Under Study

Why did your client say no? Why can't your employees do their jobs? The answer may lie in corporate anthropology.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the April 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Before Cindy Maude started a unit providing women-focused marketing services, she wanted to be sure she knew what she was talking about. So the owner of Lawrence, Kansas, advertising and marketing firm Callahan Creek sent herself and several employees off for a five-day anthropology boot camp. What they learned had nothing to do with Indiana Jones or Margaret Mead, however. Corporate anthropology helps companies relate to their employees and understand their customers.

Marketers use anthropologists' findings to understand how people use and relate to products and services. Business owners find out how employees communicate, learn and share knowledge.

Maude, 52, says the crash course in ethnography, as the science of detailed studies of different cultures is called, provided an understanding of women as consumers. Says Maude, "It provides insights that are deeper and get at what's in people's minds much better than any research I've been a part of."

In the Beginning

Corporate anthropology got its start in 1979 when a Xerox employee who was trained as an academic anthropologist observed people trying to use a copier. Based on her recommendation that the process be simplified, Xerox added the green "copy" button to its copiers, and it's been there ever since.

Corporate, or applied, anthropology is more focused than academic anthropology and covers topics chosen for their profit potential, according to LiAnne Yu, an anthropologist and principal at Redwood City, California, consulting firm Point Forward. Otherwise, the disciplines similarly employ the tools and approaches of ethnography, which "consist of talking to people, interviewing them, seeing them in their natural daily context and acquiring their stories about their lives," Yu says.

Compared to marketing surveys of customers, ethnography is narrower but deeper and more open-ended. Instead of asking a few dozen multiple-choice questions of thousands of customers, an ethnographer would be more likely to follow a few customers around all day, talking to them and recording them with a tape recorder or video camera. Once the information is analyzed, it sometimes yields surprising insights.

In the pager industry, for instance, by showing that teenagers are more responsive to looks than function, anthropology inspired designer pagers. Research from Yu's firm led to pull-up diapers so parents could say kids were "out of diapers" when they weren't fully toilet-trained. "It wasn't about waste disposal," Yu says. "It was about feeling a child was developing and moving on to the next stage."

Ethnographers often find similar surprises studying employees, says Cathleen Crain, anthropologist and managing partner of LTG Associates, a consulting firm in Takoma Park, Maryland, that specializes in performing ethnographic studies for organizations. Executives often come to her asking why morale is low with a certain group of employees, only to be told the real problem is in another group. "Sometimes," she says, "there's a hidden audience more potent than the obvious one."

Anthropological studies are no more expensive than polls, focus groups or employee surveys, says Jackie Bunnell, director of research for Callahan Creek. And the risks primarily involve academically trained anthropologists failing to communicate with profit-minded businesspeople, Yu says.

So why don't more entrepreneurs use ethnography? Bunnell says it's simply still unfamiliar. But given anthropology's power to illuminate business mysteries, she doesn't expect that situation to remain intact any longer than Indiana Jones' fedora. Says Bunnell, "It really brings to life the true picture."

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