Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Donna Flynn / A Profile


Walking a Different Path

donna_flynnThe path of American anthropology is becoming ever more diverse. Under the academic umbrella of Anthropology the world has been explored, analyzed, reflected on, and then determined to be wanting of more exploration. The Indiana Jones stereotype of the archaeologist or anthropologist is still a familiar reference in popular culture, perhaps surpassed for recent generations by Dr. “Bones” and her TV show bearing the same name. Anthropology in common parlance brings to mind the bold researcher off in the exotic far away, taking and studying the strange, bringing it back to the university and, after knocking dust off the hiking boots, demystifying it for the social science community and curious students. Yet, explorers of new kinds of anthropology are changing the conversation about who an anthropologist is and what they can do. Donna Flynn is one such anthropologist, creating and expanding these new frontiers.

Donna Flynn is Vice President of Workspace Futures at Steelcase, a design company specializing in architecture, furniture, and technology products and services designed to enhance organizational potentials through an understanding of the internal organization needs and wants. She manages an international team across multiple time zones, studying work culture and organizations and converting that insight into value added innovations. A design anthropologist, she is bringing her background in culture studies and the flexible lens of anthropology to the business world—where, she says, “the exciting things happen.”

Donna earned her doctorate in economic anthropology from Northwestern University in 1997, for which she conducted fieldwork along the border of Benin and Nigeria, focusing on transnational political and economic processes with gender and culture across that international borderland. Her work there focused on studying female roles within a male dominated religious culture and how the political and economic contexts of living on the border between Benin and Nigeria influenced the social dynamic. She was set for an academic track, but after a brief stint teaching at the College of William and Mary she realized that she wasn’t interested in getting tied down to a single university or town.

Recently I chatted with her about her life, her experience working, and her perspective on the business world. In our conversation, Donna also reflected on the nature of anthropology and the changing landscape of the world at large. As she was telling me about her current hiring practices as the direct manager of a large team, she reflected that she was interested in individuals who had the kind of “crooked” path that led her to Steelcase. She values people who haven’t taken a straight path in life because “they’ve had to adapt to fit… they’ve had to do a lot of participant observation…and they’ve had to embrace other perspectives that come together in business.” It seems you can take the anthropologist to the business world, but you can’t take the anthropology out of her.

Donna’s own “crooked” career path began after her stint as a professor: she moved to Washington D.C. with the intention of leveraging her degree and interests in West Africa into international development work. She consulted for the World Bank and USAID, then settled into the International Center for Research on Women, a think-tank doing applied research on gender and development globally. There she found a group of women who in her own words, “Mentored me, supported me, and taught me a lot.” But after a few years of engagement with the political and bureaucratic system of the Capital, she was ready to explore new possibilities elsewhere.

The next leg of her path took her to San Francisco, where she started working at Sapient—a marketing and consulting company—in late 2000. Working there, Donna intersected with Maria Bezaitis, Rick E. Robinson, and other leading researchers breaking new ground in ethnographic praxis in industry. Unfortunately, the dot-com bubble burst within a year of her arrival. But Donna described the experience of spending 3.5 years within that business world her “MBA period,” learning under pressure how to sell research to business executives, which wasn’t always an easy pitch. Still, Donna found a niche for herself at Sapient, engaging with people and user design.

Interested in continuing in that niche but again looking for change, Donna left Sapient in 2003. Her crooked path then took her to Microsoft and she moved from San Francisco to Washington State. At Microsoft, she held a variety of positions and titles, including Design Anthropologist and Senior Manager of User Experience. Donna also worked on a wide range of projects within the company, and founded Microsoft’s User Experience (UX) Strategy. While working within Microsoft, Donna also published several reflections on the intersections she and her team experienced working to bridge the worlds of anthropological skills and business culture.

