Personal Reflections on Scale from the Business World

Share Share Share Share Share

by ADAM SINGER, Gemic

Hi everyone, my name is Adam Singer. I’m a Strategist at Gemic and I’m new to the world of ethnography.

Gemic is a strategy consulting firm founded by anthropologists that embeds anthropological and social science theory and methods into the core of its work. It uses these tools among others to identify growth opportunities and assess the future of culture, technology, and business for its clients. In contrast, I have little formal training or background experience in anthropology or ethnography. I come from a background in nonprofits and business (real estate development, commodity trading, traditional management consulting).

Entering such an exciting field that is so different from my past experience has been quite the learning journey. In discussing the meaning of scale as the theme of this EPIC conference, I think it can be thought-provoking to compare and contrast how scale is considered and manifests between the world of business and the world of ethnography. Hopefully my perspective as someone in the process of code-switching between these two worlds will inform the way you understand and engage with stakeholders.

The Philosophy of Scale in Business

To start, let us consider the centrality of scale in the business world. Quantitative measures of scale are some of the few things that truly matter in business. What is your sales volume? What is your market share? Are you achieving economies of scale to lower your costs? What is your gross and net profit? What are your earnings per share? What are they now, and how are these quantitative measures of scale set to change going forward? These are the questions that keep senior business leaders up at night.

From the standpoint of the Friedman Doctrine of business management made popular by economist Milton Friedman in the 1970s, the sole responsibilities of business are the management and increasing scale of these quantitative measures. All else are externalities that are not measured, and do not matter. Taken to the extreme by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street: Greed is good.

It is true that across the world, the Friedman Doctrine is falling out of favor and being replaced by a broader stakeholder theory of value that considers externalities affecting the environment and community as core to business value creation. But this is a slow process, and the traditional financial measures of scale will likely remain the key considerations going forward for the foreseeable future. In this respect, anthropological study is valuable to business leaders in large part to the extent that it can help to increase the scale of these measures for their businesses.

Philosophies of scale take on unique importance in business strategy. As a start-up, do you regularly take big risks to scale rapidly on a skyrocketing trajectory towards exit, or do you take the slow and steady approach to build a stable foundation? How can businesses, industries, and even whole economies continue to achieve rapid growth as they mature?

They also have an important impact on the timescales that business people consider in their decision-making. An investor watching the daily stock price will have very different questions versus a manager in charge of weekly sales figures, a CEO reporting to the board on annual financial results, or a product lead building a 5-year planning cycle. Each of these people have different incentives informing their frames of mind, and these differences in foci inform what information they are primed to seek out and consider.

My family business provides a useful case study to consider. My grandfather fled Europe following the Holocaust, arriving in Venezuela without a penny to his name. His goal was first to have enough money to eat, then have enough of a stable cash flow to sustain himself going forward, and finally to build a business capable of providing security for him and his future family. These dreams and financial objectives had different levels of scale, and took different time spans to achieve, but achieve them he did. His philosophy of scale was not one of rapid scaling, but one of risk mitigation through slow and deliberate scaling over decades.

At 93 years old, he still works in the real estate development business he built. He thinks of scale in very set terms. How many square feet of space can we lease? How many storeys can we build? How densely can we pack units? How many children and grandchildren have joined the family business? And is the business scaling fast enough to provide the same level of security for this growing family, without scaling too fast as to risk it all?

This is the philosophy of scale of many family business leaders, and it is very different from the philosophy of scale for Silicon Valley tech start-ups, or Fortune 500 companies. What is your reader’s or client’s philosophy of scale? How does it impact the ways they think, the ways they plan, the ways they consider your work?

Engaging with Businesses at Different Scales

Most businesses scale their organizations as their revenues and operations scale. With this increase in scale tends to come increasing levels of bureaucracy to manage that scale, an increasingly hierarchical company culture, and increasing organizational momentum.

Having worked in and served clients across a range of organizational scales from sole proprietors, to semi-structured grassroots networks, to Fortune 500s and national governments, I can attest that these dynamics of scale have dramatic impacts on the experiences of people working at different organizations, whether they be your own firm, your colleague’s, or your client’s.

This experience and realization has informed and shaped my own career path, leading me to where I am today: a fish out of water working in the field of applied anthropology, and loving every moment of it at Gemic.

I love the small scale of the company, with its horizontal hierarchy, its lack of bureaucracy, and its openness to change and initiatives, even for newbies like myself. I recognize that many readers and clients do not have the same degrees of freedom as I do in their decision-making. Some topics may be out of bounds due to the internal politics of their organizations. Others may rely on information that they may not be privy to. Additional topics, while valuable to their organizations as a whole, may not align with their specific departments’ scopes of power or current directions of momentum.

Given these constraints, a valuable component of the work of engaging business readers and clients as applied anthropological researchers and consultants comes in taking time to understand the conditions of a target audience so as to more effectively tailor the message to fit their needs.

