June 28th 2019
CRFCast – HR Insights from the Corporate Research Forum: Digital Culture: How Technology is Changing the Way we Communicate, Work & Behave with Rahaf Harfoush
Technology is fundamentally changing how we connect with each other, leading to new behaviours, belief systems and social norms. However, the ethical and moral standards that determine how to behave are not keeping pace. In conversation with Digital Anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush, we discuss what the evolving digital culture means for relationships at work and beyond, how organisations need to adapt to an age of information overload, and the implications for HR.
Gillian Pillans [00:00:03] You're listening to the CRF cast where we explore research we've been working on here at the Corporate Research Forum, and we discuss the latest thinking in strategic HR topics with academics, practitioners and leading experts in the field. I'm Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF. You can explore the full podcast archive and subscribe for updates by searching CRF cast on iTunes or Spotify.
You can also find more about CRF and access all our podcasts and other research materials at www.crforum.co.uk. In today's CRFcast, I'll be talking to digital anthropologist, Rahaf Harfoush. We're going to be discussing what the evolving digital culture means for relationships at work and beyond.
We'll be talking about how organizations need to adapt to an age of information overload.
So joining me today is for Rahaf Harfoush, who's a digital anthropologist and runs Red Threads, a think tank based in Paris. Great to have you with us.
Rahaf Harfoush [00:01:15] I'm delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.
Gillian Pillans [00:01:17] So you're you're a digital anthropologist, which to me is an absolutely intriguing job title. So I guess my impression of anthropologists is they tend to dig in the moat or, you know, sit with clipboards and observe people. But what does the digital anthropologist do?
Rahaf Harfoush [00:01:35] Well, if anthropology is really the study of people and cultures, digital anthropology is just the intersection of how technology and cultures are merging together and how they're impacting us as societies, as families, as individuals, as organisations, and trying to understand some of the less obvious or some of the hidden ways that these forces are manifesting in our lives. And what are the resulting behavioural trends and norms that are emerging? And what does that mean for our future?
Gillian Pillans [00:02:05] Can you share some of the most striking examples of the changes in human behaviour that you've been observing recently?
Rahaf Harfoush [00:02:12] I mean, there are so many and it's happening so fast. For example, I'm noticing that it's getting harder and harder for people to be present in the moment, the way that most of the technology platforms are built right now. They've created and normalised a sense of constant urgency where people feel like if they don't immediately respond immediately after immediately post a comment, then they are committing some sort of faux pas. And when you think about the design of a lot of these tools, like in Telegram or WhatsApp, when you have those little double blue checkmarks, it's like people are building these tools specifically to manipulate us in this way to make us feel guilty. So I find it I find it interesting that people are having a hard time being present. They're having a hard time disconnecting. They're having a hard time focusing. So I'm witnessing all of these changes and it's really fascinating.
Gillian Pillans [00:03:06] So if we roll this up to the organisational level, we've talked about changes in individual behaviour. But what are you observing within organisations? How are the behaviours in the relationships between people at work changing?
Rahaf Harfoush [00:03:19] I think for the most part, I'm going to make a bold statement and say that most organisations are very unprepared for the realities of an infinite information ecosystem. We still have best management practices around emailing and memos and meetings that I think were created at a time that information was far more manageable. And now I see people that are having a very hard time keeping up with the information that they're supposed to know with what's happening in their industry, with what's happening within their organisation. And the resulting chaotic feeling comes from not having a culture that understands information management in any way. So, one, I see that, too. I see that employees and organisations are also struggling from the talent management aspect. Now, more than ever in the reputation economy, whatever your employees do, whether they're on or off, the job is directly related to how many times have we seen somebody during time off on a weekend seeing something, doing something inappropriate? And what is the first step of response? Now, who does this person work for and what is the company going to do about it? So the bubble of responsibility for an organization's reputation is now expanded to also include the some of the actions of all the people that work for them, whether or not those people are at work at the time or not. That's huge. That's an entirely different challenge. And then finally, there's just from the basics of the the, you know, what's happening in the market. There's a lot of issues and competition for finding the best people, recruiting them, retaining them, making sure they're happy and engaged. And how technology is helping or in some cases hindering those elements as well.
Gillian Pillans [00:05:03] OK, so let's go back to the first thing you talked about. It's kind of like Cam, we're still using analogue communications techniques for a digital age of, you know, completely overwhelming masses of data. So if you were going to design an organization from the ground up that was optimized for managing that massive flow of data, what would that look like and how would it be different to what we typically see today?
