Monday, May 21, 2012

Cat or old goat among the pigeons in Barcelona

I didn't think I was being particularly clever. Nor did I say anything too surprising. I just happened to be the first person to grab the microphone and speak my mind.

EPIC is an annual conference event attended by anthropologists from all over the world. Anthropologists who work for organisations ranging in size from Microsoft, Intel and Google to those employed by themselves, for themselves. I should also add that the majority were academics. Both lecturers and students. And as the above link makes clear, it's a fantastic opportunity to share methods and experiences, case studies and new thinking. I believe that one of the organisers even referred to it as a lovefest.

And a wonderful lovefest it was too when I joined a 'small' one day European event in Barcelona a couple of weeks ago. Lots of great discussion and plenty of friendly, enthusiastic people wanting to know who everyone was and what they did. No selling. No staring at your badge to see if you were someone worth talking to. Just a great opportunity to meet and share.

The main topic of discussion, at least the bits I paid attention to, concerned how to raise the profile of corporate anthropologists within organisations. But something seriously important was amiss. There was a tacit presumption that Anthros could provide answers no one else within an organisation was capable giving. And adding meanings no one else was capable of adding.

As an employer who has, at various times, worked with numerous graduate and PhD level Anthopologists, I can tell you that the seeing or reframing of ordinary events into extraordinary, opportunity opening observations is in no way restricted to anthropologists.

You see I have worked with geologists and zoologists who became agency planners (JWT and DDB) who were capable of seeing more than the anthropology graduates. Anthropology does provide new thinking tools, frameworks and theories, but they lead to the same place as any other bright person's self generated or innate thinking tools. The critical skill I look for, beyond a prospective employees degree, is whether they are capable of seeing events others cannot see. Whether they are capable of seeing things that are not happening rather than ones that are - which we can all see.

These skills, many believe, cannot be taught. They are part of one's makeup. Some people can see everyday events as humour, others cannot. And the difference between good and amazing ethnographers is the ability to make the ordinary, extraordinary. Simple. That's what clients are ultimately paying for. Over and above actionability which is a whole different post.

Now to contradict myself. Actually these skills can be and are taught - by my good friend Professor Christian Heath at Kings College, London. He is one of the very few people I know - anywhere on earth -  who can look at an event and see what no one else can see. A true genius, and one whose work everyone at EPIC can learn an awful lot from.

So when I grabbed the microphone in Barcelona, it was to say that the delegates and speakers were ever so slightly deluded. Anthropologists do not provide unique insights. Academia and the commercial world are not merging and that the real opportunity for commercial anthropologists is understanding how, once an insight has been generated, it can be actioned within an organisation.

Anthropologists may believe they have a monopoly on theories and thinking frameworks which allow them to go beyond the anecdotal to the cultural backdrop which makes us do the things we do. But they don't.