Here's what I told him.
Bartholomew (not his real name)
I'd love to come work with you.
As an anthropologist, here are a couple of things I am looking at. (Not a comprehensive list).
1) the new diversity of outlook, interest, taste and enthusiasm.
We were once a monolithic society, relatively speaking. Now we are badly-herded cats. The question for senior management: what does this do to your business model?
How can the corporation be many things to many people? How do we change our media, our messaging, our meaning making…now that we are no longer broadcasting with a bull horn.
A couple of days ago, I did a piece on the "culturematic" as a way to make culture. And it has since occurred to me that this might be what we now do instead of big, fat, mass marketing campaigns. In the place of Unique Selling Propositions, fired often and loudly at a mass market as if from a cannon, we are now inclined to create engagements in the form of experience, applications, and stories that are little, funny, charming and often a little odd. This is what we appear to like, not big fat messages but cultural materials that are quirky, anti-authoritative, adventuresome, participative. (We saw this anti-modernist sensibility come up in the 1990s as one of the ways a generation defined itself. Now it seems to be going wide.)
This new sensibility, this new grammar, looks like a great way to work with, to speak to, diverse markets. We like it for its own sake, but it is also adaptive. It works when the old grammars fail.
2) the new flight from function to value
I've been working with companies that are climbing up a value hierarchy, from the creation of products that solve a problem or perform a function to bundles of value that supply a deeper, richer order of problem solving. These companies, located in diverse industries, are climbing a value hierarchy, from the simple and the functional to the more complex and less literal.
Some of this is driven by the arrival of new commodity competitors who can imitate the lower order function without being able to grasp or deliver the higher order stuff. Climbing to the upper reaches of the value hierarchy is a way to protect markets and keep customers.
And some of this is driven by a new approach from the likes of P&G. In his book Gamechangers, Lafley asks us to dolly back from a narrow view of the consumer to a portrait that is richer and more nuanced. The corporation is still supplying utility but it does so less to help the consumer accomplish "brighter whites" and more to help her address questions like "how do I make this household work."
What we are seeing here is a fundamentally new answer to Theodore Levitt's classic marketing question: "what business is our you in." The corporation is less about USPs and more about life solutions.
3) the new inscrutability of change.
No sooner do we get a fix on what people care about than they change what they care about. Our culture and our markets are in constant churn. New developments sweep through us like storms off the North Sea. To manage in a world as dynamic as this, we need to improve our meteorology. We need a "big board" that identifies what changes are coming, how quickly we can expect them to arrive, and what to do when they get here. We also need a deeper understanding of American culture. In sum, we have to start doing future gazing as a discretionary activity, and we have to stop doing it as an intuitive process. Time to get serious, systematic and disciplined. Otherwise, life in the corporation becomes a matter of struggling to recover from the latest "blind side hit."
4) the breakdown of the old asymmetries
This asymmetries made some of us culture producers and some of us culture consumers. We are all producers now. The question is how the [organization] aids, enables and variously participates in this ferocious new culture. Part of the answer here is knowing it with a depth and subtlety that enables it to supplement, shape and direct the "raw feed" of the web world. Some people are using the word "curator" here. Personally, I think this is (if we are true to the metaphor) too passive a model. We need something much more "engaging."
Taken together, these four issues show us a corporation that is entertaining into an era where it must perform a higher-order of problem solving simply to dispatch the usual business of business. No, it's not rocket science. It's more complicated than that. (See Roger Martin's The Opposable Mind as the go-to text on the new complexity in business.)
Hope this helps.
I will be in Memphis this weekend at the AIGA Make-Think Meetings. Please drop by and say hello if you happen to be there.
Then it's on the San Francisco and next Thursday at noon about 10 of us will be meeting at a bakery downtown. Send me an email if you are around and feel like joining us.