Can This Company Actually Quantify Human Potential?

Traditional metrics like standardized tests are insufficient to predict success in the workplace. So a company called Knack is going where few companies have gone before: Using a mixture of mobile games, machine learning, data analytics, and behavioral science to change the way we seek improvement through quantification.

Can This Company Actually Quantify Human Potential?

It was the Belfast-born British mathematical physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin who opined that if something cannot be measured, it cannot possibly be improved. This mantra is one that has been taken to heart by the scientific (and particularly the high-tech) communities. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, famously attempted to quantify boredom by creating what he described as a “Measure of Fidget” obtainable through watching audience members at particularly unexciting public readings. Albert Einstein, meanwhile–flush with the success of his theory of special relativity–strove to formulate an international unitary standard of creativity, declaring that: “Science knows ‘ions,’ ‘electrons,’ [and] ‘neutrons’. Let there be ‘attractions’ in art.”


Today this Kelvinian attitude to quantification and improvement can be seen in everything from manager Billy Beane’s successful attempts to “game” baseball, as scintillatingly detailed in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, to Google’s ambitious mission statement not only to “organize the world’s information,” but also to make it “universally … useful.”

It is into this space that Silicon Valley startup Knack, founded by Israeli entrepreneur Guy Halfteck, enters the picture. Knack’s aim is deceptively simple: using gaming technology, machine learning, data analytics, and the latest findings from behavioral science to quantify terms including (but not limited to) “quick-thinking,” “perceptiveness,” “empathy,” “insightfulness,” “spontaneity,” and “creativity.” By doing so Halfteck hopes to trigger what he describes as a “fundamentally change in the human capital space” that will seek to unlock people’s previously untapped potential.

“Knack’s biggest mission is to help people find and self-actualize their talents,” says Halfteck. “Sometimes these talents are things people have not considered that they might even have. Once they know about them, however, they can use them both to embark on new careers, vocations, and training, and to showcase their potential to the world. I think this has the potential to make an enormous impact.”

Knack’s games currently include Wasabi Waiter and Balloon Brigade: both straightforward pick-and-play affairs which nonetheless offer the player a number of different ways (some less obvious than others) to compete. Results, at least from a business perspective, have so far been impressive–with Knack’s clients including Shell (which uses the technology to identify potential innovators), in addition to NYU’s Department of Orthopedics.

It is no secret that our attitude toward gaming is rapidly changing; a transition that has taken place over the past several decades. At the start of their recent book The Gamification Revolution: How Leaders Leverage Game Mechanics to Crush the Competition, authors Gabe Zichermann and Joselin Linder quote President Theodore Roosevelt: “When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all.” This is good advice, Zichermann and Linder suggest. It is also no longer true. “As a result of a series of changes in demographics, technology, and the competitive landscape, smart companies, as well as nonprofits and governments, are increasingly turning to play and games as a way of radically reinventing their organizations,” Zichermann and Linder write. “They are engaging customers as never before, aligning employees, and driving innovation that seemed virtually impossible only a decade ago.”

Over the past 50 years psychologists have been exploring the links between game playing and predicting real-world behavior. It is this research that Halfteck is keen to capitalize on; feeling that while such insights are not always immediately apparent, patterns can be effectively mined using the correct machine learning tools and algorithms. “Even though to your eye, your behavior in a game does not necessarily characterize your real-world behavior, it is highly likely that the way you play a game and another person plays that same game would reveal differences about personality and the way that your brain works,” he says. “Your working memory, your strategic thinking, your risk-taking–these are all things which are manifested in how we game.”


How To Make Insights (And Influence Your Listeners)

As interesting as this research undoubtedly is, it would be of little practical use to Halfteck if the workplace was already the meritocracy many would like to believe it is. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly evident that traditional performance predictors–including school rankings, GPAs, previous job experience, and even face-to-face interviews–offer little in the way of predictive power when it comes to who is going to excel in a particular position. This situation worsens as jobs become more complex, requiring high levels of education and varied responsibilities. Back in the 1960s, AT&T conducted IQ tests on low-level managers and then followed them for the next 20 years to see how far they advanced within the organization. Ultimately, IQ scores explained less than 15% of the variance between managers in career achievement–with the rest being some unmeasurable mix of mindset, personality traits, emotional attributes, sociability, and a host of other characteristics that commonly determine success.

“A company must first work out what to quantify,” Halfteck says. “What personality traits does an employee possess that they are looking to obtain? Traditionally, companies have not had the tools to do this, to quantify the behavioral attributes and markers that are predictive of success at their company. Knack will first help companies learn what drives success, and then use that to identify the right people for positions.”

But Knack is not just being touted as a recruitment tool. It may be that employees, once their Knacks are properly quantified, can be given targeted training to help them excel at particular jobs, or else matched up as part of a team in which everyone’s personality traits complement one other.

Another potential benefit could be to help companies get the best out of employees–and employees get the best out of companies–in terms of motivation. Some people might prefer salary increases, or stock options, as reward for a job well done, while others may be happier with time off or longer holidays.

“Understanding people with that level of insight means we can change everything we do–from how we hire, to how we build teams, to how we train and develop, to how we motivate and compensate,” Halfteck says. “This is the core idea of Knack: understanding people as never before, and using that understanding to benefit people at work and in education.”

Technology: With New Ships Come New Shipwrecks

Of course, new technologies always raise new ethical questions. (As cultural theorist Paul Virilio once pointed out, “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.”) Chief among these is what it would mean to have terms like “empathy” and “creativity” understood as unitary measurements. Could it be, for example, that despite having all the necessary academic qualifications for a position, a person might be turned down for a job in the future because they don’t possess the necessary “agreeability” scores which Knack believes promotes social harmony within companies?


“The ethical discussion has to be situated in the context of how things work at the moment,” Halfteck says. “When companies today interview they are trying to gauge through questions and assessment whether you have the skills they are looking for–in terms of creativity, social intelligence, and a number of other attributes. They are trying to assess all of these things … [in ways] that have been shown repeatedly to be biased and unfair to people … When we look at Knack in this context, I see a huge opportunity from an ethical perspective to improve things, and to give people a fair opportunity to shine.”

There is also the innate danger of measuring the previously unmeasurable. The late Steve Jobs may have demonstrated the strength of Simplicity as a concept, but that same approach to simplifying can backfire when it means taking complex ideas and reducing them to measurable elements. Perhaps the most famous critique of this practice came in 1981’s The Mismeasure of Man: a book-length attack by evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould on the perils of converting concepts such as intelligence into simplified measures like IQ. Gould’s warning wasn’t just about the potential danger of abstraction, from a scientific perspective, but about all the ways in which apparent objectivity can be used to back up a bevy of human biases rather than expose genuine truths. As Gould writes, his book is an attack on:

“the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups–races, classes, or sexes–are innately inferior and deserve their status.”

To an extent, of course, measurement and reductionism exist as an unavoidable tautology. As Halfteck himself observes, “Every time that we start measuring something, whether it’s IQ or anything else, we lose things that the measurement tool is not designed to capture, or that the person measuring is not aware of the need to measure. Almost by definition, once you start measuring you are limiting the span of your attention and risking missing other things.”

At the same time, he remains convinced that Knack represents a fairer way to measure. “We are talking about an ever-expanding universe of things that are being measured,” he continues. “In the case of Knack, we are moving in a positive direction from a paradigm where people are being measured on a single dimension, to one in which people are measured in a poly-dimensional way on exponentially more aspects of their personality. It’s not just about intelligence, but rather the sum total of the human condition. It’s far more nuanced than anything we’ve seen before.”

Game on.

[Image: Flickr user Sergis Blog]