One of the most vigilant members of the SM community, John McCreery (PhD Cornell, 1973), just returned from EPIC, Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations, a conference which took place August 29th-September 1, 2010 in downtown Tokyo with this guest blogger report. It was a local event for John who has lived in Japan since 1980. John is a pioneer in the creative application of anthropological training in corporate contexts having first worked as a copywriter and creative director for Hakuhodo Inc. (1983-1996) and later becoming a Partner and Vice-President of The Word Works, Ltd. (www.wordworks.jp). Kochira koso, John, for this excellent look at EPIC. –AF
An EPIC Experience by John McCreery
All is not well in the world of EPIC, Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations. That said, there is much to envy and admire. Having struggled over the last fifteen years to establish ethnography as an essential component in the corporate research toolkit, participants in EPIC 2010, held this week in Tokyo, confront an environment in which economic recession has slashed budgets and shortened projects, while acceptance has led to routinization, erosion of perceived value, and the threat of deskilling. Above all, corporate ethnography, like the survey and focus group, is threatened by the rise of analytics that draw on the Internet for near real-time access to changes in user behavior. There is, however, a notable lack of panic and despair in the EPIC community. These are, after all, people who have faced tough times before and created new roles for themselves.
I may have become aware of EPIC in 2005, when the first conference was held on the campus of Microsoft in Redmond, WA. My first close encounter was the EPIC 2010 pre-conference held at the University of Tokyo the Saturday before EPIC 2010 itself took place at Tokyo Midtown. The pre-conference was an opportunity for 180 students and other interested parties without the time or money for EPIC 2010 itself to hear major players in the EPIC community talk about ethnography in the corporate context. The affiliations of the speakers revealed a strong bias toward high-tech companies and the external and internal suppliers of user-experience research. Their talks demonstrated that that ethnographic research in corporations has come a long way from ethnography’s original aim of detailed, holistic accounts of particular peoples’ ways of life based on long-term cultural immersion. In the corporate world, short-term and multi-sited are now the norm. And editing persuasive video is now a critical part of what is no longer purely “writing” up. Visual framing and story telling are a critical part of the deliverables that corporations demand.
Ken Anderson, a senior researcher at Intel, described a project that began with the ethnographic discovery that most PC users use their computers intermittently, around three and a half minutes a time. This result was of interest to chip designers, who had envisioned computers operating for hours or days at a stretch. Further research, using unobtrusive software to monitor usage in a sample of PC users, confirmed this observation and generated data for a vivid visualization presented to Intel executives. The result was development of a new generation of Turbo chips, specially designed for quick start-up and shut-down, with minimum power consumption.
Victoria Belotti and James Glasnapp from PARC talked about the challenges of managing teams in which ethnographers collaborate with social scientists, a.k.a., practitioners of quantitative analysis, designers and engineers. Collaboration was a topic that recurred throughout EPIC 2010 itself.
Luis Arnal from in/situm noted the similarities between ethnographers and designers. Both are rebellious, provocateurs, outsiders trying to create something new. Both are constantly combining ideas, good observers, empathetic, risk takers, highly visual, simplify the complex, systems thinkers, passionate, divergent, comfortable with ambiguity, detail oriented, adapt ideas to new uses, and know that theory does not make you good. Doing it does. Practice is key.
Hiroshi Tamura from Hakhodo suggested the importance of backcasting and extreme interviews. In contrast to the forecaster who projects forward from current observations, the backcaster starts from an imagined future and searches for its seeds in the present. In contrast to conventional interviews, whose aim is to understand the norm, extreme interviews target outliers in search of the unconventional. Both techniques are vital for those who see themselves, not as market researchers but as inspiration researchers.
It was Simon Pullman-Jones, Global Director Ethnography/Innovation for GfK, who sounded a warning bell. He observed how historically market research was a risk-management function but now is under pressure to drive innovation. Market researchers have embraced ethnography’s buzz words, so that now everyone is talking about closeness, immersion, bringing to life, natural, over time, observation, word of mouth, community, semiotics, emergence. These are words that sell but are no longer, if they ever were, ethnography’s exclusive property.
EPIC 2010 itself enjoyed the sorts of amenities that corporate sponsorship provides. The Tokyo Midtown venue was in Roppongi, now one of Tokyo’s most fashionable addresses, and part of the Roppongi Art Triangle that includes the new Art Center of Tokyo, the Suntory Museum, which is part of Tokyo Midtown itself, and the Mori Art Museum, atop Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. Program and signage were custom-designed. A light breakfast and Japanese lunch boxes were laid on for all participants, eliminating the need to scatter in search of sustenance. A Dean & Delucca’s was handy for those who wanted something else.
The EPIC 2010 program was carefully designed and achieved a high level of intellectual consistency as well as community-building effervesence. The overall theme was dō (the Japanese concept drived from the Chinese dao), the “way” that appears in the names of such martial arts as judō and aikidō or less martial arts such as sadō (tea ceremony) or kadō (ikebana, flower arranging). The opening keynote “EMPTINESS-The Prime Image of Japanese Communication” delivered by Muji art director Kenya Hara set the tone. The paper sessions developed the topics “The Way of Industry,” “Pioneering the Path,” “Obstacles and Opportunities Along the Way,” and “The Way of the Way,” highlighting the thoughts and concerns of current ethnography in industry leaders. The second day’s minitours exposed participants to traditional, e.g., koto, and less traditional, kosplay, Japanese arts and were followed by a panel on the relationship of dō, the Way, to kata, Form. Pecha-kucha and artifacts sessions gave less senior participants a chance to showcase their work.
Since the proceedings will be available via Anthrosource, I would like to end by mentioning three papers that I found especially impressive. In “Practice at the Crossroads: When Practice Meets Theory,” Melissa Cefkin from IBM Research noted how, in the business context, “the question shifts from how we [the ethnographers] use and understand concepts of practice to how it frames the expectations of our business partners and stakeholders.” There is, she said, “both productive overlap and significant slippage between our (theoretically buttressed and anthropologically-resonant) notions of practice and the (action-oriented, practical ones) of our business counterparts.”
Martial Ethnographic Arts” Suzanne Thomas from Intel suggested documentary finesse (the art of capturing the critical moment), journeying (the rite of passage that begins when a project is first conceived and does not end when the report is written), and discipline (“more yogic than Foucaultian”) as the keys to avoiding the routinization that destroys the value of ethnographic research. I found her image of the yoga pose or martial arts kata—repetitive but, to the mindful eye, unique in each instantiation—compelling.
In “The ‘Inner Game’ of Ethnography” Stokes Jones (Lodestar, Institute of Design-IIT) argues passionately that, “Deliverables such as experience models, personas, and opportunity matrices have overshadowed the actual ‘way’ of practicing ethnography.” He noted the deskilling and degradation he felt when, as part of an international, four-site team, he was handed a five-step model of a purchase-decision process and asked only to fill in the blanks. It is time, he said, for ethnographers to refocus once again on their inner game. For only in this way, he argued, can ethnographers, “end the double-game between inner and outer standards and increase the discipline’s authority such that it better fulfills its promise.”
In all three of these papers I see distilled an attitude that the EPIC community embodies. Times have changed, new threats have appeared, but this community looks backward only to look forward again.