EPIC: Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations

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.”

In “The 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.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

13 thoughts on “EPIC: Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations

  1. I’ve read about so-called ‘rapid ethnography’ in the human-computer action field. But what is best in the ethnographic method is its open-endedness. What is it that leaves businesses so susceptible to deceptively tangible deliverables packaged neatly in nice buzzword wrappings?

  2. Deadlines. Based on my experience, that is what it comes down to. There’s a problem to be solved, a product to be launched, pressure from the market or the bosses to deliver the desired result— NOW! Neatly packaged processes with neatly packaged results are the obvious way to meet these demands.

    In the long run, however, they are deadly. The best people in any creative business are those who know this, who have trained themselves to resist the obvious and still deliver on time. It’s not an easy thing to do, and the ability to bounce back from the inevitable failures is absolutely essential.

    My sense of the people I met at EPIC is that most of them know this in their bones. As a business process, corporate ethnography is, as I noted, still adolescent, only fifteen years old. The top people, the speakers I mentioned, are people who took serious risks at a time when academic colleagues looked down their noses and business people still had very little idea of what they might be talking about. Now they are serious anthropologists who also have had a serious lot of experience in the business world. Many are now senior researchers who manage teams and find themselves responsible for resisting the easy temptations that they know full well will put them out of business. I didn’t see them hawking quick-and-dirty schemes; I saw a lot of serious talk about where problems lie and how to address them. I find that admirable.

  3. John, I am in need of learning more about the necessity of documentary film production. What was your evidence to support your claim that video production and editing is becoming an almost necessary tool? Some basics: how long are these pieces and what ‘genre’ of documentary (observational, expository–was there a strong narrative or not, lots of editing or not)? Who are some of the people who are producing these videos? Do you think they were produced as in-house editorials, visual aids to support textual research, or as part of a pitch package to advertiser? Thanks!

  4. “Documentary film production” may be an exaggeration. The video I mentioned, based on hearing repeated references to it at EPIC seemed to be mostly used in one of two ways. It might be raw material for further analysis, e.g., by shopping marketers interested in how people move around retail spaces. Alternatively, it might be short clips used in presentations to illustrate observations or to document interviews. In this latter application the documentary finesse that Suzanne Thomas mentioned has become increasingly important. A decade ago, use of video might have been a “Wow!” factor all by itself. Now it’s commonplace. I don’t know how frequent it has become, but I have the impression that it’s not uncommon these days to include progressional videographers in the research team.

    Hope this helps.

  5. John, just to be clear, I did not mean to suggest that these ethnographers are anything but conscientious practitioners of the craft. Instead, I was addressing how business people attempt to interface with their ethnographers. Specifically, I was responding to this:

    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.”

    Your observation that the pressure of deadlines is an underlying cause of the business world’s being too easily seduced by neatly packaged answers rings true. But a craving for certainty in the context of risky decision-making may be part of it too.

    As for rapid ethnography, I am suspicious of the results that can realistically be achieved with rapid ethnography, because, as they saying goes, you get what you pay for (in this case, in time, money, and patience). That does not mean it has no value.

  6. I wonder if “a craving for certainty” is the right description for people whose primary need may simply be for a plausible explanation and something to do. I have long speculated that Malinowski was right in calling advertising the modern equivalent of magic and, going further, that what he had to say applies to all of what we might call the consulting trades. Daily life, for people in all sorts of positions, from hospital patients to brand managers, is filled with occasions in which relevant circumstances are unknown and often unknowable. The alternative to being stuck and feeling helpless is to accept a plausible scenario and to act as if it were true. “A craving for plausibility” seems more on point to me.

    Also, while I hold no brief for rapid ethnography, I note the difference between what may well be a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience and describe in detail another way of life and, for example, watching a handful of people interact with a Website and note where they stumble or smile. The latter doesn’t take a long time and, unlike the classic ethnographic field experience, is easy to repeat if the results aren’t satisfactory (or at least satisficing ).

  7. John: Thanks for your post! I agree, Japan proved a very rich locale for the kinds of reflections you indicated. A handful of unfortunate ‘advertisements’ aside, my feeling was that this years’ presenters demonstrated a maturing of how to ask the kinds of probing, challenging questions that need to be asked of people working in and for such powered contexts.

    Thanks for a shout out to my paper (which in many way resonates with the questions Michael Powell just posed in his recent post on about how different modes and expressions of what counts as ‘research’, ‘insight’, and ‘understanding’ come into contact with each other in commercial contexts.) I agree that both Stoke Jones’ and Suzanne Thomas’ were standouts! Two others come to mind for me as very worthy of paying attention to – Adrian Slobin and Todd Cherkasky’s “Ethnography in the Age of Analytics” and Rick Robinson’s “Humility and Ethnographic Claims”.

