More recently, anthropologist Grant McCracken (2009), by combining a mastery of marketing, culture, anthropology, and modern business practice, argues that given the rapid changes in today’s business environment a chief cultural officer (CCO) is necessary for every company to anticipate cultural trends rather than passively waiting and reacting. McCracken suggests that the chief cultural officer should have the ability to process massive amounts of data and spot crucial developments among an array of possibilities. CCOs will be able to see the future coming, no matter which industry they serve, and create value for shareholders, move product, create profit and increase the bottom line.
A business, like a small-scale society or subculture, exists under certain rules and policies established by the government or industries. As discussed previously, a business firm consists of many individuals, of both genders, and a wide range of ages with different educational backgrounds; moreover, the individuals within the same business organization may have different skills and levels of ability. A business firm may include members of different ethnic groups and representatives of different socioeconomic classes. Each of these individuals will play a particular role in the institutional structure of the business, and this role conveys, on each, a particular status in the corporate hierarchy structure. The first, and perhaps the most important, contribution of business anthropologists to business organizations therefore is their systematic understanding of the corporate or organizational culture (Kotter, 1991; Reeves-Ellington, 1999).
For anthropologists, business firms are not only economic organizations that exists primarily to make a profit, but also groups of people similar in many respects to the other kinds of human groups studied by anthropologists traditionally. Business anthropologists have the ability to “penetrate” corporate cultures and to elicit not only formal but also informal knowledge from them (Garza, 1991). For example, business anthropologist Eleanor Wynn, who has worked for a number of high-tech companies on a consulting basis, compares the work she did for one of them, the Xerox Corporation, to “going to deepest, darkest New Guinea… What goes on in an R&D (research and development) computer lab … was one of the strangest things I’d ever seen” (Quoted in Corcoran, 1993).
Business anthropologists tend to find out the answers to the following questions in a given business organization under the study: Who are the leaders and who are the followers in the business? How many different groups of people exist in the business? What common beliefs, values, and attitudes do members of each group inside the business hold? What does the existing political hierarchy, according to which power and authority are wielded and responsibility is delegated, look like? How is information passed through among the members of each group? How do group members relate to and communicate with each other? What causes disputes among group members, among groups, and how are these resolved? It is sometimes difficult to convey to business managers that studying the answers to these and other anthropological questions can lead to corporate policy recommendations, which will be able to help a business function more smoothly and thus more profitably. Anthropological theory is sometimes not easily adopted by the average businessperson (Aguilera, 1996).
According to Gwynne (2003), any cultural anthropologist who is going to unknot and make explicable the culture of a small-scale society will have several different models to follow, which include Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, Malinowski’s functionalism, Geertz’s symbolic approach, and Marcus’s postmodern approach. Each of these models, and there are many others as well, provides a different means for conceiving of and investigating the culture of a group of people who are bonded together by same shared common values. Any of the models listed above can be used as a conceptual tool for investigating the culture of a business organization. Dr. Alfons van Marrewijk (2010) identified that, in the European context, business anthropologists developed their own interpretive perceptions on organizational culture, and created a cultural approach to study organizational issues. The analysis of the culture for a specific business organization by business anthropologists can be approached in different ways.
In reality, no matter what the model to be followed, a business anthropologist will always view a business as a bounded cultural community of people to be studied, analyzed, and understood in the same manners as other anthropologists study non-business communities (Gwynne, 2003). Take Judith Benson, an applied anthropologist, as an example. She worked for Kaiser Permanente, a health care management firm. Her responsibilities ranged from conducting focus groups to setting up a computerized system for processing clients’ complaints and managing a local call center. When Kaiser decided to embark on a “re-engineering” project intended to implement significant organizational changes within the firm, she smoothed the way for process change by offering guidance to the team members on how to identify the cultural context within which the change would take place. One of her concerns was to ensure that any changes made to the corporate culture would be sustainable for employees being affected, a task she addressed by developing a series of strategies that promoted communication, idea sharing, and collaboration among employees:
“I worked closely with individuals whom I recognized as potential roadblocks to the process change…I spent time with these major stakeholders to understand their points of view. At the same time, I worked with team members so that they could develop the process change in a way that blended with rather than confronted the existing cultural context.” (Benson, 2000).