Research as a Vehicle for Organizational Transformation
A week or so ago I had the opportunity to speak with Lou Rosenfeld about my career and our second Advancing Research conference, for which I am the lead curator.
After abandoning the world of academia, Natalie Hanson found an innovative way to connect with other ethnographers: she founded a new community (Anthrodesign)!. This year, she brings her community-organizing talents to the second Advancing Research conference as Lead Curator. She joins Lou to share her own story and the story of the conference, offering a sneak peek into what we’ll cover — and what the conference might look like five years in the future.
Lou Rosenfeld: Hi. You’re listening to the Rosenfeld Review, we’re just those proverbial blind men trying to figure out the elephant. I’m your host, Lou Rosenfeld and I’m here with my friend, Natalie Hanson. Hey, Natalie.
Natalie Hanson: Hey! Good to be here.
LR: Great to have you, yeah. Natalie and I have had this kinda weird relationship, in that we’ve been working together for years. You were the scribe at the very first conference that Rosenfeld Media produced back in 2015, and we called it Enterprise UX, and then it became Enterprise Experience, and we’ve been doing it every year. And then you were our scribe for the first few DesignOps Summits and then here, I knew you and I knew… I worked with you and you were like this fixture in my conference life, but I didn’t really know you because we hadn’t really worked on a project together. And I sort of had this cloudy picture of Natalie Hanson. And then we decided to launch a new conference and community to go along with it, the Advancing Research Conference and Community and Natalie has been the lead curator of that conference, which is coming up March 10th through 12th, virtually. And that was like this great opportunity over this last year of working more closely, two years really, on the conference. We’re coming up on our second year to really, kinda dig into your experience, your knowledge of research and your vision. So that’s a really long and gratuitous build up to your intro. [chuckle]
LR: So Natalie’s a principal and partner at ZS, which is a management consulting firm, which if I understand it is (a), growing by leaps and bounds, and (b), it’s especially busy in the healthcare sector, and those two things sure go together. And she’ll tell us a little bit about that work. Natalie has a Masters in Whole Systems Design, which is a really interesting topic, maybe we can touch on that. And another Masters and a Ph.D. in Anthropology. And you already may know her as the founder of Anthrodesign, an online community focused on the use of ethnographic methods in the business setting, so that’s Natalie. You’re doing this really interesting work, you come out of anthropology. Now, I knew you were involved in Anthrodesign as a founder and EPIC, the EPIC conference and community as well, can you give me a sense of what was that all born of? How did you decide to start this new community and all the things that grew out of it? Were you … Were you like me? When I do these things, I’m usually frustrated and pissed off about something, or you a little more enlightened and kind-hearted?
NH: I was in the midst of my Ph.D. at that time, and it was a pretty academic program, and it was becoming increasingly clear that I was not gonna end up in academia, and I’m looking …
LR: Can I ask why actually, ’cause I’m one of those people, too. I crapped out of my Ph.D., too.
NH: It was the pace. It was just not varied and fast enough for me. I was restless, I would say. And I had spent most of my career in different kinda technical jobs and later ended up in software specifically, and just the pace of software development and the pace of consulting work is really more suits my sort of, energy level. I just felt like things didn’t change fast enough in academia. But I realized that I was … I needed to find other anthropologists that we were doing the kind of work that I wanted to be doing and so I started to look for … And as part of my preparing for my comprehensive exams for my master’s degree, I had to build a body of literature that I was gonna reference in my dissertation. So I started looking for these practicing anthropologists and started to find places like sort of, if you look at the genesis of this field of ethnographers working in business, the team at Xerox PARC under Lucy Suchman and then later, there was the Institute for Research on Learning in San Francisco, which is the origin of the term Communities of Practice. And there were people there like Gitte Jordan and Melissa Cefkin and others, who really shaped how we bring ethnographic methods into the business setting.
