JOHN DALTON: Customer experience has become a strategic imperative in the last few decades. As a result, executives today are awash in customer data—text analytics, surveys, big data, and economic modeling. How does anthropology complement customer experience efforts that rely so heavily on quantitative insights?
GILLIAN TETT: Let me start by stressing that quantitative insights are very helpful and useful; they can act like a compass in terms of helping us to navigate the world and make sense of it. But one thing that data users often forget is that all data is created, sourced, interpreted and applied in a social context. The models and data sets we use are defined by our assumptions in terms of what we do or do not include. Sometimes these assumptions are explicit and stated. Sometimes not. But either way it is always worth asking "what is the context of this model" – and, most importantly, what have we excluded? This matters since the context can change; just relying on quantitative data can be like walking through a dark wood with a compass and only looking down at the dial - even if the dial is accurate if you never lift your eyes and look around, you will walk into a tree. So, anthropology is the discipline which can enable you to look up and around – to see the story, behind the story and how it is changing, and what questions you are not asking, but should!
JD: In your book you write that “the pandemic forced workers into cyberspace and made them more digitally adept; but it also exposed a social silence, namely the role of human interactions and rituals. We forget this at our peril, with or without a pandemic.” How can anthropology help firms like Fidelity navigate a future of work that seems destined to include a lot of remote work?
GILLIAN TETT: Anthropologists use several concepts in their research which are very helpful right now when we look at hybrid work. The first is the idea of the "habitus" (to cite an idea pioneered by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu); this argues that the way we organize our physical surroundings both reflects and reinforces our shared world view, in ways we often don't fully recognize. When we are in the office this is very important: the fact that "back office" functions are separate from "front office" traders in a bank, say, is one unstated physical pattern that both reflects and reinforces status and function differences inside finance, and makes these seem natural and inevitable. However, when we move online or work from home, we lose some of this habitus and need to renegotiate it - which is both a challenge and opportunity.
However, the second idea which is very relevant here is "sense-making", or the idea that humans rarely do their jobs through a pre-planned, proactive "rational" set of decisions or ideas, but by collectively reading the mood of a group, absorbing information, and reactively responding. Unlike modern sailors who use GPS to impose a pre-determined path on the seas, humans often act more like traditional Polynesian sailors who can navigate vast distances by reading the wind, waves, and currents, and responding. Much of this sense making occurs through nonverbal communication and/or unplanned interactions in an office: the chance remark overheard at a coffee stand; the physical reaction from a colleague to an idea; the murmur in a meeting or the hush in an office when work is quiet. This is very hard to replicate online. So, when we move into remote work, we need to recognize this and plot a response, particularly since the way we train new recruits or junior staff often relies on sense-making (or quasi apprenticeships) which are hard to replicate online.
JD: Why did you write this book now?
GILLIAN TETT: In all honesty, the timing was partly a matter of luck: I had just changed my role at the FT and grabbed the chance to take a brief sabbatical. But the timing turned out to be great since the pandemic has made anthropology doubly relevant. After all, it has become clear that you cannot beat COVID-19 just with medical and computer science, no matter how brilliant these might be; you need social science too to understand culture in relation to issues like vaccine hesitancy, compliance with lockdowns, and perceived attitudes to risk. It has also become clear that COVID-19 has made many of us myopic, because of the experience of being physically locked down – and thus in need of the wider vision that anthropology can bring. Last but not least, the pandemic has delivered a huge jolt of culture shock which could (and should) force us all to look at the world afresh, challenging our cherished assumptions – and that is precisely what anthropology, as a discipline, is designed to do.
John Dalton is VP Research in FCAT, where he investigates socioeconomic trends and engages in in-depth studies focused on emerging interfaces (augmented reality, virtual reality, speech, gesture, and biometrics).