Why is Intel, the giant chip maker, in the process of hiring more than 100 anthropologists and other social scientists to work side by side with its engineers? While the success of this strategy will become clearer over the next 12 to 18 months, it’s obvious Intel is betting that sales will rise and new markets will emerge because of this nonintuitive pairing.
Bringing more nonengineers into product development was a little-noticed after-effect of Intel’s reorganization in February 2005 into a “platform” company – a maker of not only chips, but also supporting chipsets, memory, graphics, and wireless technology. But that reorganization itself was driven in part by work the company’s anthropologists had done. In fact, three of those scientists, as of July 2005, have become managers in business units: Eric Dishman (Digital Health), Genevieve Bell (Digital Home), and Tony Salvador (Emerging Markets).
Now the company is hiring more social scientists – so many that it’s creating a new job code for the field – a plus, says Dishman, when it comes to hiring. “We don’t have to insult candidates [who are social scientist] by putting ‘engineer’ on their offer letter,” he says.
Intel has already released several products shaped by anthropological research. In February 2005, it worked with a Chinese PC maker to release the China Home-Learning PC; and in October 2005 it launched the iCafe initiative in China, which involves a platform for improving how Internet café owners deploy and manage their technology. Intel has also repeatedly demonstrated early production versions of a Community PC, which is aimed at markets where infrastructure is not as well developed as in the West. That platform will be introduced first in India later this year. In all these new ventures, social scientists have had “a real impact,” says Pat Gelsinger, a senior vice president at Intel.
Gelsinger says Intel will have a number of other offerings during 2006 and 2007 that came out of work by anthropologists, and he thinks the company will see significant revenue streams from these new products by the end of 2007.
Furthermore, Gelsinger emphasizes that the impact of these new scientists has been more than just in tactical product development: they’ve also played a key role in long-term strategic planning. Indeed, Intel viewed China and India as countries where people were simply too poor to buy its products – until anthropologists showed them that extended families in Asia will invest in a PC if it’s viewed as helping their children to succeed.
Intel has been paying for anthropological research for seven years, and Gelsinger admits that when he became CTO in 2001, he wasn’t entirely sure why. “You have these ‘softer’ scientists sitting next to hard scientists designing chips and things very familiar to Intel, and it’s much harder to justify and measure the qualitative research,” he says. But it eventually became clear to him that the anthropologists had useful insights into a variety of emerging markets, from China and India to health care.
The rise of the anthropologists may come just in time for Intel. Its traditional Western markets are largely saturated, while many parts of the developing world use cell phones for e-mail and other forms of communication. And Intel’s efforts to gain share in the cell-phone market have not been strong. Thus, developing new approaches to potentially huge markets like India and China may help Intel grow faster in the future.
Another new effort by Intel, its nascent Digital Health initiative, could be even more important, since health care represents nearly 15 percent of the U.S. economy, its largest single component. It is the kind of market that could jumpstart growth even for a giant like Intel, which has very little presence in the health-care market. And figuring out how to tap into that market is where social scientists come in.
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