In November 2008, I participated in a panel at the American Anthropological Association conference.  The panel compared the worldviews of different professions, including anthropology, industrial design, architecture,  engineering, etc.

I focused on the worldview of business managers.  A lot of people want to give input and advice and expertise to business managers.  But often, many of these would-be advisers feel like they’re ignored by business leaders.

In many cases, the advice-givers get ignored because they failed to understand the mindset of business leaders.  Not a surprise: if you want somebody to listen to you, you better know how to speak their language.

So here’s my presentation: an overview of “how business managers think” for non-business people who want to communicate more effectively with business decision-makers.
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The New York Times had a recent article on how evolving roles for black actors in the movies may “in a modest way” have contributed to the Obama Phenomena —  the idea being that seeing black actors as fictional US presidents (a la Deep Impact and 24) help us get comfortable with the real thing.

It’s an eternal debate:  “media as angel of social change” versus “media as degrader of good behavior.”    For every media optimist who points to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and  Will and Grace as proof that mass media can promote tolerance and social equality — there’s a media pessimist who points to studies on excessive TV viewing by children contributing to “poor grades, sleep problems, behavior problems, obesity and risky behavior” and that unhappy adults watch more TV than happy adults. ( Love this website design by Turn Off Your TV —  “Filling their Minds With Death,”  complete with dripping blood.)

There’s not a simple cause-and-effect with media:  seeing Dennis Haysbert as President Palmer in 24 didn’t make people reflexively vote for Obama, any more than fans of horror movies are more likely to chainsaw people.  Yet humans are social animals and we are strongly influenced by what we observe.  Here’s three ways that visual media influences people:   1) habituation, 2) social norms, 3) exposure to other (sub)cultures and ways of life: [click to continue…]


The Wall Street Journal had a recent article about the appointment of Mario Resca to the “supermanager” role of overseeing Italy’s 460+ nationally owned museums and cultural sites.

Mr. Resca describes himself as a “turnaround specialist.”    The connotations of “turnaround specialist” in the US are scary (axe wielders mandating mass layoffs) so I hope the connotations are different in Italian.  But there’s no escaping the implication that if a “turnaround specialist” is needed, then something is failing and needs turning around.

There’s a petition against Mr. Resca’s appointment, protesting his lack of museum qualifications and his assumed corporate mindset and the potential “commoditization” of Italy’s cultural icons.

Resca is a former head of McDonald’s Italy, which is probably more offensive to people than his turnaround label.  Few things are more publicly despised in Europe than McDonald’s.  (As Andrei Markovits discusses in Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America (The Public Square) .)  This despite the fact that Europeans apparently are eating at McDonald’s in ever larger numbers. Europe is McDonald’s largest region in revenues — larger than US.   (Yeah, surprised me too.) [click to continue…]

Getting back to blogging after some months away on client business etc.

One of my most interesting “anthro-ish” experiences in past months happened on election night.  I was at home clicking between upteen websites as results came in.  (BTW the best political prediction website IMO is – which is authored by a former sports data geek who has truly amazing skills in polls and analysis).

But the most interesting online discussion IMO wasn’t on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, or the comments sections on any of the news sites. It was the international chat hosted by the US State Department. [click to continue…]

On the AnthroDesign list awhile back, a grad student asked why there seemed to be an increase in ethnographers and ethnographic methods in business in the last ~20 years. Her question generated a number of responses from list members — here’s an edited version of mine:

As far as I knew (as a fleeing anthro student who went into business jobs back in late 1980s), the only roles for social sciences people in mainstream US business ~20 years ago were:

– market researchers (although most of them tended to be quants and not ethno / antho orientation)
organizational development people (often folded into the HR organization, though it usually wasn’t the right place for them)
– occasional one-off others (sometimes a process improvement or product development person would have some anthro type skills)

( There may well have been other roles — these were just the ones I knew about. )

But now — things look different (in some industries / organizations at least). My view is that it’s a convergence of two big trends: 1) the globalization of business and the workforce, and 2) the increasing importance of design in business. [click to continue…]

I had lunch recently with a friend who does hunter (new accounts) sales for software companies. He talked about how his prior employer (small growing company) had been purchased by a much larger corporation. Good news, right?

