Tag Archives: consulting

Business anthropology: some thoughts

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A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 2019 Global Business Anthropology Summit held on the New York City campus of Fordham University. Melissa Fisher organized the panel I was on, as were Caitlin M Zaloom, Rachel Laryea, Gillian Tett, and Christina Wasson. (Thanks to Aida Ford, Timothy Malefyt, and Robert Morais for organizing the Summit and to Ed Liebow for his inspirational opening remarks.)

Melissa asked us to come with brief remarks prepared. Naturally I forgot and was obliged to scribble notes as the microphone began to work its way across the stage towards me. (Luckily I was sitting at the far end.)

After the event, Melissa asked us for “a very short summary” of our remarks and naturally I got this wrong too.

Here’s is my not-very-summary summary of my remarks at the event.

1. one of the objectives of business anthropology is to fund our anthropology. We need to talk more about a model that is both academic and consulting. Too often the pressure of business, or the reeducation pressed upon us by business practice, means we cease to be practicing anthropologists. Our anthropology falls silent. The consulting carries on.

2. I am sometimes surprised to see that even when we do continue to write books and articles, we tend to focus on a) the method of ethnography, b) on the trials and tribulations of the business life or c) particular business problems. For my part, I would prefer to see us do more work on the anthropology of American culture. Because if we don’t, who will?

3. while I’m in a censorious mood, can I suggest that too often I hear anthropologists in business scolding their clients (or dissing them behind their backs.) The presumption here is that we have intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological virtues that they do not. Apparently, we know better and that we are better. I think this is provincialism. We have failed to see just how little we know. We have failed to see how big the world is. What’s worse, we have broken the first rule of anthropology and this is that the respondent is the first arbiter of knowledge. We don’t know more. We aren’t better. Let’s take that for granted in the way that virtually all the anthropologists of the 20th century did.

4. My model of business anthropology has been to divide my life into two halves: consulting on the one side, and my own anthropology on the other. For years and years, clients didn’t know or care about the anthropology side, even when I would dare suggest how useful they might find it. But this too has changed. Now they are quite keenly interested in hearing about what I am doing as an anthropologist. This is because they are obliged by an innovative economy and a dynamic, disrupted culture to cast the “curiosity net” much more broadly than before. I think they think, ‘maybe this anthropologist, despite all appearances and his dubious fashion choices, does have a clue.’ And in any case, most of my clients are actually quite, if not fully, alert to the intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological issues of the day.

5. here are a couple of the particular things clients now ask of anthropology.

5.1 the chance to see opportunity that’s invisible to them cannot see (“blue oceans” in the parlance).

5.2 the chance to see the danger or disruption that’s invisible to them (“black swans” in the parlance).

5.3 the chance to dig down and discover assumptions (Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge”) they did not know they were positing.

5.4 the chance to see how new developments might “break” (to use a golf metaphor prized by the C suite or a snookers one that’s not). Anthropologists are always looking broadly. And we are always looking systematically. And we have a clue about self, home, family, community, networks, and work are variously constituted. So we do have the ability to see how small changes may or may not become big ones.

6. Every anthropologist who works in the business world understand that he or she is obliged to rework theory and method almost continuously. (That is, not insignificantly, one of the things that gives the business anthropologist a leg up on his or her academic contemporaries. We are tested in ways they are not.) More specifically, I think that if we are to keep up the idea that we care about a breadth of knowledge (and surely this is part of our stock in trade, the very thing that we bring to the party, the thing we nurtured through the winter of positivism that arrived after World War II), we must acknowledge that contemporary culture now represents an almost limitless water front. There is always something “breaking out” virtually everywhere we look.  Indeed we may have passed a methodological threshold and we are now obliged to say, all together now, “I can no longer follow all of the things in play or see the larger whole.” “Whole” is a little ambitious, isn’t it. We can no longer see a larger constellation. And this is the moment I think we must embrace that new quantitative instruments with which to detect monitor and measure the cultural changes taking place around us. Not as a replacement of the other things we do, but as a companion. And let’s remember that “seeing the whole” is one of the things anthropologist bring to the party.

Don Cheadle’s reading list

Yesterday, Showtime announced a new show called House of Lies.  Don Cheadle will serve as star and executive producer.

This great news for cable.  To have an actor of Cheadle’s ability and stature, well, who could ask for anything more?

But is it good news for Don Cheadle?

Here’s how the the press release describes the show.

HOUSE OF LIES is a subversive, scathing look at a self-loathing management consultant from a top-tier firm. Cheadle will star as Marty, a highly successful, cutthroat consultant who is never above using any means (or anyone) necessary to get his clients the information they want.

I think this is Showtime’s way of signaling that they intend to use every cliche in the book.

And by book, I mean the work of Martin Kihn from which they drew their title and apparently, their approach.

Here’s a wee glimpse of House of Lies according to Kihn.

Here is the story of a nasty little man and how he rips the soul from his department, pulls its lungs out at the roots, and leaves behind a legacy of victims so vast it is as though a minijunta storms the halls and opens its grab bag of tricks—people with lives to lead . . . people with children, for God’s sake, with babies . . . are tossed into the street—your mentor is tossed into the street—your mentor’s mentor is hurled onto a rotting pile of ex-consultants . .

Golly and who would have thought if possible to take cliche one better.  Capitalism red of tooth and claw, anyone?  This takes Wall Street and ups the ante.

But of course cliches are not always a bad thing when it comes entertainment.  They do grease the rails of comprehension.  And, let’s be honest, a stereotyped, simplified and thoroughly dumbed-down notion of advertising appears not to have hurt Mad Men at all.

Mind you, the advertising cliche has quite a lot of ore in it.  There’s the sex, the drinking, the politics, the glamor, and the deal making.  It’s not clear to me that the consulting cliche leaves Showcase much to work with.  Deal making?

We know what happens to TV projects that stick to empty cliches. Audiences lose interest almost immediately.  It’s horrifying to think of an actor of Cheadle’s gifts taken hostage by a show that is itself taken hostage by simple minded ideas of its theme.

Let me make a suggestion: that Cheadle consult literature that can introduce him to the subtleties, nuances and richness of the consulting biz.  I like the book by Micklewait and Wooldridge as background reading.  See also Walter Kiechel’s wonderful The Lords of Strategy.  But the real opportunity here, I think, is to talk to consultants and to see how very smart and sighted they are.  Some of this will help correct the cliches with which House of Lies is freighted. 

References

Kiechel, Walter. 2010. The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World. Harvard Business School Press.

Kihn, Martin. 2009. House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time. Business Plus.

Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge. 1998. The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus. Three Rivers Press.  

For the Showtime press release, see Robert Seidman’s site TV By The Numbers at http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2010/12/13/don-cheadle-enters-showtimes-house-of-lies/75293