Anthropology in Business


Anthropology in Business

A forum for sharing the value added of anthropologists in corporate settings

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Comment by Sinead Devane on December 8, 2009 at 1:01pm
Matthew, thanks for sharing that!
Comment by Matthew Ortiz on November 18, 2009 at 1:52pm
This is an attempt to reply Sinead Devane's Sept 24th posting.

As my experience is in the US, it probably will have little if any value to those in the UK but I will try to share anyway. Feel free to skip to the end for my actual advice.

I have only a BA in anthropology as I could not find a way to continue school that would not leave me in the trap of debt forever. I graduated with only $40,000 in debts so it will probably be a little under 40 years to repay it.

I have found that it is very easy to apply anthropological methods to business for very profitable successes. What I have not been able to do is capitalize on that for the sake of a meaningful and well paying career for myself (or “sell” the benefits of anthropology). I have been able to make many observations about US business culture, but do not have the ability to make use of them.

I say "very easy" because US businesses simply have so many issues that anyone who is not an idiot can find things to be improved for increased profitability. Let me start with some examples.

At one point I was working for a large multi-national company. I made 3 major observations that I was able to directly or indirectly use for improvements. The first was purely ethnological. I noticed in a meeting I was observing with key individuals within the company of a common problem that was due to errors in inter-cultural communication that could be answered using the most basic of ethnological principles. I shared this publicly and received the thanks of a few of the company's vice presidents who had attended. In a separate circumstance in the same process I noticed an issue with the struggle between the legalist cultures of the US and UK over legal documentation standards. I found a simple technological answer to this that I still consider a benefit due to having studied anthropology. These two observations and changes lead to an increased profit of about $36,000,000 per year. The third observation was obtained via anthropological methods also that I used to find success for a new department I helped establish. The numbers were much smaller but I consider it a success for making the department operable and profitable so it now provides many more jobs and does truly provide something for its customers that no other company offers.

At another company I used principles of psychology (learned while pursuing an anthropology degree) to create a marketing strategy that was accepted and implemented saving the company based on subscription service income about $18,000,000 per month.

I will spare you other instances with less dramatic numbers to gloat about.

I accredit these accomplishments to the fact that an anthropology degree requires students to study a broad range of topics rather than a very narrow and specialized curriculum. That is not the case that I have been able to observe from others though.

I currently work in a sub-department of another company that has 10 members. One of the ten is very talented and without a college degree. I am the only one with a degree that is not from a business school. Two of these business members' school required a single course in behavioral sciences (a choice between either Intro-Psychology or Intro-Cultural Anthro). To a great extent the people in charge of "America's" businesses have very limited exposure to varying fields of information and thus seem in my view to be the reason that I have seen so many things overlooked.

I am honestly left wondering whether American business schools teach this as a model for a successful career. I am also left wondering how much effort they spend on stressing the need to fit in to the business system rather than question it. I have created presentations about social management using the simplest concepts of thing such as classical conditioning only to receive blank stares and later be blown off. I have gone through the graduate requirements of a number of business schools and been alarmed by how little general knowledge is required. It is mostly a degree of mathematics. I am left believing that poor business school education is the cause of the problems of America's business issues.

I have not been able to figure out why this is the case, other than a few cultural observations on US business culture. These are from within 2 of my country's largest organizations and 1 of the UK’s.

I have noticed the novelty and respect from great achievements wears off after 2-3 months. You must use these periods wisely, at which I have failed. Despite the fact that I have been able to prove that anthropology has a monetary value that has failed to be understood by them as a value. In fact, people with business degrees criticize anthropology in general and I have heard smug comedy about how "worthless" of a field it is. I think that the number of things overlooked by their degree requirements leave them without the knowledge to appreciate anthropology and they seem to see those of us who studied it as kooks. I think that their opposition to things like a concept of evolution and cultural bias predispose them from considering anything anthropological. I am not considering this as the reason for my failure to make value of myself. That is due to my failure to institute personal changes from my observations. I think it is easier to put your own personality and values aside when you are observing a culture different from your own.

As I said earlier, American business culture is wrought with issues that can be easily addressed by anyone. This is a cultural issue and not a business model issue. The means to promotion in all 3 companies I have seen is to do something great like these examples as the first step. The second step is to then use the new connections you made to make personal relationships with those above you. The behavior that my parents spoke negatively about as a child of "kissing up" are considered legitimate work efforts in the business world.

I also consider the fact that the US has evolved into a marketplace where internal promotion is a secondary means of personal advancement. The primary means is by going from one company to a higher position within a second company of which your personal resume leads to a belief of reasonable necessary preliminary accomplishments. We thus create a situation where one must place higher emphasis on the changes they can find the leverage to institute oneself for the benefit of one's own resume without much regard for long-term business implications that will not become evident until years after one has already moved on out of the position and is no longer be forced to suffer the embarrassment of those implications.

Once one reaches a certain level in their career it is no longer necessary to find a real issue to improve. You can easily present and sell almost any idea to superiors as a profitable and beneficial change. You will then create your own test of the change to monitor its success. You will define the variables and measures and choose which to ignore. You are therefore almost guaranteed to have a successful new change to use to your own benefit.

It might be easy to consider my concerns and observations to be paranoid theories. However, we can also observe aspects of this on a broader scale. Once someone has reached a certain level of accomplishment with in US business they begin to be qualified to sit on the board of directors of other companies. Each of these board positions is the equivalent to a part-time job however with very fruitful compensation. The board members are officially chosen by popular election by the shareholders. However, in most shareholder proxy votes I have witnessed the number of board members to vote for or against is equal to the number of seats available. These aspiring board member's resumes are very limited in scope in terms of what is provided to shareholders. There are few resources that shareholders can go to for information to truly evaluate the value these individuals have brought to other companies.