NH: So I started to network with them and see what are their careers like, what kinds of jobs do they have, what kind of job might I have? And so put the list … It was a Listserv at that time, it’s also now a Slack community, but it was at that time, it was just a Listserv, and it started to organize in-person gatherings at major anthropology conferences, and it blossomed into this wonderful community. It was small at first, but small, relatively speaking, we would have a dinner at one of these conferences where there would be 20, 25 people, all of whom were doing similar work and none of us had known each other, but we met through this sort of burgeoning network. In the beginning, I think most of the first 90 or 100 people were all anthropologists. Most of them PhDs, most of them sort of loosely connected. And then it really just grew, exploded from there and it’s been now active for the past… I think we’re coming up on the 20-year anniversary, 18, 20 years, something like that.
LR: So there wasn’t a community of much substance in anthropology or business-facing anthropology?
NH: It was the business piece, so there’s a little bit of a split in the world of anthropology between the academics, pure academics and those doing … There’s three, there’s sort of three distinctions. One is academic, pure academic, one is applied, so people that are doing work in academia, but sort of touching on business problems. And then there’s true practitioners who are making their living in business, and it was really those practitioners that … When you’re deep in your own business problems in your own business community, you don’t necessarily get time to build those relationships and find other people like you, so that was… For me, it was really initially about making those connections, and why I called it Anthrodesign was because I was working full-time while I was doing my Ph.D., and I was building my first UX team, before UX was a common word.
NH: But when I looked around at what I needed to do, I had done my first ethnographic work, what did I need? I needed a designer, because I had all these ideas, but I didn’t have a way to bring them to life, right? A lot of it was very intellectual, and the designer was the one that made it real, and I started to really look at and appreciate how those two fields complemented each other. So the idea, Origin of Anthrodesign is really about recognizing that value of interdisciplinary collaboration, first with designers then anthropologist, and now of course with engineers and data scientists and all of the other teams we need to work with in order to do our best work.
LR: It’s also interesting that you sound like you, in order to build the team for your work setting, you needed to build a community first, and that’s kind of a…
NH: I did. That’s a little bit my personal style, right? So, I don’t know if you’ve ever done the Gallup StrengthsFinders, if you’re familiar with that, that survey instrument, it’s pretty cool, it’s grounded in positive psychology, and it basically says, “If you know what you’re good at or what your strengths are, you can bring those things to work.” So, my strength finders, my number one is input, and it makes sense to me as a researcher that input was… So I’m driven by having data and doing that reasoning based on having a body of data, so for me, figuring out what the career opportunities were, what problems needed to be solved, what my future might look like, I did… ‘Cause I’m a researcher, that’s what I did, I went and did a body of research, I built a social network and used that to gain understanding. And it’s funny, those first conferences where I proposed panels and topics back in 2003, 2004, I was the convener of those panels but I didn’t speak ’cause I didn’t have anything to say, I didn’t even know what…
LR: Or so you thought.
NH: Yeah. Well, at the time I didn’t, I really didn’t, I was still in school and I wasn’t doing that kind of work, I was doing tech support, I was working in an IT group doing tech support. So, I just … At first I was just a convener until I got to the point where I had my own stories to share.
LR: So interesting ’cause I feel like for me it’s been the opposite, I started knowing something and regressed to convener. Anyway, but did you find … So first of all, the conference you’re talking about where you were convening is Epic, right? Or is that a different conference at that point?
NH: No, this is pre-Epic, right? So, Anthrodesign was founded… I have to go back and look at the dates, it’s in this blog post that we’ll link to the podcast, but just order of magnitude, I think Anthrodesign was founded in 2002, and Epic in 2004 or something like that, there were a couple of years apart. So in those in between years, it was just Anthropology Conferences, the American Anthropology Association meeting, the Society for Applied Anthropology. And we would start to put panels together as we got to know each other about things we had in common, to learn from each other and to share ideas. And then Epic, the really sort of tremendous value of Epic, which is a community in its own right now, but the real thing at the time was there was no published body of work about what we were doing, so if you wanted to come out of a PhD program and become a practicing anthropologist in business, there was no material to say, “How do you do that? What do those jobs look like? What kinds of problems do you solve?” None of that really existed, there’s very, very little. So, a little bit of it through the American Anthropology Association, but not much. And so, the fantastic thing about Epic, double-blind peer-reviewed published proceedings was that it started to create, and it has over the past close to 20 years, built a body of work that now the future generations of whether designers, or researcher of various flavors can learn from that and not reinvent the wheel.
