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A shift in the business environment that ethnographers can’t ignore

kenandersonKen Anderson (@kxande2) manages the Cultural Transformations Lab at Intel. He is an iconoclast by nature and a symbolic anthropologist by training. Over the last 20 years, his research has explored the relationship between identity, culture and technology (ICTs). Besides his research duties, Ken is spearheading efforts to develop world-wide university collaborations with Intel around “green by information and communication technologies (ICTs)”. Ken’s career has included positions in the labs of AT&T, MediaOne, US West, and Apple Computer. He has taught at Brown University, UCHS and Bethel College. He is founder and currently president of the board of directors for EPIC and on the governing board of National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Editor’s note: In the last post in the EPIC edition, Ken Anderson (@kxande2) from Intel shares his thoughts on the latest shift in ethnography in the business environment. He argues that there is a new market for ethnography, and it’s one that we can’t ignore.

Ken believes that we are now in a  complex market environment. In this new context, he says that ethnographers should be answering new questions for businesses: instead of asking how research can reduce uncertainty, we should be asking how research can introduce temporary order. He provides an example of how businesses like Claro Partners and a few others have adapted to this new market. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with Ken? Tell us in the comments!

A great follow up piece to read is Ken’s essay on ethnography in the Harvard Business Review.

Ken also talks about how his early research with the Inuits’ where he observed ice building techniques links up to his current work at Intel. Yeah. We think that’s awesome.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

sand

It isn’t complicated; it’s complex

As is evident by columns in Ethnography Matters ethnographers have concerns about other methods, whether those be “big data” or attaching electrodes to people’s brains to get “real” data. I’m not too concerned about these, for me, they are merely tools for use in ethnographic studies. What does concern me is a shift that has been occurring in the business environment over a number of years, and how that might affect us.

When I was in graduate school I wanted to study the Inuit. I was an archeologist at the time and was amazed at how the Inuit adapted material culture to an environment of relatively (to me) scarce resources. For example, I never would have considered ice as a building resource for home building; peoples optimize resources for environmental circumstances.

Looking through some recent books on ethnographic praxis (e.g,, Gitta Jordan’s Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities, Andy Crabtree’s Doing Design Ethnography, Danny Miller and Heather Horst’s Digital Anthropology, Melissa Cefkin’s  Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations),  ethnographic practitioners find ourselves in about in the same position as the Inuit; we’ve done a great job of optimizing our practice for the environments we work in.

Unfortunately, when environments shift, then the tools and technics created may not fit in as well. In our case, the market environment has shifted upon us. Things that were once common practice to optimize our resources, like 3 week field studies of entertainment in homes in Shanghai, LA and London, followed up a month later with a 2 day work session with clients and a life of sticky notes may no longer be the optimal paths for ethnography to retain value. Let me explain what is happening.

Read More…

Transforming complex systems: a case study in service design

JakeJake Garber is a senior service designer for Innovation Unit. He uses a service design approach to help partner organisations address challenges in a radically different way. Jake specialises in using ethnographic research to unlock hidden insights and prototyping to develop very different ways of working. Before joining Innovation Unit he worked at the social innovation agency Participle, amongst other things, helping to design and launch Backr, a new social enterprise that helps people to invest in their own employability. Previously he researched and co-wrote Dying for Change with Charles Leadbeater at Demos and ran community development art projects with Gypsy Roma children in East London at The Children’s Society.

Editor’s note: This month, Jake Garber‘s account delves into his ethnographic research into the challenges of designing services for families facing difficulties such as suicide, incest, and long-term unemployment. Beyond the challenges inherent in working with such vulnerable populations, the service for which they conducted design research ultimately needed to coordinate the activity of over 20 different government agencies – each with their own priorities, budget conflicts, and factional interests.

This case study used ethnographic research and service design to put vulnerable families at the heart of a new system of support. In this post he outlines one family’s turbulent pursuit of stability, while reminding us of the critical importance of two valuable commodities: time and empathy.

The Trouble Families research is a project of Innovation Unit, a not-for-profit social enterprise that uses the power of innovation to solve social challenges.  Jake spoke about this research at the most recent EPIC 2013 Pecha Kucha in London.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

family2

Riding around with no place to go. © Innovation Unit 2012

Let’s imagine we’re designing a new service for families. To be confident our service is going to work for these families, it’s going to be pretty important to understand what they value, what their priorities are, how they see the world and how they respond to it. Ethnographic research can make important and decisive contributions to this task.

