EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry) is, as its name suggests, a conference about the implications and uses of ethnography in industry. I was a little surprised (and pleased) that about 80% of the presenters and participants were from industry, and only about 20% were academics. Intel, Microsoft, and IBM are very well represented here, as are less-than-household names, such as consultants, who are nonetheless doing some fascinating work.
The upshot of this is that the problems were quite grounded in contemporary business practices and problems. A sampling of some of the issues around which ethnography was used to improve understanding include the following:
- Sales pipeline management (IBM)
- Mailing out 38,000 individual retirement packages in 7 days (XEROX)
- Researching and modeling medical care ecosystems (Intel)
- Implementing computer automation in wastewater plant management (University of Southern Denmark)
- Teaching ethnographic practices to system engineers to improve their understandings of user needs (Fujitsu, PARC)
- Improving a real estate firm’s direct marketing strategy (Ricoh)
There was an interesting tension that many of the researchers seemed to be facing. On the one hand, their work was being used to help develop models for complex business practices. On the other hand, as ethnographers, they wanted to focus on concrete situations and contexts and the real, flesh-and-blood people within them. From my perspective, one way that this tension got addressed was to work proactively to improve communication between managers (who want the models) and employees, on whom the models are ideally grounded and in any case who will have to live with them once they are developed. Stated more abstractly, the ethnographers seemed to want to make a distinction between managing complex processes (which is seen as good) and implementing rationalist control schemes (which are seen as inhuman and bad).
Another major issue is one of legitimation. How can ethnographers convince managers and marketing leaders to take them seriously? How do they justify their work both intellectually (methods, data, etc.) and also from a business perspective (actually leads to better business processes or products)? Complicating this argument is the perceived conflict between the reductionist, abstract models that managers and marketing professionals want and the rich, individual "thick" and nuanced descriptions that ethnographers value and provide. Another way of saying this is that there is a lot of thinking about how ethnographic research can, should, does, or fails to connect to business cycles, that is, there is a lot of thinking about ways that ethnography can have real business impact.
It may appear from this post that there is an ethnographer versus managers and marketing professionals, good guys versus bad guys rhetoric at the conference; that is not the mood here and is instead a misleading artifact of the way I have tried to boil down the complex dynamics that I am seeing. The managers and marketing professionals are hiring and/or collaborating with the ethnographers, whether they are in-house researchers or consultants. So the managers and marketers, too, seem to want to distinguish between (a) managing complex processes and (b) implementing inhuman rationalist control schemes. In that regard, they and the ethnographers share a common value: the two groups just engage with it at different levels.