LR: So, I’m curious about how you felt about Anthrodesign and Epic back then when you were helping or actually starting them, or participating in that versus how you feel now. So, your arc and the communities arc, did they stay aligned over many years, or is there a point where you feel or felt like, “I’m not sure this is really my home anymore?”
NH: So I will say that, there is a special connection, especially for those people that I met in person at the beginning, there’s less than a hundred of them that I had dinner with, I was in a job at that point where I was traveling all the time all over the country and all over Europe, and so I was having dinner with people and building connections. And so there’s definitely that feeling of having a tribe and that felt really good, but it’s true that my career has changed a lot, and I do Anthrodesign still as a labor of love, but more and more that’s being turned over to Epic, which is kind of a long-standing non-profit organization that has same… The way it was designed by Tracy Lovejoy and Ken Anderson was to build it as a … Anthrodesign is depending on me in its current form, but Epic has a governing body, it has by-laws, it has a treasurer and has all those things that give it staying power.
NH: And so I think given the close connection between the two, Anthrodesign will become more and more the responsibility of Epic over time, and that’s their main communication channel is through that list, ’cause that’s where the interested folks are. But for me personally, I spent the early part of my career after I finished my Ph.D. in Anthropology as a researcher, so I hired a designer and I was the researcher, we were a team of two, and then over time, I hired … The next hire for me was a Human Factors Engineer because I felt like my research chops were pretty limited. I’d only learned one method in my PhD program and I needed others, usability testing, surveys, all that kind of stuff, so I hired a Human Factors person and an information architect. So at the beginning, there were four of us and that was … We each did everything, we all did everything, but pretty quickly that team grew over the course of those years, it quickly became a team of almost 20 people working on board-level projects.
NH: I was at SAP at the time, which is a big software company, and so I was in management, I did research for the first year. I did one or two projects where I was really in charge and very quickly because I had been in the business world and I had been in this operations management role while I was doing my PhD, so I was already a mid-level executive and a director at a Fortune 500, Fortune 100 company. I was quickly pulled out of research and I’d have teams … Teams would be running research projects and I’d say, “Hey, bring me in for the analysis and synthesis. I wanna be in the data with you, I wanna learn with you, I wanna help you tell that story to the executive.” But it happened pretty fast and so as much as I still identify as an anthropologist and as a researcher, I think as I look about my career now… So I manage a team that’s 120 people, it’ll probably be over 150 by the end of this year, just not in the details, of any kind. And so as much as I love the research, it’s not something I can be in every day anymore.
LR: So it sounds like you’ve come to or came to a bit of a crossroads in your career and… That’s probably a good time to take a quick break. You’re listening to The Rosenfeld Review.
LR: I’d like to catch my breath in the conference side of things. We just put two on this autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere, we just did Enterprise Experience and Design Ops in the last couple months, and I can’t rest easy because we have another conference just around the corner. It’s Advancing Research 2021, it takes place virtually March 10th through 12th, and it is a conference for researchers by researchers. I’m working with an incredible team of curators, led by Natalie Hanson as well as Jamika Burge and Steve Portigal. This is the second edition of this conference, we are really trying to push research forward. This is not just a conference on how to do the basics of different varieties of user research, but this is really taking things a bit further because research … If you are involved in it, you know that we’ve reached a tipping point, a lot is going on, and so that’s why we started the conference in 2020, and why we’ll be continuing it on for the foreseeable future. If you wanna know more about the conference, please go and check out Advancing Research Conference. Research-driven by researchers and for researchers. We hope to see you March 10th through 12th and again, it’s virtual.