Now imagine we’re designing a new service for very vulnerable, complicated and often misunderstood families. Not only that, but we want to deliver our service through a complex and overlapping system of more than 20 separate agencies. This time ethnographic research is not only vital for understanding what can make a difference; it is also indispensible if we’re going to maintain focus on families and avoid getting completely lost in organisational bureaucracy.

In my work at Innovation Unit we support public services to radically improve what they do. In the service design team here, we rely heavily on an ethnographic style of research to ground and inspire the work we do.  I want to share a story of one of our recent projects to illustrate how we use ethnographic style work to create human centered system transformation. Read More…

Strategic Ethnography: Reinvigorating the Core of a Retail Giant, Tesco

ed_team_brannen-m-y A well-known international scholar in multinational affairs, Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) received her MBA with emphasis in International Business and PhD in Organizational Behavior with a minor in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Having taught at various Universities in the United States, Japan, China and France, Professor Brannen’s consulting specialty is helping multinational firms realize their global strategic initiatives by aligning, integrating and deploying critical organizational resources. Born and raised in Japan, having studied in France and Spain, and having worked as a cross-cultural consultant for over 20 years to various Fortune 500 companies, she brings a multi-faceted, deep knowledge of today’s complex cultural business environment. She has published many papers. In addition to publishing papers, she speaks to the press about her bicultural work.

Editor’s Note: In 2011, TESCO had stumbled. With dipping market share and profits, they were desperate to reverse the trend and called upon the research skills of Mary Yoko Brannen, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore,  and Christopher Voisey,  drawing upon their deep experience and the company’s myriad potential sources of knowledge to turn itself around.

Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) presented this work at the most recent EPIC conference, and I’m delighted they’ve decided to further share their work here. One reason I love this project is because it illustrates the usefulness of ethnographic methods to one of the world’s largest retailers, showing that there are few limits to the range of organizations that it can serve. I also believe this research was key for negating a common misconception in many global companies: the flow of insight is not “one way.” Creative ideas to improve the service offerings of more established branches in Europe and America can just as easily come from their more recently-established branches in emerging markets (although I disagree with and avoid using the term “reverse innovation”).

Companies with the opinion that more developed markets have a monopoly upon good ideas are missing a broad spectrum of different perspectives that could lead to new and refreshing initiatives from other contexts. The researchers’ refining of a method to systematize the building of a “bicultural bridge” is, as they say, potentially groundbreaking for the fields of anthropology and management alike. Read the Globe’s recent coverage of Mary and her team’s work.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

tesco_2161591b

In 2011, the retail giant Tesco UK  was in crisis mode. Tesco’s profit in the U.K. had fallen by about 0.5 percent—a rude awakening after having been the market leader in the U.K. and the third most profitable food retailer globally. At the same time that Tesco’s profits were falling in the UK, however, worldwide profit had actually risen 30 per cent, thanks to its Asian subsidiaries.  That year, the company tasked me and my colleagues, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore, and Christopher Voisey with identifying and assessing “the Essence of Tesco”, i.e., parts of the firm’s culture which were distinctive to Tesco and which could be transferred abroad to other parts of the firm’s global reach. The project had the dual objectives of helping Tesco (1) understand and evaluate the core practices that comprised the essence of Tesco’s home country advantage, and (2) identify sources of learning from Tesco’s foreign subsidiaries to aid in reinvigorating its core in order to make it more competitive at home. Read More…

Ethnographers creating a better bus riding experience for a diverse set of passengers

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 1.47.36 PM Lionel Ochs (@lionelochs) is Principal at Méthos, a Paris based research agency with a focus on strategy and product/service design for companies.

Editor’s Note: Along with many other ethnographic researchers, I’m always interested in hearing about field sites that are “out of the ordinary.” In the case of Lionel Ochs’s (@lionelochs) latest project at Méthos, his field site happened to be in motion, in the form of months of long-haul bus riding across Europe.

Méthos undertook Europe-wide ethnographic and design research to define the service guidelines for a high-quality holistic travel experience, which SNCF (French Rail) has implemented in the/its successful iDBUS (service). Lionel and his fellow researchers in collaboration with the innovation consultancy idsl set out to define what a better bus riding experience would consist of. As more and more riders are drawn to long distance buses globally, the shortcomings of present service offerings have never been more visible than today, and Méthos’ project has come at a time when it’s impact could be massive and far-reaching. Enjoy Lionel’s insightful observations, fascinating field note excerpts, and colorful “field experiences” (when was the last time your bus trip’s soundtrack was a chorus of inebriated Englishmen?)

