Deciphering Culture

Short takes: Ethnography in a business setting

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On the value of ethnography in a business setting (from very different perspectives)

(1) part of a series on the PARC blog last year)

Ethnography in industry: Objectives?

27 April 2010 | Victoria Bellotti

I – and I imagine you – have encountered a lot of confusion, and misconceptions, about ethnography. Especially relative to the many methods that can be used to inform technology design. This post is the first of a series intended to clarify a few things about this methodology.

What is ethnography?

First: there are some helpful definitions that can be found through a simple search.

In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll also summarize it (albeit inadequately, no doubt) for you: a holistic, in-person, and qualitative approach to the study of human behavior and interaction in natural settings.

But rather than expound on the semantic aspects of ethnography in my very first blog post here, I’d really rather respond to the obvious and eminently reasonable question I often hear in my work as a researcher in the field of user-centered technology innovation:

“What’s it good for, in my business?”

Ethnography adapted for industry

In today’s hard-nosed and often economically trying times, ethnography can be seen as a tactical weapon enabling companies to gather new insights and thus gain advantage over their competition.

Traditional ethnographic studies were conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. They had, at least as far as I can tell, no particular useful or focused objectives other than to uncover as much as possible about a culture or practice of interest in an unfettered manner. (Indeed, having an explicit agenda was considered to be rather bad form and was liable to get you kicked out of polite ethnographic circles…wherever those might have been.)

Out of the academic Garden of Eden, modern ethnographers have been driven to move and produce compelling results faster, while operating within a number of budgetary constraints and oft-conflicting business demands.

Ethnographers’ data collection and analysis methods have therefore been condensed, recombined, adapted – both systematically and as-needed – to meet these business demands. We’ll describe the methods to this madness in our next post, but in this post (below) I categorized some of the commercial objectives for which these methods are applied. (for the rest)

Ethnography & Design Thinking

While conducting research for my next presentation (as part of Module 2), I am becoming intrigued and interested (REALLY interested) in Ethnography and then on a separate note, Design Thinking.

The following excites me in relation to ethnography:

-’ its a tool for better design’…..’informs design by revraling a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world.’…….’a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting.’……’helps…create more compelling soloutions’…’it lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others.’…….’allows us to discover meaning, understand norms…make communications powerful…be worldy….observe reality….identify barriers….’

In a previous job, I had a boss who would say things like “We’re great, sure everyone on the street is talking about us, they all want to come here, people tell me all the time.” Getting Increasingly frustrated by this (and his lies) I eventually said “How do we know? What research have we conducted? The only facts we have is the amount of profit at the end of the year! Why don’t we just get out there and ask questions?”

If anything, adpoting a ethnographic model of research will help me understand the group / community of interest I eventually end up collaborating with. The following diagram, recently sourced also intrigues me and brought the areas of ethnography and design thinking to my forefront and attention. (for the rest)

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 30, 2011 at 11:15 am

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  1. […] Short takes: Ethnography in a business setting (decipheringculture.com) […]


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