LR: Hi, you’re listening to The Rosenfeld Review. I’m your host, Lou Rosenfeld. We’re here with anthropologist Natalie Hanson. Right before the break, we had reached this point in your career arc where things were shifting from being a researcher and a practitioner and you were starting to have to build out a team beyond research, but you were still the researcher and then you got to a point where you had to really scale up research and it sounds like really more broad UX teams and you moved into more of a senior leadership role in a very large organization. Talk a little bit about how that transition has been for you and what does research mean when you’re actually sitting at the table?
NH: Yeah. For me, the work is definitely grounded, everything that we do is grounded in human insights, not always … For sure not always ethnographic methods, it’s not always practical, not even usability testing. Sometimes it’s a question of sitting with a technical support team and understanding what calls are coming in, sometimes it’s working with data scientists to understand how they’ve accounted for human behavior in their algorithms. We do a lot of collaboration with market research, we do a lot of … Especially on the consulting side of our work because they have different kinds of relationships and connections and access to stakeholders and our clients than we do. So I think for me, what’s exciting … So I’ve built a set of adjacent teams over time, it started with just the UX team and a product organization, and then it was the UX team and consulting, and then it was a front-end development team, and so those are … They’re related and they never felt like…
NH: Yeah, they took me out of the day-to-day work of research, but something like Front-End Engineering, for me, it’s important ’cause you can ensure that if those engineers report to you, you get the pixel perfection that you want out of your mock-ups. So it’s the level of controlling the life cycle of the things that you’re building, which I think is really a cool place to be. And I think for me also, it’s funny, I don’t think of myself as being particularly ambitious, but I am ambitious about the kinds of problems I wanna solve, and I think the more people you have and the more variety of people you have under your direction, the more complex problems you can tackle, you can think about … Instead of thinking about a feature set or what to put in the next Epic in the product backlog or something like that, you’re thinking about portfolio-level strategy, product portfolio strategy, you’re thinking about how to use research to drive organizational transformation or better patient outcomes, really big, big ticket items. And that to me is what’s really exciting about what I’m doing now is the kinds of problems that we can solve as we keep human insight at the center of the work that we do.
LR: Do you find that your background as a researcher is also helping you as a leader and manager of people?
NH: It helps me navigate organizational culture, both my own culture and the culture of our clients. I think we’ve talked before about Christian Madsbjerg’s work and the first book that he wrote. He talked about the importance of understanding your client’s culture as much as you do understanding the market that they’re trying to serve because the client culture is the thing that determines whether those insights will be used and absorbed and used to change how the client goes to market. If you don’t understand what makes things tick inside the client, then you won’t be able to … You won’t be able … Those insights will collect dust. I think that’s probably the most important thing is really that lens of organizational culture. How do our clients make decisions? How … power dynamics, those kind of things.
LR: How do you keep that arm’s length, step back perspective on your own organization as you observe it? You’re part of it. Does that really muddle the ability to observe?
NH: That’s interesting, so in anthropology, I think there’s an acknowledgement that it is … That is a wicked problem of its own and that’s why the method is called participant observation, because you’re an observer, but you’re inherently … By being there, you affect the outcomes and so I think it’s just something you think and reflect and adapt to from the beginning is just by being present, you’re implicated in the change and your own choices, you have agency and that agency has an impact. And I think that’s one of those places, I think, where you look at in anthropology this division between the academics and the applied and the practitioners is the practitioners have just said, “We’re here to make the business change. We’re not gonna apologize for that or pretend,” and I think in some of the other parts of anthropology, there’s this desire to observe and not transform, but I think just by the nature of observing, you are making change.