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

CoachMe

Cars, trains and planes promise mobility, freedom and discovery, but traveling on them is becoming increasingly expensive. The decision to deregulate European long-distance travel prompted SNCF (French Rail) to aim for the lead in this market by providing high-quality European Coach travel services at affordable prices.

Méthos undertook Europe-wide ethnographic and design research to define the service guidelines for a high-quality holistic travel experience, which SNCF has implemented in the/its successful iDBUS (service). A collaboration with the innovation consultancy idsl presented as an artifact at the last Epic Conference in London.

ON THE ROAD

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Europeans look down their noses at long-distance bus travel. It is inexpensive and second-rate, and therefore tacitly intended for penniless students, immigrant workers and young professionals hoping to make it big in our European capitals. In many ways, therefore, long-distance bus travel is a parallel means of transport, frequented by populations that we do not see on trains or planes—even if higher fuel and train ticket prices are ushering in growing ranks from among other social classes, which the economic downturn is slowly reaching. Read More…

A case study on inclusive design: ethnography and energy use

Dan_Lockton.width-300Dr. Dan Lockton (@danlockton) is a senior associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, at the Royal College of Art in London. Originally a design engineer, he became interested in including people better in design research while working on mobility products. For his PhD at Brunel University, he developed the Design with Intent toolkit, a multidisciplinary collection of design patterns around human behaviour which Tricia blogged about in 2011. Since then, he has worked on a number of domestic and workplace energy-related behaviour change projects, including CarbonCulture and currently SusLab, a large pan-European project. There is a ‘SusLab at the RCA’ blog; this article is based on the paper Dan presented at EPIC 2013.

Editors note: Energy usage and conservation can be a seemingly mundane part of an individual’s daily life on one hand, but a politically, ecologically, and economically critical issue on the other. Despite its importance, there is a startling lack of insight into what guides and influences behaviors surrounding energy. 

With conventional quantitative analyses of properties and income explaining less than 40% of variations in households’ consumption, Dr Dan Lockton (@danlockton) and Flora Bowden set out to unpack some of the behavioral nuances and contextual insights around energy use within the daily lives of British households, from the perspective of design researchers. Their interviews had them meeting everyone from “quantified self” enthusiasts to low-income residents of public housing, and involving them in the design process. What they discovered bears significant implications for design which seeks to influence behaviors around energy, for example, where policy makers and utility companies see households as “using energy”, household members see their own behavior as solving problems and making their homes more comfortable, such as by running a bath to unwind after a trying day, or preparing a meal for their family.

Read on to see what else Dan and Flora learned in their ethnographic research, and how understanding “folk models” of energy – what energy “looks like” – may hold the key to curtailing energy usage.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

Gas prepayment card

A householder in Bethnal Green, East London, shows us her gas prepayment card.

It’s rare a day goes by without some exhortation to ‘reduce our energy use’: it’s a major societal and geo-political challenge, encompassing security, social issues and economics as well as environmental considerations. There is a vast array of projects and initiatives, from government, industry and academia all aiming to tackle different aspects of the problem, both technological and behavioural.

However, many approaches, including the UK’s smart metering rollout, largely treat ‘energy demand’ as something fungible—homogeneous even—to be addressed primarily through giving householders pricing-based feedback, with an assumption that they will somehow automatically reduce how much energy they use, in response to seeing the price. There is much less emphasis on understanding why people use energy in the first place—what are they actually doing? Read More…

A Psychologist Among Ethnographers: an Interview with Beatriz Arantes of Steelcase

Beatriz Arantes (@beatriz_wsf) is a psychologist and senior researcher based in Paris for Steelcase’s global research and foresight group WorkSpace Futures, providing expertise on human emotion, cognition and behavior to inform organizational practices and workplace design.

Talk to any ethnographer outside of academia, and you will surely find a fascinating tale. In this post for the January EPIC theme, I interviewed Beatriz Arantes (@beatriz_wsf) where she spins a rivitetting account spanning multiple continents. She recounts to us how she started out as a clinical psychologist and then ended up researching work spaces in Paris at Steelcase. One of the reasons we started Ethnography Matters is because we wanted to make the work that ethnographers do inside companies more public, so we are very happy to have feature Beatriz’s research.

