Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Considering Ethnography in Various Business Settings – What Is Success?


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Between Hype and Promise: Two Decades of Becoming

The invitation to participate in this panel has been an occasion for a personal reflection on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re heading. The “we” here is not all encompassing, but instead references the people with whom I have shared all or part of a journey that began more than two decades ago. I want to begin by recounting a recent conversation I had with my friend and colleague, Lucy Suchman. Having been at IBM Research for about a year, I was telling Lucy about all the press coverage I was getting, you know the – surprise, surprise, anthropologists at Big Blue – sort of thing. Lucy smiled and reminded me of the file she’d been keeping for the last couple of decades, now quite hefty, with articles proclaiming the discovery of anthropologists or ethnographers in the corporate world. We had a good laugh, sighed, and then wondered how far we’d really come.

So what’s up with this? Why are we discovered every couple of years? Of course, there’s the seemingly irresistible journalistic appeal of the image of the…pith helmeted anthropologist, notebook in hand, observing the corporate “natives.” But there must more to it than this. I wonder if it isn’t related to the fact that we’ve never quite made it – that we’re always on the verge of breaking into the mainstream – that we have all this (unfulfilled) potential. So then what has held us back?

There are many answers this question and I offer only a few here. First, the basic question we ask, “What’s going on here?” turns out to be a potentially dangerous question, particularly when one is agnostic about the answer. Without some control over the implications (for technology design or other organizational interventions), people might just as soon not know. Second, the answer to this question often portrays a world that is complex, emergent, changing; where simple fixes, silver bullets are not going to do the trick. Third, we don’t present ourselves as having the answer, but instead with an approach for getting closer to a “better” understanding and course of action. Fourth, we listen and don’t assert we already know the answer. In fact, we delight in being “wrong” because that’s when we learn the most. The corporate world has little tolerance for “I don’t know, let’s go take a look.” And fifth, we often must work against or in relation to dominate logics (e.g. rational, engineering, quantitative) where our repeated arguments for an alternative vision may go unheeded.

While we may be perpetually becoming, there are still many successes we can point to, not the least of which has been our ability to do serious ethnographic research in corporate settings for over two decades. But there are many others, only a few that I mention here. We have (1) made invisible work, visible to those who design technologies and other organizational interventions, (2) made “the social” a perspective to be taken seriously in the design of technology, (3) opened our colleagues’ eyes to alternative logics, (4) contributed to theoretical and methodological advances in our respective disciplines, and (5) provided a home for fellow travelers who believe that it’s a good thing if workers have a say in how their work is organized, including the technologies they use.

Jeanette Blomberg manages the People and Practices group at the IBM Almaden Research Center. Her research focuses on the interplay between people, technology and organizational practices with particular concern for how the work of organizations is accomplished through emergent, informal work practices. Prior to assuming her current position, Jeanette was Director of Experience Modeling Research at Sapient and a founding member of the Work Practice and Technology group at the Xerox PARC. Jeanette received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Davis.