    Jacob: I appreciate your careful framing of concerns around rapidity and value. Of late I’ve found the arguments for why ethnographic work can’t be sped up too much articulated in Rabinow, Marcus, Faubian and Rees’ “Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary” among the most compellingly stated. Alas, I don’t have it at hand. So you’re left with my rough paraphrase: ethnography must be slow because the unfolding of the social happens only over time, and ours is a real-time rather than summative enterprise.

    That said, your statement, Jacob, “what is best in the ethnographic method is its open-endedness” made me pause. What element of “open-endedness” do you have in mind? Your comment begs the questions: “best” for whom? Towards what end? And where/how is that open-endedness constructed? As your comments seem to suggest, the reality is there may be a ‘good enough’ in business contexts where the work is intended to inform decisions, not just understandings, and those decisions don’t always have a long shelf life (even if the underlying understandings they are based on do, or should, as Suzanne Thomas argued). Also, might not the open-endedness be as much a construct of the researcher’s experience with the subject matter and manners of executing the inquiries, as it is with the brute passage of time?

    Adam: Prior years’ EPIC’s have had papers that more directly address visual issues and uses of video. You can browse paper titles in the Journals selection in AnthroSource. In particular EPIC 2008 had a session entitled “Representation in Practice: Utilizing the Paradoxes of Video, Prose, and Performance.”

  8. Melissa:

    ethnography must be slow because the unfolding of the social happens only over time, and ours is a real-time rather than summative enterprise.

    This is an important observation, and one that I would like to give a lot more thought to. What I had foremost in mind was the length of time it takes to figure out any reasonably complex system, even one that is fixed in place and for which you have relatively complete information (such as the internal workings of a micro-processor).

    Regarding your other comment, I hesitate to say more than I have, since I am probably the least experienced ethnographer here.

    But if the objectives for this research are so narrowly defined why call it an ethnography, instead of a case study?

  9. Jacob – fair question. Or why not field work/study? Or the general qualitative research? Or in the parlance of HCI and design, contextual interviews/studies? These are real questions and I’ve been known to challenge others in this space on similar fronts – tell me in what way and how the ‘ethnographic’ naming matters. Because frankly, much of what gets done under the name “ethnographic” is hardly more than having talked to a ‘real’ person, or observed a ‘real’ event.

    But to be clear, at question is much more the approach than the output. In other words rarely if ever are the results or outputs described as “an” ethnography. God knows I haven’t written one. We might describe them, as I and Michael Fischer and a few others talk about in my volume “Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter” as “ethnographically sensitive deliverables”, and indeed I often talk of my work as “ethnographically informed”.

    Mincing of words, some might argue. But what’s at stake, rather, are the kinds of questions and the approach, the way questions are framed, subjects or problems identified, what counts as ‘answers’ or understandings, in short, the lens of cultural (and often social) analysis. Sloban and Cherkasky at EPIC talked about this, viz analytics, in terms of what happened to the ‘why’. Stoke’s Jones’ ‘inner game’ (also echoed by Suzanne Thomas) was very much about that. Sunderland and Denny in the first few chapters of their “Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research” have some lovely illustrations of these distinctions.

    But keep asking that question, Jacob. We all should. Regularly.

  10. Melissa thank you for that thoughtful response to my question. I think that you have got at the heart of what was troubling me and gave fair answer to it.

    I have to thank John, Melissa, and Michael for drawing my attention to applied ethnography in market and UX research. Finishing my computer science thesis and sharpening my coding skills for the job market have been foremost in my mind of late–not to mention finishing a long promised analysis of Polish kinship. I haven’t had much time to consider anything else, but perhaps I should; I might find an interesting career niche to pursue.

  11. From an article published in UX Magazine:
    http://www.uxmag.com/strategy/ethnography-in-industry-objectives

    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…

  12. “ethnography must be slow because the unfolding of the social happens only over time, and ours is a real-time rather than summative enterprise.”

    I think that’s relative to a lot of different factors. If you’re talking about a PhD candidate who decides to fly somewhere and learn everything they can about a place, including the language, without any questions to begin with (other than knowing that a census is always a good place to start), then I imagine such a statement is true.
    I’m not sure how often that happens anymore, because I’m not so sure a place, people, language, or history is completely unrecorded anywhere anymore. When I took my dissertation writing class we had to frame everything we were going to do in an NSF grant format, listing every detail of what we were going to study, where, who, why, and how. This included how long it would take and a budget. An ethnography can be very focused on specific questions, or purpose. I think, by its nature, it just needs to be as holistic as possible. That does take time, but relative to researchers who utilize only existing data.

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