Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Unique Contributions and the Unique Methodologies:A Concise Overview of the Applications of Business Anthropology (3)


Patricia Burke, the founding director of Workspace International, suggests that observing what employees are doing about their day-to-day tasks is an important way of externalizing tacit knowledge, which is one of the ways that anthropology can make a significant contribution to the implementation of knowledge management. Tacit knowledge often consists of habits and culture that we do not recognize by ourselves. In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to a knowledge which is only known by an individual and that is difficult to communicate to the rest of an organization (Burke, 1988).
Knowledge that is easy to communicate can be termed as explicit knowledge. The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as articulation or codification. This kind of knowledge contrasts with formal knowledge in that it is not made explicit. For instance, a factory worker may have an “informal mental map” of the way raw materials actually flow through a manufacturing logistic process, a map that may reflect what really happens on the shop floor more accurately than what is shown on an idealized schematic drawing of the manufacturing process. When study tacit knowledge management, just as Gwynne (2003) suggests, an important part of what business anthropologists can make contributions is to tease out tacit knowledge that would otherwise remain hidden.
All employees will gradually develop tacit knowledge, which is defined as an informal body of knowledge gained in the course of doing a particular job (Baba, 1998). With tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Tacit knowledge is considered more valuable because it provides context for people, places, ideas, and experiences. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact and trust. Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. One of Polanyi's famous aphorisms is: We know more than we can tell (Polanyi, 1966).
Business executives who understand their employees’ various bodies of tacit knowledge can use these to improve the efficiency with which a business is run, which ultimately, of course, helps increase profits. This skill is called tacit knowledge management. The tacit knowledge of a group of experienced, long-term employees, for example, can sometimes be “captured” and taught to incoming employees (Baba, 1986). This may be accomplished formally, by means of orientation lectures or written guidelines for new employees, but is more often done quite informally by having long-term employees talk to newcomers about a corporation’s history and traditions (Laabs, 1992).


Cultural values and preferences can impact how the employees, vendors/suppliers and customers of a global organization respond to its strategies, products, practices and communications. A marketing strategy, training program, compensation plan, advertising campaign, competency model, corporate communication or personnel policy is successful in one culture might be totally ineffective in another culture, if adopted without modification the result will not only make the adopting firm lose its revenue, but will lose its goodwill as well. Cultural audits examine current practices, programs and processes to identify how culturally appropriate they may be for multi-cultural or global audiences. Cultural audits will enable the global organization to align business processes with desired outcomes. ITAP International is a professional consulting firm that is ready to help business organizations achieve their global vision and strategy through customized cultural audits and action plans based on auditing results. (Cf. ITAP International homepage, accessed in Dec. 2008: http://itapintl.com/)
Businesses firms fail to reach their production or sales goals despite reasonable investments in capital and labor from time to time. Sometimes they experience strikes or other disputes. In such cases, a business anthropologist may be hired to carry out a cultural audit, a detailed study of the company undertaken in order to pinpoint discrepancies between the company’s goals and what is really going on (Weber, 1986). A cultural audit can be conducted by a permanent employee of the company but is more appropriate to be done by an outside cultural consultant with anthropological training. In either case, the results of a cultural audit are considered highly confidential, since companies, especially those publicly traded ones, usually prefer not to air their problems publicly (Gwynne, 2003).
Cultural audit or audit culture is the process for study and examination of an organization’s cultural characteristics, such as its assumptions, norms, philosophy, values, and relations among employees, to determine whether they hinder or support its vision and mission (Strathern, 2000). Gwynne (2003) outlines the process to perform a cultural audit, in which a business anthropologist may need to interviews employees at all levels of the organization. She suggests that business anthropologist, as a cultural auditor, might be not only interested in employees’ opinions (both positive and negative) and their suggestions for improvement, but also be interested in their values, feelings, attitudes, and expectations about their organization and the place they are within it. When doing cultural auditing business anthropologist may ask the interviewees a wide range of questions as below:
What are the company’s strategic goals, and what strategies are employed to reach these goals? What happens when these goals are not met? How can the workplace atmosphere best be characterized? What positions do the interviewees occupy in the company, and what do they feel they are contributing to the company’s success? How are they expected to behave and to communicate with others? Do these expectations reflect reality? What mechanisms exist through which employees can make their opinions, ideas, or grievances heard? Are performance incentives offered and, if so, to whom and under what circumstances? Do they work? Why or why not? These questions are merely examples of the types of questions asked by cultural auditors; the scope and range in fact could be virtually unlimited (Gwynne, 2003).

Sometimes the business anthropologist who functions as a cultural auditor may go outside the immediate company to interview members of its board of directors or even its stockholders for detailed information. The information collected is put together in the form of a report containing specific recommendations, the company’s manages or directors can take specific corrective actions according to the recommendations made by the business anthropologist made. A cultural audit undertaken by Briody and Baba at General Motors, for many years one of the giants of the American automobile manufacturing industry, provides a good example. A few years ago, management observed that some of the employees who had worked long-term in any one of GM’s overseas branches seemed discontented and less than fully productive on their return to the United States (Briody and Baba, 1993). Many returnees, for their part, felt their overseas work had not been sufficiently appreciated and that their status in the company had suffered because of their overseas service.
GM’s in-house, full-time business anthropologist Elizabeth Briody was assigned the task of undertaking a cultural audit of the company to help its managers solve the problem. Briody conducted a series of interviews with GM employees at all levels of the company. The results were interesting. It turned out that some of GM’s domestic operations were administratively linked, or “coupled,” with overseas operations, while others were not. Employees of “de-coupled” domestic operations saw themselves as GM’s “elite” (Garza, 1991). Their managers had little understanding of, or appreciation for, the importance of overseas work, and they sometimes shunted employees returning from overseas assignments into less promising career paths. On the basis of her cultural audit, Briody was able to recommend some specific ways in which GM could improve returning employees’ productivity and job satisfaction. In addition to coupling operations, she recommended, for example, the establishment of an exchange program in which American and foreign workers would trade places for a few years and then return to their original jobs without having sidetracked their careers (Garza, 1991; Gwynne, 2003).


  1. Shucks, Robert. As a fellow business anthropologist, I find your writings fascinating. But they're so long, I feel like I'm reading a trade mag article, rather than a blog. Like, I barely had time to get through the first fourth of this one.

    It'd be pretty cool if you broke these up into smaller, themed serial posts. Just sayin.

    --- Ashkuff | http://www.ashkuff.com | Bored with reading about others' adventures? Burning to venture out yourself? Let this applied anthropologist remind you how.