Advancing the Value of Ethnography

The Future Is Yours


EPIC2018 Keynote Address

We are at a crossroads of change in the world. With the rapid rise of digitized data, what’s the place for human empathy?

As a long-time member of the EPIC community, I want to use my time with you today to reflect on what this all means for us. This is a moment unlike any other in the history of EPIC.

I have been so inspired by the richness and creativity of thinking here this week. It’s been fantastic to have our data science partners here with us, and to see so many rich ideas, conversations, and papers. We have a truly epic community here. We are more diverse than ever—representing a multitude of experiences, disciplines, companies, and countries. And diversity only makes us stronger.

But there are a couple of things that tie us all together. One of them is the belief that human empathy is a fundamental lens we bring to our work. It’s like we all have this third eye in our foreheads that we can never shed – the eye of empathy.

The other thing that I believe ties us all together is the desire to create change. We want to make a difference. And this is what I want to talk about today: how can we create change—all together—with the power of our third eyes of empathy?

Today I want to wear my business leader hat—not my EPIC hat, or my anthropologist hat. I am a senior executive at a global company, and I have learned a few things along the way about creating change. So I want to share a few of these things. But I don’t want this keynote to be about me. I want it to be about YOU—all of you—and the changes you are ALL going to drive in this world.

So let’s imagine the future that we want to create together.

One of the practices my team has been developing over the last few years is the practice of Foresight. We have been working with Institute for the Future, and Miriam when she was there, to learn their tools and approaches, and have adapted them to our business and our culture at Steelcase. Elise Valoe, my team member who is here, has been leading development of this practice inside Steelcase and everything I know about it I owe to her.

Foresight offers a way to bridge design thinking with business strategy in order to drive decision-making. Elise Valoe on my team (here at EPIC) has led us in developing human-centered foresight practices at Steelcase that have helped us create strategic change all across the company.

Today I want to play with applying foresight to our community. Call this an experiment, a prototype, a provocative thinking exercise—because to do it right a wide swath of you would need to be engaged in the process.

Here is the basic conceptual model of Foresight. You start by assessing all the emerging signals in the world – this is where ethnography comes in—and identify major forces of persistent change. Then you forecast out all the possible futures that could emerge from these forces in your business or area of focus. Then you backcast back to the futures you want to create—and this allows you to build a roadmap to make those futures real.

Today I am elevating up a few forces which I think are particularly relevant to our community.

Digital transformation. We have been swimming in this one this week. But I find it rather interesting that I haven’t once heard this term used here at the conference. I can tell you with certainty that digital transformation is one of the things keeping CEOs and business leaders awake at night all around the world. The velocity, volume and variety of data is at the heart of the next wave of business. But what does it mean for us to embrace new forms of data and bring our powerful, human-centered, social science, systems lens to it? How might we become active agents for transforming our own organizations?

Augmented Intelligence. This is another one that we have talked a lot about this week—and many of you are working on building AI systems. At Steelcase we prefer using the term Augmented Intelligence because we are all about hosting and integrating technology into the built environment in ways that will help people. In the past few years we have seen an emergence of work and conversations around ethical AI, UX ethics, trust, and other fundamentally human concepts. When I talk to our customers about the future of work, I often tell them we are seeing a growing tension as the rise of technology is being paralleled by a rise of human. At Steelcase, as we introduce more collaborative robots and RPA into our manufacturing facilities, we redesign our plant workers day-to-day experiences to remove the more dangerous and repetitive tasks and allow them to focus on higher value problem solving tasks. If you didn’t catch this New Yorker article about a year ago, it’s a pretty fair assessment of ways to do this on factory floors. The opportunity for us here is not new—how can we design systems to help people be more human? But there is so much more at stake now.

Purpose-driven. Millennials are now the majority in the U.S. workforce. Approximately 35% of the U.S. workforce, or 56 million employees. I’m curious how our EPIC community reflects that. How many of you are under the age of 38? Quick raise of hands. Wow, it looks like we’re approaching about 50% here. One of the cultural shifts we are witnessing in business is the growth of professionals of all ages who are motivated by purpose more than prestige or money. Across the workforce, employees are seeking out companies, teams, and jobs whose mission and culture reflects their own values. We are also seeing employees voice their values more strongly at work—illustrated by recent examples at Microsoft and Google.

