Cambridge Analytica: Learnings on customer-centric traits


Aside from the more widely debated ethical issues, Cambridge Analytica also highlights questions of personality testing for customer-centricity

Few of us will have missed the story of the way the personality test results and likes of 270,000 Facebook users, and their extended networks, were used to purportedly influence US election advertising. But missing from the coverage has been discussion of what we can learn from this about personality testing in organisations. Currently the focus of such testing is internal but I would suggest, taking a leaf out of the Cambridge Analytica book, that organisations use selection tests with an eye to the external market.

A brief word on this cause celebre before we move on to the lessons for organisations.

External profiling

To recap: volunteers’ scores on the ‘Big Five’ personality tests were correlated with their ‘likes’, making it possible to then target election adverts at an extended network of contacts, modifying the advert to match predicted personality profiles.

This method relies in part on a 2015 academic paper showing how, when given access to Facebook likes, an algorithm could do better than a subject’s friends at guessing how they would score on a personality test measuring the so-called big five traits. In the scientific paper the friends’ guesses were 49.9% accurate and the algorithm was 56% accurate.

The ‘Big Five’ traits measured are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism and it was found that people scoring highly on extroversion were more likely to click on an extrovert-targeted ad than other types, with people high in openness more likely to click on ads aimed at them. These results showed the efficacy of psychological targeting and customer-centricity.

So, putting ethical issues to one side, the event marks a watershed moment in the way businesses view customers. It formally marks the end of an era of in which customers were kept at a distance to one where they are increasingly centre-stage.

Customer centricity

According to Deloitte Australia (2016), companies need to focus on cultivating more customer-centric mindsets and capabilities. Deloitte speaks of the buzzwords of ‘empathy’ and ‘connectedness’ increasingly taking hold in organisations seeking to better understand their customers’ worlds. One such organisation, Telstra, writes in its 2016 annual report of the way that providing great customer experiences can change the way that customers talk about the company.

So Telstra launched a transformation programme to orient the entire company around understanding the ‘changing needs and wants’ of the customer and to connect everything to everyone. This affected how the company structured its business, how it enacted diversity and how it created the inclusive leadership that would allow customer-sensitive behaviours to flourish.

There is no doubting the power of inclusive leadership. By putting EQ not IQ centre-stage, and using coaching rather than command and control leadership, employees are empowered to achieve better relationships with customers. As I found in a study I led for the Employers Network on Equality and Inclusion (ENEI), employee perceptions of leaders as inclusive were associated with higher reports by employees of their own self-perceived productivity, motivation and wellbeing.

In terms of customers, in a study with university students (not at my university) funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, we found students clearly stating that a more visible senior leadership would have a hugely motivating effect. So the inclusive, customer-centric leader is one who is manifest to both employees and customers.

Personality testing for the customer-centric organisation

This brings us back to testing. How prepared are organisations to select and promote people with customer-centric, inclusive characteristics? Regrettably, the auguries are not favourable. One study for example (Moutafi et al, 2007), found no relationship between the ‘warmth’ element of extraversion (part of the ‘Big Five’), nor the ‘feeling’ element of the MBTI (the most widely used test in the world), and managerial seniority. This suggests that senior managers do not currently display either warmth or feelings, both precursors to empathy. In fact MBTI data shows that managers of a ‘feeling’ disposition are largely absent from most organisations.

What is more, graduate recruitment continues to use verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests. Are these kinds of tests really going to deliver the kind of personnel who can provide the customer-sensitive actions that the Cambridge Analytica story shows can resonate with the target market? It's also important to consider that personality selection might be framed with an eye to the personalities present in target markets.

All in all, there is much to be learned from the Camrbridge Analytica debacle.

Gloria Moss is professor of management and marketing at Bucks Business School at Buckinghamshire New University. She is looking for organisations who would like to join her in identifying the personality types needed to deliver inclusive, customer-centric leadership. Email