4 departments that need business anthropology

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William Orman Beeman is quite an ambivalent man. In addition to being an actor and singer, he is professor of business anthropology and President of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota (USA). Last year 2016 he was the person in charge of organizing the annual congress of EPIC, an organization focused on the use of ethnography in industry, business and design.

In an recent interview conducted by Steve Lebeau for Minnesota Business magazine, Beeman defines ethnography as “a qualitative research technique that we use in anthropology. It involves having rather lengthy contact and intensive contact with people whose life patterns and patterns of thought you really want to understand.” And he adds: “It is qualitative and observational. We use a technique called participant observation. That is where you try as much as possible to understand the life patterns of people that you’re studying from their perspective, not from your perspective”.


In this interview Bill Beeman reflects on the work of business anthropologists:

“Part of what makes our work so valuable is that we deal beautifully with social change. Businesses do not operate in a world that stands still. Things are continually changing and you have to be able to move with the change. Just to give you an example: I don’t think you can sell a car these days without Bluetooth capability. Remember, the iPhone is only 10 years old. The business landscape is continually changing, and you need a way to deal with that. (…) Many times the solutions are very obvious, but the problem is that until you actually work with people, until you actually learn about their lives and about how these products integrate into their lives, you won’t know.”

In the interview Beeman explains different areas or company departments in wich anthropologists might be needed. Such as Design, Marketing, Organizational Culture and User Experience research. We have selected some of his examples and descriptions for you:


Anthropology and Design

“From the standpoint of an anthropologist, the key here is placing either your service or your design object in the social context of the user — the consumer — rather than entirely in the mind of the designer. The design used to be that you had smart people who would sit down and they’d say, “What can I create that would be nice?” Then they make up something and then throw it against the wall and see whether it sticks. That’s how it was done without any real attention to the user. Even now I must tell you that that design process is a little bit deficient on the preliminary analysis that people need to do in order to be able to design things that are going to be useful for people.”


“For example: There was a jeans manufacturer who wanted to develop the ultimate women’s jeans that would be both affordable and comfortable. The problem was that when they started to market them, couldn’t get the sales that they needed. They called one of my colleagues who does ethnography for business to see if she could provide some insight. She said, “What do you know about the women that wear the jeans?” The designer said, “We know that they want to wear jeans that are fairly well-designed and have a reasonable price point So she actually went to people’s homes, went through their closets, sat down, had long conversations about jeans, saw what people were wearing. The solution to the problem was, it turns out, that jeans have become a major clothing item that women in the United States. Many times they have two kinds of jeans. They have jeans that they wear to work in the garden and knock about the house, and then they have fashion jeans that they wear for events where they want to look especially good. The problem with these jeans that were being manufactured is that they didn’t fit either category. They were not fashionable to go out in and they were too nice to just knock around in. The manufacturer, their thinking was perfectly logical. You can imagine they wanted to make something that was well-designed and also didn’t cost a lot, thinking that that would attract the market. The mindset of the consumer was completely different than what they had conceived. That was their fundamental error.”


Anthropology and Marketing

“The point is, when you’re marketing, you don’t market a product, really. You can, and you obviously have to market something that’s going to be functional, but the thing that will make people buy your product as opposed to another product is because of the positive associations in marketing that you can place on that product. Now, there’s some people who are very hard headed about that. They say, “The only thing that matters is price,” but I don’t believe it for a minute.”

Professor Beeman continues to explain another real case: The Starbucks phenomenon.

“A lot of people go to Starbucks, but they don’t go to Starbucks because of the coffee. They don’t. They go to Starbucks because of the atmosphere and because of the cache. They pay a lot of money for coffee at Starbucks for the experience, not for the coffee. I can make coffee as good as Starbucks at home.” But it is obviously not the same.

“That’s absolutely our first exercise in our class. The first exercise for the students is to actually go to a coffee shop and sit there for two hours and observe what’s going on. Then yesterday in our class we had the students report on what they were doing. Not one time did they mention the quality of the coffee, not once, because that’s not what’s going on. The coffee shop, there are different flavors of coffee shop. Some of them had people hanging around talking and some of them have a décor. Caribou Coffee has a different ambience. Some of them are student hangouts, some of them are corporate hangouts, but they really are gathering places and it just happens that they sell coffee.”


Anthropology and Organizational culture

“We have anthropology teams in companies that survey and characterize the company culture for the leadership of the company in order to help them understand their own culture. For somebody who’s built a business up from the ground up, they probably know pretty much what’s going on. For company’s where there’s a lot of shifts in leadership, they don’t. In order to facilitate communication within the company in order to identify specific problems that are going on within the company, we have the anthropologists on board.”


User Experience Research

“If you go and you ask somebody, “How do you like this cup of coffee?” and then they’ll say, “I don’t know. It’s okay.” You say, “Do you like it, or do you really like it, or do you really, really like it?” They’ll say, “I guess I really like it.” Until you really get down and watch people drinking a lot of cups of coffee and talking about it, you’re never going to get any idea about the user experience. (…) The key to this is systematic data collection. You think that you’ll remember what you thought on Monday but you don’t even remember what you ate for lunch on Monday. It’s only when you collect your information systematically that you can see patterns, and that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for patterns.”


Original text in Minnesota Business: http://www.minnesotabusiness.com/anthropology-business

Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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