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Tim Plowman, a design anthropologist at Cheskin, a consultant group in Palo Alto, CA, says the firm is almost always asked to include an ethnographic component in recommendations to clients. He believes clients do so to create innovative products that will stand out in current markets.

Plowman, who presented a theoretical paper at EPIC, notes that many successful products evoke a vision of something meaningful to people. “Companies want to find out how meaning manifests itself in people’s live, and ethnography is a good way to get at that,” he says.

Ken Anderson, one of the conference’s organizers and a design anthropologist at Intel Research, who has worked in the field for more than a decade, says ethnography clearly helps companies define market needs, which can drive product innovation.

His counterpart at Microsoft, Tracey Lovejoy, says she had no clue about corporate ethnography when she was finishing her master’s degree in anthropology in 2001. Now, “ethnography is sexy in the corporate world,” she says. Lovejoy works on Microsoft’s new operating system, Vista, as an ethnographer.

The conference was “a coming-out party” for ethnography, said Marietta L. Baba, an ethnographer at Michigan State University, during a rousing final address.

Afterwards, Baba was a bit more reserved. She admits to seeing fads develop around ethnographic practices. In the 1980s, for example, ethnographers were helping companies re-engineer themselves. In the 1990s, knowledge management became the new buzzwords.

What makes this wave look different, according to Baba, is that there are so many ethnographers work directly for firms. “In the past, it was consultants coming in,” she says.

Another pioneering corporate ethnographer, Jeannette Blomberg, now at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, is also cautiously optimistic. “I’ve been at this for 25 years and I feel like it’s ongoing work. But we’re not as marginal as we once were.”

In fact, Blomberg came away from the conference feeling there was now a critical mass of people engaged in aspects of corporate ethnography.

And at least there was enough momentum to guarantee a second EPIC, to be held next year in Portland, OR.

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