Rahaf Harfoush [00:05:28] I think it would, the difference would be a difference in culture and mindset. One of the things that I often talk about is the importance. And this is something I heard from Microsoft CEO, actually, what's the importance of becoming a learning organisation versus a knowing organisation? So to me, it's one first, really. Standing fundamentally that the information landscape we live in today, that is just not possible for a human being to know everything that's out there, so there's no point in rushing to answer all the emails in your inbox or answering all of your messages all the time, because it's just not it's just not realistic. On top of all the tasks that you have to do. So, one, it's an organisation that recognizes that learning and discovering and exploring and expanding the boundaries of what somebodies role is is a natural part of the job. So I think I would start by hiring people who are curious, who like learning, who adapt easily to changing market conditions and who are OK with a bit of uncertainty. And because those are the people whose fundamental core principles will help them keep adapting. And the second part is really the adaptation point, which is I always say forget digital transformation and focus on digital evolution. If you have a mindset of evolution, then you know that you're. Then you embrace the idea of constant change. It doesn't worry you doesn't stress you out the unknown of the future. You just know that's part and parcel with living in an age where innovation moves so fast.
Gillian Pillans [00:06:56] OK, so you talked as well about talent management. We know that there's massive talent crunches that we're facing globally within organizations and it's getting harder to hire the talent that we need. And then on the other hand, we've got all this technology that potentially could either help or hinder us in our search to attract and retain and develop the best talent. So do you have any specific recommendations around the talent management space we should think about?
Rahaf Harfoush [00:07:24] I think people have more options to put together a career that looks a bit different. So is your organization creating the appropriate systems to make sure that you can capture talent from different pockets? I think we need to start thinking of talent as a portfolio and you'll have your traditional full time talent and your contract talent and your part time talent. But what about all the new ways that people are working? What about the communities out there that would love to work with you on a project by project basis? Or what about the digital anthropologists that would love to, you know, maybe come in once a quarter and do something? So I think it's like recognizing that sometimes the scarcity can also be a bit of a mindset. That's the first part. The second part, too, is having to shift. If you think of your talent portfolio and I hear this a lot from big organizations, they've started to recognize that if they can't find the talent they need in the market, they need to shift their strategies to creating that talent in-house. And that means completely rethinking the profile of who you're hiring as well as what support you're going to need within HR in order to take advantage of that. So we've seen rises in roles like remote remote talent, engagement professionals, people who specialize in building culture and have a remote workforce. We've seen curriculum developers and designers. We've seen teachers. We've seen a rise in UX user experience making sure that your internal facing apps and your internal websites are intuitive and easy to use. So that's also creating an entirely new evolution of organizations at this age.
Gillian Pillans [00:09:00] Coming up in the second part of the CRF cast, we'll be discussing what the shift to digital technology means for HR. How does HR's role need to shift to help our organisations and people adapt? What policy should we be developing or updating and what are the risks if we fail to deal with ethics and data security appropriately?
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How does HR's role need to shift to help people within the organisation, whether they're full time workers or just from some other employment model, cope with all this change that's going on?
Rahaf Harfoush [00:09:54] You know, it's funny because we're so focused on the technology that we forget that people are at the concert at the heart of this issue. So in my opinion, HR is now more important than ever. You have to advocate for the people that work for you. Sometimes I find that we get ideas about the tech, the tool that we want to use, and we want to roll out this tool and it's going to collect all this data and be amazing. And then we're not really thinking about the people that have to use it.
Gillian Pillans [00:10:23] There's potentially a flip side. There are all sorts of ethical privacy issues. What's your perspective in terms of where we expose to risk if we don't think about having the right sort of ethical approaches and the right data policies in place, particularly thinking about people data and the risks of getting that wrong?
