Questioning assumptions

The news that the UK’s digital watchdog, Ofcom, is to take a closer look at how digital algorithms affect our daily lives is hardly surprising. After all, algorithms increasingly influence much of our social and financial interactions; being key to everything from calculating credit scores to social media suggestions and advertising. So much so that one report in 2020 commented that:

“By some estimates, 80 percent of Netflix viewing hours and 33 percent of Amazon purchases are prompted by automated recommendations based on the consumer’s viewing or buying history.”

In part that is good news. After all, used properly algorithms should be able to screen out areas which an individual is not interested in, preventing individuals from being bombarded with suggestions and information that is totally irrelevant to them. However, as Ofcom comments:

“there’s also a problematic side to algorithms. They can be manipulated to cause harm or misused because firms plugging them into websites and apps simply don’t understand them well enough.”

And we should never forget that algorithms are programmed in the first place by individuals who may inadvertently introduce their own unconscious bias or assumptions into the program. Left unchecked, Ofcom says that this can “lead to discriminatory decisions or unfair outcomes that reinforce inequalities;” adding that algorithms “can be used to mislead consumers and distort competition.” There’s nothing new about the phrase ‘computer says no’ but increasingly it is the computer, or rather the algorithms programmed into the computer, which may hold sway over our lives.

With that in mind Ofcom, together with the ICO, the FCA, and the Competition and Markets Authority are inviting views and comments on what work should be carried out to review and monitor algorithms in an effective and proportionate way.

But it is not just algorithms that can carry unconscious bias or be affected by assumptions. Other areas of business can be affected in the same way. Take telephone switchboards for example. When was the last time you really looked at your hunt groups and phone answering pathways?  Is your phone system set up to meet the needs of the business or of its customers? Is it designed to enhance customer satisfaction and interaction or did these considerations not come into it when the phone system was programmed?

The fact is that businesses change and grow. The responsibilities and knowledge which once sat in one department may now be spread across a number of teams. Unless that change has been actively programmed into your phone system algorithms, what once may have served you well as a business may now be an active source of annoyance for your customers.

Moreover, the pathways which now exist may unconsciously discriminate against certain customer groups. For example, might those who are less confident on the phone or less knowledgeable about your products or services simply give up in the face of endless call transfers? Could those who need real assistance finish up paying for a premium rate call, whereas those who are more aware are able to obtain the same help for free? Or might some callers simply be directed to an endlessly ringing extension?

Well thought out algorithms have the power to enhance the business outcome and customer experience.  And any process, any procedure could make a difference. Are your phone systems delivering for you? It might be time to take a quick look.

Written by Alison