I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Monday, May 23, 2005

Office culture and the limits of applied anthropology

I just read an interesting article from the Financial Times titled Office Culture. It is one of the many articles that seem to come out each year noting that, gee, anthropologists don't just do their fieldwork in the jungle anymore. Coming from a British publication, it is a bit more introspective on the ethics of applied work than I find American publications tend to be.

There is actually lots of interesting info (too much to talk about) but I was disturbed by the comment of one of the consultants they interviewed. He noted, "What we try to do is describe what is happening, but we don't present solutions. We let the company decide that."

Perhaps it is because I work in design and innovation, but I believe that part of the value we can bring as anthropologists IS in offering solutions, not just observations. What is observation without interpretation, and isn't a solution a form of interpretation?

A few years ago, when I was entering the applied world, I did a bunch of informational interviews. One lead at a design firm was very polite to me, but noted that they were not interested in hiring anthropologists anymore because based on their experience, the anthropologists did not know what to "do" with their observations.

So, if we are going to practice applied anthropology, in my view, we should really apply it...Anyway, I recommend the article!


Simon Roberts said...

The accused speaks! Allow me to contextualise that comment which, like many things that emerge from interviews with journalists, is not quite what I meant. Wyhen Gillian Tett showed me the copy prior to publication it was the one section about which I had serious reservations. Like everytyhing you ever say to a journalist it always feels taken out of context...

I believe, and this is a opinion shared by our clients, that what we do is provide research that is actionable. However, in the specific example of the work within PwC about which I thought I was talking, our research was challenged not with 'producing' solutions that could be implemented top down, but to give management a sense of how the administrative burden is experienced throughout the firm. The project team was very aware that PwC is a large firm and that a set of recommendations for change would be no more 'actionable' than no recommendations at all, especially in a culture of change fatigue. My point about the 'firm as town' was to highlight how complex and multifacted an organisational culture can be (contrary to the implication of the term 'org culture in the singular).

Equally, as a small firm in the UK we need to be clear about what we are and what we are not. We are not McKinsey and we are not internal change consultants. What we are is providers of good cultural intelligence and people that can facilitate internal teams to come to decisions that make sense in terms of our research findings and the business/organisational realities.

To be honest, the term 'actionable research' often makes me cringe because it is easy to say and hard to see performed. It is a practice interally within an organisation not a 'product' or 'deliverable'. What I hope we do is focus much of our effort during any research project on the client's organisation so that we better understand what our research needs to do to allow them to practice its actionability. In that way we are acting as a bridge, as cultural translators between a business and its customers, or a management and its employees.

In the end I guess I was being to honest or frank about the limits of research consultancy. I might not be too long in the tooth but I not naive enough to belive that an internal research project with a small sample can come up with, and sell in, solutions for a firm of 125k people. But by hell we'll try.

Alex said...

Hi Simon-
Thanks for providing the context! I probably should have given more framing to your quote as well...really my concern was not your quote as an anthropologist per se, but my concern that many companies see us as *just* providing data and don't see the additional value we can bring to the table (though fortunately not all do).

I can also now talk from the position of being in an innovation group, where part of my job definition is to develop solutions. Internally, of course, which is an entirely different thing than consulting.

When I did work for the consulting company, I saw that our clients were far more interested in the data we provided than the solutions we proposed...they wanted the data and wanted to draw their own conclusions from it. Though I have to admit I have felt most successful as a consultant when I can point out to clients that the world is not how they think it is!

And, by the way (on a totally different topic), your research in India sounded very interesting...I would love to learn more about it.