Beatriz is currently a senior researcher for Steelcase, a leading provider of workplace settings and solutions for companies all over the world.  She is in the WorkSpace Futures group where she researches workplace behaviors and needs from multi-stakeholder perspectives to inform marketing, design and innovation, and examines how technology is changing these behaviors and needs. She has recently devolved into the necessary conditions for worker wellbeing, which you can read about here.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

 

Steelcase's 360 Magazine; Issue 67 on Wellbeing

Steelcase’s 360 Magazine; Issue 67 on Wellbeing

Beatriz, so you work with other ethnographers at Steelcase. So what do you gain by going to EPIC, a conference with more ethnographers?
EPIC was the first conference I ever went to that focused on my specific line of work, which was incredible. Yet within that focus, there was amazing breadth. The world is so big that we can’t each master it all. At Steelcase, we do take a broad look at the human condition and user experience in order to eventually narrow the application down to work situations, but there are definitely topics that are outside our scope. At EPIC, I could just delight in the variety of cultures, approaches, themes and theories. It’s a way to renew my own approach, to find inspiration, and make unprecedented connections. All of this enriches my own work. Besides, at such a conference, there is room to play, as well as to discuss the serious issues that we don’t usually take time for in our day to day.

Anything in particular that stood out for you?
I was also particularly enthralled with the quality of the keynote talks, each bringing profound wisdom on issues that had been gnawing on my mind and just provided the insight I needed. To have that put on a platter in an entertaining format, surrounded by peers… it’s a priceless experience.

Oh like what?
Like on the cultural origins of our visceral reactions to technology and artificial intelligence by Genevieve Bell, and like David Howe’s phenomenal critique of marketing’s dash for the privatization of the senses. What these talks all did was apply anthropological lenses to study our own culture’s assumptions – very dominant assumptions that often get the indisputable “science” stamp of approval, that end up clouding our judgment on the possibility of alternative realities.  This is important work, that challenges the dominating worldview that we take for granted and remains deeply entrenched, which is powerful because it allows us to really see our assumptions and opens new paths for exploration.  That’s why I liked your talk so much.

Why, thank you!
I loved your dissection of the very messy and emotional debate that went into establishing scientific measurement of electricity. Shedding light on the human-ness of measurement is extremely important in this moment in history, where we have never been so widely preoccupied as a society with measuring things as a way to reveal the truth about reality, through algorithms and big data. As if these measures existed in some pure form, waiting to be discovered. Your talk challenged our assumptions with an example of a measurement that we all take for granted. What you reminded us is that measurement is a human cultural production and we cannot put it above as unchallenged law. Scientific findings are constantly being revised, because they are our useful —  but crude and fallible —  approximations of reality. We can keep raising this caution until we turn blue in the face, but you shared a very elegant demonstration in your talk. This kind of argument provides substance to the debate we really should be having as a society to challenge the supremacy of algorithmic truth. Read More…

What We Buy When We Buy Design Research: Bridging “The Great Divide” between Client and Agency Research Teams

Andrew Harder

Andrew Harder (@thevagrant) is a researcher who likes to make things. He specialises in aligning emerging market user insights with shipping software using ethnography, usability testing, product sprint workshops and elbow grease.

Hannah Scurfield

Hannah Scurfield (@theduchess) is a design research manager working for Intel in London. She works with technologists and designers to drive software innovation and strives to institutionalise user empathy.

Editors note: This blog post is from Andrew Harder (@thevagrant) and Hannah Scurfield (@theduchess) who ran the workshop What we buy when we buy design research at EPIC 2013.  I invited Andrew and Hannah to guest contribute to the January EPIC 2013 theme because their workshop speaks to a much needed and missing conversation on what exactly clients are buying and what agencies are delivering in design research. Their articles allows us to peek into some of the important discussions that emerged from the workshop. They share with us several strategies that should be considered in the execution of design research processes.

Both Andrew and Hannah a very unique background that enables them to speak from the perspective of agencies and clients.  Having moved from agency research to in-house research, they understand the affordances and challenges that boutique firms and large corporations experience.  All views expressed are the authors own not those of their employers.

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.
design-5Like most good ideas to come out of England, the inspiration for our workshop at EPIC 2013 came from conversations in the pub. In this case, we were talking about “the great divide” between client and agency research teams.

Within a few years of each other, we had both left user experience agencies to work as design research managers inside big companies. Despite having worked in-house previously, this marked a transition in both our careers.

In agencies we  both sold design research to large companies. We faced similar challenges; fighting for more budget and time in the field to do more insightful work and wanting earlier involvement with designers so we could shape their work without compromise.

When we moved in-house, we faced new territory. Suddenly we had all the time we wanted, years of it. We had a research budget, sometimes a lot of it. We could work with designers from the minute they got their brief or in some cases, we were working to shape the design brief.

