HRExaminer Radio Executive Conversations Badge Podcast Logo

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations: On Friday mornings, John Sumser interviews key executives from around the industry. The conversation covers what makes the executive tick and what makes their company great.

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations

Guest: Martha Bird, Business Anthropologist, ADP
Episode: 372
Air Date: July 17, 2020




Important: Our transcripts at HRExaminer are AI-powered (and fairly accurate) but there are still instances where the robots get confused and make errors. Please expect some inaccuracies as you read through the text of this conversation. Thank you for your understanding.

Full Transcript with timecode

John Sumser 0:13
Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. I’m your host, John Sumser and today we’re going to be talking with Martha Bird, again. Martha is the anthropologist inside of ADP and our man in Havana for so many things. So Martha, how are you?

Martha Bird 0:32
I’m very well, John, thanks for inviting me. It seems like it’s been a while but every time we get together, I’m always looking forward to our conversation.

John Sumser 0:40
I bet I’m the only person who’s called you, our man in Havana, ever.

Martha Bird 0:45
I think you’re the only person who’s ever referred to me in that way. So, see, we’ve already started something very unique here.

John Sumser 0:50
There you go. So take a moment and introduce yourself so that the people who haven’t listened in to one of our conversations remember who you are.

Martha Bird 0:59
Sure. I’m Martha Byrd. And as John said, I’m an anthropologist I work inside ADP. I spend a lot of time with people trying to understand how they make meaning with digital tools that we build, and even higher level, really trying to get a sense of the patterns that I’m seeing outside in the world and how some of those patterns, cultural patterns actually, have implications for the things that we’re creating. So I get to apply academic anthropology in industry settings. And I think personally, it’s really one of the most exciting spaces to be in because a lot of the work that I do actually gets to bear fruit in the real world. It’s a practical affair. And those are the kinds of things that I like.

John Sumser 1:41
So tell me the story, I can’t imagine that sitting in the shoebox in kindergarten, you looked up at the sky and said, I’m gonna be an anthropologist when I grow up, and then I’m going to do it inside of a very large company.

Martha Bird 1:59
I’m glad that it didn’t actually evolve in quite that way. So, I was playing in the sandbox, I’m sure. And I remember planting turtle eggs and hoping something would come of them. But I moved on from there. And I ran a farm for many, many years as an adult, it was family farm in New Hampshire. And I have wintertime kind of off because there wasn’t really much going on in the field. So it seemed to me I should be keeping myself a little busier on other things, and I entered into a art history program in for graduate work I actually have a undergraduate degree in philosophy and art history, I think we discussed that we share some common interests there in terms of philosophy part. And then I realized that art history really wasn’t the direction that I thought I would want to take. And I kind of shopped myself around and was fortunate enough to be picked up by Boston University and they very generously provided me many years of doctoral research time and finances and then ultimately, after about 10 years, they said, Okay, it’s time for Martha to go. And I left with a PhD in cultural anthropology, which at that time, I realized there were a lots of anthropologists actually working in industry. And I moved from New Hampshire to San Francisco where I sort of began my, you know, the last 20 years working with tech companies, trying to understand customers, but more really, than understanding customers just really trying to, you know, honor the reality of everyday people. And that brought me to lots of interesting geographies where I was able to apply what I knew.

John Sumser 3:36
What a great adventure. I think most careers are kind of like that. Not all. Some people actually do the same thing their whole lives, but we don’t hear enough about stories like yours. And it’s my sense that they’re the norm. So now you’re busy anthoapologizing inside of ADP and the world blows up around Valentine’s Day this year. All of history came to a grinding halt and we got into this new thing that we’re doing. How does that change your work?

Martha Bird 4:08
Yeah, you know, it’s true that being an anthropologist really implies like collaborating directly with people, you know, people both near and far, so traveling. And a key tenent, really, of the application of anthropology is showing up in the places where people make their meaning. So it’s spending time with, you know, as they go about their lives, you know, observing their interactions with people and all the stuff of their daily life. Of course, listening actively for what they hold valuable and what they believe. And then how they embody these beliefs is kind of the bread and butter of much of what we do. So yeah, my work in this particular respect is changed, I think. But one thing that most anthropologists learn in the course of their, you know, academic and professional careers is to, to adapt and pivot as necessary. So, you know, even as I’m working at home, it’s clear that there are many emerging patterns to observe, especially in how those of us working from home are getting on with it. Off course, how one works from home like everything else, and this is the point I always like to make John, is that it’s really heavily context dependent. So, you know a small apartment in the city, young children in need of attention, older children frequently bored you whether you have strong or weak Wi Fi poor broadband no broadband, you’ve got great digital tools just okay work arounds, all these factors and many others besides I think influence the sort of heterogenic realities and how work is happening.