Working with Tracey Lovejoy, David Siegel and Susan Dray, Donna focused on the value of qualitative methods and the tension inherent in bringing qualitative research into a world dominated by quantitative findings. Their article “’Name That Segment!’: Questioning the Unquestioned Authority of Numbers,” describes segmentation, a widespread tool used in the business world for categorizing huge numbers of people according to demographics and other characteristics that allows for predictions of the needs, wants and wishes of those within the categories. This data is then used by businesses to direct product development and to create targeted marketing efforts.

The problem with segmentation became obvious to Donna and her colleagues once they tried to apply the method in qualitative field research: “at least half of our participants did not fit into the segments as we had understood them.” Qualitative research revealed significant problems with the vaunted, algorithm-backed segments: behavioral patterns were not included in the criteria that was used to create them. In essence, how people were actually behaving wasn’t being included in the calculations at all, only what people said about what they did, which skewed the data significantly.

The insights from qualitative research demonstrated real value to Microsoft. Donna and her team reinforced the argument for qualitative data by presenting findings showing that was only a narrow range of people actually fell within the boundaries of segments. Most people were on the periphery of individual segments and more displayed attributes unique to several different segments, creating an overlap that had not been accounted for.

Donna also contributed research on organization workflow processes at Microsoft with Tracey Lovejoy. Their paper on this work, “Tracing the Arc of Ethnographic Impact: Success and (In)visibility of Our Work and Identities,” details the experience of anthropologists and their important contributions working between engineers and the organization’s clients. The article reflects on conducting ethnographic work within an organization and how an understanding of the internal processes of the organization can lead to maximizing the potential contribution of the anthropological work being done. For example, knowing where along the process of developing a product or service information can best be delivered to maximize its contribution.

After nine years with Microsoft, Donna moved on to Steelcase. With major accomplishments in IT research, team management and anthropology, Donna was ideally suited for the company and the job of Director of Workspace Futures. Her crooked path had led her to a place that continues to be an ideal fit. Evidenced by her recent promotion to Vice President of Workspace Futures at Steelcase, Donna is still pushing at the frontier of what she can do.

During our conversation, Donna was reflexive about her unusual career path, which she attributes in large part to her determination to follow her passions—“the interests I wanted to develop, what I was curious about.” She did what she loved to do throughout her career, and when she recognized a point when she wasn’t loving it, she sought out a change. In that vein, Donna brought up the importance of change and going through stages in life. She values “[the] importance of rituals of liminality between different rites of passage throughout life.” Thinking about the coming wave of social scientists, her advice for students and young professionals alike is the same advice she herself followed, “follow your passions.” Crooked journeys can only bring more to life, by shear feat of adventurous exploration, and the necessity of adaptation that goes with it.

Anthropology is a clear point of continuity through the jogs and turns in her career path, despite the otherwise crooked nature of it. “I’m still an anthropologist, at the heart of my identity and I’ll never lose that!” Donna spoke with a passion about working in the private sector and managing teams, having the opportunity to contribute to their growth and development. That, and constant new challenges, keep her focus and interest devoted to Steelcase. Donna was, and continues to be, one of the pioneers of anthropology, tracing her own particular path within the business world as she constantly adds to and reflects on the value of ethnographic methods and perspectives. Her attitude is a reflection of her beliefs about ethnography as a way of making sense of, and contributing to, the world of business.

I asked her whether she had given any thought to starting her own consultancy or moving on to another company as a potential next step sometime in the future and she laughingly replied no. She is too deeply interested by the challenges and fun of her work at Steelcase. “There’s too much in the complex social system of a large organization to learn about, to learn to create influence for changing people’s lives.” Given her role in management, Donna’s job is to help direct teams and work with them to overcome issues delivering value added contributions to Steelcase and its customers. “It’s a big game of chess, and I need to be looking three steps ahead to see how we on the research team can help the business in the near future.”

Donna’s background in anthropology gives her a unique skillset of engaging across multi-cultural boundaries, seeking understanding and contributing back with that new understanding. The ability to apply micro-level analysis and understanding to macro-level processes and functions is of broad use and value within the business world, which increasingly seems self-aware of its deficiencies of understanding. Donna believes ethnographers should contribute to business strategy at the highest levels. She reflected on her own blog post for EPIC in which she advocated presenting yourself as a partner and making valuable contributions to strategic endeavors. “Don’t underestimate what you can do!” she insisted.

