Perspectives

Perspectives publishes leading global expertise about ethnography in business & organizations. Articles show how integrating theory and practice to understand human societies and cultures creates transformative value for people, businesses and the planet. If you’re interested in contributing, get in touch.

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Organizational Culture and Change

bertknot-escher via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
by KATE SIECK (RAND Corporation) & LAURA A. MCNAMARA (Sandia National Laboratories); EPIC2016 Paper Committee - Ethnography/Organizations & Change Curators Praxis is the bringing-to-life of a theory or philosophical position. It is the practical application of lessons learned through study and reflection. It is not simply what you do, it’s why you do it. Thus as the organization that specializes in ethnographic praxis in industry, we are the translators of ethnographic theory into action when applied to organizations and their cultures. As the discipline which specializes in the nuanced and contextual understanding of culture, ethnography offers a much-needed voice in these discussions. However, organizational science has tended to be dominated by industrial/organizational psychology, business management research, sociology and economics. In the resulting literature, ethnographic methods are often lumped into the category of “qualitative organizational research,” subsuming organizational anthropology to the more established...

Renewing the Corporate Social Responsibility Agenda: What Is in the Corporate Toolkit for Social Change?

by ED LIEBOW, American Anthropological Association & EMILIE HITCH, Rabbit; EPIC2016 Papers Committee, Ethnography/CSR Curators Business interests often claim that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is ‘the right thing to do’ and that acting responsibly is ‘good for business.’ Multinational firms have come together to create international conventions and business associations that establish and abide by audit standards for fair wages, safe working conditions, and they support the development and maintenance of public facilities and services necessitated by the additional local demands created by local operations. Out of an enlightened sense of self-interest, small and medium-size enterprises may also look out for their employees and suppliers, invest in their communities, protect the environment, and pave the way for a sustainable future. Yet many skeptics place firms’ CSR activities in a broader historical and cultural context, and argue that these firms have prospered greatly in lax compliance regimes, where they...

Urban Mobility and “Emerging Consumers”

by LAURA SCHEIBER, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais and EPIC2016 Papers Committee, Ethnography/Emerging Consumers Curator For several decades ‘Emerging’ has been a staple prefix applied to such entities as markets, nations, democracies, cultures, and business opportunities. The term has been used to label virtually anything about “less-developed” Others deemed “new” to the world of market-led consumption, especially by corporate actors looking for new markets and consumers worldwide. Work in this area ranges from bottom-up players in the repair ecology of ICT businesses in a place like Dharavi, Mumbai, to top-down initiatives like Facebook’s internet.org, aiming to provide basic internet (framed as a human right) to disadvantaged citizens around the world. It explores topics as disparate as the dynamic worlds of micro-entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprises; the desires of aspirational middle income groups in emerging contexts; or the strategies of actors near ‘the poverty line’,...

Making the Case for Cases, Part 1: EPIC Case Studies 101

by SIMON ROBERTS (Stripe Partners), GARY GEBHARDT (HEC Montréal) & MARK BERGEN (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), EPIC2016 Program Committee – Case Studies There’s a new format for EPIC2016: Case Studies. This post (and its companion Part 2) explains what we mean by cases, and what we are launching this format to achieve. Case studies in some form are not new to EPIC. Each year many presentations – be they full Papers or PechaKuchas – have taken the shape of loose case studies. But giving Case Studies a space of their own, with their own submission criteria, will lead to stronger case studies we believe. It will also encourage people to think more deeply about the relationship between ethnography and business impact, how EPIC can best fulfill its role in describing & documenting this impact, and how we can share it with audiences beyond the EPIC community. What We Mean by Case Studies Our vision for case studies is a method for teaching others about how ethnographic methods can be used to...

Making the Case for Cases, Part 2: Pathmaking

by SIMON ROBERTS (Stripe Partners), GARY GEBHARDT (HEC Montréal) & MARK BERGEN (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), EPIC2016 Program Committee – Case Studies (This post follows Making the Case for Cases, Part 1) Unlike the research stories shared in the past, making a dedicated space for Case Studies at EPIC signals it’s time for us to evolve cases as a genre. Summarizing last year’s conference, the EPIC Board writes: ...reflecting on the first 10 Years of EPIC, Jeannette Blomberg asked for fewer “just-so stories and more accounts of what is broken and what we can learn from it”—a reminder that while it is nice to celebrate our successes and tell interesting narrative case studies, we only push our practice and knowledge forward by dissecting that which fails and that which we do not understand. (The EPIC2015 Conversation) Indeed, even the best EPIC cases have sometimes come across as straightforward histories of inestimable success. We understand few people come to conferences motivated to...

