On Thursday last week, just over 130 people crammed into the Behavioural Insights Team’s (BIT’s) office to join us in celebrating the official launch of the platform.
It was exactly the kind of launch we could have hoped for. Packed with great speakers talking about stuff they’re passionate about. BIT’s David Halpern kicked off proceedings reminding us that sometimes the best way to achieve impact is through changing the design of the things we use, not the policies we write. Nesta’s Geoff Mulgan then chaired a stellar panel on innovation, diversity, and social mobility. Code First: Girls’ Amali de Alwis reminded us of the simple but oft-forgotten reality that if tech is designed by a narrow subset of people, it’ll end up serving a narrow subset of needs. Freshminds’ James Callander spoke about why the push for inclusion is different this time: the business case has moved the conversation from a fringe corporate concern to the type of initiative championed by CEOs worldwide. And the UK Civil Service’s Chief People Officer, Rupert McNeil, bemoaned that most large organisations were still operating on systems a half-century old, declaring his ambition that the UK Civil Service lead the way toward inclusivity via innovation, including through the use of platforms like Applied.
You could say it’s been a long time coming.
In fact, rifling back through our diaries, we realised it was almost exactly two years ago that Theo and I first got up in front of Philip Colligan (then at Nesta) and David Halpern and pitched the idea for Applied. It was an overcast morning on 5 March. It’s safe to say we were a pretty nervous. We’d been working on a deck for a few weeks, but we were the first BI Ventures pitch to go to the chiefs, and we knew they would put us through our paces.
Our first slide was titled ‘The challenge’ and here’s how it read:
In many respects, that message has pretty much stayed the same.
We wanted to take a stab at building a tech platform that would help, not hinder, social mobility. A platform that would allow the best person to get the job. Irrespective of their background. Every time.
A platform that BIT could use to practice what it preaches on reducing bias and making hiring decisions on the stuff that actually matters, but one that other organisations would want to use too. A platform packed full of all the evidence — full of the geekery we were known for — but with a relentless focus on user experience. Call us ambitious (or naive), but we wanted to create something people would want to use, not something they just knew would tick the CSR box.
They were sceptical, but intrigued. They could see that if we could crack the nut, we had the potential to make serious impact. There are over 3 million jobs on offer each year in the UK alone. And evidence suggests that candidates with ethnic minority surnames need to send up to 75% more CVs to get the same rate of callback for interview. That is, they need to apply to almost twice as many jobs even with the same qualifications as a person with a White sounding name to get the same chance to impress at interview. Even chipping away at the problem of bias in hiring could have sizeable impacts on the economy, not to mention the life chances of those getting jobs that otherwise wouldn’t have.
So they gave us a green light to build the minimum viable product, and shortly thereafter we coaxed the exceptional Rich out of other projects to help us convert our idea into a code-based reality. Buoyed by our luck, we decided to go big and also try to lure the incomparable Professor Iris Bohnet — world expert on behavioural science and diversity, head of Harvard’s Women and Public Policy programme, and author of the award winning What Works: Gender Equality by Design to join us as an advisor and Board member. We got lucky, and she’s been with us ever since.
Fast forward to January 2016, and BIT was doing all its hiring through the platform and we’d run our first, large scale experiment that proved that what we were doing was working. We found Applied’s unbiased review process was a radical improvement on CV-based sifting.
Applied did a better job of identifying talent, was faster, and crucially, less biased.
We were ready to show it to other hiring organisations, so we opened the proverbial front door a crack to see who else might be interested. Over 300 organisations signed up to pilot the platform, more than we could have hoped for or coped with. We carefully selected our beta partners: looking for organisations we felt truly wanted to work on the issue of better hiring, and ones whose experience could help us understand what worked and what didn’t. (It’s fair to say we also looked for partners we knew had a bit of patience for a new piece of tech!)
Applied has helped over 6,000 candidates to be fairly considered for almost 150 roles for over 25 organisations across 4 continents.
2020 Delivery, Institute for Government, Penguin Random House, Nesta, Barnardo’s and upReach were among our first, fantastic partners. Through working with them we learnt a tonne: what worked and what didn’t. We had our assumptions challenged (turns out there are some questions only behavioural scientists care about!) and we went through the painful but important process of iterating our product — jettisoning code and building new things. Critically, we also learnt a lot along the way about how Applied was changing hiring for these organisations. Here are some snippets:
- 2020 Delivery saw a two-thirds reduction in the time taken to hire, they got offers in earlier, and they hired more female candidates than ever before
- Penguin Random House learnt that one of their favourite recruitment questions actually wasn’t as useful as they’d first thought, and have now changed how they test candidates to be more predictive and reduce bias
- The Institute for Government have now done away with attainment levels as their filter for candidates, seeing the value in testing skills instead
In that time we’ve also built out countless new features, including:
- adding a gendered language tool and a readability index to job descriptions to ensure you don’t put people off before you’re out of the gates
- making it a default to offer candidates detailed, personalised feedback on their applications, which felt to us like a no-brainer in a world where candidates long to know what they can do better next time, but organisations often lack the time and tools to do it well
- introducing a calendaring tool to help schedule interviews
Being the data-hungry, curious people we are, we’ve also been running a bunch of experiments to learn more about what we can do better, from how ordering effects play out in recruitment to whether the default of using more senior people in recruitment is worth the time and coordination cost. We’re also working with Freshminds to better the current abysmal state of numeracy and verbal reasoning testing, much of which we know inadvertently but undeniably hurts minority groups. Stay tuned for more on this.
As we grow we’ve been hiring into our own team on the platform, and name blind is working for us too. Our first tech role received 70% female applications (go figure) and we hired the phenomenal (and on paper still at uni!) Diana.
So where to from here?
From a crack to a full-scale opening of the front door, Applied is now being offered to any organisation that wants to hire the way it always should have been. To join us, head to: beapplied.com.