The CIO's next hire: Digital anthropologist

What else are your technology systems for but to help people work together to get things done?John Mahoney, Gartner

The digital environment is turning anthropology -- a field associated with the study of remote or ancient tribes, often with scant contact with the outside world -- as the ticket to one of the hottest roles today.

Gartner vice president for the CIO Research Group John Mahoney says an anthropologist understands how groups of people work together to get things done.

"One of the skills that effective digital organisations increasingly need is the skill to design a digital environment in ways people can use [effectively]," he says.

"Only a quarter of CIOs worldwide have the right capability in their IT organisation. This is bad news as capability will change further and faster in the next five years."

And this is where the digital anthropologist comes in, he says. "What else are your technology systems for but to help people work together to get things done?"

WATCH: Gartner's John Mahoney talks about working with a digital anthropologist.

A digital anthropologist can study how a community of individuals experience work, for example how the marketing and sales people work together.

Very few organisations today employ these roles. Some of them are organisations like Google, Amazon and Intel. "Apple has a campus full of them," he says.

In the case of Intel, he says, "they recognise that in the second half of the information age, their future viability as a company will be not in making faster chips. It will be in the ways those chips are used to help people run technology, and build their lives. It is the effect of technology rather than the technology itself."

Where to find these people?

"The answer is straightforward," says Mahoney. "Go to a local university with a department of anthropology," he says, and ask for students who can help you.

They can also be recruited from other social science departments -- fine arts, history and literature. Sometimes, he says, it is about deliberately recruiting people from a non-traditional background to answer these questions.

"Almost any undergraduate student now is completely enmeshed in the digital environment," he says.

The new fieldwork

HP executive Anneliese Olson says the concept of 'digital anthropologist' is not new.

When Olson joined HP worldwide research analyst over 15 years ago, this type of work was known as "ethnographic research".

"It is the same concept, watching, learning how people are working, what kinds of patterns they are following," says Olson, who is now vice president of computing solutions for HP in Asia Pacific and Japan.

Olson is still involved in similar work through HP's customer advisory councils, which assess designs for future or new HP products.

"We do that by bringing them to HP or go out into their environment," says Olson.

As to what is the best background for people doing work, Olson says they should have a foundation for understanding how to talk about someone's [work] ecosystems, discuss with them what they are doing and "really observing workflow".

They should also be able to do follow up interviews and have discussions with people about their "pain points" for instance, in using certain devices, says Olson.

Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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