When your organization seeks help in understanding stakeholders – employees, consumers or future markets – do you default to survey results, demographic data, past and projected sales and competitive analysis? What if I told you that the most forward-thinking companies are seeking help from social scientists? Today’s social scientists are at-home with big data, and often integrate it into their work to foster valuable insights for industry. That’s the focus of the people at EPIC (@epicpeople_org) whose mission is to promote “the use of ethnographic principles in the study of people and social phenomena.”
If you think ethnography is only used to understand unfamiliar cultures in far-off places, take a closer look at the work of EPIC. The applied focus of their research to business solutions is evident in their self description: “By illuminating the arc of social change through theory and practice, we can create better business strategies, processes and products, as well as enhance and simplify people’s lives in a digital age.” One indication that forward-thinking companies are paying attention to social science is a glance at who is sponsoring EPIC’s conferences–Google, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and Spotify, to name a few.
EPIC board member, Ken Anderson of Intel, is currently researching technologies and cultural values for social participation. In an interview on EPIC’s site featured earlier this month, Anderson said, “I try to find innovations or business opportunities based on social research.” Mike Kippenhan, the author of the profile, wrote of Anderson, “He believes ethnography should be key to how companies look at work and customers.”
My years in public relations and advertising helped me appreciate qualitative research because it provided a window to consumers’ narratives (and therefore helped us relate to their narratives). In academia, we refer to this detailed, “insider view” as providing “thick description,” (Geertz, 1973). Qualitative research, including ethnography, provides understanding in the context of the human experience. And since our humanness is always with us – whether we are trying out a new app or seeking to feel comfortable in a new city – it benefits organizations to more intentionally consider our humanness in the design of products, services and how we talk about them.
If you’re unfamiliar with this type of research, EPIC (ethnographic praxis in industry conference) holds an annual conference that “promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings,” and they generously share proceedings. I encourage you to browse them. The 2014 conference featured diverse papers on: digital trust, innovation models, re-imagining work, “bodywork” in productivity, design for connected cities, advertising, and models of change.
Next time your organization seeks to understand – employees, consumers or new markets – consider seeking a research approach that embraces the one thing they all have in common – their humanness.