Yet we were also faced with some hard truths that we hadn’t anticipated. In our experience working for big consumer product companies means you are a small cog in a large machine, with objectives and dependencies that spread far beyond a specific research project. Couple that with a complex web of product owners and stakeholders and a design team to keep engaged, and you start to see why design research projects often come unstuck.

Often after spending budget on ethnographic research, design teams are still struggling later on, wanting insights that the research did not provide. And sometimes, no matter how clearly the external research agencies were briefed on project objectives, the deliverables unwittingly undermined the project vision, approach or relationships.

For both client and agency teams, keeping a research project on track is an art form in itself. However when we spoke with our colleagues and friends in research, it confirmed something we had suspected: nobody in industry or academia is openly discussing the process of buying design research. We can study project management styles but the topic of design research project management has been overlooked. The subject appears to be ‘taboo’, much to the detriment, we believe, of both client and agency research teams. Read More…

Lessons Learned From EPIC’s Mobile Apps & Quantified Self Workshop

MikeGotta_CasualMike Gotta (@Mikegotta) is a Research Vice President for collaboration and social software at Gartner. He has more than 30 years of experience in the IT industry, with 14 of those years spent as an industry analyst advising business and IT strategists on topics related to collaboration, teaming, community-building, and social networking. He has expanded his research to include quantified self trends as well as the business use and organizational value of ethnography. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Media Studies at The New School in New York City.

At EPIC 2103Mike Gotta (@Mikegotta) gave a workshop, Mobile Apps & Sensors: Emerging Opportunities For Ethnographic Research, that examined mobile apps developed for ethnographic research uses. I asked Mike to contribute to the January EPIC theme at Ethnography Matters because his research is always spotlighting some of the most fascinating trends in the tech industry. In this article, Mike provides a wonderful overview of his workshop, but even more interesting is his discussion of all the different ways the dialogue veered away from the original topic of the workshop. Essentially, things didn’t go as Mike had planned. The new direction, however, offered Mike a lot of insights into the future of mobile apps, which led him to reflect on personalized sensors as part of Quantified Self trends and the increasing importance of APIs in future research tools.  If you’re a qualitative researcher who wants to know how to make use of the latest mobile apps, this is a must-read article. The second half of Mike’s article can be read on Gartner’s blog.

Mike is currently at Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT), which describes itself as the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company. Mike is a familiar face at Ethnography Matters; during his time at Cisco Systems, Mike contributed to Ethnography Matters a piece that has become one of the most often-cited pieces of research on the role of ethnography in  Enterprise Social Networks (ESN).

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.

Slide1You might wonder – what’s a technology industry analyst doing at EPIC and why deliver a workshop on mobile apps and sensors?

The world of the IT industry analyst is becoming much more inter-disciplinary as societal, cultural, economic, media, demographic, and technology trends become more intertwined. These trends, perhaps, were always entangled in some fashion and we are only now becoming more interested in how the patterns of everyday life are mediated by various technologies.

There was a time when industry analysts could cover technology trends and their business relevance as long as they had an IT background. That might still be true in some cases – maybe – but in my opinion, being well-versed in social sciences is becoming a baseline competency for those in my profession.

Which brings me back to EPIC 2013. I had been looking into synergies across design, ethnography, and mobile and was happy to deliver a workshop for EPIC attendees to look at advances in mobile apps that support ethnographic research. As a group, we identified the pro/con’s of mobile apps and discussed how field research could be better supported. The topic was relevant not only to the ethnographic community but also to audiences who interact frequently with industry analysts: digital marketers, innovation teams, design groups, product/service managers, and IT organizations.  It struck me that EPIC (as a conference and organization) is in a position to act as a yearly event touch point between those in the social sciences and business/technology strategists interested in the same issues. Read More…

I’m Coming Out: Four Awkward Conversations for Commercial Ethnographers

459372_561559630554768_2122767149_o With an approach built on ethnography and design methodologies, Drew Smith (@drewpasmith) delights in bringing consumer and client to the conference table. In the process, he works with them to co-create game-changing products, services and businesses for some of the world’s biggest companies.  Drew shapes culture and strategy at Seren Partners. He blogs occasionally at DownsideUpDesign and posts pictures of cars, mostly side-on, here.

