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Feature: The Rise of Ethnography at Intel

February 15 2006

The company at the heart of the machine is trying harder to get into the heads of its users. In the latest MRWho, MrWeb's Michael Kenyon talked to Ken Anderson, Manager of People and Practice Research at Intel and one of the company's small but growing band of ethnographers.

Ethnography - 'the scientific description of nations or races of men, with their customs, habits, and points of difference' according to the Oxofrd English Dictionary - was not formally on the menu at Intel until the latter part of the 1990s. Now the company employs around two dozen ethnographers and currently has vacancies for eight more.

Anderson joined Intel in 2001 and was asked to look at 'trends in the US and the rest of the world'. He explains: 'That's how they thought of it - the US and the rest of the world. It was very common at the time. One of the things our group tried to do was to say, 'We have to stop calling it the rest of the world. There are several markets there, and they're not the same as the US.'

Anderson acknowledges the 'very interesting problem' for Intel that consumers interface with its products via other people's. For most people, even if they see the Intel sticker on equipment every day, Intel is (well-known for being) on the inside, and they're working with the equipment on the outside. 'The content is usually Microsoft's and we don't do software either. We can't do anything about the software issues.'

Defining the role of ethnography, very distinct from MR, Anderson cites pioneering anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and says that the goal is 'to understand the natives' point of view and be able to translate it to our audience'. He explains: 'For us to do a good translation for Intel, we have to turn our ethnographic eye to our internal audience. And I think that in part is what makes the work successful. A lot of people come in and present results as if the people in our audience should just get them. Our job is as much about understanding translation as understanding people.'

'While we like to think we look at the big picture, there really are better techniques for analysing features. For example, we might have 24 features that are important but, due to price and technology limitations, we decide that we can only provide 12. That's not me. But it's an excellent thing for market research to do.

'Ethnographers function more as the canary in the coal mines... We're actually better at decreasing the odds of failure than increasing the odds of success. We can say, 'Warning, warning! A 44-inch box is not going to fit in kitchens in China. Don't go there.' We know where people in China feel their technology belongs, because we understand their values about the home. And we also know the physical constraints - you're just not going to fit a 44-inch box anywhere in anybody's kitchen. And if you do, they're not going to care because it's just for display. In urban China right now, technology is all about display. It's not about hiding it in the kitchen.'

Two dozen ethnographers might sound like a lot, but Anderson is quick to put it in context. 'We have 91,000 people. We actually now believe we have the largest number of ethnographers of any company. Microsoft had the largest number for a while, but we have surpassed them. BT and AT&T each have a few, and HP has a couple left. Other companies that used to employ ethnographers now contract out.'

He worries about this practice: 'For me, it's absolutely the wrong model because you need an ethnographer to cover both sides - the outside populations and the company itself... If you're on the outside and you do a really excellent study but present the results in a way that doesn't match the company's culture, it's not going anywhere. A lot of innovation dies because people can't articulate it in a way that makes sense.'

Anderson still disagrees with the suggestion that ethnography 'has had' an impact on corporate culture. 'I think ethnography is having an impact on corporate culture. I still go to meetings where people say, 'What is ethnography?' And I go to other meetings where they say, 'Why should we care about how people live their lives?' I think that's still part of the change that's yet to happen.' But the future looks good, both for existing ethnographers and emerging hybrid ethnographer / project managers. 'The driver right now is that our senior management is really interested in ethnography,' says Anderson. 'All the ethnography groups report a hop away from a high level manager.'

The article appears in full in the January MRWho. MRWho is the People and Skills supplement to DRNO, free of charge and emailed as a PDF every month. To subscribe, send your name, job title, company name and the address to which we should send it, to mrwho@mrweb.com . Please indicate whether you would like a copy of the January issue sent also. More details are at www.mrweb.com/who

All articles 2006-23 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas, 2024- by Nick Thomas, unless otherwise stated.

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