Ethnography goes to the board room

Stringer_1 I am preparing to instruct the senior managers at an American corporation on the ethnographic method. 

The question is, of course, why would a CEO and his team need to know about ethnography in a "hand’s on" way.  The answer is A.G. Lafley.  The head of P&G has smiled on ethnography, frowned on focus groups, and made the life of this humble anthropologist vastly easier and more interesting.

And it’s going to be really interesting.  How do I take several years of PhD training at the University of Chicago and turn it into an four hours of instruction?  Not possible, of course.  Not plausible, to be honest. 

But is it a good idea, anyhow? It is a great idea, anyhow!  The American corporation is run by men and women who are, most of them, products of the business school.  And there are almost no business schools that build an ethnographic or even a qualitative sensitivity into their currulum.  This means that the senior managers charged with guiding the organization sometimes do not have the most useful listening instruments at their disposal.

Consumer centricity is widely help to be the first, the most pressing, task of the corporation.  Ethnography is now widely regarded as a particularly good way of accomplishing this centricity.  When senior managers don’t have it, they suffer a distinct disadvantage.  Especially if they are obliged to go up against the formidable likes of A.G. Lafley and P&G. 

Naturally, this seems like a motherhood issue.  Who doesn’t care about making contact with the consumer?  Who wouldn’t embrace any useful method for doing so?  Well, the New York Times on Sunday carried a 1000 words on Sir Howard Stringer, the Sony CEO.  The article details the first 11 months of Stringer’s reign.  It talks about his strengths and his challenges.  Clearly this guy is talented and tireless, collaborative and hard charging. 

But there was not a single word about the consumer.  Sony ends up sounding like a corporation driven by an engineering mentality.  And when we look at where Sony has stumbled, digital rights management, music, movies, the Connect connection, fighting Apple and the iPod, these are precisely the areas where consumer centricity makes a difference.  I don’t doubt that the brain trust at Sony has worked this out.  If they want to reassure analysts that Sony is making contact with consumers and with culture, what better way that to make sure this fact features prominently in the talk generated by the CEO for public consumption?

But the article offers only a great silence on the consumer.  Maybe this is one of those snobbery things.  Technical people are loathe to think they could learn from a consumer goods player.  Too bad.  I’m guessing Howard Stringer could learn a great deal from the likes of A.G. Lafley.  And if that seems somehow inappropriate, I am on very good terms with an anthropologist who would be most happy to help out.


Siklos, Richard and Martin Fackler.  2006.  Sony’s Road Warrior.  The New York Times, May 28, 2006.

Post Script

And please no comments that say that Sir Howard Stringer, as the person who insisted that Sony pick up The DaVinci Code, is a now a certified "rain man" when it comes to detecting consumer taste and preference.  In fact, The DaVinci is from a marketing point of view, a certified freak of nature, an accident that happened to Sony, to Stringer’s good fortune.  Come to think of it, where is the marketing community on this one?  Have we xrayed this movie phenomenon?  Have we learned the lessons it has to teach us.  What can brands learn from The DaVinci Code?  Hmm, perhaps this is a job for our code breaker, Claude Rapaille.   Ok, maybe not. 

5 thoughts on “Ethnography goes to the board room

  1. steve

    How do you pull off the “teach the Talmud while standing on one leg” trick? Hillel had the Jewish Golden Rule maneuver to fall back on–is there a similar ploy in ethnography? If you really do have a few easy-to-digest bullet points, I’ll be happy to drop them in at an appropriate time in my strategy classes.

  2. Rob Fields

    P&G, for one has been really focused on getting deep into the crevices of their key consumer for a long time. And, in fact, Lafley is a bellwether CEO, i.e., the stuff he’s into reverberates throughout the business world. However, it may be the sign of a larger shift in corporations, which indicates that they’re beginning to understand that the business approach alone—ROI, payback, customer lifetime value, etc.—doesn’t tell the whole picture. Ethnography is a great way to get a data point on consumers. And it’s a gateway to help brands and brand marketers put on their “cultural anthropologist” hat and understand changes in the cultural/social landscape in which they operate. As you can see from this link– –I’m a believer in Doug Holt’s POV that culture has a big impact on how brands are perceived. The more marketers understand this, the better off they’ll be.

    Finally, I certainly hope you’ll be providing feedback from your excursions into this and other boardrooms. Looking forward to reading more.

  3. brian

    the EDM program at Weatherhead School of Management has tried to teach qualitative with quantitative, including ethnography, but of course, the administration of the university seems to be in trouble right now and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the experiment fold …

    Case Western Reserve University officials are acting as though they learned little from the crisis that toppled their president this spring.

    The culture of secrecy that so contributed to faculty unrest a few months ago appears undiminished by the pending change of administration. As the institution experiences the painful process of massive layoffs, officials refused last week to give even tentative figures regarding job losses – and thus needlessly added to campus and community unease. …

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  5. Erik

    Funny thing about the DaVinci Code movie is that I’ve heard nothing but lukewarm responses from friends that have seen it. More interesting still: one of the most well-known books of all time is turned into a movie which is then overtaken in box office receipts by an ‘X-men’ sequel one week after opening. I think this turn of events since the release only reinforces your point.

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