Getting Over Ourselves: Make research meaningful

The other day I was privy to a discussion by a researcher who was decidedly upset about having to “dumb down” the research report he had completed. The client was impressed by the depth of the work, but equally frustrated with the seemingly academic depth of the language of the report and the use of jargon that was, realistically, more appropriate to anthropological circles than to a business environment. The researcher was upset by the client’s request to strip out discussions of agency, systems design theory, identity formation, etc., and stated something along the lines of “I had to learn this sort of thing in grad school, so they should take the time to do the same”. And while I think it would be lovely (and perhaps beneficial) if clients took such an interest in what we as researchers study, I have to say my views on the matter are very different. Making what we learn useful and meaningful to the client isn’t “dumbing it down”, it’s performing the task for which we were hired. We do not receive grants and write peer-reviewed articles when businesses hire us. Indeed, we may not write at all. What we do is produce insights and information that they can use, from their design team to their CEO. If they aren’t asking us to become expert in supply chain models or accounting, then asking them to embrace often daunting concepts in socio-cultural theory is both unrealistic and, frankly, arrogant.

In general, companies hire ethnographers (anthropologist, sociologists, etc.) for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage and make more money. This translates, most often, into research to understanding new product opportunities, brand positioning, or salient marketing messages. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. But more often than not, the fault lies with ethnographers, not the client, and can be overcome if we apply ourselves just a bit.

Usefulness means being a guide, not a lecturer. So why are we so often disinclined to make what we do useful to business people? Part of it, I believe, stems from an unwillingness to address our own biases openly and honestly. There is a tendency among many of us coming out of what have traditionally been academic disciplines to ridicule or react negatively to people in the business world. To be honest, it’s why we chose, say, an anthropology program over a business program in college. We often, consciously or subconsciously, hold these people in contempt and believe that it is they who should bend, not us, as if we are providing secret knowledge are indeed of a higher order of life than they. We resent the idea that these lesser minds would have to audacity to ask us to curb our genius. And yet, there’s nothing new in making complex ideas useful, simple, or intelligible to people without advanced training in the social sciences. Look at any Anthro 101 course and you realize we’ve been doing this for a very long time already. The fact of the matter is that in order to be relevant and to get the client excited about what we do and to value the thinking behind our work, we have to remember that not everyone wants to be an expert in social science any more than they want to be physicians or painters – they want us to be the experts and to know what we’re doing, including crafting what we learn into something they can grasp and apply even as they try to balance their own work load. Balancing jargon with meaning is, or should be, the goal.

Another struggling point I often think stems from how many of us were trained. Traditionally, the researcher is either left to work alone or as part of a very small team. The findings are analyzed, complied and shared with a small group of like-minded individuals. (We would like to believe that the numbers of people who care about what we write are larger, but the truth is most of us don’t give the work of our colleagues the attention they deserve or would at least like to believe they deserve.) Our careers are built on proving our intelligence, which means making an intellectual case that addresses every possible theoretical angle in great detail. But in the business context, to whom are we proving our intelligence? And do they care? They hire us precisely because we are the experts, not to prove how smart we are. This isn’t to say that we can or should forego the rigor good ethnographic research should employ, but it is to say that whether we like it or not, most of the theoretical models we use should end up in the appendix, not in what the client sees, hears or reads. Not only does it overcomplicate our findings, it often comes across as either arrogant or needy, neither quality being something the client finds particularly enticing or reassuring.

The fact is that we do ourselves and the discipline a disservice by not learning the language and needs of business people. We complain that untrained people are slowly “taking over” ethnography, but it’s our own doing nine times out of ten. It isn’t enough to have a better grasp of the complexities of the human condition, we have to learn to translate our work and come to terms with the fact that the people hiring us have a very real, practical need for our findings. If it cannot be translated into something that can be grasped in the first two minutes, then in their way of seeing the world, it is money wasted.

