Anthropological tools in stakeholder management

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In the corporate environment, stakeholders have the strongest presence in the context of investor relations or CSR activities. Dealing with them is usually the responsibility of Marketing and PR. However, more often than not these functions do not have any dedicated strategies in this area, let alone research facilities. Meanwhile, a well-thought-out stakeholder management can generate a number of benefits at different levels, not only for the companies concerned, but also for stakeholders themselves – local communities for example. To achieve this goal, anthropological tools, well-known to quality researchers, may be of invaluable help.


In management, the concept of stakeholders has been adopted rather recently. It was first used in 1963 in a document published by the Stanford Research Institute to describe groups of entities before which business owners should be accountable and without the support of which organisations would cease to exist. Initially, the involvement of stakeholders was a routine and cumbersome necessity resulting from conflicts and the need to address them. However, over time, not only entrepreneurs began to realise that getting external stakeholders involved was not necessarily a chore but could be turned into a source of benefits. In the modern day, functioning of organisations in the stakeholder environment is a very complex process. In this respect, as far as project management is concerned, the most important thing is to maintain proper relations with various groups oftentimes representing quite different goals.


New stakeholders, new challenges

Robert Edward Freeman distinguished a traditional stakeholder model, in which the company interacts only with owners, suppliers, employees and clients, from a modern model, in which the number of groups is significantly higher and include the media, administration, local communities, non-governmental organisations, etc. Looking at such a distinction, marketers would point to different types of communication activities normally targeted as such groups, such as CSR or PR. However, these activities are often pursued autonomously, while the resultant of individual needs of groups and organisations in relation to them is distributed knowledge, not integrated in a single database that would facilitate long-term communication planning. But the fact is that the environment is constantly evolving and companies may want to identify totally new groups the engagement of which at the very beginning might lead to mutual benefits. For example, at present, mobile phone operators need to deal with protests against construction of new base stations. On the one hand, the protests come from local resistance groups which oppose specific locations, and on the other hand from a nation-wide community which objects to placing transmitters near people’s homes. All of this makes it even more difficult to clearly determine the claims made against organisations.


Quantitative research, which is often restored to for quick results, provides answers in the form of simple charts, but they hardly ever allow real problems to be identified or potential solutions to be found. Getting into those hermetic groups and gaining a valuable insight is often possible only by employing a qualitative methodology. However, this may be demanding time-wise. Using the example of Perle Mohl’s experiences described in Village Voices, we can see that having some recognisability and contextual knowledge greatly facilitates functioning in a specific community and the ability to carry out effective observations. In her study, the researcher places a sharp focus on the stories which represent specific maps of individual groups. The possibility of doing such a deep mapping as part of stakeholder management is a great opportunity to take this process to another level, and in the long-run to build a valuable knowledge base.


Help from anthropology

The authors of the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard point to the most important advantages of qualitative engagement of stakeholders in projects and day-to-day management of an organisation. The document says for example: “Stakeholder engagement may:

  • lead to more equitable and sustainable social development by giving those who have a right to be heard the opportunity to be considered in decision-making processes;
  • allow for the pooling of resources (knowledge, people, money and technology) to solve problems and reach objectives that cannot be reached by single organisations;
  • enable understanding of complex operating environments, including market developments and cultural dynamics;
  • contribute to the development of trust-based and transparent stakeholder relationships.”

For an anthropologist who reads the above it will be clear that making use of ethnography might bring significant benefits. Research sensitivity may above all help effectively identify individual stakeholders, and in the next steps to increase effectiveness of their learning, defining their needs and expectations and ultimately planning appropriate communication. The old, well-known in-depth quality interviews and, in addition, participating observation, might bring interesting insights, both in the case of an analysis of business partners, industry media representatives and, for example, the local communities residing in the areas around industrial plants. The specific anthropological understanding of culture as a set of traits and phenomena occurring in a particular community can be used for non-evaluative combination of representatives of various interests. A more informal research process is also helpful, whereby the natural environment of respondents can be accessed and non-declarative information can be reached.


Continuity as an opportunity for a useful dialogue

Stakeholder panels, which are gaining in popularity, are also an excellent space for employing anthropological tools. Such a solution was in use already in the 90s of the twentieth century. Now it is used by such companies as Coca-Cola, Shell and GSK. The stakeholder panel combines dialogue with stakeholders and an expert panel format. It facilitates consultations on both broad and narrow issues, for example an overall environmental impact or environmental impact of only one selected project. The panel may be a temporary or a permanent body. For example, HP, which sought feedback about its activities, was satisfied with the results and continued developing the panel until a permanent advisory organisation – Trusted Advisory Network – was formed in 2008. The experience derived from panel activities shows that their participants appreciate the opportunity to speak up on matters relevant to the organisation, which invokes their frankness and engagement. Engaging anthropologists in stakeholder panels is quite popular in the United States, where they deal with challenges faced by such sensitive organisations as the Veterans Health Administration, which did a project that helped tackle the challenges around the growing number of female veterans.

Admittedly, currently there are tools for analysing, systematising and cataloguing stakeholder groups, but there are no specific guidelines on how to efficiently gather knowledge about individual groups of people and organisations around a particular project. In this situation, anthropological tools and, more broadly, quality research methods should constitute an indispensable part of the stakeholder management process.


Founder of Data Tribe - a Warsaw based strategy and research boutique. Netnographer and trendspotter with wide experience in marketing and PR. Seeker for new ways of qualitative research in the Internet.

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