Home' HR Monthly : March 2018 Contents 28
If you were advising a renowned tech company
on how to find a stellar employee for a position
they've never had before, would you tell them
to start their search in a bar? Definitely not --
and you would have missed out. Because that
was the beginning of anthropologist Genevieve
Bell's move to Intel in 1998.
But after 20 years of working in the highest
echelons of the US tech industry, through the
heady days of the early internet and the rise of
smartphones, Bell has returned to Australia. She
is now a professor at the Australian National
University, and an upcoming AHRI National
Even before giving the 2017 Boyer Lectures,
she had established herself as a fascinating voice
in the world of technological development, one
bringing historical and cultural perspectives to
conversations that all too often lack both.
HRM talked to her about her career, the
future of workplaces, and how HR professionals
can shape the conversations in their
organisations around changing technology.
GIRARD DORNEY: You're credited
with establishing user-experience as a
"recognised competency" at Intel -- which
means you've dabbled in a little HR work.
To introduce you to our readers, could
you talk about how you managed one of
GENEVIEVE BELL: I was just stubborn,
persistent and really difficult.
When I joined Intel it had Moore's Law as
a guiding principle. So the company had the
notion that microprocessors would halve in size
and double in speed at a knowable cadence and
at an economic advantage.
My question was, where are the
microprocessors going? And people would
just look at me and say, 'what?' And I'd ask,
what are people doing with them? Again they
Part of what I did was getting people to think,
when we're done, what will the world look like?
I think that's good to have as the starting point.
Another part is motivation. You give people
a clear sense of: "Why now, what about this
moment demands change?" And it can't just be,
"Because we said so".
GD: You say that how we frame things
matters, and that the history of technology
can tell us a lot about the present.
GB: Yes, I think a thing that happens with
technology is that we get seduced into thinking
it has just arrived. The reality is that most
technology has a complicated back story. It's full
of earlier attempts at regulation, and stories and
ideas that are embedded in the technology.
AI is a good example. We've spent a lot of
the last two years talking about AI as if it just
arrived fully formed. But the reality is the first
conference to spell out an AI agenda was back
in 1956 -- by a bunch of mathematicians and
research scientists, about what it would be to
teach a machine to think like a human.
And they were reliant on the work of
behaviourist and psychologist, B.F. Skinner,
who had a very particular idea about how the
human brain worked. But contemporary AI
thinkers no longer remember that their ideas
came from Skinner, the result is that many are
working with unhelpful assumptions.
Giving things back a history; reminding
ourselves that these technologies came out of
particular places, moments in time, particular
funding bodies, and particular questions is
important for understanding why they look and
feel the way they do now.
I have a colleague in Silicon Valley who jokes
that had the personal computer been invented
by a bunch of women, you'd be able to take it
apart and stick it in the dishwasher.
GD: You've spoken about how privacy is
being lost in our daily lives; our data is given
to companies and used in ways we have
no control over. Do you think that same
dynamic is taking place in our work lives?
GB: The notion that companies are keeping
track of employees is a longstanding anxiety.
Think about punching into work -- clocking in
with time cards and time sheets. Most of that
management of a workforce was highly visible.
There was a card in a machine, there was a door
you walked through.
When [Henry] Ford was building up his
workforce in Dearborn, Michigan, he had a
thing called the Five-Dollar Day program. It
was this new form of payment -- it was a highly
paid job, five dollars a day was a lot of money »
How should HR be talking about the critical issues of AI, automation, and privacy at work?
Anthropologist Genevieve Bell o ers her perspective.
BY GIRARD DORNEY
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