From banking to retail to high-tech to health care, the anthropological power of observation is in demand.
One expects to find anthropologists studying the lifestyles of the Bushmen of southern Africa or the Aborigines of Australia, but not many people would admit to having pictured an anthropologist observing employees at General Motors or the Mayo Clinic.
However, for years anthropologists have been delving into corporate cultures and consumer-buying practices, said Ed Liebow, the immediate past-president of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.
“U.S. Bank employs an anthropologist as the head of corporate philanthropy to ensure the bank is a good corporate citizen,” he said.
J.C. Penney and the Gap utilize anthropologists to study consumer trends.
Anthropologists at Microsoft tailor operating systems to different languages and user groups, Liebow said.
“Anthropologists get a lot of work in high-tech-in software development,” he said. “They get the users to talk through what is confusing.”
Health maintenance organizations employ anthropologists to help determine the health care needs of employer groups and “understand the health of their client populations,” Liebow said.
Natural disasters and the threat of terrorism have opened more doors to anthropologists, who assist corporations with emergency preparedness plans by studying the environment and finding employees who can be cross-trained, Liebow said.
“The better prepared a company is to respond,” he said, “and the more they are mitigating risks … the lower the insurance premiums.”
Whatever their “jungle,” anthropologists are attempting to discern “why people do what they do in the local setting where they live and work,” Liebow said.
“Our slogan is ‘context matters,’ he said. “How do villagers in rural Mexico use a new water system? How do you make workers more productive?”
Anthropologists gain their understanding by observing human behavior, not from a psychology-of-self approach or the wide lens of a sociologist, but through an “intermediate level between the individual and the whole society,” Liebow said.
The techniques they use to examine human patterns are often the same as those used to observe chimpanzees.
Linda Catlin, a Colorado Springs anthropologist, hasn’t been entrenched in any chimpanzee habitat, but she has observed humans and the corporate culture at two renowned kings of the jungle: General Motors and the Mayo Clinic.
Catlin brought doctorate-level training in anthropology from Wayne State University and experience from a career in education-as a former dean of a community college in Dallas-and business-as a corporate trainer for Shepherd, McGraw Hill, CFNI Steel and McDonnell Douglas–to the GM environment.
General Motors hired Catlin as a consultant to the company’s full-time anthropologist. From 2001 through 2004, she observed the inner workings at GM, from the assembly line to the board room.
“We take a holistic approach-looking at the organization as a whole,” she said.
Anthropologists look at corporate values and how employees integrate them into the workplace, Catlin said. They also “audit the organizational culture,” by identifying both formal and informal leaders and the staff’s comfort level in taking risks-voicing opinions-making suggestions, she said.
An anthropological audit may be prompted by a company’s profitability, high employee turnover or to assess the reasons behind departmental wars, she said.
Growth is what spurred Mayo Clinic to seek Catlin’s services.
The Mayo Clinic has a rich culture and a rock-solid place in the history of health care.
“What’s not as well known is the creation of our clinics in Jacksonville, Fla., and Scottsdale, Ariz.,” said Matt McElrath, the human resource director for Scottsdale.
“We were struggling with growing pains … we didn’t want to lose the culture … we were looking at how to keep the heritage alive. We had read about the concept of corporate anthropology.”
McElrath found Catlin through the GM staff anthropologist.
“She visited all sites and spent time walking in our shoes,” he said.
Catlin posed as a patient, observed families in waiting rooms and shadowed staff members and physicians.
“She did countless interviews, joined physicians on patient visits and even spent time in the operating room,” McElrath said. “She helped us understand the differences and similarities among the geographical sites, which helped us deal with inter-company conflicts that might have been attributed to style and approach. She was able to objectively discern that which is Mayo and that which is being located in the southwest or on the East Coast. It’s helpful to the leaders to see style differences among the regions.”
At the end of six weeks, Catlin presented 11 recommendations to the Mayo Clinic. All of them are in place today, McElrath said.
Among the recommendations: All new physicians attend a heritage program in Rochester, Minn., to interact with colleagues and learn about the history of the Mayo Clinic.
Teleconferences had been widely used as a way to save on travel costs, but Catlin stressed the importance of relationships. Today, Mayo Clinic leaders intersperse teleconferences with on-site meetings.
“It’s still important that people have the ability to sit together and look at each other eyeball to eyeball,” McElrath said.
“I liked using anthropologists because they aren’t traditional, run-of-the-mill consultants,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone who would turn around and try to sell me something. I just wanted someone to help us understand (our culture).”