The Scales of Ethnographic Questions

Beyond tailoring the message, I have also found it valuable to tailor the question. I appreciate the scale of the questions we at Gemic get to answer. On the small scale: How do people experience sitting in an airplane? How do people tell a good story? How do people think about sleep? On the grand scale: What is the purpose of your company and all that you’re working for? What is the future of the industry you’re working in? How might we shape the futures of behaviors, cultures, and economic and social systems for the better? At different units of scale: How are interpersonal proxemics impacted by a pandemic? How can memetics be applied to shaping belief systems?

These are questions that typically fall outside of their specific scopes of responsibility for most business readers and clients. The task of framing questions so that their value becomes immediately apparent to stakeholders’ specific contexts thus becomes central in converting the abstract value of understanding ethnographic phenomena into tangible business-oriented value.

I have often found it useful to engage in exercises that slowly help clients to expand the horizons of their thinking to encapsulate topics outside of their comfort zones. What storytelling, linguistic, workshop, and other tips and tricks have you found most useful in this regard? I would love to learn more. In my past experience, I have found that simple wording like “Imagine If” or more holistic worldbuilding visualizations can help audiences first break out of their traditional thought patterns, and then be more ready to engage in new types of discussions.

These can include discussions about changes occurring at vastly different scales: from the broader cultures and environments within which phenomena take place, to the business, government, and social institutions that exist within these contexts, to the technologies that these institutions create, to the individuals that use them. What is going on at each of these different units of analysis? How do these different levels interact with and shape one another? These are the types of discussions that I find most fascinating, and the discussions that most often require a high degree of openness and socialization clients to engage with.

Bagels, COVID, and the Business Value of Applied Anthropology

This is especially true for questions about non-linear relationships, which are particularly well-suited for ethnographic study. Most business decisions are assessed quantitatively on the basis of mathematical calculations. Addition, subtraction, multiplication division, and statistical tests tend to be used in the short-term, and exponential growth and decay tend to mostly be used to factor in the time-value of money over longer periods of time. Core optimization questions for a bakery such as “How many bagels would I have to sell this month for it to be worth it to stay open?”, or “Should I buy a larger oven?” are where the traditional business toolkit thrive.

But there are questions that are less well-suited for this toolkit. Questions about phenomena that emerge from the interactions of different variables in interconnected systems that are difficult to predict are less well-suited for this toolkit. Questions where past quantitative data is insufficient to predict future outcomes. For these questions, such as “How will COVID shape customers’ preferences for home baking vs. buying from bakeries? Or for health food vs. comfort food?”, rich qualitative data can drive insights and make predictions more intuitively than the quantitatively-oriented tools normally used in business. These are the types of questions that ethnographic methods are particularly well-suited for, and where the business value of engaging in ethnography becomes most apparent.

It is this ethnographic toolkit that I am in the process of learning. It is very exciting to learn how to explore questions using new methods, and at a more fundamental level, how to build better questions? What  anthropological or social science theories and methodologies have you found most useful in driving insights, or building better questions for clients, and why have they been so useful? I hope to learn from Gemic and from all of you best to do that.

The Opportunities for Learning and Impact at Scale

But what’s the goal of all this? Why did I choose to join Gemic and work so hard to learn this new toolkit in the first place? For me, the answer to this question lies in scale. With great awareness in the business community and powerful clients comes the opportunity to create positive financial, environmental, and social impact at scale. Through Gemic, I have an opportunity to be a thought partner with business leaders whose decisions directly and indirectly impact the lives of so many people, and through ethnography I have the means to answer their toughest questions—the ones with the greatest potential for impact.

What is the scale of impact that we can have in the world by producing even small changes in our stakeholders’ directions? How might we expand the horizons of their thinking—even a little—to consider using their influence in ways that simultaneously maximize the scale of value for both their shareholders, and underserved and marginalized populations?

Anthropological and social science theories and methods grant us the ability to bring a new set of data stakeholders, and to frame them in ways that they might not otherwise initially consider. With that comes the opportunity to change their perspectives, and change the world for the better.

I’m excited for the opportunity to do just that, but first, I have to learn how. The scale of the shift from a traditional business mindset to an ethnographic mindset is big, and so is its learning journey. If anyone is interested in joining me on this learning journey, mentoring me along the way, or working together to build something impactful, please do not hesitate to reach out at https://www.linkedin.com/in/1adamsinger/.

I look forward to getting to know and working with many of you.

Sincerely,photo of adam singer

Adam Singer
Strategist at Gemic

Featured Image: "Cloud Scraper" by meshugas via flickr (CC-BY-2.0)


RELATED

Of Cool Light and Balance Sheets: The Social Scientist as the CFO’s Best Friend, Alex Jinich

Yes, Virginia, We "Do Ethnography" in Business School, Gary Gebhardt

Leave a Reply