Sunday, August 30, 2009

COPORATE ETHNOGRAPHY: My Experiences

We have been working on Design Research field for almost 4 years now. What started as my personal interest in Trend Research resulted in a full-fledged practice of Design Research that encompasses Ethnography, User/Usability Research, Product Analysis, Brand Research, Competition Mapping, Brand Messaging, Strategic Scenarios and Design/Brand Directions. Coming from the womb of a Product Design company, we did have more assignments from the companies that dealt in Automobiles, Consumer Durables, Accessories etc. Microsoft was a different case altogether, where we worked on viability studies for e-learning in the current schooling system in India. But our recent foray into Corporate Ethnography was fully focused on Brand Research and Change Management.

It was about studying the effects of acquisition and product brand name and company name change for a few companies in Western Europe, which were acquired by an Indian business group. This group primarily deals in engineering products.

While rules of ethnography don’t change, but it does have some tweaks when it comes to applying to such situations. We choose the ‘attic’ way of Ethnography- i.e. open ended conversations (the applied ethnographic method is ‘fly on the wall’ or –‘amic’). Here the interviewer has a rough scenario of questions in mind but does not put them out like a laundry list. However the interactions can become quite ‘straight jacketed’ if enough care is not taken to unroll the perspective. Means people need to feel the comfort of being ‘heard’. Here are my observations and tips-

While this is ‘open ended’ discussion method- if it only ends up being a discussion, respondents start losing interest in about 25-30 minutes of talking. Some, who are quite verbal, can go on for hours but I am talking of the average respondents across the hierarchy.
The fact that they are mandated by senior management to interact with the research team, puts them on a slightly ‘defiant’ or at least ‘reserved’ mode। It takes intitial 10 minutes to dawn on the perspective of the research.

We did create some PERSPECTIVE BUILDER tools, which were essentially some pictures pasted on foam board, to create the SCENARIOS for the future for the business। Basic skills of STORY TELLING in corporate paradigm go a long way in building rapport with the respondents.

REFER TO THE LAST DISCUSSION: As we move on with the interactions through the day, we build-on the conversations referring to what the last few people have said (without naming them)। So the direction and quality of responses start improving after a first few interactions that are not so precise or structured.

EYE-2-EYE contact is tiring after a point। Hence we had another set of ETHNOGRAPHIC tool to evolve the ‘brand values’ from these discussions. Eye to eye contact is no broken and people become busy responding to the placards on the table bearing different ‘brand values’. This brings a PAUSE for SYNTHESIS in the discussion. Here the interviewing team’s as well as the respondant’s mind is synthesizing the overall discussion. Hence we did get some very important feedbacks after this stage.

LOCATION: On the hindsight, we had better off keeping the interview location in as neutral place rather than conducting them in the conference rooms in the offices। Even within the office, instead of calling the respondents to the conference rooms where our team is sitting, it was better to GO DOWN TO THE respondent’s cabin or seat. This gives them psychological comfort of being the BOSS.

EXTERNAL INPUTS: As a part of the brand research we also met scores of dealers, distributors and channel partners for the company’s products। And we think that those interactions are the most precious inputs for the brand’s current position in the market. The TRADE usually has a pretty good idea of what everyone else (competitors) are doing in product planning and promotion. More than the end user or end customers, I value these inputs more.

In many of the interactions, the discussions get clouded by some underlying HR issues, which could be person or department specific। Only way out of that is to genuinely listen, but no need to respond on that. We even marked the issues to the top management later.

Like HR issues, there are many side learnings of this exercise as there is someone to ‘deeply listen’ to the employees। We realized that there were GEMs hidden in the organizational hierarchy.

One of things helped us synthesize thoughts is some car journeys with some of the employees. That was primarily to go and meet the dealers/partners etc. But these journeys provided us with rich insights on work culture of the company. People become companions in a journey and discussion are far more natural than they every can be.