Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Happy Birthday, Now Grow Up…

EPIC has been my spiritual home for ten years. So, rather than present the speech I’ve been giving on a book tour this year or talk about a new book I’m writing on cultural knowledge, I want to report back to headquarters on what I’ve seen this past year talking to corporate executives and marketing heads of the largest corporations in the world. What I have seen is that these companies are ready for our practice and expertise. They are finally ready for our type of thinking. The skeptical conversations about our methodology are over. We won. It is now completely reasonable and desirable to do our kind of work, which I don’t think was the case in EPIC’s early days, some 10 years ago.

Before I delve into what lies ahead for our practice, I want to tell a short story about the insurance of wheat. During a workshop with a reinsurance firm in Switzerland the CEO pragmatically stated what big corporations need right now. He said, “We don’t have any ideas anymore. We have cash. We have tons of cash, but we simply don’t know what to do. We don’t have the texture…

of data that is needed to make any choice.” You would think that would be hard for one of the most quantitatively driven and data-driven companies in the world to say something like that. But his example was that they reinsure most of the wheat crop in Africa. That is a hard thing to do, if you know very little about the wheat crop in Africa. All the data they receive is what they call big data. And big data doesn’t make sense to them. Their solution was to start real farms across regions of Africa in order to understand what happens when chickens suddenly start to die.

Companies have invested heavily in big data, only to realize the collected information makes very little sense. They have applied a natural science approach to understanding culture, resulting in an intellectual malaise. Now, these companies want a better understanding of what on earth is going on in the world. One CEO said to me, “It’s as if it’s the same picture, but the frame has changed. We don’t know how to deal with uncertainty. We don’t know how to deal with other cultures. We suddenly realized that not everybody is an engineer living in San Francisco. We have to deal with that. People have other ideas about what is important.”There has never been a better time for people like us. There has never been more interest and more capital available to understand what’s going on in the world. But in order to take advantage of the fact that conditions are ready for us, there are a couple of steps that we need to take.

123_Page_2The first point I want to make is about detaching the practice of ethnography from design in favor of business areas that prove far more promising. In 1998 a design firm produced a video about revolutionizing the shopping cart in five days through a ‘deep dive’. This raised questions about how the process of designing a better product should work, and ultimately led to a marriage between ethnography and design. This union has proved to be a hugely successful model and ethnography grew in popularity quickly. Companies like Moment (NY) and Native Design (London) created thoughtful design research models that inspired many of us. Designers disinterested in true ethnography but cognizant of its widespread appeal adopted a watered-down version. Consequently design became boring and homogenous—the type of soft, rounded design that Silicon Valley produces. Design has lost its edge and craft. I don’t argue for a total divorce from design but for ethnography to distance itself from its partner of the past decade.

Today, there are other important business areas for our practice to closely link itself to. These business areas need our expertise and have come to believe in the power of our methods.One promising area is in internal post-merger integration. Merger and acquisition (M&A) activity has accelerated since the recession, with the increase in cash piles and rising stocks to provide currency to initiate transactions. These deals are poised to continue. But three out four mergers fail because of internal cultural clashes. In a 2009 post-merger integration survey conducted by McKinsey, 92% of survey respondents said that their deals would “have substantially benefitted from a greater cultural understanding prior to the merge.” 70% conceded that “too little” effort focuses on culture during integration. The cost of organizational problems post-merger is so high it often negates the potential profit or prevents the realization of the deal. Executives no longer dismiss the need for deep cultural analysis to overcome differences in management and organizational behaviors. Building deeper and stronger integration capabilities is one area where we can be helpful.

We have the expertise to make a difference at the highest level of corporate strategy, to influence what is going on in the world across global channels and markets. This requires us to relinquish outdated and narrow explanations about how people think about modern phenomena. We can greatly impact the development and structure of applying resources R&D when we abandon conventional clutches such as, “Well people don’t want technology”. We can be the force behind cost reduction when we stop talking about unmet needs and think about over-met needs and the amount of skew in company’s portfolios that lack relevancy. We have a brutal tool to show what is and is not helpful in these situations. We ought to advance our practice to be strong enough to deal with any of those. These areas are far more exciting and promising for us than design.123_Page_3The shift toward the business world leads me to my second point about the gravity of understanding financial consequences. In a recent conversation with Paul Rabinow about his experience collaborating with neuroscientists I asked, “So isn’t it hard to understand and engage with neuroscience?” He said, “No, no, no. When I started out as an anthropologist in Northern Africa, I needed to learn Arabic. That’s hard. Learning neuroscience is nothing compared to learning Arabic”. Learning a foreign language is much harder than learning to speak another discipline. Learning to speak business requires learning forty words and their combinations, a much simpler task than learning Danish, but one that does require dedication. As ethnographers, we must learn the grammar of business language. We must know how to ask and answer what are the financial consequences of something? I’m not advising everyone to sign up for an MBA. I’m saying to succeed in the business arena it is crucial we know that native language.123_Page_4I turn, here, to address the problem of channeling our efforts toward small problems in market research areas. In recent years, I’ve seen too much focus placed on influencing minor products and esoteric fringe activities. That doesn’t solve their needs. They need cultural perspective on the big issues. They want to understand what’s going on with a market where the cultural fabric is different or why a marketing model is breaking down for incomprehensible reasons.