The EPIC2015 Conversation

by Your EPIC Board: MARIA BEZAITIS (Intel), ALEXANDRA MACK (Pitney Bowes) & KEN ANDERSON (Intel) Every year the EPIC Board opens the published conference proceedings with a Conversation—a reflection on key ideas and passions afire at the meeting and a gateway to continuing those conversations together. 11 years of EPIC Proceedings are free in Intelligences: we invite you to search, read, comment and download. EPIC Members can also access EPIC2015 & EPIC2014 conference video. EPIC2015 was notable for so many excellent reasons. First, the conference took place in an extraordinary city with a vibrant and growing population of EPIC people. Holding the conference in São Paulo enabled an influx of new participants and presenters from Latin America, expanding the community and conversation with new colleagues and stakeholders as well as new ways of thinking about people that develop out of different cultural perspectives. Second, we celebrated our first double-digit birthday—10 years! Our birthday gave us the opportunity...

Strategy without Ethnography

by ZACH HYMAN, Continuum Thomas Hobbes famously warned that the worst instincts of “mankind” need strict management, control, and regulation. But what about the harm that results when we try to manage spontaneous systems too closely? I have been thinking with Robert Chia and Robin Holt lately; their book Strategy without Design is on my desk, and I’m nearly finished with their detailed accounts of how inflexible and myopic our planning and strategy can be. We’ve developed rigid and inflexible fields and disciplines, which have lead to similarly inelastic outputs. History is rife with examples of failed attempts to plan, manage, and control. The news these days is rife with them too—the misplaced ambitions of those who hope to design on a massive scale for a complex group of users. Take, for example, high priests of modernity such as Le Corbusier, whose Plan Voisin imagined the transformation Paris into “a chequerboard latticework of well-spaced towers and open, orthogonal roads” (Chia & Holt 36). His success...

Required Reading: Texts that Mattered

by RITA DENNY, Practica Group ded up by Rita Denny, Practica Group What texts had a profound impact on you in becoming the anthropologist or social scientist you are? I sent this query to colleagues on the anthrodesign listserv and contributors to the Handbook of Anthropology in Business. Initial responses escalated into an unexpected flood of (sometimes annotated) recommendations that, together, speak to the paths we’ve taken and the texts and mentors who mattered. Thanks to everyone who weighed in—it’s become quite a list! In parsing it, my goal was to illuminate, not definitively classify. First a few observations. If inspiration has been fueled by contemplation of geographic others (see Classics and Tales that Stuck), perspective has been honed by a gaze closer to home (see Work that Was Not So Far Afield) and by voices outside of anthropology (see Muses From Other Fields) whether in history, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, even economics. And it wasn’t just tales and texts. Contributors to this list were...

The Trouble with Job Titles: Getting beyond Buzzwords in a Shifting Employment Landscape

charlie chaplain's modern times
by MARTHA COTTON, GARY GEBHARDT, TRACEY LOVEJOY, ABBAS JAFFER — and you! How have professional skills & requirements for ethnographers and other human-centered researchers changed over the last 10 years—and where are they headed? How can you evaluate the confusing terrain of position titles and descriptions, as well as assess the organizations offering them? Post your questions, insights & ideas! This week, 1–4 December, join the EPx Forum for a free, online discussion with Martha, Tracey, Gary & Abbas. How to join: sign in or create a free account, then visit EPx Forum and click subscribe here Introductions Martha Cotton, Partner, gravitytank Back in the mid-90s when I was at eLab, researchers went through a brief period where our business cards said “Understander.” As a word, it fit to describe what I did for a living. But as a job title to communicate my role to others outside of my small ethnographer community, it was very hard to, well, understand. I have a memory of handing my business card to...

Melissa Cefkin / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by MOLLY SHADE, Hach Many of us have a kind of conversion story—that enlightening moment when we discovered anthropology at university or even later in our careers. But Melissa Cefkin knew she wanted to be an anthropologist by the age of fifteen. The daughter of a professor and raised in a college town, she was introduced to the discipline by a coworker studying to be a survey archaeologist. Recounting the experience, she remarked, “My first thought was, oh my God, if I study anthropology then I don’t actually have to choose between different disciplines! It’s a little bit of everything!” She was hooked. She obtained her B.A. in anthropology from the University of California Santa Cruz and went on to earn her Ph.D. at Rice University. Since 2006, she has played a major role in the development of EPIC, serving in multiple positions including President, Secretary, and Co-organizer. Melissa is currently Principal Scientist for Nissan Research Center – Silicon Valley (NRC-SV). Anthropology complemented...

