The growing importance of anthropology in the C-Suite

“Anthropology is to engage in radical agitation.”

Those were the words from John F Sherry that kicked off this year’s EPIC Conference. It was a spirited start from the well-respected professor of marketing and anthropology, on the stage at The University of Minnesota. The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) is the gathering of the EPIC community of a few hundred applied anthropologists, academics and UX designers. Each year this global network create their own retreat to listen and discuss ongoing challenges, and the direction of working as ethnographers in business.

Sherry´s agitation was never far from the surface in the presentations we heard. Nimmi Rangaswamy from Xerox Research Centre reflected on Facebook’s misguided logic for providing free basic Internet to all Indians. Elizabeth Anderson-Kempe, from Artemis, shared a public health project which tracked the rise of parents in the US not vaccinating their children as they believe in some scientific proofs, but paradoxically not vaccinations.

The theme of this year’s conference, pathmaking, was evident – we heard about the value of creating spaces for people to think about what they do, and why – whether that was keeping time in San Francisco, or moving through hospitals in Singapore. We also heard academics more abstractly question what path anthropology is taking as it wraps itself around business.

The setting gave everyone the space to learn, and the time to reflect on how far ethnographers have come since they began working in corporations.

Technology and some methods may have changed, but the imperative to improve capitalism has not. The clients might now be public bodies, venture-capital firms, or large corporations, but the focus for making people-centered services and products remain.

Anthropology has raised its profile in corporate America and across the business community globally – and there was agreement that anthropologists have made great strides to be heard by the C-Suite. The question now is what responsibility comes with having that voice?

Attendees highlighted the responsibility of anthropologists to talk about privatisation of the publics, the imperative to be public intellectuals – publish, present and be heard above narrow business discussions focused on financial profit. With our focus on holism, analysing and seeing patterns in cultural practice we have a different perspective to many working in business. There was also an emphasis on the need for collaborative, cross-disciplinary projects. More non-anthropologists need some of the principles and frames of reference anthropologists possess.

My highlight was to hear Karen Ho, of the University of Minnesota, dissect the inner world of Wall Street venture-capitalists and brokers. Based on years of fieldwork she argued corporate America has been liquidated. Corporations are now seen as a collection of assets – ready to be stripped and sold as needed to maximise short-term profit.

It’s clear why this is problematic for anyone working in a corporate role, but it’s also a worry for anthropologists engaged in business. People in corporations need confidence in the long term future of their company to be able to invest in creating or innovating people-centered products and services. Corporates battered by shareholder pressure to raise stock prices are forced on the defensive. If a company only budgets for incremental rather than disruptive innovation it is putting its future at risk.

Ho told us that the signs of success for investors is not the quality of their transactions, but the number. They are competing with other investors on a dangerously narrow scale of success. This thinking has been internalised by corporations, and at a strategic level they tend to only see themselves as a bundle of money. With this mindset they’re unlikely to gamble on new disruptive product launches.

Other presentations didn’t leave such a sobering impression. Many showed the power of ethnographic exploration to help fix a problem. They showed that taking cues from ethnographic research informs better design, it situates what’s new into existing cultural norms, and its value is visible in its ability to add depth and breadth in an environment that otherwise prioritises quantity and frequency.

My impression, as I departed for Barcelona, was that anthropologists engaged with business have matured, but still the best of times are ahead. Veterans of the applied side of anthropology, that first emerged in the large tech companies in the 1980s, might well be aggrieved that technology has reduced the perceived value of in-depth participant observation. But the toolkit of skills, sense and intention which anthropologists working in business possess will continue to be sought.

The path has been signposted and there are lots of us eagerly heading down it.


Sep 29, 2016