They have been throwing their high-level problems the McKinsey’s of the world for a while, and the gun is sort of empty of bullets. There is a malaise with the existing models. When you talk to any CEO in the top companies they say, “I have a hard time getting my head around what on earth is going on with the next generation that’s going to buy my products. I don’t understand why this is going down and this is going up. I can see that it is, but I don’t know why.”

Taking on the big questions takes guts and character—they force confronting fundamental identity questions. This is a deep need I meet everyday, and for me it means asking the most exciting questions. If you are the Coca-Cola Company, what do you do sweetener? Sweetness used to be about being delicious. Now it is also dangerous. What do we do? Or take a large toy company that realizes, “Kids have stopped playing outside. What on earth happened?”


You can’t just have any person tackling these big questions. We must ask for proper amounts of resources to do proper work. But in the market research and insight areas that we’ve been stuck in, the trend is toward the other way. There, I see a push toward cost reduction and shorter periods of research.

Describing two-hour, in-context interviews as ethnography or deep immersion is a detriment to our practice. That’s not ethnography. That’s a two-hour in-context interview, which is a fine thing but it’s not what we do. There is a push toward why even go and meet them, you know? Can’t they just report on their mobile phone, right? Can’t they just take some pictures and we’ll put them together and it will look fine?

There is a push towards a cost reduction of something that is inherently costly, because of the time required to understand what is going on in the world. We should ask for significant amounts of time. We can’t get the years it takes to write a PhD, but we certainly can get six months to conduct our work. I’ve seen that there are plenty of resources.

Now is the time for us to push away from market research/insights areas. I propose focusing on the important questions and asking for the proper resources required to answer them. We must pay people properly and provide them the time to practice their work honestly, decently, and importantly.

The resource question is not about whether there is the money or desire for our work; it’s about whether we ask for it. It’s whether we have the guts, professionalism and capabilities in order to justify our request.


I’ve spent this past year meeting with some of the most hard-nosed companies in the top 100. Companies like Walmart, Ford Motor Company, and Goldman Sachs are seeking our expertise. The work I’ve read from the past few years revolves around pain points, need states and the sad state of current affairs. Top CEO’s can sense that something is missing. The questions they struggle with are questions we are primed to tackle.


If you want to be an anthropologist, you should remain an anthropologist. You should stay with your craft. You should insist on doing proper work. You should insist on gathering proper data. You should keep critique at the heart of your practice. I think if you push the craft, because if you’re listening to the rest of the world too much, you will end up with very little. I think it’s only a strong group with strong integrity and strong character—and a strong method—that will be able to do all the things that I had talked about before.

At the heart of what we do is to deny prevailing assumptions. It is a critical field. We are not here to listen to a brief and deliver on a brief. We are here to critically examine what’s going on and to be a voice of critique in any situation. That’s what corporations need, and that’s what they’re asking for. If you make a theory, it will only be interesting if it denies something that is already there. When I look back at all the work we have done, the most successful projects were those that overturned toxic orthodoxies and shifted a company’s assumptions.


That leads me to my last point, which is the importance of extending ethnography into the inner workings of the companies you work for. Kenneth Thomas Anderson sold me on EPIC and captured this idea best when he said, “EPIC is really about changing the conversation. It’s about changing the conversation inside of companies about how we even understand things, and how things how up to us as meaningful and relevant. That we only do by looking at the deepest level of thinking in companies.” You must do ethnography inside of companies because the greatest impact is achieved is at the assumption and orthodoxy level.

This past year, I’ve seen that the time is ripe for us. I have seen a huge opportunity for a practice conducted by people with character and self-confidence. This is a group operating at a societal and cultural scale, and a group that should feel optimistic for the next coming years. I cannot see any reason for not trying to advance our discipline – to taking on new arenas, the big questions, and higher expectations.

Christian Madsbjerg is a founder and director of client relations at ReD Associates, a strategic innovation consultancy. He has worked with many Fortune 500 companies and focuses on ways to rigorously study human behavior and why particular methodologies need to be applied in order to do so. He writes, teaches, and speaks about the kinds of methods and reasoning needed for fact-based investigations of human activity, emotions, and decision-making processes. He is the author of books on social theory, discourse analysis, and politics, most recently The Moment of Clarity (with Mikkel Rasmussen). Christian studied philosophy and political science in Copenhagen and London and has a Masters from the University of London.