This truly is the Coming of Age of Corporate Anthropology. All around us, the number of companies that are employing anthropologists is soaring, as are those that are engaging firms to conduct ethnographic or observational research for them. Another bellwether is Google search, where interest in anthropology-trained culture change experts increased dramatically in 2017.
I saw this “coming of age of anthropology” not long ago when I spoke for the second year at the Michigan Colleges Alliance (MCA) Roundtable. Each June, the MCA gathers with its fifteen independent college members and 120 businesses from across Michigan and beyond to think creatively about how higher education needs to change in order to better serve its students, its communities and the businesses and industries that need its talent. In order to provide industry with the new types of employees it needs, colleges and universities need to change their cultures, their purposes and their methods so that their graduates can find good jobs in today’s market and become valuable elements of fast-changing companies.
Thanks to the great leadership of Bob Bartlett and Karen Mulligan, the MCA convened a number of lecturers who spoke at length about anthropology, sharing how its methods, theory and tools added significant value to their businesses and why other companies should embrace anthropology as well.
What is corporate anthropology?
I was asked recently: “Isn’t anthropology mainly applied to small scale societies?” My response: “Don’t you think businesses are small scale societies, with their rituals, beliefs, values and particular ways of getting things done?” The interviewer paused and then we laughed together. Simply put, corporate anthropology is the theory, methods and tools of cultural anthropology applied to businesses, organizations and corporations.
But let’s back up a moment. Anthropology is the study of how people create and live within a culture — the shared values, beliefs, symbols, language, rituals, stories and behaviors that humans develop and then pass on to others who join their groups, who then pass them on to future generations.
Cultures are both static and dynamic, acting as adaptive agents that enable humans to survive as times change. While cultures are always evolving, there remains a tension between the culture of the past and the new culture emerging, as people modify their culture, reinvent it and invent new ones. In today’s fast-changing times, each generation shares more with each other than with their parents or grandparents. Hence, we have the pressures of generations and the complexity of cultures within generations. See what I mean about tension?
When applied to business, anthropology enables people to step out of their current experiences and assumptions and watch what is happening inside (and outside of) their organization. They then can begin to see things, as we anthropologists like to say, with “fresh eyes.”
This theory or approach opens up all sorts of channels for businesses to innovate and try new ideas, eliminate what is no longer of value, reduce things that are impediments to getting things done, and elevate objectives that now have greater purpose and importance than before. This approach is also heavily grounded in the premise that people don’t know what they do. They simply go about their daily living, driven by habits and beliefs.
In order to change, people need new ways to “see, feel and think” about their business and the needs and unmet needs of their customers and non-customers. This is where seeing things with “fresh eyes” comes in, which is hard to do because our brains hate to change.
It is only through experiential learning that this methodology can really be understood. At my firm, we take our clients out exploring with us whenever we can so they too can begin to “see, feel and think” in new ways. That’s when the real learning, the “a-ha” moments happen.
The accelerating demand for corporate anthropology is good…and bad
As a corporate anthropologist, when I first launched my company, which specializes in helping organizations change, there was minimal search volume for “corporate anthropology.” Now, with joy, I am watching rising demand. But with that is coming a simplification of corporate anthropology’s theory and methods into a simple tool for idea development.
On the one hand, I like that more and more companies are open to talking with us about how “a little anthropology” could help their business grow, as if they understood what anthropology might offer them. Usually they don’t, but they know they need something new to help propel them forward during changing times. They are typically stumped, so what the heck, a dose of anthropology couldn’t hurt.
On the other hand, I find it disturbing that anthropological theory and methodology seem to be evolving into “ethnography” that has somehow become the charm that people expect will transform them, their organization and their bottom line. A magic bullet or a quick fix that doesn’t really fix anything?
Proof that anthropology can and does work
As I mentioned earlier, I was struck by the number of business leaders at this year’s MCA conference who expressed their profound support of and admiration for anthropology. I share a few of their stories here:
From a Ford Motors executive: “At last year’s conference, I never even knew there were corporate anthropologists. Now I find them all over Ford doing all sorts of interesting things. They even took a team of Ford executives out to do an immersion at the car dealerships to see what really happens there. Now I’m a believer.”
Richard Sheridan, founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, described how he has built an incredible organization of software designers and engineers by using anthropologists to help them create smarter solutions for those “dumb end-users” that techies think are ruining their creations. You can read more about how Sheridan’s innovative anthropological approach to the design and construction of software systems gets to the heart of client needs. In fact, this approach attracts over 3000 visitors a year to see how he has changed the workplace to bring about greater human interfaces, more productive collaborations and sustainable, understandable communications. Anthropology for him is as much about observing what the customer needs as it is about enabling his quirky staff to enjoy building their creations better.
Sean Corcoran, General Manager of Steelcase Education, an alumnus of the design firm IDEO, explained how industrial design routinely incorporates anthropology into its approach to creativity, using anthropological tools and methods to better understand how people work so that designers can build more useful environments.
An emerging industry whose time has come
Another signal that corporate anthropology is gaining acceptance in the business world is the number of places around the globe where I have been invited to speak or conduct workshops on how anthropology can help companies change in order to solve business problems: namely, Mexico, Bahrain, Botswana and India. There are three professionals across the globe who are working with me to become corporate anthropologists. Clearly, something very powerful is happening as people are seeing the value of anthropology to the future of their businesses, from improving corporate cultures to enhancing employee engagement to opening new markets for growth.
Indeed, the time is ripe for anthropology to become an integral part of the way firms do business, rather than an afterthought when the market has changed and backward-looking companies are getting left behind. When used correctly, anthropology enables businesses and their leaders to completely reframe the context in which they operate and the markets they “think” they serve.
Yes, anthropology is coming into its own, and none too soon. Changing times require it.