Rahaf Harfoush [00:10:46] I think one of the most detrimental things we did to ourselves was to look at big data and to say that it's this abstract resource, like it's they're just bits and bytes and it's megabytes of terabytes and algorithms, which sound very impersonal and it sounds very far removed from what the average person does. But culturally, when you think about the types of information that people are sharing, how long they're working, when they come to work, when they leave work stuff on social media, their locations, their preferences, their steps, their calories, all of these types of things, you start to realize that it's not actually a resource like oil. I always hear dad as the new oil who can extract it and refine it. That's valuable. And I always say actually data is the new blood because it's being extracted from people. So they're not just bits and bytes, they're people's financial history and vacation aspirations and job searches and concerns and scary symptoms that you look up on Google, you know, am I dying or what not? That's very personal, very intimate. And somewhere along the line, when we started talking about data policy, we seem to completely remove like the human centric part of it. And I don't think that we're treating the data with the level of care that it deserves. And you've seen all these breaches. And, you know, every time there's a new data breach, you just thank goodness, like we're not just talking about data. We're talking about people's banking informations and their identity informations and their Loggins and their emails like that. We're talking about people's lives. So the biggest thing that I would love to see more of is more human centric ethical design is that is that design practices of ethics that put the person and protect the person first and foremost. The second thing I think is from a privacy perspective, there is always this dangerous tension that just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should. And I would often question if you're going to measure something, unless you can be very clear and transparent with why you're measuring it and what you're going to do with this information, you might be able to measure it, but maybe you don't need to. And so that's also an uncomfortable conversation because many employees will be too intimidated to push back. So then it becomes the job of HR to really be those advocates and to say, listen, we want the company to be optimized as much as possible, but we have to put people first off to protect their privacy. We have to make sure we're transparent about our data practices. We have to make sure people can opt in and are they understand what's being done. And we have to make sure that we're taking every every single step that we can to protect that information. And often a lot of companies are just skipping those steps. It just rolls out and nobody really thinks about it until it's too late.
Gillian Pillans [00:13:26] So I guess that's potentially a new rule for HR I mean, HR has always had a rule in terms of employee advocacy, but that's more from a relationship point of view rather than as a sort of data and privacy point of view. So perhaps HR has to build some new skills in terms of understanding how this stuff works, what the issues are, where the potential risks are to be able to step up. And I'm really kind of act as that employee voice around data and privacy.
Gillian Pillans [00:13:57] Absolutely. And I think it's important that, you know, you have like a holistic approach in the sense that you cannot just have just the technical arm of the organization that are making decisions based on a cost benefit analysis of the technology budgets, the capacities and the original tech brief that was written by I.T. that that's one very important piece of the puzzle that we now need to thread those decisions with perspectives from HR, with perspectives from different groups of the population, because ultimately it's just a tool. Right. You know, you can track everybody's movements very easily now and it's like what you do with that information. That's where the strategy comes in. That's where the policy comes in and that's where the culture comes in.
Gillian Pillans [00:14:35] The analogy that's going through my mind is sunshine is the best disinfectant, so for anything that's kind of borderline ethical question, raising it in terms of would we be comfortable if this got out into the public domain that we were extracting this information about our employees or this this information was available to senior management? If you feel uncomfortable with that, then maybe that's the sort of acid test that we'd be using to see whether something is appropriate or not.
Rahaf Harfoush [00:15:03] I think the bigger issue is as we've moved from data abundance to data integration, many people don't understand the complexity of the information that is gathered about them. So it isn't a problem of oversight and just a lack of awareness. And I think when you go to a store, when you go and join a new company, you should be able to very clearly, when you come on, have somebody explain to you in simple language, this is what we're collecting. This is who has access to this information. This is how this information is going to be used. This is how long we store this information. And, you know, like most people are shocked when you tell them if you use a company laptop, then I.T. can see the websites that you're browsing, what you're doing. And they're like, why? And it's like, no, it's in your employee handbook. But most people don't take the time to fully get briefed on it. So I am a huge proponent of transparency. And I think the only way we're going to deal with anything is to fully understand how can you spot potential issues if you don't even know what's happening?
Gillian Pillans [00:16:00] Rahaf Harfoush, thank you very much.
Rahaf Harfoush [00:16:02] Thank you for having me.
Gillian Pillans [00:16:08] Before we go, let's take a moment to recap the key takeaways from my conversation with Rahaf.
First, we need to raise our consciousness of the ways in which technology is manipulating our behaviour, both by design and by accident. Awareness is essential if we're going to develop the right habits as individuals and in our organisations to prevent ourselves becoming slaves to the new digital tools. Second, we need to develop different mindsets to cope with a world of infinite information. We need to create learning cultures in our organisations and our hiring practices need to target people who are curious and adaptable to change. Third, in an age where the digital tools we have at our fingertips allow us to gather the most intimate information about employees. HR needs to play the role of employee advocates. Being a champion for appropriate privacy policies and pushing for organisational data practices to take a human centric perspective. Thanks again to Rahaf Harfoush for taking time to chat to us.
You've been listening to the CRF cast with me, Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF. You can find out more on our website at www.crforum.co.uk. Follow us on Twitter @C_R_Forum or join the CRF group on LinkedIn. Bye for now, and thanks for listening.
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