Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Unique Contributions and the Unique Methodologies:A Concise Overview of the Applications of Business Anthropology (4)


The last two decades of the 20th century were a time of change for organizations, with a preoccupation in changing organizational culture, a concept attributed to business anthropology. These changes have been accompanied by questions about different styles of organizing. In both public and private sector organizations and in the first and third worlds, there is now a focus on understanding how organizational change can be achieved, how indigenous practices can be incorporated to maximum effect, and how opportunities can be improved for disadvantaged groups, particularly women. Business anthropologist Susan Wright once explored organizational culture as a tool of management. She presented and analyzed the latest anthropological work on the management of organizations and their development, demonstrating the use of recent theory and examining the practical problems which anthropology can help to solve (Wright, 1994).
Scholars have paid much attention on the enormous changes in the global economy, which certainly brought the changes in organizations. For instance, Nigel Thrift (2001) notes that in the new economy condition women are a declining because finance is representative of a certain kind of male role model. Anthropological study on the new economy suggests that organizational changes are unavoidable and firms must very well prepare for changes (Fisher and Downey, 2006). Just like cultures, businesses are very dynamic rather than static; this is particular true for those large transnational corporations, which are in a constant state of change.
Business firms are expanding to take advantage of economies of scale, contracting or restructuring for greater efficiency, constantly implementing innovations to encourage greater productivity. One innovation that has become very popular in the past fifteen years is a change from a department-based structure to a team-based structure. An aerospace company in which all the engineers were formerly assigned to the engineering department, for example, has created new “integrated product teams” (IPTs) in which all the workers involved in producing one type of aircraft, from managers to engineers to shop floor workers, are organized into a single team. Another popular innovation is “self-directed work teams” (SDWTs), the members of which manage themselves (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the company). Both kinds of teams have been shown to enhance productivity and to contribute to employees’ sense that they are an integral and important part of a larger pattern (Jordan, 1999, 1997).
A major role for business anthropologists is to contribute to such organizational changes. The team structure is particularly well suited to anthropological analysis (Van Marrewijk, 2010). For example, applied anthropologist Judith Benson helped the Boeing Company create and integrate product teams into the structure of the business. Applying anthropological methods and skills, Benson helped to improve Boeing’s team work efficiency by interviewing shop floor mechanics. She was able to recommend specific changes in the way team leaders worked with their teams, which fostered Boeing’s goal of involving its entire labor force in “determining the course of work” (Benson, 2000; Gwynne, 2003).


Another major role for business anthropologists involves helping businesses improve their products, design and develop new products, or improve the way their products are presented to consumers. In general, companies hire an anthropologist to conduct an internal or external ethnographic study for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage. It takes research to understand new opportunities for products or services, or internal focus to change organizational issues, among other things. In recent years, ethnography has become popular with designers of products and technologies as a way of learning about the experience of the users. This research approach has been applied to such diverse problems as: How to design office environments that encourage group work and collaboration? How to design websites that fit the “mental model” and usage patterns of their target audiences? How to design museum exhibits that maximize the engagement between visitors and displays? (McDonough and Braungart, 2002).
The value of incorporating ethnography into product development and work practices research has been widely recognized in the business world, particularly in the design industry in recent years (Squires and Bryan, 2002). New firms have arisen that specialize in design research, and some of them explicitly include ethnography. Although some scholars may disagree that these “ethnographers” are business anthropologist, in special cases it appears that being an “ethnographer” means a willingness and ability to make observations about how consumers use the products in their everyday life at their own home or other locations. In such a case, contextual analysis of findings is strictly optional, and not well understood or necessarily valued by the design firm or its clients (Baba, 2006).
Some business anthropologists specialize in helping businesses design and develop products that will result in profits for the company. As an example, a business anthropologist undertook research on behalf of a corporation manufacturing surgical instruments to assess medical doctors’ demand for these instruments. The method used was to observe emergency-room doctors on the job in order to gain insight into how the doctors actually used the instruments. In prior interviews, the doctors had reported that their main concern was that their instruments be highly accurate. The anthropologist, however, discovered through direct observation that speed was actually more important than accuracy; the doctors preferred instruments that permitted them to work rapidly. The anthropologist’s insight convinced the company to redesign its surgical instruments; the new design helped company increased its market share (Baba, 1998).
The burgeoning high-technology field is particularly ripe for anthropological input into product development. Business anthropologists are increasingly called upon to help generate ideas for new technologies or new ways to use existing ones as well as to provide businesses with a clearer understanding of the effects of new technologies on consumers. In order to develop ideas for new products and services, for example, applied anthropologist Bonnie A. Nardi has studied the ways in which workers use technology at Apple Computers and AT&T. Jean Canavan, a business anthropologist and manager of culture and technology initiatives at Motorola, has described how a 1996 study of pager use in rural China, where there is a scarcity of telephones, “prompted Motorola to start thinking seriously about two-way paging outside urban markets (Hafner, 1999).

In a very different application, Patricia Sachs’ work at Nynex illustrates the way in which an anthropological analysis of ethnographic data can influence the re-design of work systems. Customer repair work at Nynex became disjointed and inefficient when a new ‘trouble ticketing system’ was introduced. It broke repair work down into small pieces to be distributed to disassociated individual workers. If a worker did not complete a repair job by the end of his shift, the job was re-cycled to another worker, without an opportunity for the two workers to talk to one another. An activity analysis conducted by Sachs showed that the whole activity surrounding repair work, especially making sense of a problem through conversations among multiple workers, is crucial in solving a customer problem efficiently. The new information system disrupted the natural activity pattern and made the problem resolution process much less effective (Sachs, 1995).


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