Reshaping business culture through the eye of the beholder
Ethnography, though not a common term in the staffing industry, is a pivotal and deeply observational approach to marketing in the business world. It didn’t start that way, though. Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. It’s designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. From its origins in anthropology, ethnography evolved into a popular practice within the social sciences: sociology, communications, history and any field in which people study human behaviors and interactions from specific cultural perspectives.
As Julie Wittes Schlack of C Space discusses in her fascinating Harvard Business Review piece on ethnography: “When it comes to discovering unmet customer needs and innovation opportunities, there’s no substitute for in-the-moment, in-context observation for making meaning out of the complex weave of emotion and rationality that drives consumer behavior.”
With the ongoing rise of social media, wearable smart devices, and apps for recording and sharing information, MSPs have a virtually untapped goldmine of valuable workforce data they can use to improve processes, innovate new solutions, streamline staffing efforts and propel program performance to new heights.
Ethnography: a new way to humanize Big Data?
One unique aspect of ethnography is the manner of its data collection. Researchers explore cultures from the vantage point of a society’s members. Think of it in terms of contemporary journalism. Rather than receiving military communiques from the frontlines of conflicts, today’s reporters are often embedded with troops to record the unfurling details from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. In a business context, the use of ethnological methods has led to groundbreaking results.
In the 1920s, for example, 3M engineer Richard Drew pioneered the company’s flagship product by observing automobile assembly workers. At that time, dual-tone cars were all the rage. To paint them, workers struggled to shield the finished portions of the vehicles from the next coat of color by using newspapers. It was a problematic and inconsistent solution. Drew immediately identified the need for an easier, more effective process and came up with the concept for masking tape.
However, as Shlack points out, traditional ethnographers “follow subjects around or even temporarily move in with them to note the compensations, workarounds, and rituals associated with some specific product, task, or routine.” Today, that approach isn’t practical. Another issue comes from a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum: the presence of an observer can sometimes influence the observation. In other words, when a person is conscious of being watched, some level of behavioral change is likely to occur. If a researching were tailing you around, would you watch bad TV in your underwear or would you dress sharp and read a book?
“At the same time,” Schlack writes, “technologies like selfie sticks, Fitbits, and wearable video cameras are making people comfortable monitoring their own calorie consumption, sleep patterns, heart rate, friends, family, and daily experiences.” More than that, digital sharing technologies and social media offer three significant advantages: they’re just as revealing as in-person ethnographers, they’re less intrusive, and they either provide or integrate with tools for data analysis.
The virtualization of ethnography
By next year, according to studies, nearly two billion people worldwide will own a smartphone. With that naturally comes unprecedented levels of access to apps that encourage information sharing — both personal and professional. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a surge in social media usage. More people consume videos, post intimate details about their aspirations, review businesses and connect with others through these platforms. Beyond facilitating interactions, these media are really aggregators for ethnographic data.
Consumer insight specialists are already using these technologies to enhance their research. Social media allows them to delve into the minds of shoppers and analyze their reactions to products — what confuses consumers, pleases them, surprises them, captures their interest or turns them away.
When launching an initiative to improve its collection of Secret deodorants, as Schlack explains, Procter & Gamble created a mobile ethnography app where women could upload photos, videos and narratives that illustrated the types of scents they found most pleasing. Researchers received interesting and unexpected results: images of Play-Doh, freshly painted birdhouses and trimmed lawns. The team at Procter & Gamble incorporated this feedback into a new product line that reached the market in record time and exceeded anticipated sales forecasts.
“The stories accompanying these pictures highlighted the ways in which, over the course of an ordinary day, the women appreciated the power of scent to fleetingly elicit other times and places,” Schlack notes.
Using social media for ethnographic recruiting
This type of virtualized ethnography isn’t just reserved for retailers and product manufacturers. Hootsuite’s #FollowTheSun campaign capitalizes on social media to augment hiring efforts. A few months ago, the social networking company decided to use a video sharing service called Periscope to showcase its employment culture to prospective talent around the globe. Workers of all levels across the enterprise used streaming video to highlight the business culture, environment and colleagues.
“Sites like Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat currently share billions of active users,” Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes wrote when describing the inception of #FollowTheSun. “More importantly, those users have grown used to broadcasting details of their lives. Sharing intimate, personal moments through photos and videos has become an accepted form of mass communication. In other words, the culture of social sharing has matured to the point that something like Periscope is viable.”
Beyond promoting Hootsuite to potential talent through a slick campaign driven by employees-as-brand-ambassadors, the company also culled vital ethnographic data about its audience. These sharing apps can map onto existing social graphs, link to networks like Twitter, immediately tap into existing audiences instead of building them from scratch, and collect data that can be analyzed. Twitter, Facebook, Periscope and others include enough information to measure likes, shares, impressions, profile visits, followers and more. They also allow administrators to delve into the characteristics of engaged followers — genders, age brackets, educational levels, regions, interests, career goals and so forth. This information proves essential when marketing positions to ideal candidates and for tracking diversity efforts.
Transforming workforce data into ethnographic data
To remain competitive in today’s evolving labor market, forward-thinking staffing companies have already invested in social media to recruit millennial workers. Each day, sourcers and recruiters enter a digital space in which passive and active job seekers have already shared or collected massive amounts of information on a daily basis. They’re also relying more on video-based interviewing and communications. As ERE noted: “Video, combined with the Internet, is a game-changer for recruiting. Used together they create a better candidate experience and raise the likelihood of a better hire. They also enrich recruiters by giving them a much deeper perspective on a candidate, in less time, than has ever been possible.”
MSPs are constantly gathering metrics and worker data to enhance their programs. Yet they and their staffing partners could find a wealth of new ethnographic information by focusing on the details found in the social media they’re using for recruitment efforts. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, Instagram, Snapchat and the latest breed of Tinder-esque recruiting apps are more than just momentary tools for socializing and connecting with talent — they’re untrodden frontiers of rich ethnographic staffing data. Now, combine that with the rise of wearable smart accessories.
According to new research published in the report “The Human Cloud At Work (HCAW) A Study Into The Impact Of Wearable Technologies In The Workplace,” employees with wearable devices increased their productivity by 8.5 percent and their job satisfaction by 3.5 percent.
• Social media become virtual suggestion boxes that help MSPs and hiring managers identify issues, potential innovations, productivity increases, pain points and areas that are thriving.
• Social tools enhance visibility into the current employment culture, empowering MSPs and hiring managers to refine and reshape processes to bolster engagement, morale and adoption.
• Social media and smart devices show where talent are spending the most time at work, the tasks they are performing well, the managers and colleagues they’re interacting, and their performance peaks and valleys.
• They can be used to measure time and attendance.
• They can be used to improve communication.
• They help ensure safety and health. About 90 percent of companies offer wellness programs, some of which encourage use of devices such as Fitbit. With workplace stress a leading cause of health problems, these tools serve as proactive means for eliminating risks before they arise, saving companies money in related care costs and maintaining the wellbeing of talent.
• They provide motivational tools to track progress and help sustain worker engagement.
• Ethnographic data enable MSPs and their staffing partners to identify the four essential talent types that drive business success, as defined by best-selling author and staffing expert Lou Adler: thinkers, builders, improvers and producers.
MSPs and their staffing partners can use ethnographic techniques to humanize data, optimize employment brands, boost performance and satisfaction, refine recruiting strategies, strengthen retention and productivity, increase diversity utilization or identify challenges, and build more targeted talent pools. In the second part of this series, we’ll look at some of the wider benefits ethnography brings to staffing.