Paper Session #2: An Angel at my Table: How ethnographers can help organizations to deal with the challenges of evolution and revolution

Doerte Toellner
Event Time
Monday, September 19, 2011

In need of an agent provocateur or unifier, a cultural translator, tour guide or decoder of corporate culture? There is a multitude of surprisingly diverse ways in which organizations can benefit from ethnographers – at their boardroom table and beyond. In our session, we aim to present and to scrutinize best practice examples of ethnography-based added value from a wide range of areas and industries. We hope to spark a vivid debate surrounding the potential for growth of successful ethnographic research in navigating the vagaries of evolution and revolution.

Ethnography as a catalyst for organizational change: Creating a multichannel customer experience

Robin Beers, PhD, Wells Fargo
Tommy Stinson, Cheskin Added Value and Jan Yeager, Cheskin Added Value

This paper describes how a leading financial institution uses ethnography as a catalyst for organizational change by providing a collaborative context for functional groups to come together in co-creating a multichannel customer banking experience. While consumers increasingly expect a good cross-channel experience as a de facto element of their engagement, few companies successfully deliver this experience in a compelling way. Because functional groups are siloed, focusing on their own business goals and managing their own discrete parts of the customer experience, there is limited understanding of the experience as a whole and limited interest in bridging units to improve customer experience. Building a 360° view of the customer is an “excuse” for people to step outside their silos. The ethnographic process becomes a collective learning platform where people gain a common understanding of the customer and how they’re accountable for delivering the customer experience.

Ethnography as Executive Exposure—Spectacle or Higher Education?

Heinrich Schwarz, ReD Associates

As innovation consultancy specializing in ethnographic methods to generate insights, taking clients to the field has always been part of our projects. But this paper reports and reflects on what may seem like a new development: A rise of projects where the ethnographic experience of clients moves to the center. With these projects, often for higher level executives, the exposure by clients to real people becomes the main selling point, and insight generation only an additional goal. Is the result a spectacle or higher education? A return to capitalizing on the exotic, or a much needed learning experience for high-level decision makers? The paper discusses two recent projects – a workshop for a media company and a study trip for management of a pharmaceutical company - to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of this new species of corporate ethnography where experience production outweighs knowledge production.

A Case for Ethnography in the Study of Corporate Competencies

Christian Madsbjerg, Mikkel Krenchel
Morgan Ramsey-Elliot, ReD Associates and Gitte Hesselholt, Coloplast A/S

In business thinking, ‘core competences’ have long been seen as the critical factor that distinguishes great from good. Great companies have strong core competencies that they constantly leverage and develop. On the other hand, companies who do not understand their own strengths and weaknesses cannot not know whether they have what it takes to execute. Their growth initiatives fail, not because they lack commercial potential, but because they fail to apply the same due diligence to their competences they so naturally apply to their finances. Understanding competences entails understanding culture, and few companies know how to approach this topic beyond the gut feel analyses of executives or the rare employee survey. In this paper, we use a large-scale study for the medico company Coloplast as a case for how to use ethnography to rigorously study competencies and leverage growth. We show how understanding the effects of culture and competence on market performance led to significant changes in Coloplast’s strategy and make the case that core competence can and should be studied through ethnography as an integral part of the corporate strategy process.

Reinvention and Revisioning in an Appalachian Industry Cluster

Christine Z. Miller, Professor, Graduate Program in Design Management Savannah College of Art and Design
Stokes Jones, Principal, Lodestar

This paper draws on ethnographic research of a former mill town in the Appalachian foothills to consider the way historiographical frames like Evolution/Revolution are imposed on human events. The town is credited with surviving beyond the textile era because it “reinvented itself” by creating new marketspace from embedded competencies that allowed local manufacturing to expand. The result was a very successful homegrown “industry cluster” where a product category’s manufacturing system “is organized around the region and its professional and technical networks rather than around the individual firm.”(Saxenian, 1994) (Porter, 1998). During our research, however, shifts in consumer taste were resulting in falling sales leading many to believe the town’s industry needed to be “re-invented” again - this time by importing ‘Design’ and ‘Creatives’ (Florida, 2003). This paper explores how ‘Innovation’ often carries an ideology that biases actors toward epochal breaks as the most successful strategies. Alternatively, we examine how ethnography can aid communities to re-connect with potentials inherent in their continuity (especially when these embrace sources of dynamism like those which gave rise to this cluster) leading to visions of more achievable reinvention.

The Not-So-Blind Watchmaker: Evolution by Design in Corporate Culture

Kate Barrett, PhD, Olson

This paper begins with a discussion of the discrepancies between academic definitions of “evolution” and those that pervade business and popular discourse. The former emphasizes the unpredictable and unknowable, and frames evolution as a process best understood in retrospect. In contrast, business presents organizational evolution as a future-focused activity – one that can be controlled, channeled, and otherwise managed. In reality, what businesses hope to achieve through their appeal to “evolution” is more akin to enculturation – the process by which communities create new members and guide them toward a hoped-for future. Building on three key elements in the enculturation process – language, ritual, and sacrifice – this paper presents a detailed ethnographic case study of our work with a marketing firm that sought to “evolve” its organization while remaining true to its heritage. Presenting our lessons learned, we suggest ways to help organizations articulate their developmental goals, and tools for enabling the process.

Trajectories of Change in Global Enterprise Transformation

Jeanette Blomberg, PhD, IBM Research

This paper reports on the efforts of a global IT services company to transform the way it delivers IT outsourcing services. The change initiative was designed to bring about a radical transformation in the how work gets done across the enterprise with the expected benefit of delivering greater service quality and reliability at a lower cost. In addition, the standardization of processes and tools would allow work to move more freely from one location to another thus creating flexibility to meet changing demands. Based on a study of the impact of this initiative on four global delivery centers we explore how change occurs within organizations both as an ongoing achievement and as the result of explicit corporate initiatives. Taking account of the particular historic, geographic, demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural characteristics of individual delivery centers we trace trajectories of change with the aim of providing both a broad synoptic view given these differences in delivery centers characteristics and a detailed performative account of the transformation from the perspective of the day-to-day actions of employees.