LR: I just have this picture of people in your position struggling to not have an out-of-body experience observing themselves inside their organizations as they change their organizations. I imagine…
NH: Some of the best advice that I got … So for me, I had, I think, typical of people of my generation, I’ve only had a couple of really big career moves and I spent almost 15 years at SAP, and then I left to go to ZS, and those companies could not be more different culturally. And the beginning was really, really hard. SAP is German and Israeli, so it’s very command and control, very hierarchical, very orderly. And ZS is very different, it’s a company that has grown organically by partners coming up with great ideas and building new service lines and new areas of the business, new client relationships, and the way decisions get made is very organic and lateral. And so I struggled tremendously at the beginning to make that change and then I had a friend, an anthropologist, in my network say to me, “You need to treat this as an exercise in observation and step back and look at ZEISS as a culture to be analyzed so that you can figure out how to operate within it,” and that was what turned the key for me. I was like, “Oh, if I treat this as a research exercise, I’m gonna be fine.”
LR: That’s amazing that you can have that. It’s so complicated, that impartiality and ability to participate at the same time. Now, let’s take this to Advancing Research, the conference. This is the one that Natalie is the lead curator of this year, so I have to plug it one more time and say it’s taking place March 10th through 12th virtually. First year, last year sold out and virtual … I guess they don’t really sell out, but we’re certainly expecting a great crowd. What are the… So if this nexus where you’ve become a leader and a manager and a partner in a large organization, so you have that seat at the table, what does it mean to actually advance research for you and how has that translated into the program of the conference?
NH: Yeah, well, as you know, we did, and I think you communicate this pretty clearly, but we did a bunch of research to inform the program design and then that was reinforced by the responses that came back on the call for papers and out of that emerged three areas of interest. And the program’s targeted at mid-level researchers, people with… Not that it’s not beneficial at all levels, but particularly I think for people with five to eight years of experience, for example. And so these ideas of who are we as people, what makes us tick, how do we grow ourselves as practitioners and as people? And then the practice itself, how is the field of research evolving in a way that we need to be cognizant of and prepared for? And then the last one for me, which is the one I’m most passionate about, is this idea about organizational transformation and saying, “How do we use research as a vehicle and our role as researchers as a vehicle for organizational transformation?” And when I looked at the submissions and the things that came in, I think most researchers are focused on how do they develop themselves as people and as practitioners, how do they develop teams, how do they maybe get into some leadership roles, but I would say the area that I think needs …
NH: If we’re gonna get to this idea of Advancing Research, the area that really needs the most develop is this idea of organizational transformation. How do we talk to executives, how do we get that seat at the table, how do we make sure that we’re solving big, big problems, not just how to get the right feature and the right product and get the product out the door on time of high quality, but really macro, macro questions. And I think … If I think about if I have people in my organization that are eight years in their career, they should be getting into management and leadership roles and increasing responsibility, and I don’t want them just looking into the details of research, I want them looking up and out about what they’re doing and how does it make meaningful change? And I would say…
LR: So it’s not a conference … Yeah, it’s not a conference to go to if you wanna learn how to do a particular method better, we’re really stepping back from that. If you were to leap ahead in your time machine to Advancing Research 2026, do you think that those themes… The program themes would be very different or would it just be maybe a little bit more oriented toward things like organizational transformation?
NH: I hope it changes ’cause we’re gonna have a cohort of researchers that are growing and maturing and becoming leaders, and there will be still those … More junior researchers that are 3-5 years into their career that still wanna learn how to do usability testing or customer satisfaction surveys and I think there are places for them to do that. But if I would say the two things that I think are most important and near and dear to me, one of them is the concept of interdisciplinary collaboration, which since the founding of Anthrodesign has always been a passion for me, and at that time it was focused on anthropology and design, we know about the importance of collaborating with product managers if you’re in a product organization, but now this whole wave of, “How do I work with data scientists? How do I work with market researchers? How do I learn enough about AI and ML so I can meaningfully contribute, both research and design into that practice?”
NH: And I think that my aspiration would be that the conference presenters came from those varied fields, that it wasn’t just … I don’t wanna say, just, ’cause I think it’s a great program, designers, or design researchers, or social scientists talking to each other at this conference, but that it’s truly an interdisciplinary dialogue about how do we elevate and learn from each other and take the best of each of these disciplines to make more sophisticated human insights than we can make today. And then of course, yes, organizational transformation. Again, not just solving the future set problem or the immediate research question, but really saying, “What’s the bigger problem? What’s the bigger thing we’re solving for here?” In our case, for example, when we do work in digital health, it’s improving the lives of patients. Things that have meaning and not just turning the crank on an agile development process, but really looking for how do we have meaning and how do we connect human insights to get to those kinda meaningful change. We wanna make it a social level or institutional level.
