the economic gains that you get – or that you lose.
We can identify for example, echo chambers inside organisations that are in the ‘clay layer’, which is a play on my archaeology days, in the permafrost. We can identify the part of an organisation that is resistant to change. We can help identify why, and importantly we can quantify it.
There's not a whole lot of anthropologists sitting at the executive level in the big companies that are driving our economies. So, how can we take these learnings from our experience with our customers, with our academic partners, and the research that we do, and make that accessible at scale?
That's the challenge that she'll be continuing to address when she returns to the UK, where Brexit is creating real opportunities, she says. That's the good news. The bad news? Those opportunities are arising as there is so much additional complexity now that leaders need help to navigate.