The most interesting question tossed to a panel of business anthropologists this week in Minneapolis was whether companies should want a business person who’s been taught a little anthropology or an anthropologist trained in business strategy.
It’s the kind of question that didn’t have an obviously wrong answer in this group. On the other hand, they couldn’t answer for the CEO back home, who just may get it precisely wrong by responding, “Neither one.”
This whole idea of using an anthropologist in business, doing work called ethnography, might seem impractical to hardheaded executives who maybe have never heard the term. But it’s well worth learning at least the basics.
Just think, wouldn’t it be good to go outside the office to interview and closely observe customers and potential customers actually doing their work or even just making their way through their day? Now ethnography doesn’t sound ivory tower, it sounds like common sense.
In-depth ethnography can take months if not years, but this kind of research can also be as basic as watching a hotel room shower get cleaned or standing in the kitchen as a parent hustles to feed kids 10 minutes before the school bus arrives. The point is to understand how real people solve their problems with the tools they have.
The business anthropologists in Minneapolis this week came for an annual conference called EPIC, co-hosted this year by the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and the university’s anthropology department.
Their panel discussions had different titles but really just one topic, and that’s how researchers can make their work more valuable to their employers. That may have reflected a little job insecurity, but it’s more likely they are frustrated that corporate executives still don’t quite get what they do.
It’s the kind of in-depth research that doesn’t easily lead to a full database of numbers or series of elegant charts. The boss knows what “market research” is, yet that doesn’t quite describe what they do, either, as an admittedly small sampling of job titles at the conference didn’t turn over any in marketing.
Rather the conference participants seemed to work in an internal skunk works or other research and development role, and their backgrounds could just as easily be electrical engineering as anthropology.
At lunch, business professors and researchers took turns explaining why this work has grown in importance.
One reason is that the old tools of market research don’t work as well as they once did. Customers once loved getting surveyed, felt important for even being asked their opinion. Now, after the fifth survey request in a month, any new request gets quickly sent to the trash folder.
Another is that data tools have improved so much that executives can boast of their “data-driven decisionmaking.” Yet the best leaders also understand the limitations of the computer model and will ask to be shown a very clear picture of the problems of a real person who could one day use their product.
If you still can’t imagine how firsthand observation of real people could be really useful when the CEO only seems interested in data, you should take a car ride with my wife. Watch where she puts her purse — exactly where your left elbow will want to go. And that’s only because Volvo didn’t bother designing a better place for it.
The researchers this week also worried about the boss becoming an instant ethnography expert. By the laughter in the room, it’s clear some worked in organizations where the CEO might leave the building briefly and then come back to turn a project upside down to solve a problem that somehow was gleaned out of one quick conversation.
“Yeah, it’s a real problem,” said the London-based consultant Simon Roberts, responding to a question during a panel discussion. Confirmation bias was just one of the worries, he said, the strong tendency, hardly unique to CEOs, to only “see” information that confirms what people were thinking all along.
Yet Roberts advised bringing business managers along on field research, not for a quick tour but to invest some time into watching, listening and learning.
For executives wondering how to make time spent observing worthwhile, a great place to start is a just-published book called “Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills.” If it seems no one should need to read 171 pages to learn how to look around, you’re not giving the idea — or author Jim Gilmore — nearly enough credit.
It was Gilmore, an Ohio-based consultant and author, who pointed out the purse storage problem in a Volvo, my eureka moment. He called his book “all about the tools to see the world in ways you don’t normally do in your daily life and work.”
He used the metaphor of looking glasses to make his points, such as putting on rose-colored glasses. This is the skill of looking at a far-from-perfect concept and looking past the details that seem wrong, instead trying to see only the value of what could be a very promising idea.
One of the ways Gilmore answered the question of where to look was by telling his story of once being seated next to the late comedian George Carlin on a cross-country flight.
Carlin at one time had been one the stars of so-called “observational comedy.” Gilmore said he had congratulated Carlin for seeing funny things in everyday life the rest of us missed. Carlin objected, pointing out we all see the same things the comics did, or else no one would laugh at a “have you ever noticed” joke.
What set the comics apart was that they had worked out a way to mentally drop observations into the right file, to pull out later in a way that’s funny. And here’s the punch line of Gilmore’s Carlin story: Carlin recorded his daily observations in one of about 2,500 separate categories.
For a senior manager with a full calendar, there’s never going to be enough time for that kind of obsessive observational work. Yet that’s also no excuse for never leaving the office.