Not for him. He’s not a manager or an exec. He didn’t care about long term strategy or “synergies.” He’s a sales guy. All he cared about was that in the first few weeks after the merger, sales motion came to a dead stop. Nobody knew for certain how to handle sales anymore. It wasn’t clear how the sales organization would change, which products to sell, what pricing to apply, which contract paperwork to use, what signing authority anybody had, or even if their old compensation plans were still valid.

My friend said, “I realized I could hang around for 6 to 12 months while they figured things out. Or I could quit and get a start on making my numbers someplace else. Within 2 months I was gone.”

Turns out this isn’t unusual. [click to continue…]

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Markus Fromherz and Brigitte Jordan asked me to participate in a new workshop series over at Xerox PARC Palo Alto. (I first met Gitti via our mutual involvement in the wonderful AnthroDesign email list.)

These Futures Workshops are designed to be part of strategic planning at PARC — getting in outside speakers to talk about trends impacting businesses over the next decade. PARC’s goal is to work on core technologies that are still 5-10 years away from mainstream commercialization — so they need to keep their eye on where the puck’s going, rather than where the puck is now.

My slides are over on Slideshare here. I also got to participate in a panel and played facilitator at times. Overall tons-o-fun spending the day with the PARC folks.

I’m fond of simple stuff. Yeah, some things are complicated. But many things get overlooked because of how simple they appear to be. People just don’t see them, or think that they can’t be very important because they’re so simple.

One of my bosses used to say, “Never be afraid to look for the obvious and to ask the simple questions.” (This from a man who spent his career orchestrating rocket-science financial transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars.)

I try to remember that Rule of Simple with anthropology. There’s plenty of complexity in anthro. But at work, when I’m using anthro glasses to examine organizations and come up with practical recommendations, there’s a lot of simple stuff that can be a big influence on people’s behavior, the resulting social dynamic and thus organizational performance.

A recent New York Times article by Carol Pogash gave a great example. It turns out that many schoolkids who qualify for subsidized meals don’t eat them. Kids will go hungry rather than eat free food. Why? [click to continue…]


Hurrah — I’m finally back at Casa ORA, after a two-month hiatus for holidays and work.

The potential Microsoft-Yahoo merger is big news here in Silicon Valley. In many of the articles, there’s a throwaway comment about the two companies having big cultural differences — but there’s usually not much of substance said beyond that (other than the usual tropes of “Silicon Valley hates Redmond” and “Yahoo is boring because it’s not a startup anymore”). The meme that “organizational culture differences are a threat to M&A” seems to be widely-accepted trusim…but beyond that, it can be hard to find much of substance on the issue. (If you want to cut to the chase, I list a few sources for more information down at the end of this post.)

(There was one article that used baseball and football as metaphors for the two companies’ cultures, which IMO gets more points for creativity than insight. Although I’m tickled at the notion of using sports metaphors as a symbolic taxonomy for professional groups….so what company/professional group are the hockey players? the Olympic equestrian team? Ping Pongers?…OK I’m off topic.)

Back to corporate culture and M&A: Grant McCracken and I chatted on this topic last week. I’m not an expert on Microsoft or Yahoo, but the conversation got me thinking about M&A and organizational culture in general. We know a lot about the financial issues of M&As; those are easy to track, and that news doesn’t look encouraging (the truism is that 60-80% of mergers fail to meet financial targets). But what do we know about the cultural issues of M&As? (Side note: mergers do differ from acquisitions, but I’m treating them as one broad organizational dynamic in this post.) [click to continue…]


When surfing through YouTube and other Web 2.0 zones, I’m always struck by this recent explosive democratization of celebrity, thanks to the tools that have enabled online participatory culture. If it’s true, as Shakespeare wrote, that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them,” then Web 2.0 has certainly increased the range of options to achieve fame, or to have fame thrust upon you (as in the Star Wars Kid).

As a result, more and more of us netizens are having celebrity experiences: [click to continue…]

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