Making the Case for Business Anthropology Q&A

On December 17th, the NYC Business Anthropology Salon hosted the virtual roundtable “Making the Case for Business Anthropology” with Susan Kresnicka (KR&I), Autumn D. McDonald (ADM Insights & Strategy), Ken Erickson (Moore School of Business), and Jay Hasbrouck (Author of Ethnographic Thinking: From Method to Mindset). The roundtable generated a rich set of conversations and many more questions from the audience than could be answered in the space of one meeting. Our panelists generously agreed to take the discussion offline in a Follow-Up Q&A, which we are pleased to share below.

1. How would you explain business anthropology to those outside of anthropology and how they should work with business anthropologists?

Autumn D. McDonald: I would describe anthropology as a secret asset to bolster the power of market research, consumer insights, shopper insights, and analytics. During my two decades leading teams in market research, insights, and analytics at Fortune 500s, we were great at determining what people claimed to do and what people claimed to think. But I have never seen a market research, insights, or analytics team truly nail the deeper “why” without tapping into social scientists. Anthropology addresses that gap. Because anthropologists are the experts in studying humans and culture, we are able to uncover the cultural dynamics that propel behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. Culture underpins who we are, what we do, what we believe, and what we cherish. Without culture in the research equation, the work of research is unfinished.

2. How do you discuss the value or return on investment (ROI) of your research?

Susan Kresnicka: This is mainly an issue with first-time clients. I find that once a client starts working with us and sees the difference that an anthropological lens creates, I don’t have to defend the value of the work. With first time clients, I invest significant time and energy in crafting a compelling proposal that outlines the unique types of information and insights they can derive with an anthropological approach. They key here is to be specific. Telling them they can learn about the ‘context’ that makes their product/service meaningful, for instance, is far too vague. I would lay out exactly what ‘context’ refers to and how understanding it will help them meet their business goals. I also offer references from other clients when appropriate.

Ken Erickson: If a client, especially a decision-maker, starts asking about ROI, they are usually a recent MBA grad and not very high up in the company and may, sometimes, be ignored. Or they are not a client I want to work with to begin with. On the other hand, you can point to the reality that externalities, the cultural value (to the organization, the brand, the brand’s customers) are not easily translatable into quarterly returns. The work we do is more strategic than that. Remember: the best (and toughest) decision you can make may be to fire a client.

3. Would you agree or disagree that your clients are hostile (may be a strong word) towards anthropology? Or is it less hostility and more suspicion? Or is it a lack of respect for anthropology because it’s not “big data?”

Autumn D. McDonald: I would say that our clients have a somewhat fuzzy and nebulous understanding of anthropology. Certainly, they do not have a “hostile” stance towards the discipline! Their incomplete understanding of anthropology is due in part to the fact that the field has not been at the forefront of the psyche for leaders in market research, insights, and analytics departments. It is also due to the fact that many practitioners in market research, insights, and analytics departments have a somewhat incomplete understanding of culture and its meaning. But I view that as an opportunity, rather than a problem. And quite frankly, it is not important for our clients in market research, insights, and analytics to have a robust understanding of anthropology or a perfected definition of culture. What is of the utmost importance is that clients see the added value that is achieved in obtaining actionable research results by tapping into the expertise of anthropologists, who are uniquely equipped with understanding culture and who are trained to harness “thick data” via a human centric approach.

As someone who has sat on both sides of the fence, I do not think the perceived hostility pitting “big data” against “thick data” is fueled by clients or by industry. I spent over two decades of my career as a researcher on the client side at Fortune 500s, with a degree in mathematics. I now sit on the consultant side, having added my graduate work in anthropology. As a client, there was never any view that “big data” and “thick data” were at odds with one another. In fact, the goal for me and my colleagues as client-side researchers (and as a consulting researcher with expertise in anthropology today) has always been to leverage the combined strengths of quantitative and qualitative data. The two go hand in hand! What has been extremely eye opening for me, however, is the expressed resentment toward “big data” that I have observed within the business anthropology community. It has been quite the surprise! I am still not certain what underpins this stance within the discipline, although I have a few hypotheses. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the community of practitioners to turn the anthropological lens inward for an exercise in reflexivity.