Of course I think us older folk in EPIC have always been purpose-driven! We helped pave the way for all you youngsters! But we are all here because we are personally passionate about what we do. We believe we can make technologies, products, experiences more human. And we are endlessly and equally curious about the unique idiosyncrasies and broad-brush patterns of shared humanity.

Humanized Performance. I’m in the business of material culture. As an anthropologist I love saying that! At Steelcase, we believe that space shapes behavior – and as we all know here at EPIC, behavior and values are the building blocks of culture. Many of our customers think employee wellbeing is about ergonomics and the physical needs of its workforce but we tell them that the emotional and cognitive wellbeing of their employees is now equally important for them to consider. And they are listening. We strive to design and build workspaces that holistically support the emotional, cognitive, and physical wellbeing of people at work. We are talking to more and more HR and business leaders who want to design their workspaces as a lever to shift culture—to encourage innovation, collaboration, and enable all of you purpose-driven people out there to do your best work.

So those are the forces I am choosing to elevate as key drivers for our collective future. Now I’m going to be a little more creative, and share some POSSIBLE FUTURES for our practice that may be an outcome of those forces coming together.

  • A future where big data trumps all. I’m going to start with the more dystopian one. We all know the allure of quantitative data to business leaders for driving decision-making. It’s easy to imagine – what if this did happen? What if data scientists end up ‘ruling the world’ and ethnographers all lose their jobs? Will ‘research’ become reduced to analytics, or algorithms? Do qualitative methods become invalidated or do they adapt to bring new value? How will we collectively work to ensure our world is run by human-centered algorithms? As contests over the ‘right’ algorithms grow, how will we position ourselves in systems of data governance as they also evolve?
  • A future where everyone needs to analyze, interpret, and act on data. When data is everywhere, and everyone needs to analyze and act on it, what will research look like? What will ‘discount ethnography’ mean when everyone is can be a researcher? Does data interpretation become decentralized and distributed with the aid of machines…or does synthesis and interpretation become a specialty in demand?
  • A future where machines will do ethnography. How might our own work get augmented—or automated? I was excited to see this week that some of you are already doing this! How might we leverage emerging technologies to help us observe, listen, and learn in new ways? This is already happening—but what will it mean when our thick experience of ethnography is deployed in automated ways? How might we forge new creative and interpretive methods?
  • A future where the producer is as valuable as the product. OK, so maybe I am wearing an anthropologist hat for this one! But I want to nod to the wisdom of the past, with our friend Karl Marx here, as I could imagine seeing some new realizations of his vision. As automation grows, we are going to see an increasing divide in the workforce between highly specialized talent and less specialized talent, and some of the fundamental relationships between employer and employee are going to be disrupted and changed. As many jobs go away, other jobs are going to emerge—and they are going to be much more specialized and valuable. Employees will know that they are not indispensable, and will be raising their voices in new ways. Employers will be thinking more holistically about retaining and supporting their talent. What if the human experience of the makers becomes as valuable as the human experience of using what is made—of the product?

So here we have some possible futures for us that could emerge from these forces.

But what is the FUTURE WE WANT TO CREATE? Here are some pieces of my vision:

  • The value of data will be in its meaning. The value of data isn’t in its mere existence, but in the meaning it carries. We have talked a lot about this here. I believe we are entering a whole new age of symbiotics. We need to continuously challenge ourselves to synthesize and interpret multiplying streams of data into action and impact. And we can leverage our power as storytellers to create memorable meaning for people and point out the possibilities of change.
  • Human-centered expertise is valued equally to an engineering-centered or business-centered expertise. This is a vision that is in reach more than ever. But it really is up to us to create it. How might we collaborate, generate new kinds of insights, and create new value to our organizations or colleagues? We need to constantly experiment and be agile with making human-centered insights relevant to our businesses and our partners—and to carry these into new domains.
  • A human renaissance will flourish in a world of data-driven everything. This is a photo from a collection by the artist, designer, and TED Fellow Wale Oyejide. He combats bias through creative storytelling and I thought his work was a great inspiration for us. I really do believe this will happen. Culture is on every CEOs mind. Need to move beyond applying our praxis on customer focused products and services and embrace new opportunities of designing for your peers – what are the new kinds of employee experiences we want to create, what are the new kinds of organizations we want to create? How might we as a community extend our third eye of empathy in new ways to our own colleagues and collaborators, and create more meaningful corporate cultures?

