Advancing the Value of Ethnography

ken anderson / A Profile


EPIC Profiles Series

[based on an interview with ken at the Intel Jones Farm Campus, Hillsboro, Oregon, August 25, 2014]

“Nobody liked them. No sense of humor.” These days ken anderson may not talk much about the French ethnographers he interacted with in Portugal’s Azores—or about his dissertation research at all—but when he does, his observations are acute. ken, now an ethnographer in Intel’s Cultural Transformations Lab and an EPIC board member, had an unusual approach to the work on that trip. “We were just laughing at everything because we didn’t understand what they were saying,” he said. “We thought laughing was a good thing to do.” Turns out, he was right.

ken andersonNow ken is situated in a different host culture—Intel. He believes it took him over a year to fully appreciate how the company operated. He had worked for high tech companies previously, and naturally viewed his new employer through a similar lens. When it finally sank in that Intel was a manufacturing company in the high tech world that worked at a different cadence, he had to adjust his strategy for how to be effective with ethnographic work. “When I was working at AT&T or Apple, I was in innovation labs at both places, and the expectation of what would happen was that services would be made, products would be developed within a pretty rapid cycle.” Intel’s expertise, on the other hand, is manufacturing chips; the chip development process was around six years when ken started. The focus was not on getting “the next big thing” out the door quickly but was on how changes in the technical and business areas would affect their platform adoption.

Considering that it takes around five years to develop new chips, it’s only logical that Intel’s priority is technology development and manufacturing. How, then, do ken and a small group of social scientists communicate with, and ultimately survive within, a company dominated by engineers who operate with a mindset different than theirs? How successful have they been in this “host culture” of introducing the social along with the technical and business aspects? “Sometimes successfully. Not always.” ken laughs, knowing he just uttered the perfect sound bite. After a brief pause he explains that his job is translation, trying to understand not just people in the field, but also people within Intel. “You’re trying to look for ways they talk about stuff amongst themselves then repeat it back to them. It’s like learning a language,” ken says.

This is where ken’s work gets really interesting. The lab has two primary functions. First, it finds new “spaces” Intel should operate in. In the 1990s that meant helping the company break into the home computing market as well as looking at emerging markets such as Brazil or China. Second, it helps the company imagine what people will be doing six years from now—what kind of capabilities consumers will need so Intel platforms can be designed today for tomorrow. This doesn’t mean researching a specific problem, but developing a holistic view of consumers’ everyday lives and trying to anticipate their future interactions.

Working in the Lab gives ken and his group freedom because they aren’t tethered to the market: “We have to be future looking. By being able to look at anything we want to— salmon fishing, design studios, the rise of women in Brazil—whatever we’ve picked we’ve been able to do because we don’t have to deliver straight to a project.” The ability to create their own topics enables the lab to find business opportunities by looking for knowledge gaps, something unlikely to happen if they had been handed a specific task. Take for example the two and half years he spent looking at time, a project that actually grew out of identifying what was missing from the work they were undertaking on contextual computing and technologies looking at people and place. “One of the things they were missing was time, they didn’t have a temporal component.” Attuned to conversations occurring in technological and academic circles, ken recognized the absence of time in the technological sphere and was able to identify the knowledge gap. “That’s kind of what I do. Broadly speaking, I try to find innovations or business opportunities based on social research.”

ken’s work does not fit into the idealized academic model of research and publication in peer-reviewed journals. Intel is comprised of four distinct groups with which he must interact on their own terms—engineers, middle management, marketers, and upper management. The engineers are ken’s biggest challenge because they are tasked with very specific objectives. Engineering decisions on product capabilities always require tradeoffs, whether at Intel or elsewhere. This is never an easy task, but when there is a long lead time, knowing what capabilities will be needed years in the future presents unique challenges in product development. Translating insights about foundational social-technical stabilities and changes into platform capabilities has been kind of contribution the social science group has been. “Where you can fit into that conversation,” ken says, is different from his engagement with Intel’s strategic planners and marketers, who by nature have to be willing to take different perspectives and may ask broader questions such as: “should we do something around a personal assistant and what would that would look like?” By understanding that Intel will approach development and innovation in numerous ways and then having the ability to speak directly to these various audiences is part of what’s allowed ken’s group to become influential. The in-house proximity of his team also helps: “we’re like a nagging mother-in-law. We seem to never disappear.”

Unfortunately, as ken points out, Intel is one of a few companies able to support the kind of work the Cultural Transformations Lab generates. He believes ethnography should be key to how companies look at work and customers. This is where the EPIC conference comes into play. “Our community is growing and EPIC is doing more advocacy for ethnographic work,” ken explains, “We need to create demand for actual positions. Where the kind of work that we do is seen as valuable without having to argue it every time.”

