Speaking to Business, Not Academics

Why do ethnographers find their work dismissed in many business settings?  Because we don’t always practice what we preach.  Once we land projects, we often fail to do an assessment of the most crucial cultural sample of all – the client. Vast numbers of pages, complex discussions of theoretical frameworks, and jargon-laden language are understood as hallmarks of academic writing.  Whether this actually improves our performance is contestable, but as we progress from undergraduate through graduate programs, through our careers, the length of our texts and the intellectual mass of specialized terminology as a rule grow in what seem to be exponential degrees.  The most avid consumers of ethnographies have traditionally been people engaged in fieldwork (or who aspire to it), people who hold deep interests in the discipline and who are willing to read what we create.  We learn to write and present for people that have the patience and frequently the need for lengthy, specialized, in-depth text, not for the fast-paced corporate world, where quick and to-the-point presentations are the expected norm.

Assessing the audiences can be thought of as an extended, ongoing mini-ethnography. Thinking in terms of an ongoing ethnography gives the researcher important insights into what it means to be a participant within a given context and allows him or her to begin formulating ideas about communicative tenets, power, and perceived sub-groups within the organization.  The processes we would employ if doing fieldwork in a more “traditional” setting must be employed, particularly during the earlier phases of a project.

Of course, the criteria we construct for identifying a community can be extremely varied and range from power relationships, racial distinction, job type, or any number of other theoretical stances.  The point being that the criteria we would employ for any field study must be used within not only the largest manifestation of the organization of which we are part, but also the multitude of other community divisions that occur throughout the organization in its totality.  We assume that the people we find ourselves among constitute a “community” (with varying degrees and levels of situated identity and subgroup allegiances) and that community must be sustained by systematic observations. We look for and expect to find commonalities in behavior, mutually intelligible habits, social activities, and modes of communication, etc.

In terms of presentation styles in the corporate world, sociolinguistic models of adaptation and understanding apply themselves well to understanding what and what not to do.  Learning the “local” meanings and methods of communication to the speech community is essential. This applies to the interdisciplinary team as well as the various client audiences. “The greatest value of learning the language of another people does not come from being able to interview informants without interpreters or from providing native terms in ethnographic writings; it comes from being able to understand what natives say and how they say it when they are conversing with each other.” (Witherspoon 1977, pp. 7)  In short, learning the communicative norms and processes of the individual groups allows us to better grasp and define our audiences, adapting our methods of presentation to be understandable and, and perhaps more importantly, acceptable according to their world views.

In the business environment short, direct modes of communication with little or no embellishment are standard practice.  This is not to say that a lengthy, detailed report is unnecessary.  It frequently is an expected part of the package.  However, the lengthy piece is often little more than window dressing for most of the people we address.  It is meant to back up higher-level statements.  This undoubtedly sounds cynical but it is not meant to diminish the detailed report or argue that analytical rigor and detailed information has no purpose.  Indeed, analytical rigor and depth of information are precisely what separate us from simple interviewers.  It is simply meant to point out that levels of detail serve different functions depending on who sees them.  A “Just the facts ma’am” process of communication is most frequently the best way to get your foot in the door – hit them with the big points and get them to interact and ask questions.

Inevitably, understanding and navigating this change of audience from disciplinarily and/or the academically bound almost always means abbreviating the content or restructuring it so, for better or worse, the fine points and ambiguities of the information are lost or downplayed for the immediate consumers of the research findings.  In most cases, the readers (or viewers of a presentation) are unfamiliar with our jargon, largely disinterested in the finer points of the theories involved in the data acquisition and the subtleties of human interaction that we often find so engrossing. This does not imply that the conclusions we draw be “dumbed down,” but rather that we must synthesize and distill the information so it can be readily applied to the needs of the consumers of that data.

In the end, we are writers and interpreters of the complexities of behavior and culture, romantic as that may sound.  The principal tools in our “tool kit” are theory, pen, and paper (or camcorder and PC).  Culture is created by the construction of text, the video, etc.; it is not a distinct object of scientific inquiry though we often assume that this is the case.

Several points should also be made very clear. First, each business community (and each company as well) will have their own specific patterns of communication.  However, as a whole businesses generally expect presentations that are succinct and short.

Second, communication styles, communities of practice, and expectations will differ from place to place.  The presentation expectations in Paris are significantly different from those in the Omaha.  While it is possible to think of Business as a distinct cultural process, it is important that this is a construct we impose to make our lives simpler, but business culture, such as it is, is subject to the historical, economic, and sociolinguistic realities of the larger culture in which it is couched. Ultimately, this means doing yet another internal ethnography even if it only touches on surface-level communication practices.

Finally, while we do explore it in great depth here, external perceptions of a researcher’s professional experience, expectations about how a scientist “should” sound, and division of power all work to influence how we present our findings and how readily they will be received. Suffice it to say, when determining audience needs and accepted norms of communication, it is important to reflect on the nature of power and expectation based in the local folk taxonomy, e.g. what is a “scientist” or an “anthropologist” and how does that impact expectations of what we present.           

The fact that anthropologists are increasingly in demand leaves us holding at least some of the cards.  The fact that business people are coming to understand that disciplinary training is in fact necessary to effectively perform and interpret data (in the sense of all acquired knowledge), that expertise is in fact more than a catch phrase, gives us some degree of clout and places anthropologists in a better position to redefine the emerging lexicon of business, of which words like “ethnography”, “culture”, and “anthropology” are an undeniable component. But it means learning to communicate these ideas in a language that fits their context, not ours.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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