LR: Those two themes you mentioned arguably are really interdependent. To have organizational transformation, you probably really need to have interdisciplinary collaboration.
NH: Yes, yes. Yeah, I remember in one of the first Enterprise UX conferences and at that point, I’d already been in many enterprise like in business roles, I wasn’t there as a UX person at first, but I was there as a businessperson, and there was this one presentation, I don’t remember who it was now, it was quite a few years ago, but it was this sort of idea, “You need to be friends with IT and HR in legal,” and I was thinking, “That is so … ” To me, that was so obvious, but for people that were just coming into enterprise roles and enterprise engagement models, it was noble. And so I’m hoping that we’ll look back in five years from now at what we’re doing in the same way and saying, “Oh, that was so basic and what we’re doing now is so much more advanced than what we were doing then.” Hopefully, we get there over the next couple of years.
LR: Do you remember when we didn’t know how to talk to developers? [chuckle] That was so funny, so quaint.
NH: Yeah. [chuckle] Yes, yes.
LR: Natalie, we have to wrap up, but before we do, I wanna ask you if you have a little gift for our listeners, something you think they should know about?
NH: Yeah, well, just based on my history and my bench, ethnographic methods for me is my… Has always historically been my preferred method. I think it’s the most strategic in the sense that because of the richness of what you learn and the nature of the questions that you ask when you’re doing ethnographic research, and so for me, the EPIC conference and online community, and then Anthrodesign. So Anthrodesign is focused exclusively on ethnographic method, it’s a wide variety of researchers and designers and even engineers that are involved there, but that’s an active community, both a Listserv and a Slack that I think people would enjoy being a part of, if they’re interested in that method.
LR: We’ll make sure we have the link in the description and…
LR: I knew it’d be good to have a little bit of dedicated one-on-one time so I could really finally get to know who are.
NH: Yeah. Alright, Lou, thank you so much, it was a pleasure getting to connect.
LR: Natalie, it’s always a pleasure. Been enjoying working with you for years now, especially these last couple years on Advancing Research. I’ll put my last plug in for it, it takes place March 10th through 12th, a fantastic program brought to you by our curators, Steve Portigal, Jamika Burge and our lead curator here, Natalie Hanson. And if you wanna know more about Natalie, follow her on Twitter @ndhanthro, and I didn’t know you’re on Instagram, @faeriewigs, F-A-E-R-I-E-W-I-G-S, faerie, spelled the old-school way. Alright, Natalie … Oh, and nataliehanson.com, of course. Natalie, it is fantastic talking with you and we’ll see you in March.
NH: Likewise. Take care.
LR: Thanks for listening to the Rosenfeld Review, brought to you by Rosenfeld Media. If you like our show, please subscribe and review it on iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite podcast platform. I’d love it if you’d tell a friend to have a listen and check out our website for over 100 podcasts with other interesting people. You’ll find them all at rosenfeldreview.com.
From the Rosenfeld Media website: Natalie Hanson has been working and researching at the intersection of business strategy, technology, social science, and design for fifteen years.She is currently a Principal at ZS, where she leads the User Experience practice. The UX team at ZS engages in research and human-centered design for enterprise software and custom client solutions. As an anthropologist, Natalie’s research has focused on work practices and work environments. She has a special interest in how institutions respond and transform in response to macro-economic, industry, and regional trends, and how the resulting organizational changes affect the lives of employees. You can learn more about Natalie at http://www.nataliehanson.com, and more about the online community of ethnographers she manages at http://www.anthrodesign.com. Follow Natalie on Twitter (@ndhanthro) and Instagram (@faeriewigs).