The future of anthropology in industry?

Two panel sessions during the EPIC 2008 conference in Copenhagen offered reflections on the positions we as ethnographers have in companies, as consultants or employees. How is our work seen and understood? What roles can we take on in projects and beyond that in company strategies?

Friday afternoon was an afternoon of Forum Theatre, where actors played out imagined futures of ethnography in industry and education of, including Ken Anderson and Nina Wakeford. They were caricatures rather than realistic scenarios, but they did offer ample opportunity to respond, with sometimes the actors again responding to us with new improvisations. It was engaging but what I missed was a future where it gets really hard to distinguish the ethnographer from the designer and the business consultant.

For me, and important development between this EPIC and the one I attended two years ago in Portland was that I met more people who are involved in ethnography AND design, or collaborating with designers.

In the morning several ethnographers at large companies wondered what their career paths are if they are to get more influence in companies. They hardly expect there will be a VP ethnography at Microsoft or Google. Lectures by employees from Microsoft, Google and SAP suggested that ethnographers become more and more involved with business strategy, engineering, design and marketing, and wondered if that would lead to losing our identity.

We were lucky to also get a marketing view on our work, from Sarah Wilner (York University Business School, Canada). She came to ethnography through marketing and that had offered her a clear view of how ethnographers are perceived by marketers. The most important thing is that ethnographic work needs to be measured somehow to make it valuable to marketers. If it cannot be be measured, it cannot have any influence. So we¬†need to find ways of measuring our success, otherwise we have no impact on the organisation. This is simply a marketing truth you cannot get around says Sarah Wilner. She thinks the measuring probably best happens in terms of the impact that our work has had on products or ideas that have been developed in the company. We can make that impact visible in terms of ‘we would not have got there if we hadn’t done that research’ for instance.

She also made a nice comment on Innovation, quoting Dorothea Leonard (1995): Innovation happens at the boundaries between disciplines. WIlner introduced the term¬†’boundary spanning objects’ (such as prototypes) for the tools that transfer knowledge between disciplines. The closing keynote by Lucy Kimbell gave inspiring examples of such boundary spanning objects in my view.