John Sumser 5:27
I love the phrase, showing up for people make their meaning. That’s, that’s awesome. I’m gonna wander down that for a little bit. What in the world do you mean? Where people make their meaning? That’s a great turn of a phrase. Unpack that a little bit.

Martha Bird 5:44
Well, I think when we think about people doing stuff, for instance, think about a crew on a film production set. You know, we think about the end product an awful lot and in a sense, we don’t really think about it. So that’s part of the point as well. I mean, things happen. And then the people like ourselves, watch it on TV. And we think, oh, wow, that’s really interesting. You know, it creates a certain sentiment or whatever. But then there’s all this other stuff that goes on. In order for that to be delivered to us. There’s a lot of other places that meaning happens in order for that to come onto our screen. So what does that mean? It means really understanding how different crews work together, how they speak to one another, because there’s a whole language there that’s used across these different crews, you know, the tools that they’re using to get things done, which is an entirely different meaning systems than the one that we consume at the end. And so for me, being in the place where people make meaning is actually being in the how this stuff actually happened. Not in the end result, but what all those things look like.

So, in our business, you know, building digital tool for HR, we really have to spend time really understanding how practitioners make meaning. How does what words do they use when they’re discussing certain things because it probably Not the same that I would use, and perhaps you would use, but they have their own language, they have their own processes, they have their own way of, you know, working around challenges. And so we want to understand those things from their perspective in order to, you know, ensure that we’re taking that into account as we build digital tools for them. So it’s really about, you know, we spoke before the show went on about onions, it’s really about peeling back the onion and sort of getting to the core of things before just starting at the surface. So it’s really about like a deep and rich interpretation of how people you know, get together and agree what’s going to be normative and what’s not going to be normative. And then of course, you add the dimension of different cultures, and of course, all those things may happen differently.

John Sumser 7:43
I love it. I love it. I think I might be tempted to say that you could use the idea of value creation interchangeably with meaning creation, but I think the idea of meaning creation gives it more reality so I really like that. And I really like the way that you simply articulate the difference between what we do and what the people who consume what we do experience. It’s easy to forget that those two things are so different. So moving on, ADP moved 60,000 people from centralized to remote work. What was that like?

Martha Bird 8:19
It’s interesting that you asked that question because I think it ties into what we’ve just discussed. And so, you know, I personally found the move amazingly smooth and maybe even unremarkable in a sense. And so it’s like, one day I’m in the office and the next day I’m working at home, you know, and so when something is so easy for me, I tend to ask myself, if it was easy for me, then who was it difficult for, or at the very least, to put in the effort to afford me such ease? You know, I believe most of us can use this exercise productively really to reflect on a whole range of goods and services we enjoy because others have done the heavy lifting, so to speak. You know, in any event, I’m pretty certain that lots of physical and technical and thoughtful shadow work went into making the move of ADP you know, 58,000 plus workforce from centralized offices around the globe to a remote work reality relatively easy for the vast majority of ADP associatesd. So now that we are discussing this it strikes me that, you know, hearing these stories, the stories of the people that created these for the rest of us, hearing these maybe understanding these better, would be really super fascinating, you know, direction to put my attention towards. I’d imagine that, you know, people on the facilities team so as an associate technical support, know those in charge of employee health safety, the HR department for sure, those responsible for an employee communication, and so many others would have some stories to tell that I’d personally like to hear. And I really thank you for the question, because I think it’s a it’s an interesting questions in my own mind, and things that I haven’t probably given sufficient thought to, but I think that well, I like a lot of people may take for granted.

John Sumser 9:52
One of the things that I’m thinking about heavily right now is, maybe a story’s good to describe it. We will In a place where the wildfires come every year, and last year, they got really close. The neighbor’s yard burned and we were evacuated for two weeks. And so we had three hours notice we jumped in the car with whatever we could figure out to take and got out of there so that we didn’t die. And then we spent the next several weeks waiting for the all clear shape. And while we were evacuated, we have a life and the life had work inside of it. We have lots of things that looked like normal, but it was really very temporary and very thin as a reality. But as we got used to it, it seemed more and more normal. And so so this is the long way of getting to, we’re in this new mode, and it’s starting to seem normal, but it seems to me that there are some significant things missing from our experience that we aren’t really paying attention to yet because we’re still all waiting for the all clear signal so that we can go back to normal. What do you think?

