A case for adopting Corporate Anthropology principles into your organisation

A case for adopting Corporate Anthropology principles into your organisation
Promoted by A case for adopting Corporate Anthropology principles into your organisation

How many of these types of infographics have you seen? How many articles and opinion pieces on how to connect to your employees and how to encourage organisations to embrace change have you read? Probably, like myself, a fair few. And this, for any organisation, HR department or even employee, can start to feel like a blur of business jargon and chatter without any seemingly clear and tangible insights.

That isn’t to say there isn’t any value in the discourse. Of course there are generational differences; my phone is packed full of useful apps, while my mother has no concept of what a phone app is. I remember the first time my school got a CD-ROM computer, and now my friend’s child is already learning to code at school. To say that these differences don’t exist would be absurd.

Rather than simply contributing to the constant stream of “kids these days!” commentary, I do want to argue that we are losing sight of how to use the information effectively. And show why I (and a growing number of organisations) are becoming advocates for Corporate Anthropology.

Start with empathy

I believe that basing a model on generational differences, is more likely to develop assumptions than true insights. If we treat every organisation as a micro society, a tiny culture all of its own, there is more in that cultural context than just the generations of its workforce. There is a flow of processes between departments, there are personalities that align with each other (and even conflict at times), there are individual and group ambitions and there are customer and non-customer priorities. These are deep complexities that cannot be determined simply by generational theorem. To really see how the entire organisational web works and feels, the first step is to implement empathy.

To illustratrate  the importance of empathy, and how it is an underrated tool in our decision making skill sets, I will use the example of my mother and my friend again.

My mother: I generally choose safe topics of conversation with her, such as books, the theatre, and never instant messaging (trust me - she gets migraines if I try to explain to her how to Google a newspaper article, let alone Netflix and streaming).

My friend: Realising her inability to understand this world of code, she recently decided to take a Coding for Beginners class, in the hopes of being able to be a better support at home with her child’s homework.

Aside from being nice gestures, there is something more to these scenarios that businesses could learn from - they illustrate how using empathy can actually drive positive action as a result of genuine awareness and empathising with collective differences.

We do this as second nature in our everyday lives with friends and families. And yet we are brilliant at NOT DOING this in our workplaces.

The case for cultural anthropology

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

When Leaders develop Change Management strategies based on what they believe different generations need, they are setting themselves up for a long difficult road and potential failure.

Cultural Anthropologists look to make sense of different behaviours, patterns and symbols in all parts of society. They adopt methodologies of observation and comparative analysis to help ensure meanings are not interpreted through a particular cultural or individual bias. Rather than issuing surveys with questions that derive skewed answers, or isolating the responsibility of identifying insights from one particular group, they observe the entire network and every detail that forms part of that.

And many of the biggest innovative technology companies are already reaping the benefits of such an approach. Google, for example, hired an ethnographer to ferret out the meaning of mobile. Intel has an in-house cultural anthropologist, and Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world.” Business Insider

Companies are not just looking at analysing streams of big data or customer information. They are employing trained experts who can take that information and delve deeper into the differences of what people ‘say they need’ and ‘what they actually need’. As more and more organisations battle the pressures of needing to innovate and implement cultural reform, the value of this approach is becoming more poignant and relevant.

This is why I am advocating anthropology as a founding principle for corporate culture and change management. When ethnographic studies are carried out, it’s critical to be completely immersed in a particular culture in order to observe and develop genuine insights.

Anthropology is more than just the study of cultures. Anthropology offers a whole universe of research. This includes even the subconscious tendencies of how people interact, speak to one another, the autopilot mode of how they use company technology or sites they visit to do their job and even how customers respond to verbal and non verbal cues. Traditional focus groups only tap into a fraction of this.

Companies don’t need to go out and recruit for ethnographers and corporate anthropologists though. Simple steps can be taken to begin building empathy and observation as part of every day planning:

  • Spend a day in the shoes of one of your colleagues/employees
  • Ask them about their pain points and notice non-verbal cues
  • Notice and observe the flow of people as they walk around the office
  • Ask them what systems or tools are the most useful for their jobs (or dislike) and ask them what part of their job they need those for (not why)
  • Create open ended questions in surveys
  • Observe how different departments interact with each other
  • Read what requests come through to HR or Managers around training, office improvements, planning and personal benefits

Empathy requires leaders to process work environments, not through their own eyes or beliefs, but rather through their employees’ model of the world. There will always be money and time sensitivities. However, investing upfront in being considered and thoughtful with this process can result in far more rewarding and future pacing opportunities.

It’s time we really listened to employees...live and breathe all the good, the bad and the ugly of all parts of an organisation.

Want to learn more about the power of Corporate Anthropology?

Read: Epic - Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry

Watch: Ethnography TED Talk - Ellen Issacs - Identifying unmet needs

Listen:  Cross-over Series Podcast - Why anthropology matters 


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