Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Gartner: Digital anthropologists are the latest must have accessory for CIOs.

In an article via @hanmuli http://www.cfoworld.com/operations/67497/cios-next-hire-digital-anthropologist, technology research behemoth Gartner has finally noticed that anthropological thinking might be useful for CIOs.

Gartner spokesperson John Mahoney says an anthropologist understands how groups of people work together to get things done... “One of the skills that effective digital organisations increasingly need is the skill to design a digital environment in ways people can use.” Therefore, he argues, CIOs should employ a digital anthropologist post haste (although given his description he probably means ‘digital ethnographer’, as noted by HP in the article*. The issue of whether the prefix digital means anything is something for another post).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to see that Gartner, an important source of information for the technology functions at many large organisations, is spreading the word that ‘it is not enough to be an engineer to be an engineer’ (one of my favourite quotations, hence its pride of place next to this blog’s headline). However, coming from an organisation that trumpets how it identifies trends in technology (exemplified by its hype cycle), Gartner is definitely behind the curve on this one because anthropologists have been profitably deployed at places such as Xerox PARC since the 80’s.

Gartner should also have recommended that CIOs have a designer on the team too: Anthropologists (or in fact ethnographic researchers from several social scientific disciplines) can help organisations better understand the people and culture-related issues that they face, but it usually takes the skills of a designer to help realise solutions.

In terms of further reading, this article is great on how applied anthropologists can bring their perspective to projects, whilst this presentation describes how anthropologically minded ethnographers work with designers. The common theme is that the object of this work is to decipher culture through contextual enquiry into behaviour and lived environments, as a platform for brand strategy, product/service design, implementing organisational strategy or getting to grips with what big data can't tell us about human experience.

To get fundamentalist about it, as digital anthropologist Tom Boellstorff notes (p.53): "ethnography is not a method; it is the written product of a set of methods, as the suffix -graphy (to write) indicates". However, the method of participant observation which is commonly, if inaccurately, used interchangeably with ethnography  (i.e. "becom[ing] known to a community and participat[ing] in its everyday practices" (p.55)) is essential to anthropological ethnography because it allows us to appreciate the differences between what people say (which we gain from elicitation-type research such as interviews) and what they do. As he remarks: "culture [isn't] something in people's heads: a set of viewpoints that an interviewee can tell the researcher...[some]...things we cannot articulate, even to ourselves. Obvious cases of this include things that are repressed or unconscious, an insight dating back to Freud." (p.54)

However, remember two points, expressed in this piece. Firstly ethnography isn’t about building an holistic picture of a culture (which is unachievable, even if we could agree what culture means):

"Ethnography is always a matter of partial connections and patterns, as anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has argued. Ethnographic accounts are always parts that are never just parts of some pre-existing whole (Strathern 1991). One cannot reconstruct a whole culture from ethnographic pieces."

Secondly there is nothing straightforwardly out there for the researcher to find and report back on: The researcher and her interpretation become part of the account:

"Fieldsites are not ‘out there’ ready for representation, rather data is created and curated during fieldwork...ethnographic accounts are generative rather than descriptive…Ethnographic fieldsites have long been argued as not found but located and made (Gupta and Ferguson 1997); as a poetic juxtaposition of collected evidence and writing (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Clifford 1988); or, as an effect of the translation back and forth between fieldwork and deskwork locations (Strathern 1999)."