By Anton I. Botha (Anthro Co-Founder)
In June 2017, I was sitting in a board room on the 18th floor of the United Nations Secretariat Headquarters in New York listening to yet another vendor’s pitch for some or the other tool that would solve all our people management problems. This time it was an ‘AI Interview’ tool. The presenter was all glitz and confidence but showed little appreciation for how difficult it would be to sell this approach to our Staffing Union, let alone how we would defend it should it ever be challenged in front of a Tribunal.
Having worked in the UN Common System for almost a decade, I can attest to this being an all-too-common occurrence when working with private sector vendors. There is little consideration given to either the unique environment we operated in or our special needs…and as far as unique environments go, the international public sector is as unique as they come. While there are many organizations that work across national borders, few labour under the complexity of mandates, political pressures, and logistical and cross-cultural challenges of this arena.
Always a binary choice?!?
In the end, then, we were always forced either adapt our systems to suit our vendors’ tools or to develop something in-house. After years of running back and forth between these two approaches, it became clear that neither was ideal. The process of adapting our systems to fit our vendors always exacted an enormous burden on us, and then we unavoidably found ourselves locked in a vicious spiral of ever-escalating financial commitments due to the high opportunity cost of going somewhere else. Equally challenging was developing solutions in-house. This approach would invariably require collaboration with many different departments within the organization and require sign-off from multiple stakeholders, not to mention the challenge of securing non-existent funds to make it happen. The deluge of red tape and lack of enthusiasm among already overworked colleagues who accompanied these projects would be enough to put off even the most motivated among us. After all, the international public sector has little appetite for investing in in-house tools due to their unenviable track record of becoming white elephants with massive cost overruns.
A third way…
It became clear to me that in order to progress a different approach was needed. As the old cliché goes, to solve an intractable problem you need to ‘think outside the box.’ However, I soon realised that this “outside the box” thinking was a luxury not afforded to the international public sector. There are simply too many real-world constraints for solutions to stray too far from the reservation. Instead, sustainable solutions needed to be conceived ‘inside the box.’ This approach is far more challenging, but not impossible if you have a good understanding of the organization, its existing tools and resources, and the rules of the game. One of my first ‘inside the box’ successes came when I transformed an existing survey tool into an online testing platform. This soon became the assessment workhorse of roster building in UN Peacekeeping missions, allowing thousands of applicants to be tested at no extra cost. Another such innovation was leveraging existing functionality with MS Office to automate numerous workflows including interview scheduling.
This philosophy proved that with a little bit of ingenuity and patience it is possible to arrive at sustainable solutions which have a positive impact at virtual zero cost or bureaucratic disruption.
Meeting of minds
It was in 2013 that I met Paul Henderson, my future and current business partner, in a small beige office in DC1 on the 2nd floor of what was then the location of the UN Secretariat’s Examinations and Tests Section (ETS) New York office. ETS was looking for a consultant to help us revamp a 40-year-old General Services Test and after a holistic assessment, we knew we had our man. Paul and I immediately got on and worked together to deliver not only a new test for the organization but also a method of uniformly delivering it across the entire UN. We accomplished this in under three months and, in the process, were nominated for a UN Secretariat General Award for Innovation.
It soon became apparent that Paul shared my sense of pragmatism, though we have different yet complementary skill sets. Where I love working with data and technology, Paul enjoys pouring over detail, is meticulous in his use of language, and works wonders at assessment development. Both of us love innovation and have the necessary risk appetite to see it through. We view ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn. Between the two of us we, have introduced numerous innovations to the UN selection environment, including the use of Situational Judgement Tests, UN Contextualized Cognitive Ability Tests, Computer Aptitude Tests, Leadership Assessments, Organization-Fit Questionnaires, Case Studies, etc.
Word spread and Paul and I were in high demand. I was briefly seconded to the European Parliament and Paul and I were also asked to help UNOPS look into their selection problems.
Anthro means People
In 2018 Paul and I decided that there were limits to how much we could help the United Nations from within. We were frustrated by the fact that we possessed solutions but could only service clients one at a time because of how our contracts worked. We felt that we could serve the UN and indeed the international public sector better if we started our own company. Thus, Anthro was born out of a desire to help the international public sector accomplish its ambitious mandates of world peace and prosperity for all. We decided on the name Anthro from the Greek for human or people. It is in this spirit that we approach our charge, we acknowledge that we do our work with people and for people. We believe in partnerships and have established a relationship with like-minded individuals and organizations with unique skills and technologies who we believe will help address even the toughest people analytics challenges.
Anthro truly puts its clients first
Yet another cliché is to hear a vendor claim to put its clients first. However, at Anthro, this is more than just a marketing tagline, it is our core philosophy. We do not offer out-of-the-box solutions because we know there is no such thing in the international public sector. First, we listen and carefully study your needs before proposing solutions that we believe will best serve you, not us. We partner with multiple vendors to provide complex solutions including content and technology to ensure that our services are a 100% fit for you (and not yet another compromise).
Anthro into the future
Anthro has the ambition of becoming the preferred people analytics partner of the international public sector over the next decade. We want to help clear some of the people management obstacles that prevent organizations from meeting their mandates. In this way, we can help support some of the world’s most ambitious and important goals. And if that isn’t enough to get us all excited, nothing is!