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Beyond Bias: Behavioural Insights experts examine the future of workplace at UBC Sauder conference

DIBS conference
Posted 2021-12-13
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For the fourth year in a row, 'BIG Difference BC' brought together Behavioural insights (BI) experts to showcase innovative ways in which leaders from a variety of sectors are channelling human psychology and cognitive science to solve complex policy issues.

The annual conference is co-hosted by UBC Decision Insights for Business and Society (UBC-DIBS), the BC Behavioural Insights Group (BC BIG), and WorkSafeBC. The virtual, day-long event had record-breaking registration numbers with over 1,300 registrants from 52 countries.

This year's conference theme was: Mobilizing Momentum in the Science and Practice of Behavioural Insights.

Kirstin Appelt, Research Director of UBC-DIBS, says BI has transcended the role of being an isolated tool. More and more organizations are investing in BI as part of a solution to some of the biggest societal challenges.

"Globally, there are hundreds of BI units in the public, private and non-profit sectors," said Appelt. "The question for us is: how do we leverage this momentum to use BI for positive social impacts? How do we use it to make a difference on issues such as the climate crisis and equity, diversity and inclusion—especially within organizations?"

Using BI to create better HR and workplace policies

BI has proven to reap dividends in the workplace. Elizabeth Hardy, Senior Director of Research and Experimentation at the Treasury Board Secretariat (Government of Canada), says BI can replace traditional systems to gauge how an environment shapes the experience of employees.

"Older methods of measuring and increasing efficiency and productivity don’t always account for the 'human element,'" explains Hardy. The result: imperfect and unscientific interventions.

"BI helps us to apply an objective scientific lens to understanding human behaviour. The design interventions and workplace initiatives that lean into the psychology of the human experience result in office environments with less friction and more positive outcomes."

For Hardy, using BI has helped her team at the Treasury Board Secretariat overcome a pain-point in the hiring process.

In the past, they used a 'Self-ID form' to understand representation of four employment equity groups in the federal public service: women, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities. Hardy and her team found that fewer candidates were completing the form, and some deeper examination showed this came from a place of mistrust and misunderstanding.

Using this key insight, Hardy and her team leveraged BI and Human Centered Design (HCD) to implement a new form—and they started by tossing away old notions.

“We introduced a new and improved form with more detailed notes that clarified why that data was being collected. The new Self-ID form also became a touch point to build rapport with users and build trust," said Hardy.

Kerri Buschel, Director of Experience, Marketing and Insights at WorkSafeBC, is also using BI to create safer working environments for employees in British Columbia.

“Behavioural Insights helps us to understand what people’s current perceptions, fears, needs and expectations are around an issue or risk – and then design an intervention that overcomes those psychological barriers,” said Buschel.

Buschel said that BI has become a resourceful tool to understand how COVID-19 has changed the relationship between WorkSafeBC’s audience and the channel of communication. Buschel’s BI team is constantly monitoring how workers and employers across B.C. interact with her agency’s communication touchpoints, so they can design and broadcast health and safety initiatives in an accessible way.

Cultivating BI as a core competency

There are still gaps that prevent organizations from harnessing the full potential of BI. Adam King, UBC Sauder PhD student and Founder and Chief Behavioural Strategist at BeThink—a B.C.-based behavioural economics agency—said when companies see BI as a standalone function that can be easily outsourced, workplaces become susceptible to poor decisions and biases.

The objective, King explained, should be to integrate BI into an organization's leadership—and to make it a core competency of senior managers.

King, who moderated the panel titled 'BI in the Workplace,' points to WorkSafeBC and the Treasury Board Secretariat as bright spots where some of that forward-thinking, BI-led leadership is making a difference. He also highlighted the role of institutions like UBC Sauder in creating the next generation of business leaders who will cultivate BI skills as part of their repertoire. The school is in its second year of offering the Advanced Professional Certificate in Behavioural Insights, a nine-month BI practitioner training tailored toward working professionals. Graduates of this program are using BI to improve the workplace: from helping employees work more effectively to helping people return to work after an injury.

King says UBC Sauder students are well poised to carry on the BI momentum.

"The rigour around critical thinking that is honed at UBC Sauder is desperately valued in the workplace. I have no doubt that if the students have an understanding of behavioural science, they'll surpass their predecessors in eliminating the frictions that exist in organizations."

To watch recorded video sessions from the Big Difference BC 2021 event, click here.