Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How to convey findings

Years ago I decided I wanted to work for MI6 or MI5 as a freelancer. Please don't ask why.

They sent me what resembled an exam sheet several pages long and filled with long articles which I had to read and return to get to interview stage. So up to this point I was fantasising: bi-lingual Farsi/English speaker, UK born and keen to serve. Why on earth wouldn't the UK's secret service want me? I closed my eyes and visioned myself wearing a Henry Poole (do they do 42" waists?) suit with special pocket for my Walther PPK and casino chips.

I am serious. This is an embarrassing confession. I really did want to join MI6 or MI5. So I could go around boasting to everyone I knew and who would listen. And meet girls who would want to give me oil massages despite my being overweight.

Back to those test questions. They consisted of a series of articles. I had to read them and then begin by stating whether they were supposition, fact, rumour, or a whole host of other things I couldn't even understand. The texts were very difficult to absorb and even get my head around. So I fell at the first hurdle. Never completed the questions and never even got an interview. I also remained overweight.

My MI6 episode came to mind as I was reading this excellent piece in the Guardian online all about the difference between causation and correlation and flawed, badly interpreted research. Read it to understand how we all sometimes don't understand the very basics of what a piece of information, understanding, observation is telling us. I am not talking about analysis or interpretation. I am referring to patterns and relationships between events, often ignored by researchers when reporting findings.

A footnote. And I am being completely deadpan serious. I was approached by one of the above mentioned services in Eurotunnel, Folkestone about five years ago. The man chatted to me about Iran, the revolution and that I seemed to travel to to the Middle East an Awful lot and would I be interested in 'working for my government'. Had Varinder, my wife, not been there to overhear this bizarre, private conversation with a uniformed officer NO ONE would believe it ever happened. But it did.

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.


Saturday, May 5, 2012


This is a great post from the Guardian about serendipity and discovery written By Corrinne Burns. My question is: can serendipity be designed into the innovation process? Or have I misunderstood something along the way?


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Time to use mobile to emancipate respondents

House moving (which I am in the middle of) = IKEA. The two go hand in hand. And what is sad is that many of the things I am getting rid of are old IKEA pieces which just look... grubby. But please don't think we have only IKEA products in our new home. I think somewhere I have a mirror from Habitat too.

So with IKEA being at the very centre of my reality right now, I was intrigued to find this article in today's BBC online. Have a read and you will see that Ikea are giving away cardboard digital cameras with built in swing out USB as part of their 'launch activity' for a new furniture range. What a FANTASTIC idea. Every brand should give away a free USB camera, heck video camera even, to ask people to show them how their product is used.

Suppose, I thought to myself, IKEA ask people to take pictures of their front rooms - before and after. Or perhaps they want people to take images of assembly nightmares. Whatever it is, I'll bet it's a question or a task of some sort (we will find out in due course).

When setting up EthOS projects, clients often ask me to look at the tasks and questions they have devised for respondents. I, in turn, ask them to think about the following:

  1. Don't set respondents question after question or task after task, ask them to make you films on the topic you are interested in. Only they won't need to edit the film together - you do that - they just supply the edits and audio. In short don't be afraid to set big tasks. Mobile is not always about short and snappy.
  2. To engage respondents you need to emancipate respondents. Let them know how your findings will be used. Let them understand how their inputs will impact future company decisions. Right from the outset.
  3. Don't forget to specify audio tasks. Audio is excellent for letting people reflect on situations at length without the added pressure of filming.
  4. If you have an idea of what kind of outputs you are expecting, make some example films/audio and pictures and share them on the project upfront. A kind of quality benchmark to aid consistency across large samples.
  5. Moderate, moderate, moderate! Which means encourage, comment and ask questions. Take them into WorkSpaces and ask them to comment on each other's entries and compare notes. Make them feel part of something big.
  6. Don't just ask respondents to film themselves. Empower the to become your very own ethnographers filming happenings within their own families and communities.

And finally, do think of mobile qualitative as traditional qualitative conducted with smartphones. The inputs and outputs are very different. They certainly, in my humble opinion, will never replace one another.