Ethnography in industry: Objectives?

Editor’s note: PARC contributed a version of this post to UX Magazine. You can see that article here.

I – and I imagine you – have encountered a lot of confusion, and misconceptions, about ethnography. Especially relative to the many methods that can be used to inform technology design. This post is the first of a series intended to clarify a few things about this methodology.

What is ethnography?

First: there are some helpful definitions that can be found through a simple search.

In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll also summarize it (albeit inadequately, no doubt) for you: a holistic, in-person, and qualitative approach to the study of human behavior and interaction in natural settings.

But rather than expound on the semantic aspects of ethnography in my very first blog post here, I’d really rather respond to the obvious and eminently reasonable question I often hear in my work as a researcher in the field of user-centered technology innovation:

“What’s it good for, in my business?”

Ethnography adapted for industry

In today’s hard-nosed and often economically trying times, ethnography can be seen as a tactical weapon enabling companies to gather new insights and thus gain advantage over their competition.

Traditional ethnographic studies were conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. They had, at least as far as I can tell, no particular useful or focused objectives other than to uncover as much as possible about a culture or practice of interest in an unfettered manner. (Indeed, having an explicit agenda was considered to be rather bad form and was liable to get you kicked out of polite ethnographic circles…wherever those might have been.)

Out of the academic Garden of Eden, modern ethnographers have been driven to move and produce compelling results faster, while operating within a number of budgetary constraints and oft-conflicting business demands.

Ethnographers’ data collection and analysis methods have therefore been condensed, recombined, adapted – both systematically and as-needed – to meet these business demands. We’ll describe the methods to this madness in our next post, but in this post (below) I categorized some of the commercial objectives for which these methods are applied.

Objectives for ethnography in industry

There are many practical applications of ethnographic methods in commercial contexts, particularly those that involve technology and workscape innovation (which is what my colleagues and I are most approached about).

Because there is considerable confusion about these applications, I want to propose a simplified classification of purposes to which ethnography can be applied.

Engage in opportunity discovery.
  • For innovating products and solutions, the objective might involve understanding the culture, practices, and needs for support within a particular workscape – for example, employees of a bank or a manufacturing plant.
  • For innovating or improving processes, the objective might involve identifying problems or undesirable phenomena in some setting that could be fixed by some organizational or procedural change – such as misunderstandings that lead to mistakes in satisfying customer requests in contact centers.

Sometimes, the goal is to understand the “big picture” (e.g., leisure outings with clients as part of the sales process). While these goals may seem open-ended on the surface, in industry settings one or more stakeholders always have an objective in mind (e.g., to understand the subtle returns on investing in leisure activities, since they can’t be captured in other ways).

  • For settings, the open-ended objective could be to understand the rich culture and variety of tacit and explicit practices within a particular workplace – those of bank or manufacturing plant employees, for example.
  • For activities, the open-ended objective might be to understand all tacit and explicit practices related to a particular role, practice, or function (such as contact center operations).
Gather information for a targeted purpose.
  • Diagnosing the cause and/or nature of one or more specific problems (such as employee dissatisfaction and high turnover in a company) or product failures (for example, why a certain hardware device is proving to be unpopular in its target market).
  • Identifying requirements that will inform the design of a specific product or enterprise solution – for example, what’s the best form factor for an e-reader targeted at executives and knowledge workers reading work-related content?
Test assumptions and/or evaluate performance.
  • Oriented towards practices, the test objective usually involves understanding the real vs. ideal execution of some role or process of interest – for example, if and why contact center operators aren’t following their script? An evaluation objective might be to assess performance in terms of some explicit values – for example, how satisfied is the customer, or, how often does a store assistant get the customer’s order wrong?
  • Oriented towards usage, the test objective may be to understand the real uses of some artifact or product “in the wild”, as opposed to how it was designed to be used – how are people really using photocopiers, for example? (This was famously studied by Lucy Suchman at PARC in the 1970’s, which is when the notion of corporate ethnography started to take off). An example of an assessment-oriented objective here might be: how quickly or smoothly can someone perform a task with a specific device?
Transfer or create ethnographic methods/ competencies.

This is an area PARC uniquely specializes in, and gets numerous requests for (particularly from foreign corporations who seek to differentiate themselves from their upstart competitors).

  • The didactic objective might involve some sort of learning-by-doing (where we scaffold analysts or employees in practicing the methods themselves), or some demonstration (where we illustrate methods and their value to those who want to learn their value).
  • Finally, there is also reflexive methods development, where one develops and tries out new ethnographic methods in practice by trying them out and refining them based on ongoing experiences and findings. This is something we constantly customize to meet specific study objectives and continually evolve the field.

