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.


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.

A New Market Environment

complexity graph

We do our work because we love it, but we get paid for the work because businesses value it. Two forces have hit the business environment in which our work is valued at once – speed and complexity. We used to work in a “complicated” environment but, now, well, it’s “complex.”

In a complicated environment the relationship between cause and effect are knowable – it is possible to understand a system by collecting data, analyzing, and responding to it, to create stories and models. It is possible and valuable to understand a whole system.

In short, the complicated market environment is manageable. What other companies were offering in products is relatively predictable and slow. Change indeed was so slow that Andy Grove’s “strategic inflection points” tells the story of when markets are punctuated by change – the notion is change is not continual but occasional.

If business change was relatively slow and predictable, so too was culture change. Both were predictable enough that ethnographic tools were created to detect trends and plot future cases of product success with reasonable certainty.

We are moving to a complex market environment; one that is characterized by a higher velocity of change, more interconnected parts in play that is constantly emergent. The business environment we have now is characterized by:

  • rapidly changing technology advances,
  • very short product cycles,
  • digitalization (immediate replication and personalization) of products
  • proliferation of product offerings
  • cheaper (commodification of ) materials
  • surplus pool of engineers and designers (and tools for them to create)
  • societal practices and preferences in flux,
  • a shifting economy and
  • decreased life expectancy of firms
  • and more . . .

So many parts of the business environment are in play at any one moment that the system is no longer knowable – it is constantly emergent.

Why does this matter to ethnography?

A guiding model of a large portion of ethnographic work was to provide understanding of people, practices and systems that would reduce probability of failure for an innovation. We worked through a product pipeline at reducing that uncertainty from blue sky innovation to product testing to post launch evaluation. One version of this has been the BUT model (B= Business value; U = users; T= Technology Innovation). Over time (t) these 3 forces would come together to create a new product. Our value was in helping to reduce the uncertainty (u).


Ethnographic work reduced the uncertainty particularly well by providing rich contextual information. Context often described the social and physical environment where the product was going to be used or was in use. We brought a particular point of view to the contextual research, an emic point of view—“How do “I”/ the people see the world?” We could describe how unmet needs could be met within the constraints of a particular complicated physical/social context.

Our assumptions were that it is a relatively stationary and knowable view of people, products, markets, technology. Indeed, the only thing to change over time was a greater understanding of a system, which then could be use to help reduce the probability of failure.

Complexity: organisms not a funnel

In short, we described a world, people’s problems, needs and aspirations but we weren’t asking how could we format the world as a corporation? This is the new question – how can we create conditions for our corporations’ products to generate an orientation of the system to them – to put our order into the system. Our work shifts in a complex environment from description to experiments in a system leveraging flux, order and dynamics.


The new question is how to introduce temporary order, not how to reduce the uncertainty. What product or service can be introduced into the system that can create an orientation toward it? Small companies need just a small orientation toward them, while larger companies need bigger market orientations. This is in part why Kickstarter projects can succeed. If a small company launches a programmable lamp on Kickstarter, they can actually be successful because they need only a small segment of the market to orient toward them. With more and more small products being launched, the market just becomes that much more complex with change happening even more quickly, with each of these offerings satisfying someone’s need.

We’ve seen a few interesting foray’s into ethnography that might continue to deliver value in a complex business environment. One method is through a series of research hypotheses. Claro Partners, among others, have used this approach. Claro, for example, started asking about notions of ownership, which seemed in-flux. They continued probing the market by exploring value networks, which in turn lead to a series of hypotheses around data, that has lead to exploring developers of Internet of Things. The constant probing along lines of flux and following paths in the system highlights the connections and dynamics of a system.

ReD Associates have taken another approach looking at a total social fact to understand how a system orientates around one object, in their case a beverage in China. This approach taps into the dynamics and order created in a system to help companies leverage business value.

China Youthology has taken a longitudinal and probing approach. By studying the forces at work on youth over several years, and probing the youth with events and products, China Youthology is able to see dynamics and relationships behind orientations in the system.

These are just a few of the approaches that are adapting to a complex business environment. What is clear, however, is that 3 week in-depth field visits around a topic like entertainment, to LA, London and Shanghai are unlikely yield the kinds of information necessary to understand the dynamics necessary to orient a market to a company’s product and services.

The business environment is becoming complex. What we want you to do is to consider how your work needs to be used – what are the assumptions about the market environment for the work? We cannot continue to do what we’ve always done for the last 20 years; thinking because it has worked it will continue to work.  The market environment has changed and we must be flexible enough to change our practices with it. The exact changes that we need to make aren’t clear yet, but this change there is potential for ethnography to be even more relevant, though perhaps in new ways in this new complex market environment.

At Intel, we’ve conducted research like the ones mentioned above. We’ve also experimented with doing ethno-analytics, something we haven’t seen elsewhere. We use ethnography not as the output but as an input for a data mining approach to mapping the relationships in a business ecosystem. This has enabled us understand the dynamics and points of flux of a system, like that of a data economy, as well as, identify entry points to create order in the system.


Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:

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7 Responses to “A shift in the business environment that ethnographers can’t ignore”

  1. February 21, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    Great thought piece and challenge to the community, thanks ken and EM for posting. I’ve always tried to oriented around the idea that the challenge is not (just) the practices in context “out there” but that we have to do that within a set of practices and contexts “in here” too. But the scale of really addressing that is enormous and your piece ramps up the challenge further into the complex “organism”.

    I’ve also enjoyed discussions recently with Simon Roberts at Stripe Partners and his ideas on social practices and innovation – and will try and reflect your thoughts into those evolving thoughts. Flux me it’s complicated stuff eh 😉

  2. March 21, 2014 at 1:21 am #

    Very insightful in conjunction with the Don Tapscott / Clay Shirky social connected world and how executive leaders need to come to grips with this fundamental shift. It helps me understand why I am not at all convinced by the “new” marketing funnels drawn up by McKinsey et al. I think they are trying to fit an old mindset to a new world. I made lots of highlights, thanks.

  3. January 25, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    Thanks for the business perspective on complexity, it is a good companion to my efforts crossing governance silos. My path to complexity is agriculture sustainability and I am using a governance compass to guide me. A brief blog is interested: http://bit.ly/1l5SHoS


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