Why tech needs the Humanities

“I want to study Social Anthropology” can be a worrying statement for any caring parent who wants their child to have a long and prosperous career. Recently, the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) backed up this fear with hard numbers; their annual “competency barometer” shows that only four percent of employers want to hire graduates in the humanities. As the Head of User Research at Telenor I find it disheartening that expertise within areas such as languages, literature, philosophy, history and anthropology are not sought after in a variety of industries. In my opinion, any company that wants to thrive in an increasingly globalised world needs the humanities to survive!

So what can students of the humanities bring to a company, in particular those in tech?  Steve Jobs was a huge proponent of the arts and humanities, famously stating, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” For a company to create the next big service or product loved by millions, they might need a computer scientist or an engineer, but the technology is only part of the equation.  A deep human understanding of you, and your needs, is equally important as the technological aspect. Without cross-functional teams, covering both technology and the user, most of Jobs’ achievements would have been impossible.

The canary in the coal mine

The NHO survey in Norway has raised concern – and rightly so! For the companies surveyed, and the economy as a whole, this pattern by employers should be seen as the canary in the coal mine. If we are to create products and services that “make our heart sing” we need students who have skills in critical thinking, writing, and human-centered research methods, just as we need students trained in the STEM fields. A company that relies on an academically homogeneous workforce will have gaps in their skillset, and is also at risk of acting as an echo chamber, rather than a fertile ground for innovation.

Part of my mandate as the Head of User Research is to create a culture where our customers are front and centre, by ensuring that we understand their needs and wants firsthand. One of the ways I am trying to accomplish this, along with a team of great user researchers and designers, is through creating partnerships with local universities to foster connections between technology and the humanities. As a former Professor of Anthropology I see great value in forging strong ties between academia and our company.

From AI labs to work placements

Our partnership with academia takes many shapes and spans a wide area. In Trondheim, we collaborate with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) to establish and run an Artificial Intelligence lab at the campus and have recently announced a new IoT lab accessible for students in Trondheim. These are related to competencies and studies close to technology and our core business.

Erica Gibson, PhD & Head of User Research, Telenor Group, says the humanities are important to the technology sector and beyond.

On the other side of the spectrum, this spring Telenor co-sponsored a research competition on communication in the Social Anthropology student community at the University of Oslo (UiO). We awarded a prize valued at NOK 10,000 to the winner, along with a day at Telenor to see how the skills they are learning in their academic programme can be applied to the technology sector.  We continued this collaboration and right now Telenor and a number of other businesses and organisations are partnering with UiO’s Bachelor course, “Anthropology in practice”, which looks at how to apply this theory outside of academia. As part of this, Telenor has hosted two students for a research project on privacy in technology. Today, I will also support by giving a guest lecture when the course visits the Telenor campus.

The students from UiO with Erica (blue scarf) and Professor Marianne Lien (back row, right)

Walk the talk

Not only do we support academically, but we aim to walk the talk. Telenor has been proactive in hiring graduates from the humanities. We employed graduates within psychology and also anthropology as interns this summer – in fact, the anthropology graduate recently accepted a full-time position with one of our teams. Another student is currently writing a proposal to work on a project in Myanmar with Telenor for her Master’s thesis next year.

Our support of academia and hiring of students with competencies outside of science and technology should not be thought of as charity, but rather as trendsetting. We do this because we see a need for their skills within our company, and because we know that we are more likely to succeed when people with different academic backgrounds work together. What I learned when I read the results from NHO’s survey is that students of the humanities are an untapped resource, one being taken advantage of by very few companies in Norway. Through our collaborations with UiO and their Social Anthropology programme – from bachelors, to masters, to graduation, I’m confident that Telenor is leading the way by showing the importance of the humanities to the technology sector and beyond.

Erica lecturing the “Anthropology in practice” students visiting Telenor today