Ethnography & Strategy: An ‘Open Letter’ from the EPIC2015 Salon

by JOHANNES SUIKKANEN, Gemic & TOM HOY, Stripe Partners A wonderful, diverse group actively participated in the Ethnography & Strategy Salon at EPIC2015 in São Paulo, and we’d like to share some of that experience with you. The Brazil group took the discussion into unexpected territories (just as we hoped) and now we call on you, the extended EPIC community, to take it further. Although diverse, we are all confronting many of the same tensions regarding how we use ethnography to drive strategy. In this sense, listening to parallel stories was useful for learning, but also reassuring (on a personal level) to hear how such challenges are widely shared. There is great value in addressing them together. By offering a summary of main themes and provoking questions from this salon, we invite you to extend our thinking. Many of Us Are Becoming Empathetic ‘Experience Stagers’ We started the salon with Tom’s story about a project in which he took the client to the field to experience firsthand what “real people” experience....

Evolution of User Experience Research

by KATHY BAXTER, Salesforce; CATHERINE COURAGE, DocuSign; & KELLY CAINE, Clemson University Ten years is an eternity in the tech world. But the speed of change makes the classic “decade of reflection” even more valuable for assessing which changes really count and why. We had a chance to reflect systematically on the last decade of user experience research for the second edition of our book “Understanding Your Users,” which was first published in 2005. Since then, user research has become more widespread and more sophisticated. It has also responded to challenges of faster development cycles while simultaneously contributing more, not just to product development, but to the bigger picture of strategic innovation. So among the noise of trendy terms and fashionable phrases we found five key trends that really do matter: 1. Usability to User Experience One of the biggest changes is the shift from a focus on “usability” to “user experience.” “Usability” is an attribute of a system or user interface (UI). It...

What Anthropology Brings to Innovation: John Sherry / A Profile

John Sherry
EPIC Profiles Series by HEATHER S. ROTH-LOBO, University of North Texas John W. Sherry, Director the Experience Innovation Lab at Intel Corporation, is a Keynote Speaker at EPIC2016—join us! “Anthropology is really undersold.” Dr. John Sherry’s words carry weight—he is Director of the Experience Innovation Lab at Intel Corporation. In addition to discovering ways to power innovation in this major multinational technology company, he works in Portland leading Oregon Smart Labs, an external business accelerator. I recently talked with John about innovation, big data, and lean startup. He has made it part of his life´s work to interpret the way markets move and ideas shift around, and his intimate understanding of these dynamics has been driven by his passion for solving social problems with a creative imagination. The mixture of these elements paved John’s successful career as an established anthropologist in a company known for and reinventing computing around the world. Anthropology is not only undersold,...

Sales-Driven Soothsayers: Corporate Anthropologists as Trending Trope in Today’s Public Imagination

by SARAH LEBARON VON BAEYER, ReD Associates My colleagues and I at ReD Associates, New York, nearly elbowed each other out of the way trying to snag our office’s copy of Tom McCarthy’s sleek new novel, Satin Island. Beyond making sense of the colorful oil or island-like blobs on the cover, we wanted to know: Is U., a “corporate anthropologist” tasked with writing an ethnographic report on our current era, anything like us? Most people take at least a passing interest in how others perceive them, and corporate anthropologists are no exception. While forensic and medical anthropologists are arguably the most conspicuous kind of anthropologist in America’s public imagination today, corporate anthropologists are increasingly visible in everything from fiction—à la Satin Island—to popular media outlets, such as The New York Times’ recent coverage of Genevieve Bell or Danah Boyd. Does it matter how corporate anthropologists or, for that matter, any other kind of anthropologist, are popularly perceived? In a recent issue...

Putting Death in Its Place: Using Ethnography to Redesign Death

by CORI MOORE, Point-Blank International & INGA TREITLER, Anthropology Imagination Ever heard about the “the turning of the bones” in Madagascar? Once every five years or so, families get together for a rambunctious gathering at their ancestral crypt as they exhume the bodies. It’s a very lively affair – family members share recent news with the deceased, ask for advice and blessings, and even take them for a little dance… Now, for many people, the thought of waltzing with the late Great Aunt Ingrid and asking her opinion of your new fiancé is downright inconceivable. But that’s not where our inhibitions begin. Let’s face it: most of us won’t even talk about “it” until we absolutely have to. It’s not just that death is not often thought of as appropriate dinnertime conversation. It’s more than that. Talking about death is stubborn and culturally rule bound – much to our detriment, it turns out. We’re in an age where there’s an abundance of human-centric services; a wealth of ‘smart’ things...