So here’s my call to action to all of you as agents of change. What do we need to do to create a human-centered digital future?

  • We must become literate or fluent in all things data. This has been said in many ways this week. We need to be either active participants or participant observers. We need to speak the language. I am inspired this week to see so many of you leading the way on this.
  • We must defend, and grow, our communities of practice. It has been fantastic to see and feel the vibrancy of the EPIC community—hats off to the EPIC Board for everything they have done in the last 5 years to grow this community. We thrive on close connections with our peers, our teams, our colleagues. We experiment together, we create together, we learn from each other. I believe in the enormous value of communities of practice in propelling praxis forward into new territories. There are many models for this—in your companies, in your own communities—and no single one is best. But it will be critical to think collectively rather than just individually—leverage the power of your peers—and continue to create the space for learning and sharing together. We do have a shared identity, and there is power in that.
  • We must wield our superpowers as systems thinkers. There are more and more wicked problems to solve, and the stakes are higher than ever. We need to play to our strengths as systems thinkers—how can we look beyond the well-defined units of analysis we tend to be slotted into—as features, products, or solutions—and navigate the complexity by redesigning systems? This is not new for us, but I do believe it will become more and more critical—because how good can a product be if situated within a broken system? Technology systems, organizational/HR systems, business model systems, healthcare and education systems, policy systems, data governance systems. They are all SOCIAL systems.
  • We need to get better at the concept of value creation. Too often I think researchers see ‘business’ as something that another team does. My team has learned over the last few years that we can be leading influencers in defining human-centered value creation for our company by learning the basics of business and speaking this common language with our business partners in finance, marketing, and sales. A few years ago, when I was asked to sit on the senior executive team, I took a week-long course offered by the American Management Association on basic financials for non-financial managers. I didn’t really know how to read a P+L statement, or interpret our quarterly earning, or follow the jargon of an earnings call with Street investors. And while this will never be my superpower, I can now track and understand and ask intelligent questions. What can you do to hone your business acumen?
  • We need to learn to lead. I debated with myself a lot about whether to include the word ‘learn’ in this one – because many of you are leading in so many different ways. But I think we do need to learn to lead in new ways. To put this in EPIC terms, it’s easier to lead a family than it is to lead a village. And it’s easier to lead a tribe—like all of us here—than it is to lead a nation. But you can create so much more change at the level of a nation. There are many ways in which you can lead. You can champion your points of view as thought leaders in your jobs—but in doing so you should be integrating the diverse points of view of all your partners, and representing their needs as well. You can choose to start your own companies, your own teams, your own informal communities to drive change—either inside or outside of work. Or maybe you want to grow into a more formal position of leadership inside your organizations, and become an executive leader and decision-maker. Do some self-reflection on what you want to change and how you want to actively lead that change. We should be leading nations.

This is our moment. Fifteen years ago when EPIC first formed, we were fighting to be recognized as valuable contributors. Now, we should be aspiring to lead. There has been no other time when the world needs us more. Or when they have been listening more. But it’s up to each of you to create this future.

The future is yours to create.

Donna Flynn is Vice President of WorkSpace Futures and Market Insights at Steelcase. She leads a global team of researchers that delve into wicked problems around the future of work and translate those insights to inform the design of strategies, products, and services. Flynn joined Steelcase in 2011 from Microsoft, where she held a number of user experience leadership roles in product groups focused on mobility, healthcare, and consumer strategy. Prior to Microsoft, she led client projects for Sapient in San Francisco, working with technology and telecommunications clients such as Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, and Sprint. Earlier in her career she worked on international development and microfinance with the International Center for Research on Women, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the World Bank. Flynn received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Northwestern University in 1997. She has been a leader in the EPIC community for years and contributed foundational papers, including Tracing the Arc of Ethnographic Impact (with Tracey Lovejoy) and “Name That Segment!”: Questioning the Unquestioned Authority of Numbers (with Tracey Lovejoy, David Siegel, and Susan Dray).