Last week I was in New York to attend the second edition of the Business Anthropology Global Summit, a discreet event, without great promotion, but which felt to me like such a historic moment. After years of reading all the Business Anthropology books that have crossed my path, I found myself sharing oxygen with the authors of those works: Gillian Tett, Grant McCracken, Patricia Sunderland, Rita Denny, Susan Squires, Timothy de Waal Malefyt, Melissa Fischer, Martha Bird, Ann Jordan and many more who have contributed so much to this area of anthropology.
With a total of four panels, eleven workshops, and more than 125 professionals dedicated to doing applied anthropology in companies, this event was probably one of the most important events in the history of the development of our discipline. And yes, there probably are more multitudinous events such as EPIC, but they are not specifically aimed at business anthropologists rather to the broad range of people who are practicing ethnography nowadays (something to be discussed in other posts). That is why I consider this event to be especially relevant and necessary to our guild, as are others such as Why the World Needs Anthropologists.
“Money makes the world go round, and if you don’t understand how people use money and relate to it, you don’t understand many issues that have to do with culture”
I have been going to congresses on anthropology in different countries for a few years: United States, Spain, Mexico, England, Estonia, Portugal… And this one caught my attention for a reason: it was the first time in which all the participants were proud about having a business mentality and aesthetics. Never before had I seen so many colleagues dressed in suits: Jackets, ties, tubular skirts, shoes, and heels were the generalized tonic. I also think it was the first time I heard colleagues equating the value and price of their jobs so openly and discussing their desire to make good money out of their profession. The “money” theme was actually quite recurrent in panels, workshops, and cafés. “Money makes the world go round, and if you don’t understand how people use money and relate to it, you don’t understand many issues that have to do with culture” said Gillian Tett, who studied Wall Street organizational culture for years, participated in the film Inside Job about the Subprime crisis in 2008, and is currently a journalist for the Financial Times. I admit I was surprised that, despite having a business approach, the tone of the event and the talks were extremely academic. Although I wished that the interventions were more dynamic and energetic, I understand that each “text” carries a “context”: An event hosted by Fordham University, and held in a context or scenario such as a university auditorium with podiums and other traditional academic elements, probably permeated in some way the mannerisms and forms of the speakers.
Many of us who are in business anthropology tend to feel lonely sometimes and orphans of nearby colleagues and mentors. But, for two days, everyone there was on the same boat, and it was wonderful listening to so many professionals sharing their insights and experiences into how anthropology´s theories and methods can be applied to solve real business problems and challenges. The event was opened by Ed Liebow, president of the American Anthropological Association, who pointed out among other things that we need to delve deeper into the theory of consumer culture in order to promote sustainable behavior among consumers. Followed by his intervention was the first panel, “What is business and organizational anthropology in the 21st century?” moderated by Melissa Fischer, author of “Wall Street Women,” an ethnography about the first women to work in the New York financial sector. Together with her Gillian Tett, Grant McCracken, Rachel Laryea, Christina Wasson and Caitlin Zaloom, who shared with the public their beginnings in the profession and discussed the future of our discipline explaining the great potential that anthropology has in the company. “Most people have been trained to be hyper-specialized in a subject, which causes a tunnel vision. In fact, that was part of the problem on Wall Street that led to one of the biggest financial crises in history. But it is also what is happening in the technological industry, where often the people in charge of developing new software and machines do not see beyond their noses, do not understand how the uses of products vary in different parts of the world and are unable to anticipate and evaluate the impact that their products will have on the societies of the future” – said Gillian Tett – “Anthropology, however, trains you to have a lateral vision. So we can get easier where other professionals find it difficult to see.”
The next panel entitled “Anthropology at work: Using our toolkit to Tackle the toughest business challenges” and moderated by Derek Newberry, brought together Chris Golias, UX researcher at Google, Martha Bird from ADP, Turi McKinley from Frog Design and Kaylie Wilson who works at WeWork as a design researcher. Each gave some brushstrokes on how they use ethnographic methodologies to solve different challenges, and shared the difficulties they encounter in transforming the “antipathy” that companies often have into “empathy” towards their consumers, employees and other interest groups. Frog Design, for example, uses life stories to help Pharma companies understand why some patients do not take their medications correctly so that they can design solutions that help with therapeutic adherence. Kaylie explained how from WeWork they are asking themselves about how work and the spaces where we work are changing. What is the meaning of a desk? What do people have on their tables? What rituals are given around these objects? It turns out that, in a volatile and tremendously changing world, where employees often have interruptions and lack of concentration, desks are perceived as an element of stability and security in their projects. They are an anchor element that makes them feel comfortable. How can we offer comfort and anchorage to workers in innovative ways in spaces where there will be no tables?
Chris from Google tackled many ideas and it would be impossible to cover them all in this post, but to name a few, he invited us to reflect on what the concept of “virtual reality” means from anthropology (even before technology). Or why there is so much interest in this type of technology and in the sense of “presentism” to which it allows access. In a world where more and more experiences are consumed, people no longer want to hear stories, they want to feel that they live them in the first person.
On the second day, two more panels were held: “What can Anthropology offer Tech?” and “The unintended consequences and Social Implications of Company Actions: How anthropologists might engage”. The first panel brought together Jennie Doberne of Dropbox, Louise Beryl of Airbnb, Bryce Peak of Hilton, Matt Artz of Azimuth Labs and Susanne Cohen of Elsevier accompanied by Yuliya Grinberg of Cooper Union University. This group of anthropologists and anthropologists spoke about the need to develop agile work methodologies, adapted to the work rhythms of technological companies, but without falling into the simplification of ethnography in order to continue to address such complex issues as cybersecurity, technology watch, etc..
“Anthropology, however, trains you to have a lateral vision. So we can get easier where other professionals find it difficult to see.”
The last panel moderated by Josh Kaplan from JP Morgan Chase invited Abbas Jaffer, UX researcher on Facebook, Emily McDonald from Airbnb, Sareeta Amrute from the University of Washington and Patricia Ensworth, assistant professor at CUNY and independent consultant, who followed the discussion begun in the previous panel. “Companies tend to open security and trust departments only after a catastrophe occurs,” Abazz said. “But even then they often forget to include a cultural perspective on these issues. What do concepts like trust and security mean in different contexts and social groups? All these gaps and areas of improvement that companies have are spaces where our discipline, our concepts, and approaches fit perfectly and are useful. Therefore, as Patricia Ensworth said, we have to find our opportunities in organizations. They exist, they are there, but we have to go out and look for them. Anthropologists and anthropologists need to improve our communication skills, be proud of what we do, and learn to move skillfully in different environments. In that sense, the academy has a great responsibility to better prepare the professionals of the future to work in companies. Companies are groups of people working for other people. Who better than our discipline to understand the phenomena that occur in these organizations?
Something I heard repeatedly during the event was the need to create a community of anthropology professionals. What we are doing is not new. We are in different sectors, companies, and levels, and yet we still lack spaces and communities where we can share and exchange experiences, advice, and support. From Anthropology 2.0 we reached out and we will continue to reach out and offer our support in the creation of that community. Especially now that we know that the third edition of the Business Anthropology Global Summit will be in Europe. It will be concretely in the city of Berlin during the month of July 2020. I encourage all our community to visit this very interesting congress next year.
See you in Berlin!