Are we there to educate or inform? Our work is frequently deemed too academic. So what does it mean when a client says, “It’s too academic.”?
 It means that they didn’t hire you to teach a class about anthropological theory and method. It means they don’t want to sit through a 100 page Power Point presentation before getting to the heart of the matter. They are in business and have neither the time nor the interest of a scholar or student.  Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t do the work or fail to set up the points you are trying to make, but it does mean that you be cognizant of the  fact that the audience hired you to improve their business and products, not teach a course on anthropological methods.  And indeed, some concepts are simply too complex to turn into a couple of bullet points. But that doesn’t mean we cannot try, particularly if we hope to get more work from the client.

The people with the luxury of sitting through a lengthy presentation or who have the time to discuss the intricacies of social theory rarely have a significant amount of authority in the decision-making process, and they rarely hold the purse strings.  This isn’t to say that those two hours of research findings we present aren’t meaningful, but rather that presentations need to be tailored to the needs of the people buying your service (research) and product (recommendations). For the business community, the product is not knowledge, but intelligence.  In other words, the product is knowledge that is actionable and useful. And to be fair, it’s worth noting that the client is the one who pays for our work. If the idea of providing them with the service and product they need is unpalatable, then I would argue that the ethnographer needs to quit complaining and start exploring a different line of work, plain and simple.

The researcher, research team, creative team, client, and everyone invested in the project need to work toward turning information into something they can act upon. When the time comes to sit down with the client and explain what you learned, the ethnographer must be prepared to also explain what to do with it next in a simple, clear way.




4 thoughts on “Getting Over Ourselves: Make research meaningful

  1. This is a thought-provoking article. There is always the perpetual dilemma of how to integrate theory with practice. But just to add in my two-cents: I learned that whenever we deal with “the client company,” the dynamics of the interaction quintessentially depend upon the “person”. Sometimes, as you said, the researcher has an unconscious “agenda” for self-affirmation. But in some cases, it is indeed very frustrating that after I have plowed through hundreds of transcripts to produce a systematic report, the research manager or marketing director of the other party would demand a 30 second soundbite and throw the report aside. Admittedly, we researchers have our own preferences and prejudices. But the client research manager often comes into the discussion with powerful subconscious bias too! A lot of them had some sort of theory formed in their head and what they wanted was a research model twisted in a specific way to produce the kind of results they expected. And when we produce conclusions that contravert their convention-driven beliefs, they often seek to invalidate the findings by raising strange questions that do not even sound like common-sense. Why? Because majority of humans do not like to think the worldview with which they had always lived their life might not be the golden standard that can be applied anywhere.
    Of course, in the short run, we can definitely be “sensitive” to what the client manager had subconsciously wanted and give them what they ask for. But when the skewed results fail to generate profits, those managers would be the ones to get fired. And it would not do good to our long term relationship with the client company.

  2. I listened to radio back when radio announcers went to broadcast school,. I learned to speak proper English and developed a far better than average vocabulary, but recognized that communication requires common knowledge and understanding between sender and receiver. I must find out what my listeners already know and understand and work from there. This is not capitulation, it is reality.

  3. I’m in the unique position of having been with a research supplier for most of my career but client-side now. When I was on the supplier side, I had the same frustrations about feeling like I have produced the most intelligent, thoughtful report I could, only to have the client dismiss it as being too unwieldy for their use.

    As a client, I now I understand everything they were trying to say. I have to take that report and socialize it inside my company across audiences with varying levels of research sophistication and different needs and agendas (and as an global company, often across different cultures).

    Research that is too arcane and requires too much processing on the part of the audience doesn’t get used. If it doesn’t get used, we don’t buy more. One way or the other, the deliverable is going to have to be packaged in a way that makes the information accessible — if the supplier doesn’t do it, I have to. My favorite suppliers are the ones who want to make my job easier, not harder.

  4. Great article – I think that that divide really shows the value of pictures, video, etc. 1000 words can be used to describe a behavior or you can use a really snazzy 30 second video edit, which has more “gut” impact.

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