I have also noticed a cultural trend towards covering up issues rather than addressing them. America's business decisions are largely made in regards to the affect they will have on share price (even though share price only benefits the company if they are buying or selling their own shares). I have seen companies go to great length to prevent certain issues from going public and also great efforts to have other certain yet barely valuable information make it to the public. I am sure no one needs explanation of how companies’ bookkeeping issues have recently come to light. Yet, they are spoken about using terms implying that they were temporary problems that have been addressed when in fact they have mostly only diverted attention. For example, about 8 months ago an American Super Company had an issue where about 1/3 of their many executives resigned within a two week period just a month before a labor dispute with its union that was expected to turn into a major strike due to reduction in pay. This information never made it public. Instead its headlines were filled with information about agreements with competitors. I could supply dozens of other examples.

My point is that using anthropology to successfully improve your company should not be difficult and I'm sure you can do it. I have found it is most successful when you simply do something directly rather than trying to convince others above you to institute your ideas. I would recommend that you discover the culture of the business and system you are trying to progress within and then realize what changes you must make personally to fit that society's expectations of you. What could be more ethnological than this? Don't try to sell anthropology to them, just use it to guide you through their system.
Comment by Sinead Devane on November 16, 2009 at 5:39pm
hello folks, does anyone out there know of any research into people joining companies/groups/tribes.. and any literature on the issues around such introductions??

any suggestions would be much appreciated.... s
Comment by Richard Linington on October 6, 2009 at 9:59am
Hi John and Sinead I hadn't heard of either of the two books mentioned. Thanks for drawing them to my attenetion.

Hi Ken - will check out the link. Hope all's well in China / USA. All the best,
Comment by Ken C.Erickson on October 6, 2009 at 12:24am
I should have posted here, but there is something in the general forum you all may find of interest. Would love some feedback.

-Ken C. Erickson
Comment by Sinead Devane on October 1, 2009 at 11:54pm
Hi Richard,
thanks for your comments.
On the subjects of books, there's a new one out called 'ethnography and the corporate encounter' by Melissa Cefkin... I'll also look your recommendation up!

Comment by John McCreery on October 1, 2009 at 11:12pm
Welcome, Richard. Been awfully quiet around here. Are you aware of

Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research (Paperback)
by Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita M. Denny?
Comment by Richard Linington on October 1, 2009 at 10:41pm
Sorry I am joining the conversation quite late in the day.

I believe we can add real value to design teams (and other project teams) particularly in terms of ‘generating revenue’ by identifying specific products / services which users need.

To demonstrate the value of ethnographic / user research I have often found that it can be invaluable to involve the project team in the fieldwork element. It can be a real eye opener for someone who has never engaged with an end user to join you when you are conducting research.

There’s a great book which I would recommend reading: Creating Breakthrough Ideas: The Collaboration of Anthropologists and Designers in the Product Development Industry by Jr. Sherry, Susan Squires, and Bryan Byrne.

My two pennies worth.

Comment by John McCreery on September 24, 2009 at 7:33pm
Sinead, you write,

We are organised and measured as single operators rather than a series of functions tied together by management.

It sounds like your management has gone a bit overboard in embracing the "audit culture" that Marilyn Strathern analyzes with its ideology of personal accountability. Even so, I suspect that if you do a bit of ethnographic research, you will discover that the most successful individuals are those with a knack for assembling teams and resources to get things done that they could not do by themselves.

But that, of course, reflects my experience working in Japanese advertising. My side of the translation and copywriting business that my wife and I now run ( is largely rooted in something I noticed back in the late 1980s. I had been hired in 1983 as an English-language copywriter and treated much in the way that you describe your situation. I was a goose whose task was to produce occasional golden eggs, a.k.a., copy that clients would buy. A few years later, I noticed that (1) demand for my golden eggs was declining and (2) that my Japanese colleagues, who were very good, indeed, at producing advertising for the Japanese market, frequently found it difficult to sell their ideas to international clients. Seeing an unoccupied niche, I went to my current boss and persuaded him that I might do more good for the agency helping to sell multi-million dollar domestic campaigns than just writing export ads that rarely billed outside the 10 to 100s of thousands of dollars range. He gave me a shot. The people I was working with sold some TV commercials, and I wound up with the reputation of someone who knew the black art of translating Japanese intentions into reasons for international clients to buy ideas. It has been my meal ticket ever since.

Based on my experience, if I were you, I would be looking, for example, for great designers or engineers who are not as skillful as they might be in communicating the value of what they do. I would put my anthropological skills to work understanding what they do, how what they do contributes to your company's business, and how you might help that process along.
Comment by Sinead Devane on September 24, 2009 at 6:47pm
ahhh. yes. the traditional approach to business. I work in a firm where we need to sell, design and manufacture ourselves (multiskilled). We are organised and measured as single operators rather than a series of functions tied together by management. I could sell the techy stuff and outsource the design and manufacture of it, but I would lose all my profitiability that way. If i can find something to design and make myself, I can make higher profits and add more value to the business in terms of security through presence in diverse markets. Are you in sales John? It is certainly a skill I need to imporve, I agree with you that the empathy developed in anthropological training is usefully incidental, but I do think I need to do more than sell for other people. I want to take it further - to sell for myself, and have something to design and make.

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