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Harvard Business on Corporate Anthropology

2 December, 2007

Tom Davenport has written an article on “The Rise of Corporate Anthropology”. He seems particularly supportive of anthropology as a corporate research technique because of its emphasis on “systematic observation”. I can’t say my own fieldwork experience felt all that systematic, but maybe that was because I wasn’t in a corporate environment. Davenport writes:

What’s so good about systematic observation? It’s the key to knowing what’s working and what isn’t, how people are using technology and other tools in the course of the workday, how workers extract meaning (or don’t) from their work, and so forth. We all make sweeping generalizations about these and many other topics, but we don’t really know. Corporate anthropology provides the possibility of actually knowing what’s happening and why in organizations.

Of course, it’s not easy. Anthropologists can be a pain in the butt. They will want to watch for a long time before coming to a conclusion — longer than you will deem reasonable. They will question your fundamental assumptions. They will insist on interpreting every little thing. They may even resist your desire to intervene in the work process they’ve studied, particularly if it means worse working conditions for the workers involved.

Yes, not sure that “systematic” is quite the right word for the sort of observation that anthropologists do — social life is a little too chaotic to be too systematic and still do justice to it — but I do agree we tend to be very keen to debunk neat theories and generalisations by “talking back” from the specific and particular.

The Rise of Corporate Anthropology – Harvard Business Online’s Tom Davenport

Jovan Maud

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