Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Johannes Suikkanen / A Profile


EPIC Profiles Series

Johannes Suikkanen, co-founder and managing partner, Gemic

I caught up with Johannes Suikkanen after he returned to Helsinki from EPIC2014 in New York City to discuss his career, ethnographic praxis and the future of the EPIC community. Johannes co-founded Gemic, a human-centric strategy and innovation consultancy, about six years ago – and it has been a fascinating journey.

Johannes first encountered the intersection between the worlds of business and anthropology as a student. Coming from a family that was deeply interested in humanities, his rebellion against his parents was to go to business school. Originally focusing on economics and traditional management science, he faced a dilemma:

“I always felt that in the way economics and management sciences look at human beings, there was something fundamentally wrong in my opinion. The view was of a rational agent that maximizes his or her own benefit and it was always about an individual. At that time, economics that I became familiar with (or management science) didn’t really look at human beings as part of social systems.”

Despite his initial rebellion, he started browsing his father’s old sociology books and found it was actually more interesting. Still wanting to keep one foot in the business world, Johannes also wanted to make sense of what humanities could teach him about people.

He moved to Copenhagen Business School, where social scientists also taught courses. It was there that he met Brian Moeran, an anthropologist operating in the business realm. He explained,

“I came to an environment where it was quite easy to study both economics and anthropology and culture studies. To me it has always been one field. I never really saw a difference. Everything deals with human worlds and it’s just a matter of taking different perspectives and trying on different theoretical lenses.”

After his studies Johannes looked for opportunities to combine his understanding of economics and business with social science. He began consulting at ReD Associates in Copenhagen, which was one of the few agencies work at the intersection of these fields at the time. Red Associates was still small, and as he recalls, he may even have even been their first employee. He was there for a short time before deciding he would like to see the corporate side of things.

Johannes took a position at Sanoma doing strategy and business development assignments in Finland and the Netherlands, and there his ideas on the value of combining business with anthropology began to crystallize:

“It was actually more when I was working with corporate strategy that I realized how important it actually is for large corporations to have an original point of view on their markets because at the end of the day the way you compete, the way you innovate, it’s nothing more than your thinking materialized into an intervention into a world.”

It was also during his time at Sanoma that he met the future co-founder of Gemic. Johannes was organizing a corporate event and invited Sakari Tamminen, who was doing his PhD in anthropology and had a background in HCI, as a guest speaker. He described the momentous occasion with a smile:

“That was to me the perfect click. We decided to start the company pretty much immediately after we met each other. It was one of those great moments when you find someone who thinks alike, but you didn’t know that this person exists.”

Gemic was founded in 2008 on bringing the two disciplines together and will soon be opening an office in New York. Not a design agency as such, Gemic works with the strategic choices of corporations based on seeing the world and their market differently. Different theoretical lenses are important for this process. As Johannes put it, “We look at people, we look at markets and the way we define the markets, having the right metaphor for the market actually is the prerequisite for innovative offering development.”

Johannes believes his personal experience is a big influence in his application of ethnographic praxis to the work at Gemic. Having worked in a large corporation, he understands intimately the obstacles that companies face in applying these methods. He blends an interest in culture studies with the practical experience of working in corporate strategy, where it is difficult to think differently, define your market differently and get the whole organization to act.

“As an agency we are chameleons. We have a very strong research capability, but at the same time we are able to translate the beautiful world of social science into corporate language that people do understand. Playing with these different languages allows us to bring this view on humanity into the corporate setting. That really is the cornerstone.”

Johannes believes that ethnographic praxis in industry is about being sensitive to and deeply in a continuous conversation with the world in which you operate in. It is important to all companies and they are curious about it. Ethnography is one methodology, and in every project there is an ethnographic component, but it is not a silver bullet to solve all corporate problems. He explained,

“The great thing about ethnography and thinking in social scientific terms is you look at things in a context. It might be a physical context but also zeitgeist. This is why we do a lot of historical studies too because you need to be able to show to the company that what you did to people it related to that time, the way society was… and our contemporary reality is something different.”

It is not a hard sell anymore – everyone is aware of the value of social science and there is demand – but the real value is in the analysis and what you do with the information you have collected.

“We are shifting to an era when most companies understand that they are not just in the business of providing products and services but they feel that they need to continuously produce desirable forms of culture, that materializes in objects or services and that resonates with the people they do this cultural production for.”

Considering the contribution ethnographic praxis makes to industry, Johannes explains that practitioners are able to help companies reformulate what it is that they fundamentally do.

“Originally it started at the fringes. Ethnographic praxis entered the design department, the R&D labs, but I don’t think there is so much to gain there. I think corporate strategy, the corporate world view, that is where the biggest impact is right now and I think that is where the biggest impact will be.”

He reflected on the traditional ‘war-like’ metaphors for business, highlighting that they don’t work so well from a people point of view. Ethnographic praxis can develop new metaphors for business: “We can help a whole management team to find a calling, a purpose in what they do and to articulate it in a new way. Those words have a lot of power.”

Johannes described one example of a current Gemic engagement with a global fashion and design company. The world of fashion operates on super-fast cycles in which there is little time to think. Yet Gemic has been able to help the company strategically with “slow thinking”:

“There is almost like a paradox. When you make space for slow thinking, you actually create thoughts that ignite and energize the organization. So it was a challenge to find the space for slower thinking, but at the same time I think it energizes even this fast paced work that is the bread and butter of the company. Suddenly the whole organization feels that they have a real sense of purpose.”

Photograph of a clothing boutique taken during fieldwork for a fashion and design company

Making sense of the role of fashion in the lives of Chinese women. Johannes loves studying fashion, a topic that provides a great entry point for thinking about how the notion of value should be defined.

This success has been achieved through the engagement of senior management. They have started to ask questions that are fundamental for them if they want to understand what really drives their category  – and this has tremendous value because they see what is next for them. Johannes posits, “What really drives fashion is a wonderful question, and very few fashion companies really ask that question.”

He has also also seen some struggles in corporate innovation departments that actually have wanted breakthrough, out-of-the-box thinking. He reflects, “Our clients have felt that we are too rigorous, too analytical… where the company wants to have whacky people thinking about very, very crazy things.” Johannes emphasizes the work they do with theoretical lenses and research is creative, but it is grounded.

Johannes has followed the EPIC community since its inception, attended EPIC for the past two years and hopes to contribute more. He is extremely grateful to those who have built the foundation and his vision for EPIC is to see it grow and engage with more people from outside the core community. Establishing a label synonymous with the ‘Austrian School’ of economics, he jokingly suggests perhaps the ‘Portland School’ after the work Intel has done there, which has a taken on value creation and the notion of value itself. He suggests, “It could be a force in management science, because it is people who do applied work, hence the praxis in industry – so under that umbrella, the most interesting conversations about value creation would be had.”  EPIC2014 was held at a business school, The Center for Positive Marketing at Fordham University, and was a start of a greater movement in the business community. EPIC2015 will continue this effort by directly involving businesses in Brazil. EPIC2016 is being jointly organized by the anthropology department and the Carlson School of Business at the University of MN, which will refine EPIC conversations around our role in value creation.

Phil Bickerdike is a user experience and innovation strategy consultant currently completing a Masters of Design (Design Anthropology) at Swinburne University in Melbourne (Australia). He has a background in computer science and engineering, together with experience in design and research, and believes in meaningful design through collaboration in multi-disciplinary teams.



Phil Bickerdike, Swinburne University