Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Advice for an Anthropologist Breaking into Business


“How do I make ethnography relevant to my company?”

This was the question that I took to Tracey Lovejoy (co-founder of EPIC, former Senior Manager at Microsoft, and founder of Lovejoy Consulting); Christian Madsbjerg (founder of ReD Associates and best-selling author of two books on applying social sciences to business); and Alexandra Mack (Alchymyx; formerly Senior Fellow at Pitney Bowes & EPIC Board Secretary). All three are leading lights in the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community who have invested their careers in a belief that observing and listening to human beings matters for better business.

A little over a year ago, after two decades of working on African migration issues in governmental and academic environments, I started a job at a large insurance company. I was attracted by the potential to use my training as an anthropologist to create better financial safety nets for people through the insurance industry. My managers were not looking for an anthropologist per se, but they let me know that my ethnographic research skills are what led them to choose me for the job. I am currently responsible for shaping the company’s consumer engagement strategy in our U.S. life insurance market.

As far as I know, I am the only anthropologist in the company. My first week on the job, I discovered the EPIC website—a treasure trove of articles, resources, and video, and a community of others doing what I am trying to do. The 2017 EPIC conference in Montréal felt like a professional family reunion for me. Before, during, and after the event I connected with Tracey, Christian, and Alexandra, who had this advice for me.

“Use your ethnographic skills to understand the company itself”

As I walk into work in the morning or take a business trip, I often feel a bond with anthropologist Evans-Pritchard going to study an Azande or Nuer village in Africa. My company is its own “exotic tribe,” and I am constantly asking ethnographic questions about it: how is the company structured, what do these people value, who holds the power, what is celebrated and how, what conflicts do they have, who calls meetings and for what purpose, what stories matter, what words and phrases are repeated, what has happened before I came, and where is this company trying to go next?

While Christian Madsbjerg and I shared lunch at a Montréal bistro before the EPIC conference began, our conversation turned to a class he was preparing on the topic of observation. We discussed books we love that beautifully illuminate the value of observation. Christian recommended J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine for its careful observation of a bird, while I praised John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the window it offers onto a migrant family’s journey.

Participant observation is a mainstay of the ethnographic method, and it matters because to adequately understand any phenomenon, whether it’s a business in the U.S., an ethnic group in Africa, a bird in flight, or a journey for survival, you first have to notice it and find words to frame what you have seen. As I experiment with posting on my company’s internal blog, I am learning that by writing about what I see about my business, I can also begin to influence what others see.

Key articles:
A Case for Ethnography in the Study of Corporate Competencies, Christian Madsbjerg et al
Turn and Face the Strange: An Ethnographic Approach to Change Management, Mads Holme

“Find your allies”

Like me, Alexandra Mack has had the experience of being the sole anthropologist in her company, so I was curious to hear how she made ethnography valuable in her work environment. “Who are the key stakeholders in your company?” she asked me. “Get to know those people. Build relationships with them over time. Listen to them. Understand where they are coming from and how you might help them.”

Tracey Lovejoy said much the same thing. She advised me to “build trust through small wins.” She did this at Microsoft by coming up with solutions for quicker user feedback. But getting the ear of the right people is what she credits for her longer-term, strategic influence at Microsoft.

Key articles:
Tracing the Arc of Ethnographic Impact, Donna Flynn & Tracey Lovejoy
Evolving Ethnographic Practitioners and Their Impact on Ethnographic Praxis, Alexandra Mack & Susan Squires

“Frame the questions”

One of the first things Christian said to me over lunch was, “You should be sitting with the data scientists.” Really? Could I, too, start to think of myself as a data scientist—one who looks at different kinds of data in new ways?

In the context of my job, I am paying attention to the huge amounts of social media data that hold clues for us on how to segment and market to life insurance consumers. Although I do not have computer science skills in Natural Language Processing, I do know how to frame questions about communities of people. Social listening studies are just one context in which an ethnographic perspective on qualitative and quantitative data could yield insights about what is valuable to people and what services they need.

Alexandra affirmed this view, encouraging me to “Give people new stuff to think about. Focus on the whys behind their numbers. What questions should we be asking of our data? What big data should we be tracking, for what purposes?” Elizabeth Churchill, Director of User Experience at Google, further emboldens me to pursue this approach. She argues, “there has never been a better time for an ethnographic embrace and a reconfiguration of what it means to render meaning into big and small data.”

Key articles:
Big Data or ‘Big Ethnographic Data’? Positioning Big Data within the Ethnographic Space, John Curran
The Domestication of Data: Why Embracing Digital Data Means Embracing Bigger Questions, Dawn Nafus

“Push ethnographic thinking on business strategy”

The longer I am at my job, the more I understand the company’s business needs, and the better I can formulate a role for myself in shaping business strategy.

Gathering academic insights about people, as interesting as that is to me, is not viewed as relevant—no one has time to read the carefully researched 25-page papers I used to write. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I could focus on making tactical changes to user interfaces or creating “clicky content” for beautiful websites. These things are needed and even helpful—but they are not strategic.

Alexandra said it this way: “Think beyond launching user-friendly products. Push ethnographic thinking on business and organizational strategy. Ethnography is not about how you are going to reach your sales goals. It’s about what kind of company you want to be.” Now that is interesting!

But a newbie like me cannot come out of the starting gate with company-shaping suggestions—I simply don’t know enough. Tracey wisely advised a staged approach: show your worth to key people in small ways and then insist on a seat at the table with them when strategy is being discussed.

Key articles:
From Inspiring Change to Directing Change: How Ethnographic Praxis Can Move beyond Research, Carolyn Hou & Mads Holme
Strategy as an Unfolding Network of Associations, Tom Hoy & Tom Rowley

“Find a group of peers who won’t be scared of all your ideas”

Tracey recently led an EPIC Talk on the topic of “common mistakes of catalytic leaders.” Apparently it is not unusual for them to experience a “storm of ideas.” If they process these aloud with the people they manage, their subordinates are likely to freak out, worrying about what the ideas might mean for their jobs. Well, I can definitely generate an idea storm, although—since I don’t manage anyone—my colleagues are less likely to think my ideas are scary. That’s why I need a group of peers. That’s why I need EPIC. It provides me with a community of people who already see the value of bringing ethnography to business. I can learn from others’ successes and find a sounding board for my own thoughts and experiences. I’m glad to join the EPIC conversation.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

What advice do you have to give?

Special thanks to Christian Madsbjerg, Tracey Lovejoy, and Alexandra Mack for sharing their time and wisdom with me. I’m also grateful to Jennifer Collier Jennings for encouraging me to write this and for her helpful editorial feedback and suggestions for key articles.

Photo: Silhouette of woman using digital tablet device in city at night, with illuminated and blurry commercial skyscrapers in the background. © Swiss Re

Shelly Habecker works for Swiss Re in its life insurance business, which is a great place to create and develop better financial safety nets for people. She is Swiss Re’s Consumer Engagement Specialist, working as part of a New Solutions Group innovation team to help shape and implement Swiss Re’s strategy for enabling clients to more effectively engage consumers in digital ecosystems. Prior to this, she spent two decades working on African migration and economic development issues in the public sector and academia. She holds a DPhil in Development Studies from Oxford University. The common thread in her career has been her passion to use an anthropological lens to understand people better, to communicate what she learns effectively, and to apply insights she has gained to make things better wherever she can.



Shelly Habecker, Swiss Re