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Boardroom Anthropology for Beginners (2/N)

Opportunities for business mainstream

In my last blog, I wrote about what anthropologists can add to businesses and had a look into the anthropologist’s toolbox. In this blog, I want to speak about the opportunities of application. What do approaches such as ethnography, collecting ‘thick data’, and the immersion into the context as well as participatory research mean for everyday business practice? And what does this human-centric approach mean for startups, corporates, governments, development agencies or other institutions aiming to create social innovation at the ‘base of the economic pyramid’? Here are some areas where I see opportunity for ethnography and generative, participatory, human-centric research approaches.

Idea Generation & Concept Development

Developing new ideas and transformative solutions is hard and sitting in research labs or behind a desk in office spaces, far removed from the end-user may not bring about disruptive solutions, but rather incremental changes. Where quantitative research approaches help to uncover what people do and highlight areas where there may be gaps, excel sheets remain silent about insights that can be used for actual solution development.

At the same time, inspirations for new solutions are plenty in everyday life and approaches of anthropology and ‘the study of people’ can help uncover needs and opportunities for new ideas and concepts. With roots in the 19th century and originally studying cultures and tribes foreign to the researcher, anthropologists have developed a methodology set and mindset to study ‘the other’, which is relevant for business. The same methods can be used ‘to make the familiar strange’ and hence plays an important role in the creative process.

Borrowing these methods, human centric design and design thinking is using tools such as observing body language, eye contact and facial expression to understand feelings, experiences, and needs of the user and look beyond what he speaks. Likewise, techniques such as asking users to write diaries or create photo journals can be a great source of inspiration and help to learn about a person’s life. Other visualization techniques such as drawings or creating resource flows and maps can help to understand the context and reveal opportunities.

Product and Service Design

 We live in an age where technology is believed to solve many social problems. We have hopes that digital financial services will increase financial inclusion. We expect that sensor technology, robotics, artificial intelligence in combination with other technologies create ‘farms of the future’ and increase small holder farmer productivity. We believe that mobile-enabled market places will improve access to quality medicine in rural parts of the developing world.

However, technology and algorithms alone will not solve problems. Innovators, startups and corporates need a deep understanding on how to create consumer touch points. Ethnographic research approaches and gathering ‘thick data’ that explains daily lives of the user, helps understand what is important to him or her, and gives insights on how users interact with technology and reveal his user journey can help in early stages of product and service design. Understanding the client and his or her context and feedback on the intended solution early on reduces the risk associated with developing new ideas.

For those interested in a deep dive, CGAP has documented how human centric research has changed the way they develop solutions in the area of financial inclusion. A well-documented and often quoted case study on what empathy with the end-user can do, is how GE Healthcare industrial designer Doug Dietz has re-thought X-ray and MRI procedures for children. Likewise, in a recent blog Ideo discusses how human centric approaches are applied in healthcare, specifically in schizophrenia care.

Organizational Change Processes

Organizations are made out of human beings – they are manifested patterns of communication and interaction of humans. Human-centric approaches are essentially ‘interaction design’ at the core and hence offer the opportunity to create meaningful interactions within and outside organizations, design impactful change processes and influence organizational life more holistically. In fact, more than serving as a ‘tool’ applying these approaches opens up a new mindset for leaders and teams, their problem solving and decision-making capabilities, marking a departure from the traditional management view. Because human-centric approaches are participatory in nature, they engage the whole organization in the change process.

What does this mean for organizational cultures? As organizations are increasingly dealing with complex internal and external problems, people need to make sense of them. A human-centric culture allows employees to observe behavior and from there conclude what people want and need. It empowers teams to be creative and helps leaders to enable meaningful team work. A human-centric organizational culture embraces ambiguity and risk-taking, encourages prototyping and testing, and allows individuals and teams to fail and learn. That such a culture shift doesn’t happen overnight is clear; however, an increasing number of organizations are starting to embark this journey.

One of my favorite case studies on how an organization moved towards a human-centric culture is the case of Intuit, a business and financial software company. Challenged by a rather saturated market when it came to its product offerings in 2008, Intuit CEO Brad Smith changed the culture of the tech giant into a startup: agile, fast moving, embracing uncertainty and celebrating learning with the credo “Design for Delight” in the center. If you think this is only possible for tech companies, read the case study on how the Australian tax authority went through an organizational rebirth and integrated a human-centric lens to their DNA. In fact, human centric design has recently started to enter the policy sphere, with even actors like OECD advocating human centric policy design.

The Coming of Age of Anthropology

In the early twentieth century, American anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote a book called ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’, an anthropological study about youth in Samoa. While for a long time, anthropology was a niche subject studied by travellers and adventurers and was associated mostly with the study of tribes and cultures in far-off countries, today, more than a century later, anthropology has entered the business mainstream. Unfortunately, it is less the anthropologists who move out of their ivory tower, but more designers, product or service developers, or organizational development experts who get acquainted with anthropological research techniques. Research and study programs on the intersection are increasing, hence supplying the future demand for boardroom anthropologists.

For similar articles, see: Jon Kolko 2015: Design Thinking comes of Age. Harvard Business Review, September 2015