Gillian Tett is best known as a senior journalist for the Financial Times, where she is currently chairman of the editorial board and editor-at-large in the US. Her background lies in social anthropology however, in which she gained a PhD in 1992 from the University of Cambridge for her thesis on marriage rituals in Tajikistan.
Tett found that academia did not engage sufficiently with the real world, so she moved to journalism. There she made good on her analysis of the real world by being amongst the few in the media to predict the financial crisis of 2008 before it took hold. In June 2009 her book Fool’s Gold won Financial Book of the Year at the inaugural Spear’s Book Awards. In 2014, she was named Columnist of the Year in the British Press Awards and was the first recipient of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Marsh Award, which recognises an outstanding individual based outside academia, who has shown how to apply anthropology or anthropological ideas to the better understanding of the world’s problems; Anthro-Vision continues that journey.
It is becoming ever clearer that the 21st century is not like the late 20th century – principally as technology changes our world in multiple spheres. Digital transformation, that buzziest of buzzphrases of the last half-decade has touched every aspect of our lives from the way we think (who needs to remember a fact now, when Google is ever-present?), communication (out with phone calls, in with emails and text and now video), shopping (first books, then groceries now houses, cars and holidays are all available online), learn (from MOOCs to YouTube) and even dating (awkward propositioning has been replaced by ruthless swiping left or right) and so on it goes. However, as we continue to immerse ourselves in the benefits of the virtual world, we remain stubbornly human, with emotions triggered far from our cognitive ‘executive’ brains, affecting our behaviour individually and as groups/societies.
Gillian Tett in this book highlights that we forget these hidden emotive behaviours of our feelings and sentiments at our peril – and that by observing, from an anthropological point-of-view, how we interact with both people and products around us can tell us a huge amount about business and life that we otherwise miss, if we just use our traditional analytical tools: “We have seen economic forecasts misfire, political polls turn out to be wrong, financial models fail, tech innovations turn dangerous and consumer surveys mislead” says Tett, but notes not because the tools themselves are wrong or faulty, but just that they are insufficient. “The problem is such tools are incomplete, they are used without an awareness of culture and context, created with a sense of tunnel vision”. A dose of anthro-vision is needed to balance the analysis and insights. She quotes an ethnographic consultant, Meg Kinney “every business problem is a human problem and every data point represents some human behaviour at its core.”
Tett applies a three-part set of principles of the anthropologist’s mindset to structure the book:
Using her post-graduate experience in Tajikistan as illustration of how we can study the world around us, she goes on to cite examples a broad range of corporation, where informally (at Nestle) or formally (Intel) an anthropological approach was used to understand how products were perceived and leveraged by customers in different cultures and geographies to those who created them. The Intel techies understanding of how their chips and the products they go in would be used was challenged and upended “that may be your worldview, but it is not everybody’s” she quotes the Intel in-house anthropologist as saying. To make the ‘strange’ familiar requires you to get down amongst the weeds, or as Tett notes have a worm’s-eye view, rather than a bird’s-eye view, of the situation.
The second piece – making the familiar strange is perhaps more reelvant to most organisations. Tett notes that when she became head of the Capital Markets team at the FT, she a) knew little abut capital markets but b) could gain very limited access to the bankers either. Journalists came far down the chain of influence for bankers. However, like in Tajikistan, as she became better known, and importantly as she started to gain access to some people, others became more willing to meet with her. Not directly because she was now more influential, but because they wanted to know what was happening elsewhere in their own sector. “The world was oddly opaque to insiders – and even more opaque to outsiders”. The familiar was in fact already strange, but only because it was opaque, if it had been more transparent perhaps the bankers would have seen how really strange it actually was. Tett highlights one senior bankers puzzlement that anyone outside banking should be interested in it at all, it is that insularity that fosters trouble.
Within this, Tett describes the Harvard professor of evolutonary biology, Joseph Henrich’s WEIRD model, that posits that us in the West are the outliers in human behaviour and that our behaviour is ‘strange’ to most other peoples. Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) are elements, particularly the last three, that most cultures find odd. Tett uses examples from pet food to pensions to show us that, as rational as we like to think we are in the West, the roots of this transactional, logical, Enlightenment-generated thinking don’t run very deep, and that many corporations have benefited from understanding the human nature of their customers better through ethnographic research.
Perhaps most impactfully is the slightly less tangible final section, on liestening to the silence. As Claude Debussy observed ‘music is the space between the notes’ – and so for understanding how societies and organisations behave too. Tett stresses it is as much about what is not being done or said that is important, as what is being done or said. The rise of nationalistic politics – be it Trump or Brexit – is in part because the Establishment failed to understand their appeal and the need for such messaging. Cambridge Analytica was a story that Tett admits she missed before it broke, despite the opportunity, as she did not pick-up on the ‘free’ element of data ‘bartering’ that was occurring. These things were all hiding in plain sight – but were silent to the analysts, as the Trumpian messages were ridiculed by the Thinkerati and ‘free’ never gets into the modelling as it does not have a returnable value.
At its heart this book is a call for those who are tasked with data collection to be more curious about the things they cannot measure so concretely. All is not lost though. As the book sets out there has been corporate interest in behavioural science for many years, particularly on the markeitng side – but as Tett notes, it is needed more in observing how organisations work internally as well as their products land externally. The social dynamics and the rituals of behaviour are universally rooted in ancient human behaviours – Tett wonderfully describes how the powerful but well-hidden group of techies who designate the protocols by which the internet is run, make their collective decisions by weighing-up whether the yes’s or no’s hum louder. The internet is effectively decided by humming – perhaps more associated with Namibian tribes people than top-level coders. But these basic human rituals remain vital for societies to operate sustainably – and need to be both understood and championed.
Human nature is difficult to capture, but anthropologists have developed frameworks for doing so. While the value of having professionals do this is great, and Tett enumerates countless examples, the real opportunity is for more managers and executives to adopt an anthro-vision mindset themselves, and be actively curious – probably by strengthening their attentive listening (and observing) skills.
It is not necessary to be an anthropologist to do this, just to adopt ‘a beginner’s mind’. Foster the ability to question things as if you are an outsider seeing them for the first time and endeavour to make explicit what had been previously implicit.
Author/s Name/s: Gillian Tett
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publishing Date: June, 2021
Number of Pages: 239
Author Knowledge Rating: 1-5 (based on their years of experience, academic expertise in subject areas, and exposure to cross-functional thinking in the area)
Readability: 1-5 score(1=dense and v academic; 5=frantic; page turner)
Appropriate Length: (1=could have been written in 25% of the length;5=could have been longer)
Core Idea Value: (1=nonsense (or entirely esoteric); 5=game-changer)