Mapping objectives – often in the plural

I would caution that there are definitely some nuances in how you customize, combine, and apply ethnographic and other related methods to suit specific needs that I didn’t have time to go into here — this list is not complete and represents a simplified classification. My intention was to explicate and delineate the diverse objectives behind ethnographic studies that I’ve experienced at PARC.

But don’t assume that there can’t be multiple objectives for any given ethnographic study. The opportunity to glean field insights is rare, so it might as well serve multiple objectives at once – as long as one doesn’t dilute focus in attempting to answer every possible question.

And of course, there are always high-level objectives such as “give Apple a run for their money” or “make our company look more intelligent”. The art of an experienced ethnographer is knowing how to map the general classification above on to business leaders’ particular desires.


10 thoughts on “Ethnography in industry: Objectives?

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  3. Larry Irons

    Hi Victoria,

    I appreciate the thoughtful nature of this post. I especially think the focus on “why” organizations do ethnographic studies is an important way to start your series. As an overall concept, I think ethnographic methods, in their specifics, are not as important as the underlying assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers to many business questions posed about relationships between people, technology, and organization.

    It’s always nice to see Lucy Suchman’s work mentioned in discussions of ethnography. My own personal story as a sociologist practicing in and out of the corporate world started with her original research report.

    As I read your post, especially the section on transferring ethnographic methods/competencies, it reminded me of the concept of “para-ethnographers” used by Christopher Darrouzet, Helga Wild, and Susann Wilkinson in their work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Their paper on “Participatory Ethnography at Work” offers a really textured analysis of the challenges posed in developing ethnographic expertise among organizational members.

    However, the most detailed analysis I’ve seen on the topic is offered by Brigitte Jordan in “Transferring Ethnographic Competence. Sorry, I don’t have links. Brigitte’s discussion of the different levels of transfer of ethnographic competence, especially the importance of experiencing communal analysis, strikes me as a key point that more people using ethnography for business purposes need to keep in mind.

    Larry Irons

  4. Victoria Bellotti

    Thank you for the comment, Larry. I agree with you about the specifics; in fact, there are many ways to approach some of the questions that come up in industry. We are hoping to talk more about the many methods we use to learn about people’s practices and needs, including some very non-standard ones, in the not too distant future. Watch this space.

  5. Rotkapchen

    Ethnography is a critical ‘tool’ as part of continuous consumer insight. Focused inwardly, it’s also a means by which to tap contextual realities (classic example of this “Undercover Boss”).

    Larry says it best: “sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers to many business questions posed about relationships between people, technology, and organization.”

    As well, some examples in context are provided in “The practice of breakthrough strategies by design

  6. Brigitte Jordan

    I’m happy to see a discussion of “the transfer problem” opening up here since ethnographic competency transfer has become one of the most frequent requests from medium- and large-sized companies. I’ve recently written a couple of papers on the topic:

    The first piece is “Beyond the University: Teaching Ethnographic Methods in the Corporation (with Yutaka Yamauchi). The take-away is that it is comparatively easy to teach ethnographic methods in the sense of techniques for data collection (and ethnography does have an impressive toolkit), but that it is plain hard to teach how to do analysis of the collected data.

    The second piece, “Transferring Ethnographic Competence: Personal Reflections on the Past and Future of Work Practice Analysis” (chapter in the forthcoming book edited by Peggy Szymanski and Jack Whalen), traces the roots of corporate workpractice studies to what many consider to be an enormously consequential collaborative relationship between PARC and the now defunct Institute for the Research on Learning. In that collaboration, anthropologically-based field ethnography merged with video-based interaction analysis, conversation analysis, and ethnomethodology to develop much of the ethnographic competence being “transferred” to other companies. I would draw attention particularly to the adaptation of anthropological research methods that had been developed in the study of exotic communities to large, technology-driven organizations.

    And that gets me to Larry Irons’ kind remarks: harking back to our insights regarding the difficulty of learning effective data analysis for people who do not have extensive graduate training in ethnographic methods, I propose that there are three levels of competency transfer: the first (the easy one) is on the level of teaching about tools; the second (more difficult and not cheap but doable under the right conditions) is about doing data analysis in such a way that it leads to more than “band-aid solutions” (trivial, local results); the third is about helping ethnographically trained corporate counterparts develop strategic competence, that is to say, data-grounded insights combined with micro-political savvy to the point where ethnographic work actually has impact at the highest level of the company. While most of what’s done seems to play out on the first level, I believe that it is the third, the elusive strategic level, that is the most demanding and most interesting.

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