Martha Bird 11:07
Yeah, I think thinking about something that I’ve been getting a lot of thought to to, and it sort of reminds me that we idealize. Well, I think this notion of normal, I think an awful lot about the fact that my normal is wholly different, or at least significantly different than, you know, a lot of people’s normal. And what might be new to me isn’t actually new to somebody else. The way I frame it for myself is around this notion of like emerging realities. So it hasn’t been set yet. Now, I think you raise the interesting point that there’s this like horizon line, and we’re waiting to kind of return to that this point that we’re all looking upon. And I think really what’s happening is that as we’re in this evacuation that you described, we’d be well to take time to reflect on perhaps the different horizon line that we’re now headed towards instead of thinking that we’re going back home as the home that we love. So I think it’s a very interesting pause for thought and sort of always in the back of my mind to think about that. Because I think there’s a lot of productive things that can happen during that time away. The one that you described when you went away for a couple weeks, I’m waiting for the, let’s all go back to normal back to our house. You know, things change. And whether we acknowledge it consciously or not, it does happen. And I think that the more that we can be intentional in terms of thinking about our lives, our context and our place in the world, I think the better off we are.

John Sumser 12:29
Yeah so still this is now we’re nine months later, every time I smell smoke in the air I start to pack. And so there’s this post traumatic memory that you develop after times like this, but there are other things. I don’t know if you run across Ben Waber yet, he’s the co-founder and president over at Humanyze in Boston, and they measure organic network behavior in organizations. And these numbers are not going to be perfectly precise, but Ben’s view is something like a normal organization individual people, on average have six close ties. They’re people, you spend an hour a week with and around 30 secondary relationships for 15 minutes or less per week. And there’s a subset idea, which is that which is more mine than his, I think, which is that the people who spend time together think that they’re the people who create meaning. But it’s those second order relationships that you don’t spend much time in where the real value is created in an organization. So now you’ve got post pandemic you’ve got 25% more close ties and 75% fewer loose ties, do you see similar things? And you get this idea that maybe the reality is really thin and we’re not doing all the value creation that we think we’re doing?

Martha Bird 13:49
Yeah, I mean, I think that those are interesting data points. And I’m not familiar with that work, but I think it’s definitely raises some interesting thoughts. So you know, on the surface of it I can see how this actually makes sense. Practically speaking it’s a lot of additional effort, you know, to set up a video conference or a 15 minute call, or all of those secondary relationships you described. And those might, you know, obviously be conducted in person, sort of serendipitously, you cross paths, or you get to step aside for a moment and have that brief conversation. Or an alternative, you need to collaborate and share and brainstorm, you’re likely to spend more than 15 minutes doing so. So in that case, your close ties, you know, those that you would historically spent that longer period of time with, are going to get more of your screen time. It’s interesting, because as a person, I tend to cultivate close ties as a general practice. And they have many more than I think, six close ties that you cited. So I might not be the best proxy for that. However, think about all the in person meetings many of us have found ourselves in throughout the workday. Sometimes the questions and the discussions raised in these meetings might be more productively direct through a team chat or a company wide productivity and sharing platform. So let’s face it, some people really like to talk and in those instances in person meetings go beyond what might be truly necessary. So you know, I think so. How this practical imposition of technology that many of us who are working from home are facing is a sorting mechanism for the priority of value creation. So, but I do agree with you. And I think, you know, you cast an interesting lens on the data, which is a lot of meaning happens sort of in the margin, in the corners, in those 15 minutes, secondary tie interactions. And that is something that I think that is missed when we’re working in the way that we’re working. So I think that’s something definitely worth considering. And I also think that may be part of what I hear sometimes about which is this hybridised return to work, working from home a majority of the time and then maybe going into an office location once every few weeks. And for those who are contemplating this, they’re really thinking about the office time is the time for this sort of interpersonal relating for probably renew the possibility of the serendipitous get togethers and these sidebar conversations, which I agree with you I think are hugely valuable.

John Sumser 16:01
Yeah, the reason that I started thinking about that, is I’ve been looking at job hunting again. 3

I’ve studied that over the years, and there’s never been a situation like we’re in and about to be in for Job Hunters. And the general wisdom about job hunting is that you never get your next job from your close ties, you’ll always get your job from your second or third order ties. And so that suggests to me that there’s a value or meaning creation mechanism that isn’t well understood, because the people who are at the center are also the people who asked the questions about how value is created. You can’t form a committee of loose ties. You have to form a committee of close ties and so it’s really hard to see into the glue that holds organizations together is what I’m discovering. So you have a first row seat at a change in organizations. What do you see as the differences before and after?