4. What type of quantitative data do you typically draw on or generate as a part of your work?

Susan Kresnicka: We generate quantitative data through survey work, sometimes as a stand-alone research method, but most often in combination with qualitative work. The goals can range from market segmentation, to market sizing, to identifying projectable attitude and usage patterns. Whether qual seeds quant survey design or deepens insights established in quant depends on the overall project objectives. Also, these days, we use a hybrid qual-quant research platform in one way or another for almost every study we conduct. This platform generates quant data in two ways: through qualitative recruiting (we usually capture screener/application data from 4-5 times as many respondents as we seek to recruit to meet all sample quotas and ensure diverse representation) and mobile diary submissions (participants submit entries in the course of everyday life, often over a period of several weeks or months). In both cases, we analyze both closed-ended responses and qualitative data tags using qualitive techniques.

Autumn D. McDonald: That is an excellent question. At ADM Insights & Strategy there really is not a typical type of quantitative data that we draw on or generate in our work, and that’s part of what makes our work incredibly interesting! We may create quantitative data by fielding new primary research, we may review existing secondary or syndicated data sources, or we may use data harvested through AI. And across those three pillars the quantitative data we create, review, or use spans a wide variety of topics with our clients. For example, in our work quantitative data may play a role in research related to advertising development, target audience profiling, new product development, media content creation, point of sale optimization, corporate sustainability planning, portfolio optimization, brand restaging, white space identification, performance measurement, packaging evaluations, and marketplace assessments, just to name a few. Net, I believe the key is to have a sound background in quantitative methods, their nuances, and their appropriate uses. With functional mastery that includes quantitative methods, an anthropologist is poised with extra advantage to empower clients for business impact.

Ken Erickson: I quite often have used free-listing, and less often, pile-sorting to answer specific “testing” questions during fieldwork. Hanes Brands, for example, was dealing with both Walmart and Target and wanted a better understanding of the roles played by each among households who buy and use Hanes products. We collected free lists of things people buy at Walmart (and Target) and ran simple descriptive statistics on them. I’ve dropped some numbers into multidimensional scaling for that kind of thing, as well. Most often, descriptive stats are all that are needed for most of the things I do, with an occasional Students T or ChiSuare test for those rare occasions in which a means-based test of reliability is called for.

5. Can you talk more about the importance of using language that is understood by both anthropologists and clients? Was it difficult to adopt the terminology in storytelling to find the balance? Can you give some advice to find this balance?

Susan Kresnicka: I think the first step involves deepening your awareness of each ‘language’ – what ‘insider’ terms and concepts get used in each realm and why. I’m fairly selective when using academic language with clients, doing so only when I believe that it will help them understand something in an important new way or give us effective shorthand when discussing the project. If I introduce an academic term or concept, I try to do so in a way that assumes neither that they are – or are not – already familiar with it. I try to use business ‘language’ when it’s most important for my client to feel confident that I understand their needs, which often happens at the beginning of a project when establishing objectives and scope and at the end of a project when making recommendations.

6. Have you ever had the opposite experience, where your clients started speaking anthropology? Can you describe one such instance? Do you think there is value in getting clients to speak your language?

Susan Kresnicka: Yes! I have definitely had clients start speaking anthropology back to me after we’ve been working together for a while. It’s such a great feeling when they come back to us and have started noticing new things because some anthropological concept has taken root. I’ve also had several ask about taking courses in anthropology, just to bolster their experience and professional effectiveness. As I mentioned above, I think the trick is in carefully introducing anthropological terms and concepts – always done for a purpose and with humility.

7. What advice would you give to current students? What would you liked to have known while you were studying? How can students gain work experience and expand their network during the pandemic?

Ken Erickson: Don’t short the theory. Ethnographers have three things to offer: 1. A methodology 2. a literature (ethnographic lit) from around the world that covers pretty much all aspects of human experience, and 3. a body of theory for dealing with all of that. Theory sets us apart from the ordinary consumer researcher. Sometimes, the theoretical bits are the very parts that clients do NOT want us to share publicly, as those are the insights and thinking tools that really stand out for them.

Autumn D. McDonald: My advice to current students would be to ensure a well-rounded experience. By that I mean craft an educational journey for yourself that reflects diversity in both theory and practice, a learning path that spans qualitative and quantitative methods, and a mentorship circle that includes anthropologists with a range of backgrounds across academia, business consulting, and client-side employment.

I would also suggest that students seize opportunities to obtain practical business experience, and there are many ways to do this. I recommend attending conferences that cater to industry audiences, asking to shadow practitioners “on the job,” and actively seeking internship or volunteer opportunities to obtain hands-on research experience. 

Lastly, I would encourage students to harness the emic perspective in developing robust communicative competency for the business environment. This is an area in which one’s anthropological skills in participant observation can serve as a significant asset. It is essential that one be able to effectively leverage the terminology, cues, and values of industry colleagues. Developing communicative competency for the business environment will help to ensure that one’s work as an anthropologist achieves the desired impact for success.

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