Intel has employed a cultural anthropologist. At first glance that seems like Ferrari taking on board an estate agent. Why would a chip-making tech company rope in the services of an anthropologist? Genevieve Bell (the cultural anthropologist in question) goes by the title, ‘ Director of Interaction and Experience Research’ or as she describes it, the ‘right brain in a sea of scientists and engineers’. Intel is not alone in this strange mix with Micrcosoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard all having anthropologists and ethnologists mixed in with the expected sortie of software developers and engineers. In fact it is a practice that was started by Xerox in 1979 with its Palo Alto Research Center but nonetheless, this represents a smart move in a world where ‘hi-tech’ needs to meet ‘hi-touch’.
In a society where the impact and influence of technology is being felt everywhere, the combination of these two disciplines makes good sense. Bell was quoted in a Fortune Magazine (Oct 2010) as saying, ‘Technology is starting to manifest itself in every part of our lives, not just at work and home but in religious practices, our love lives, and how we keep our secrets’. The issue here is not whether or not we like this new reality or believe it to be right or wrong – the issue is that this is the new reality and in the same way that modern society will not retreat to the transport mode of the horse and buggy, technology will not go away.
This seems obvious yet I am amazed at how slow many organizations are to embrace this new reality. The impact of technology on how we deal with information; how we communicate and how we relate within the organization is profound. It is being fuelled by a new generation entering the workplace who are well versed in this new reality and are often amazed to encounter archaic thinking and practice within the work environment when it comes to such matters. The simple truth is that much of our thinking and HR practices are like sling-shots in the face of this new challenge created by social media – they are ineffective, tired, outdated and cannot cope. Worse still is that they may even prevent or inhibit us from realizing the wonderful new opportunities presented by this shift in the socio-techno landscape.
All this is a leadership agenda item. Information, communication and relationship are leadership concerns and smart leaders understand things need to change – and change quickly. Such change is linked to related issues such as the attraction and retention of talent; it is linked to transforming HR into a strategic partner within the business; it is linked to personal mastery around ‘seeing our seeing’ and a willingness to reinvent, reboot and a knowing around what to keep, what to discard and what to create. It starts by asking smart questions and it might just be that you need to find a cultural anthropologist to talk to – and quickly!