EPIC members are asking the broader question of how to expand ethnographic research in corporations and businesses and establish the value of their work. Ironically, the popularity of ethnography has led to a loss of value in business. On the surface, it sounds easy—you go in and watch people. “This is something we’ve done to ourselves in a large part,” ken explains. About 15 years ago, under the business pressure of having to prove their worth, ethnographers started to ask, “How do we recreate the experience we have for people who are not there?” They presented findings, filmed research, and brought in non-ethnographers, but these representations of their work were flat, removed from the human and methodological complexity of ethnography. As a result, the ethnography that became trendy, that was increasingly described in popular business media, was simplistic. The problem was especially acute because ethnography was relatively new in this environment. It was the cumulative affect of these seemingly inconsequential acts that, to an extent, devalued ethnographers’ work and misled people to think that one needs only a camera and some notes to conduct ethnographic observation.

This misconception also caused people to question what deep insight ethnographers actually had. ken mocks the naysayers: “This method has no analytic depth or analysis.” Something in his inflection says this is a sore point. “This perception reinforces the idea that ethnographers are reporters, at best, of the observed. Part of the problem is we have not done much to differentiate our work from that which is just observed.” Gerald Lombardi has argued that ethnographic labor is being de-skilled through standardization, simplification, and piecework, and that “only by altering the cost-time-quality paradigm that controls our work can we restore its value to our employers and clients” (Lombardi 2009).

As the global business environment becomes more complex, ken wrote, “the system is no longer knowable—it is constantly emergent” (anderson 2014). Things are shifting so fast that old models don’t work anymore (anderson, Salvador, and Barnett 2013; Bezaitis and anderson 2011). Looking for opportunities in a state of transition will be key if companies are to succeed—if they don’t find these opportunities, they’ll become followers. Ethnographers can take a leading role, helping companies define and develop products and solutions before they have been identified. Take, for example, big data. ken notes that there are two different approaches to using it—as a decision making tool or for exploration. “In an ecosystem,” ken points out, “if you’re looking at different parts, big data can show connections but doesn’t tell you what the connection is about. It doesn’t explain connections in a way that makes them actionable, just tells you what they are.” This is big data as a decision maker—for example, data as part of an algorithm. The exploration of big data, on the other hand, is trying to figure out what is happening and the patterns within. ken believes “ethnography can help you reveal which connections are actionable and how. Mostly the how.” The importance of exploring connections is reflected in Intel’s own positioning statement: “Intel is evolving to a user-centric organization, and this role will be a key driver in transitioning corporate-wide thinking” (Intel 2014). In this shifting business model, the ethnographer’s ability to interpret and explain be increasingly important as Intel undergoes cultural transformation.

How can EPIC itself make the transformation to an advocacy group while also reestablishing ethnographers’ value? “I think that’s what we’re trying to work out. We’re going to experiment with that.” ken’s article for the Harvard Business Review was a solid first step. In it, he frames ethnography as a way to translate consumer perspectives to a corporation so the ethnographer can help inform strategy and long-range planning (anderson 2009). The article does exactly what EPIC members must do—show how ethnography is valuable in the business setting, adapt to the culture they’re a part of. There’s a lot of work to do. As Bezaitis and Robinson (2011, p. 195) state: “These are questions of survival, and if we don’t pave the way to what happens next on our own, corporations will take the liberty to do it for us.” But when you stop to think about it, what group of individuals is better suited to figure out how to address a culture, create a consistent voice and message about their value and then frame that conversation in a language that can be understood?

It was television—specifically the fact that it had only recently been introduced to the Azores and with only one channel at the time—that brought ken to the remote Atlantic islands. ken wasn’t studying TV through the top-down perspective of media consumption and viewers as passive consumers; instead, he was interested in the Azoreans practices around it, how they were making sense of a new medium. He viewed them as participants and wanted to understand how they would transform TV into something to fit their lives. For example, they were using foreign programs such as MacGyver and Brazilian soap operas to offset cultural and social deficiencies. It is this same interest—how people transform things to fit their needs—that ken will bring to the EPIC conversation.


anderson, k, 2009, Ethnographic Research: A Key to Strategy, Harvard Business Review, 87(3):24.

anderson, k, Salvador, T and Barnett, B, 2013, Models in Motion: Ethnography Moves from Complicatedness to Complex Systems, Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, pp. 232–249, //

anderson, k, 2014, A Shift in the Business Environment that Ethnographers Can’t Ignore, Ethnography Matters, accessed on 20 August 2014, at:

Bezaitis, M and anderson, k, 2011, Flux: Creating the Conditions for Change, Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, p 12-17, //

Bezaitis, M, and Robinson, RE, 2011, Valuable to Values: How ‘User Research’ Ought to Change, pp. 185-201, in Clarke, AJ, ed. Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century. SpringerWien, New York.

Intel, 2014, Intel Fats, accessed 5 Sepetmber 2014, at:

Lombardi, G, 2009, The De-skilling of Ethnographic Labor: Signs of an Emerging Predicament, Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, p 41-49, //

Plowman, T, 2003, Ethnography and Critical Design Practice, pp. 30-38, in Laurel, B, ed., Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, The MIT Press, Cambridge.

Mike Kippenhan is an interactive art director from Portland, Oregon. He likes to make things and generally lives a life of high adventure.