Martha Bird 17:01
Yeah, I guess for me, it’s really about a deeper commitment to thinking of your colleagues more on a human level. So, I can only speak from my own self and my own organization. But you know, I think there’s more awareness in a sense it’s forced awareness that your colleagues actually are people with actual lives that they’re leading. So, they live in a place, they have certain things hanging on their wall they have, you know, they might have kids or pets or parents around. I think there’s a kind of humanizing awareness that’s going on, which I personally think is super valuable for all of us. And I think alternatively, I think there has to be a concern for those people who are not keen on showing up on video or sharing how they’re feeling. And that’s where I think a manager has to really be a manager, a leader, and try to reach out to those folks and see how they’re getting on.

John Sumser 17:58
Got it. Got it. So getting to the end of this, one of my big questions these days is I’ve watched so many companies throw themselves headfirst into the mechanics of survival and the mechanics of supporting survival, that it’s like everybody left their post and went to go join the firefight. And I wonder if you’re seeing people either losing their way because they’re so busy fighting the fire, or, if there are elements of business continuity that you see changing, because our attention is diverted from the mission?

Martha Bird 18:37
Yeah, I like this point that you make quite a lot. To me, I kind of think of it as like the forest and the trees conundrum. So I may be looking at it slightly differently. But for me, what I’m understanding is that people are rushing to fix or patch along things, can be tools, procedures, policies, without actually first stepping back and asking, why are we fixing this in the first place, you know, or taking pause to reflect on the history of the things. And if it even is going to be relevant going forward. You know, if I think of a metaphor, it’s kind of like ensuring you paid for your newspaper home delivery when online is the dominant source of news. So, I think we spend a great deal of time running on wheels without really stopping to ask, why are we doing it? So in this sense, I guess if I were to offer some practical advice, I’d say ask why. And ask it again. And again, I mean, this technique was developed to get to the root cause of issues instead of really fixating, you know, on the most obvious ones, and the most obvious ones, or the ones that we generally, I think, take for granted.

It reminds me actually of the story of the elevator. And I don’t think I’ve shared this with you before, but I really love it. Which is the you know, the elevator in a high rise apartment building was really slow. So the tenants were complaining that it was too slow and complained to the landlord, you know, and then the landlord thought, okay, we’ve got to fix the slow elevator because it’s really going to cause us trouble down the line. So, they came up with a whole bunch of ideas like let’s retrofit a new one or lets increase the carry carrying capacity, the old one. And no one really stopped to ask why, why was the elevator slow. Or more to the point what about the experience of riding the elevator made tennants feel like it was slow, or was it even the ride itself. And it turns out that it was really about the waiting and not so much the movement up and down. It was like people felt that they had to wait too long for the elevator. And one of the solutions that was I think, ultimately adopted was, create some sort of distraction, entertainment mechanism that could help people lose track of the time of waiting. So, then the elevator didn’t become too slow. So I think what happens is we often react to things and when we really should be reflecting on them. While I think it’s difficult to take pause, I believe that it’s really extremely important now more than ever to really ask why.

John Sumser 19:34
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. So last question. It’s an inflection point. And so I’m curious about the questions that are entertaining you and what you think you’re going to be thinking about in 90 days.

Martha Bird 20:56
Yeah, you know, I’m actually extremely interested by the semantics of terms that we’re hearing a lot like virtual, remote, distributed, in working from home, because I think on the surface of it, they seem to describe the same thing. But I suspect they really are, in fact, really distinct cultural imaginations with very, you know, really very material and technical implications. So I’m actually looking forward to unpacking some of that nuance. Because I think when someone says, I work virtually, they may not be saying the same thing as the person who says, I work from home. I think there are different expectations, and different sorts of ways of doing things that are implied and those two things. I’m just very interested to try to get a bit more applied more critical thinking to terms that I think we generally just take for granted as interchangeable.

John Sumser 21:41
So as you start to make progress, we should have another conversation. As usual, this was delightful and engaging and I’d love to hear what you’re unpacking. So thanks for doing this. Would you take a moment, reintroduce yourself and tell people how they might get a hold of you?

Martha Bird 21:57
Sure. So I’m Martha Bird and I’m an anthropologist working at ADP and I can be found on LinkedIn where I welcome making connections with a broad professional community. So don’t be afraid to connect with me.

John Sumser 22:09
Thanks so much, Martha. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations and we’ve been talking with Martha Bird, who is the amazing business anthropologist working in ADP’s Roseland Innovation lab. Thanks for tuning in. Thanks again, Martha. And we will see you back here same time next week. Bye Bye now.

Read previous post:
The Culture Challenge: Individual Excellence Doesn’t Scale

“HR, I’m telling you now: the future of culture has a piece of work automation software sitting at its center.”...