Given the growth of ethnography across business and the public sector, Donna believes passionately that the skills of anthropology should be leveraged in new sectors: “There are lots of conversations from politics, healthcare, education…where we could contribute really interesting questions.” Given the rapid pace of change across all arenas, she foresees lots of possibilities and growing value for the skills of applied anthropologists to raise new questions and provide new perspectives. The greatest value of anthropology for Donna is its unique lens that looks at the interconnectedness of all things within holistic systems. That anthropological lens, combined with the ability to interpret data into relevant insights for better understanding social dynamics is where the highest value of anthropology lives. And while insisting that she is too removed from universities to directly comment, Donna is also encouraged by an apparent trend in academic anthropology toward increasingly multidisciplinary work—a sign of the adaptability of the discipline, perhaps.

Just as other disciplines have taken up ethnographic methods, Donna argues that anthropologists should be studying the methods of other disciplines; in particular gaining skills is behavioral analysis and big data and sensing. “What can we learn new from those methods?” is the question she posed to herself and asks of others in her constant pursuit of new skills, talents and possibilities. She also encourages learning new languages, as well as being vocal about what your individual way of anthropology can contribute. For one brief moment, we imagined a fantastical future in which all working anthropologists have a blog, constantly update the world on their reflections and contributions and by doing so add to the discipline and the ongoing global conversations about anthropology. How much could be gained by generating all those conversation?

Reflecting further on things that could be, Donna mused that if she were a student again she’d focus on the current conversation between cognitive psychology and cognitive anthropology. She’s deeply interested in research on creativity and attention literally at the level of gray matter—that cutting edge of neuroscience aimed at deepening our understanding of what the human mind does as it engages in social interactions and practices. It’s a field Donna hopes to incorporate into the work her team is currently pursuing. Advances are being made today that help to make distinct what is inherently ingrained in humans, and what is uniquely built up by culture.

As our conversation wound down, I asked about her imagined future—a distant time when she might give up the business world. Here, her words flowed more slowly and she became pensive. Donna is very drawn to writing—non-professional writing, stories about the worlds she has inhabited in anthropology, and business. I prompted her for specifics, maybe more articles, a blog, a book? “It could be any number of things…I love writing poetry,” she said; adding, she could also spend her time hiking and exploring Colorado, where she lives, and other wild and intriguing places around the world.

From academia to Benin and Nigeria, to Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley. From Sapient, to Microsoft, now at Steelcase. Donna Flynn has traveled a path not often travelled, and she has left markers along the path for others to draw from and so advance their own particular ways. Her way of practicing anthropology has opened and continues to open space for many more paths to be drawn alongside hers. There is exceptional value in the unique paths that all curve in all directions around the discipline of anthropology and the ideas of praxis. Wherever her path may lead in the future, Donna will undoubtedly find it both crooked and passionate.


Flynn, Donna K. and T. Lovejoy (2008), “Tracing the Arc of Ethnographic Impact: Success and (In)visibility of Our Work and Identities.” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2008: 238–250.

Flynn, Donna K., Tracey Lovejoy, David Siegel, and Susan Dray (2009), “’Name That Segment!’: Questioning the Unquestioned Authority of Numbers.” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2009: 81–91.

Flynn, Donna K. (2014), “Choice-Making with Head and Heart: Finding the Ethnographic Center of Strategy.” EPIC Perspectives, 22 July 2014.

Luis Machado is a MS candidate in the Applied Anthropology program at the University of North Texas, originally from Venezuela. His interests are in organizational management, behavior, business and technology, and the intersection of these. He is currently a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Research Analyst with the Washington College GIS lab, where he is currently working on his Master’s thesis while conducting Maryland statewide vehicle theft and recovery analysis.



Luis Machado, University of North Texas