Recently the American Anthropological Association republished an essay by Ashkuff, entitled What Anthropologists Do, and What They Do Wrong in Business in which the author argues that a major problem between anthropologists and businesses is the method of communication. The problem extends not just to business, she concludes, but to almost all communications that take place between anthropology and the outside world.
The heart of Ashkuff’s argument is the contrast between the "needs" of two actors-- the applied ethnographer and the business client -- in the business context. The operand word here is "need" and how each actor defines their need. This is a real issue and conundrum for the applied ethnographer to which I can attest from personal experience.
Applied ethnographers tend to be influenced by their training to write for an academic audience. The whole question of academic writing in anthropology has been brought into question by one of the modern demi-gods of anthropology, Clifford Geertz. Geertz and his followers attack the traditional ethnography using an analysis based on a post-modernist theory of literary criticism. They argue that it is the TEXT rather than the subject which should be the key to the analysis. They point out that the text, written by the ethnographer, creates a bias in our understanding of the subject being written about.
While I don't subscribe to literary criticism as a core anthropological theory or method, I do accept that it calls attention to, and addresses a larger issue in modern science. That issue is uncertainty. The uncertainty arises from the fact that the writer’s conclusions are drawn from an analysis of a particular unique set of observations bounded by time and space carried out by a single observer.
The applied ethnographer is often reflective and cautious. S/he is as concerned about how his/her work might be viewed by academic colleagues as s/he is about not wanting to mislead a business client with "incomplete" data. The result is the temptation to write lengthy and detailed reports. The effect may be good academic ethnography but poor applied ethnography. It can become little more than an exercise in CYA.
For the business person, the need is accurate and timely information. That is, the basic input needed to develop a strategy, create a policy, make a decision, or evaluate an outcome. The business person is action oriented. S/he is aware that things change and it is precisely because of this that s/he looks to internal and external consultants and technician to collect, analyze and interpret the complex data that are generated and required to operate in today's economy. S/he wants the bottom line
The "bottom line" is an accounting term which has a more general meaning in the real world business context. It means simply "what is the meaning and consequence of the situation for our business?"
For the applied ethnographer then, the lengthy report is only the first step in the delivery of the contracted research. It is the interpretation and condensing of that data into a simple set of action statements that answer the business client's question and address her needs in an uncertain context.
The uncertainty that exist in the situation is real and it will result in errors in interpretation and mistakes in any actions arising from it. It is the responsibility of the expert to absorb and reduce the uncertainty. The client needs that information in order to to proceed. And, more important, the circumstances are that the client will proceed with or without the report if he has to.
From the Geertzian perspective, this calls for a TEXT that communicates what the client needs to know to do and what he needs to do. This is a TEXT that presents the applied ethnographer’s "best guess" answer to the business client’s basic question.
This places a burden on the applied ethnographer. She must translate the ethnography from a descriptive to a proscriptive state. Further, she gives up control of the research project. She must design the project to conform to the client’s timeline. This often calls for mini- or micro-ethnography. Mini-ethnography is a totally different art form from the traditional 1 year in the field and 3 years to analyze and write it up the data academic format.
Finally, there is the applied ethnographic format. The applied ethnography does not follow the traditional literary arch in the business context. Instead it begins with the ending -- the executive summary which contains the recommendations and two to three critical points to justify each. Then, comes the back-story, which we would consider as the meat of the ethnography. This back story is read by staff advisers, may contribute to their recommendations and may be used for future reference to defend the client’s decision and actions. Then there are appendices. This is where the mini-ethnography detail will appear. The appendices consist of documentation to support the report and recommendations e.g.the various detailed reports, analysis and budgets etc.
Ashkuff's advise is something that any ethnographer, hoping to work in the real world of business, should take to heart. The applied ethnographer’s most important role is his/er role as a cross cultural communicator who understands the business client’s needs and language, and can produce a product that improves the client’s decision making success.