Editor’s Note: I asked Drew Smith (@drewpasmith) to kick off our January EPIC theme because of his background as a designer and a tweet that he had sent. Until Drew attended EPIC 2103, he was hesitant to say that he was an ethnographer in certain professional contexts. But after listening to my opening keynote for EPIC 2013, he tweeted, “Today, I’m coming out. I’m an @ethnographer!” We had an interesting chat afterwards where Drew explained to me why he would even need to “come out of the closet.” It was a fascinating conversation and one that many readers will relate to, especially if you work in a design or strategy agency where you may be the one person with very proficient ethnographic skills.

So I thought it would be interesting to hear how someone with a strong design background experienced EPIC 2013. In Drew’s first guest post on Ethnography Matters, he urges designers and strategists with ethnographic skills be brave: commercial ethnography needs to come out of the closet. Drew provides some conversations that will help us get there.

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.

Slide145Over the course of my career I’ve developed an unwavering belief in the transformative power of ethnography. I’ve used its tools and techniques to bring about positive change for my clients, shaping products, services, businesses and brands with the rich, people-centred insight it can bring to bear.

Yet until recently, I’d never called myself an ethnographer; I’ve always been an automotive designer-turned-strategist. This is the story of how that came to change.

Ethnography by Another Name

During my student years, I’d come to know a London co-creation agency called Sense Worldwide. They had a mission to “make things better, by making better things”, a concept that was deeply appealing to an idealistic young designer.

We built trust and I allowed them to explore how I was using social networks (the early days of Facebook, the mid-life crisis of Gaydar) and why I was dreaming of upgrading my Sony Ericsson K750 to a Nokia N95. Together, we came up with ideas to make my world of mobile technology better. I loved the experience so much that I wanted to work for them.

Desperate, keen and with none of the ethnography or anthropology qualifications that usually accompanied their recruits, Sense Worldwide nevertheless took a chance. Without realising it, I became an ethnographer by the back door.

During my time there, I witnessed the profound impact that ethnographic research could have. The stories and insight pulled back from the field transformed not only  the way new products and services were developed, but also how companies were led and run.

I noticed, however, that getting ethnography on the table with prospective clients was a challenge. It was often perceived as expensive and more than a little quirky. To ease the sales process, we adopted a series of jazz-handed 1-liners that got ethnography sold, perhaps overly so. Yes, we conducted ethnographic research, but sometimes our practice failed to live up to the over-the-top expectations set by language designed to hide our commercial awkwardness. Read More…

Big Data Needs Thick Data

Tricia Wang

Tricia Wang

Editor’s Note: Tricia provides an excellent segue between last month’s “Ethnomining” Special Edition and this month’s on “Talking to Companies about Ethnography.” She offers further thoughts building on our collective discussion (perhaps bordering on obsession?) with the big data trend. With nuance she tackles and reinvents some of the terminology circulating in the various industries that wish to make use of social research. In the wake of big data, ethnographers, she suggests, can offer thick data. In the face of derisive mention of “anecdotes” we ought to stand up to defend the value of stories.

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image from Mark Smiciklas at Intersection Consulting

image from Mark Smiciklas at Intersection Consulting

Big Data can have enormous appeal. Who wants to be thought of as a small thinker when there is an opportunity to go BIG?

The positivistic bias in favor of Big Data (a term often used to describe the quantitative data that is produced through analysis of enormous datasets) as an objective way to understand our world presents challenges for ethnographers. What are ethnographers to do when our research is seen as insignificant or invaluable? Can we simply ignore Big Data as too muddled in hype to be useful?

No. Ethnographers must engage with Big Data. Otherwise our work can be all too easily shoved into another department, minimized as a small line item on a budget, and relegated to the small data corner. But how can our kind of research be seen as an equally important to algorithmically processed data? What is the ethnographer’s 10 second elevator pitch to a room of data scientists?

…and GO!

Big Data produces so much information that it needs something more to bridge and/or reveal knowledge gaps. That’s why ethnographic work holds such enormous value in the era of Big Data.

Lacking the conceptual words to quickly position the value of ethnographic work in the context of Big Data, I have begun, over the last year, to employ the term Thick Data (with a nod to Clifford Geertz!) to advocate for integrative approaches to research. Thick Data uncovers the meaning behind Big Data visualization and analysis.

Thick Data: ethnographic approaches that uncover the meaning behind Big Data visualization and analysis.

Thick Data analysis primarily relies on human brain power to process a small “N” while big data analysis requires computational power (of course with humans writing the algorithms) to process a large “N”. Big Data reveals insights with a particular range of data points, while Thick Data reveals the social context of and connections between data points. Big Data delivers numbers; thick data delivers stories. Big data relies on machine learning; thick data relies on human learning.

Read More…