Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Convincing executives and other management personnel of the value of ethnography

Need some help understanding the value of ethnographic research methods or convincing others of that value?

If you do, you are not alone. According to Bain & Company's Management Tools & Trends 2007 survey of 1221 international executives, "consumer ethnography" is one of the least-valued of 25 of the most popular management tools and techniques. Ratings of use and satisfaction were both among the lowest. (Not that ethnography is or should be viewed as only a "management" tool, but if it is to have the greatest possible impact in a business...)

In a discussion about this in the anthrodesign yahoogroup, Martha Cotton stated:
"while ethnography has moved from a niche approach to slightly more mainstream..., (executives) still don't really know what they're buying or why they should value ethnography as an approach."
And what to do about this apparently received considerable attention at last week's Ethnography Praxis in Industry conference (EPIC 2007), as revealed in a blog posting by Jeffrey Bardzell:
"A... major issue is one of legitimation. How can ethnographers convince managers and marketing leaders to take them seriously? How do they justify their work both intellectually (methods, data, etc.) and also from a business perspective (actually leads to better business processes or products)?"
Having good stories to share about ethnographic research findings with significant business implications, or about the important role ethnographic research has played in other businesses can help. I've referenced several such stories in past blog entries (see "Conducting 'ethnographic' research" for a partial list). And Jon Kolko and I will be including a couple of excellent stories, one by Stefana Broadbent and Valerie Bauwens of Swisscom Innovations, in the January+February 2008 issue of interactions magazine.

David Gilmore offered additional advice in his excellent May+June 2002 article, "Understanding and Overcoming Resistance to Ethnographic Research." As David argues, the most persuasive technique might be to give those who resist conducting ethnographic research the experience of an ethnographic approach.

Both techniques have been part of the strategy I have followed for many years, and I encourage you to consider including both in your strategy. But there is more that can be done, and I'll try to address those things (further) in future blog entries.

Note that ethnographic research receives the attention of several contributions to our January+February 2008 issue of interactions magazine. One of them -- from Don Norman -- urges caution:
"Many of our clever ethnographic and field methods are designed to find unmet needs. You know what? Most are far better off if they stay unmet."
(A tip of the hat to Mark Vanderbeeken for pointing me to the blog entry about EPIC 2007 via his terrific blog, "Putting People First.")