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Corporate Ethnography

High-tech companies are deploying ethnographers and anthropologists by the score to study how people actually use technology.
November 17, 2005

Redmond, WA – Ethnography, a form of applied anthropology, sounds way too fuzzy and foreign to turn the heads of corporate types. Certainly, in the past, it has been something of an oddity; the only ethnographers inside corporations were holed up at places like Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, where they worked on problems like how to make a photocopier’s On button more obvious to users.

Today, though, corporate ethnography is a blossoming field, as evidenced by the first-ever Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC), organized by ethnographers at Intel and Microsoft and held at Microsoft’s campus on November 14-15. The conference drew more than 200 working ethnographers from high-tech firms, specialist shops such as IDEO, and technology-intensive businesses such as Wells Fargo.

Over two days, the participants held a series of workshops and presented papers with titles like “The Worst Technology For Girls?” and “Who We Talk about when We Talk about Users.”

One talk examined an ongoing effort by ethnographers to root out organizational problems slowing down a software company’s development process. Another examined how bi-lingual, multinational teams could be formed more effectively, while yet another examined how technology affects, and is affected by, the trend toward “great rooms” in private U.S. homes.

The conference’s proceedings will be published. In part, that’s a way to establish corporate ethnography in the academic world, which still harbors doubts about the field. And in part it’s simply a useful venue for discussions, since ethnography is still an emerging tool in technology industries. Indeed, some attendees confessed that they weren’t sure they were part of a new discipline at all, and even debated what comprises ethnography.

Internal debates aside, ethnography is gaining credence in the corporate world as a form of market research. Ethnography focuses on a qualitative examination of human behavior. In a corporate setting, ethnographers typically examine how people treat a product, say, a mobile phone, in the context of their lives. Ethnographic researchers at the EPIC could be divided into seven general types: sociologists, human factors and computer interface specialists, computer scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, MBAs, and design specialists.

Both hardware and software makers are using ethnographers to adapt products for specific markets. Intel, for instance, has designed PCs to appeal specifically to market segments in China and India. And it was an ethnographer who figured out that Japanese people don’t use instant messaging on their PCs, because interruptions are considered impolite.

Such tactical advances are being joined by a more strategic use of ethnography. In May, for example, Intel pulled three of its ethnographers out of its research arm and put them into line operations, with a mandate to build a larger team of ethnographers, to help Intel better understand emerging markets, such as developing economies, digital health care, and the digital home.

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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