Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Bridging the Gap between Ethnographic Practice and Business


At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I was enjoying a salad with a technology executive, in your typical CES “let’s grab a quick lunch in between two meetings that are only one hotel but somehow one hour apart from each other”.

The executive was describing all the research that his company has conducted over the past year or two, when in between hurried bites he said flatly: “We are awash in data”. He then took a bite, gave a little shrug and a look that was either an ask for help or an indication that all this eating on the run was giving him indigestion.

If there is one thing I hear out in the world of driving innovation and new product, service and experience development, it’s this: companies are good at generating research. They don’t need more data. It’s easy for companies to commission research and receive piles of reports and insights that end up on the “what now?” pile.

What they need is to understand what the information means, and what to do with it.

At Claro, we like to say that “insights are not enough”. This is our reminder that there is a gap between gathering insights, leveraging them to build a true understanding, deciding what best to do about it, and ultimately driving the top or bottom line.

You can very easily draw a parallel between this and the healthy tension that exists between the ethnographic practice and business.

The business side, with its obvious importance by being close to the company’s revenue, finances and operations, is often embroiled in the pipeline. This naturally creates the motivation to go forth and make stuff happen, without much perspective, let alone a deep understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Having been on the business side for all of my 20+ year career, I can attest to this magnetic pull. I can confidently say that in my experience of running and advising companies and organizations, their focus on the pipeline, on the here and now, is the single biggest roadblock for company strategy. It may sound like simple business basics; but it happens everywhere.

As more than one Global 500 executive has said to me, “it’s amazing how often we move forward without really knowing what we’re doing”.

Yes I understand that if Henry Ford had listened to his customers, he would have made faster horses. It’s absolutely true (and beautiful) that companies like Apple, Disney, Nike and other innovation leaders make visionary decisions because “it’s the right thing because it is”; but once you get past that vision, you need a perspective to guide you through the strategic and tactical reality that is the execution of that vision, the space that exists between the vision and the pipeline. But because your customers are those who think they want faster horses, you can’t simply ask them what they want. You need to build empathy and understand their behaviors, needs and challenges in a deeper way.

On the flip side, ethnographic practice flexes its muscle by being the closest to culture, society and behavior, which means they should understand the customer (internal and external) better than anyone else. This gaze allows for a true understanding of the business challenge, where you can then draw on cross-cultural examples to bring to the surface different perspectives and design new business outcomes.

But where ethnography falls short is when practitioners are satisfied with the academic exercise of gathering of data and insights, and when they build deep understandings that are not translatable by laypeople into actions that can help drive business outcomes and, ultimately, the top-or-bottom line.

Like Claro’s Abby Margolis said in her blog last December, The False Promise of Actionable Insight: insights are great, but not much can be done with them unless they can be turned into tools that show a path forward, and reveal the associated business models and unmet needs.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what matters to corporations. If you can’t show how you’re driving the top or bottom line, you’re useless. A great employee experience enhances productivity, company culture and employee satisfaction, which in turn drives recruiting, retention, output…or so says the Human Resources team. Brand awareness drives sales, increases profitability and improves recruiting (which in turn improves productivity)…or so says the Marketing team.

What does research on the retail experience in Tanzania exactly do for me?, asks the North American Fortune 500 technology company.

This is the dilemma, and the point where both ethnographic practice and business need to reach across the aisle and come together.

Now to the fun part. How do we build this bridge? And are we talking about traversing a chasm or a creek?

I personally believe that while philosophically there might be a chasm between a business mindset and an ethnographic or anthropologic mindset, the gap preventing the two sides from being stronger together is not very wide at all.

It all starts with mutual respect and understanding.

The business side needs to immerse itself in the realities of the world they’re living in. Business people (especially executives) need to expose themselves to the insight gathering process. We often take our clients to meet their end customers and participate in 1:1 interview and immersive activities. In fact, not only do we encourage them to participate, we get them as involved as they will allow—sometimes beyond what they’re comfortable with.

In some cases, the clients had never actually met their customers before, or had only met them in controlled, narrow environments. In all cases, the clients went back to their suburban corporate campuses or high-rise downtown offices with a better understanding and appreciation for what their customers are going through in their lives, and how this directly and indirectly affects how they would/could interact with their product or service.

Researchers need to respect the business mindset. Despite being ethnographers or anthropologists by trade, they do work for businesses after all. Why should they be held to a different set of standards?

To bridge the gap and avoid being awash in data, business leaders must develop a true understanding of what are the right questions to ask and to whom; and ethnography must deliver the answers in a way that actually solves problems and drives the top-or-bottom line.

Okay, so you’ve built a mutual respect and understanding. What now?

You have to physically bring everyone together. Workshops, sharing, ideation or co-creation sessions … call them what you will, but they need to happen. Get the business people out of the weeds and get the research folks into the business. There is a visible difference in social science folks that are attuned to the business, as they are able to translate observations into ideas that are relevant and make business sense. Similarly, there is a difference in the business people who are grounded in an understanding of the behavioral and cultural factors that influence their customers today, and will influence them in the future.

Having multi-disciplinary, cross-organizational, and maybe even cross-company or cross-industry teams come together—and not as frenemies or in a coopetition, but as true collaborators—is the only way to break down the walls, expose the elephants in the room, and get to the right answers.

Claro Partners is an EPIC2015 Sponsor.



Chris Massot, Partner, Claro Partners

Chris Massot is a Partner at Claro Partners. He is a business leader and strategist with a long history of guiding companies through the reinvention and evolution of their businesses. Before joining Claro he was the CMO of Synapse Product Development, where he helped transform the company from a boutique engineering firm into the pre-eminent engineering product development agency in North America. With more than 20 years’ experience in technology, product development, design and manufacturing, Chris has helped to create products and experiences that include the Microsoft Xbox, Nike FuelBand, Disney MagicBand and NFL’s Connected Stadium. He has worked with the Gates Foundation, Apple, Google, Starbucks, Samsung, Intel and a host of startups to develop innovative products that have enhanced consumer and end-user experiences worldwide.