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 How ethnographic approaches can challenge the internal ‘truths’ and ‘assumptions’ of an organisation

This article attempts to summarise how the application of new research approaches such as ethnography by commercial and public organisations to bring them ‘closer to their consumers’ can overcome the temptation to interpret research findings in terms of our own cultural context and instead to use research to challenge the very truths and assumptions which underpin an organisations beliefs and practices towards their customers. This shift from research about ‘knowing what is out there’ to creating better informed decisions within an organisation is key theme of my IIBA conference presentation.

Research“I may not know much about art, but I know what I like”. This famous punch line to a Monty Python sketch about a fictional conversation between a disgruntled Pope and innovative Michelangelo (who wanted extra disciples, multiple messiahs and a kangaroo in his first draft of the Last Supper), can also be seen to satirize our own modern fixation with creativity, feedback and the idea that ‘the customer is always right’.

It is now a widely accepted practice to make the customer part and parcel of decisions about product and service innovation, and even the co-creation of the ideas themselves. It is a ringing endorsement of an idea to hear that ‘respondents warmed to it’ or that an idea ‘resonated’ with a target audience, but increasingly the Holy Grail is to say that the customer actually created it! At Zopa, we can proudly trace the creation of the brand name to just such a consumer co-creative session. The rise of online panels and the instant qualitative and quantitative feedback they afford to commercial brands and businesses have only accelerated the pace and scale of “customer focused” innovation and design.

Of course, one effect of this closer involvement of the consumer is to generate mountains of data which the business then requests to inform their decisions in ever more summarised forms. There is the apocryphal example which gets used often when you engage in the public sector, of the minister who only liked presentations in power point expressed using a minimum of 24pt type. A contradictory outcome to generating richer data being that those who hold the power to change things want increasing simplicity and certainty which may not actually be present in the data itself.

Personally, I have a simple rule of thumb in research that if the world being described doesn’t appear contradictory and just a bit confusing then you are probably missing something!

What is less well understood is how this shift in research practice can generate innovation in its own right and perhaps more importantly change for the better the ways in which the business itself consumes research in the course of its activities.

The analogy of art is a useful one. We are arguably seeing the expansion of “styles” or “movements” of qualitative research. In general there is a shift away from producing a “classical” view of the research subject/respondent (entirely mediated by the artist and with ourselves as the audience held in thrall by the skill and ‘artistry’ working within a universe with a fixed perspective and a fixed interpretation). Just as the “Last Supper” is perhaps the apogee of the classical skills required to impress upon an audience of the ‘reality’ and hence the ‘truth’ of its representation.

One driver of this shift away from the stable ‘classical’ world of qualitative research is the growth of what might be termed ‘impressionistic’ experiences of the world of the consumer. Impressionistic research could be characterised as asserting a more fleeting and ephemeral reality which challenges the universal truths and scientifically derived perspectives of the classical view. We no longer see ‘consumers’ per se as stable and real entities and are in the process of exposing the limitations of the ‘consumer’ as a construct for understanding human behaviour.

In practice these two approaches often sit side by side within research and innovation projects, utilised as different points of view on how best to research and represent the respondent. The problem is that they simultaneously complement and compete with one another to “make sense” of consumers and consumer behaviour in a particular context; a conflict which can undermine the cause of consumer insight within a business.

Ethnography is often perceived to be part of the impressionistic “movement”; introducing the direct ‘in situ’ experience of a product or service. However, I would argue that in terms of innovation and generating new thinking, ethnographic approaches have the potential to introduce a more radical and fundamentally disruptive view of the user or consumer of a product or service. Yes, ethnography can give you highly illustrative examples of daily experience be it in the home, in the shop or online, but its real value is when it moves the project on from trying to ‘make sense’ of the world ‘out there’ and challenges instead the internal assumptions which underpin that world view (and its basis for making “sense”) that exist internally within an organisation’s own culture.

Ethnographic research is therefore valuable not just for creating a powerful impression for the target audience, but also for forcing the debrief audience to contemplate a more reflexive and challenging perspective on their own world view. Rather than looking to confirm their “suspicions” by looking for evidence to support their theories ‘out there’, ethnography forces the audience to confront the uncomfortable thought that perhaps the reason the world of their customers or consumers doesn’t make sense it that there are multiple and competing meanings for the product or experience in question. We don’t always mean the same by what we say or do – even if on the surface it all seems recognisable.

To return to the analogy of art, ethnography can produce a similar impact to that of the early days of modern art and cubism which deliberately broke down the idea of a single perspective, a single subject and a single audience and introduced a reality of complex, multiple and contradictory meanings.

This multiple perspective can be initially disorientating and the instincts of the commercial context take over, seeking simplicity and distance – ‘the key learning or ‘insight’ – but the experience of working with brands like zopa, mflow and other ground breaking concepts is that there is enormous value in allowing yourself not think you understand something completely. Research should make us recognise that not only is the world ‘out there’ a complex, changing and contradictory place but also one which your particular product or service does not exist in splendid isolation but is bound up the countless decision we make every day – consciously and unconsciously – to make our own individual worlds and experiences just that little bit more meaningful and valuable.

Barthes famously described the ‘death of the author’ in literary criticism, placing instead the focus on the consumption of meaning with a particular audience and context rather than trying to second guess what was inside the head of someone who perhaps was long dead and distant from the present world. In the same way, research is moving on from the idea of the ‘researcher’ divulging our private secrets and motivations and instead is producing knowledge by challenging the audience to be honest about the assumptions and perspectives they use to make sense of their world and in turn how they unconsciously impose those assumptions on their customers without considering how that will be interpreted. It is not enough to say ‘that the customer is always right’ we also have to recognise that sometimes organisations place a very different set of cultural meanings on their product in the process of its production which are largely irrelevant and meaningless at the point of purchase, usage or consumption.

Bruce Davis Author: Bruce Davis, Freelance Ethnographic Researcher

Bruce Davis is a Conference Speaker for the Business Analysis Conference Europe 2010.

He will be presenting the following session: “Lost in Translation: the Challenges of Applying Cultural Insights to Product, Service and Business Design” at the conference.

Bruce Davis is a freelance ethnographic researcher and entrepreneur who works with small and large businesses to apply cultural insights to the creation of brands, products and services. Over the last 10 years he has worked with many companies in the UK and around the world, such as Vodafone, egg, Unilever, Bacardi and Boots. Bruce was also a co-founder of www.zopa.com, the world's first social lending exchange, the creator of Monkey Shoulder (the first ethnographically inspired whisky) and has also worked extensively in the public sector exploring issues as diverse as attitudes to taxation and personalisation of social care.

IIBA UK Conference 2010 - Business Analysis Conference


Article photo © AKS - Fotolia.com

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