Social sciences and business: what can anthropologists bring to the boardroom?
April 25, 2019
Remember when “being connected” referred to a human relationship rather than a wi-fi signal? In our personal as well as office lives, we have relocated conventional social interactions onto emails, online chats and social media likes, even outsourcing our emotions to emojis. While we can’t deny the many advantages of being technologically connected, preserving the human bond means more than just hitting enter on a keyboard.
When applied to a business setting, it is this very human relation that allows connected, dynamic teams to form, and make collaborative, well-informed decisions. As an anthropologist working in the role of an ERP business analyst, I have come to realize that my social sciences background has granted me an unconventional approach to business: one with a more empathetic worldview.
Anthropology is the study of human behaviours and societies in the past and present. When conducting research in the field, it tends to be for the purpose of creating ethnographic studies, which involve interacting with people and observing them perform their tasks in their own natural context. This observation and interaction is pivotal in properly understanding and representing the involved humans and culture. But how has a degree in this field assisted me in my current environment?
Similar to the way in which I approached anthropology fieldwork, working on ERP implementation projects require the same focus: to interact, observe, and learn from the client. We immerse ourselves in the world of the target group, as it is their insights that play a key role in how we develop and design the project. It is through building a relationship between implementer and client that we can best understand how the software will be adopted by the business.
This process was particularly helpful in a project I am currently working on – a large apparel company is going ahead with their ParagonERP implementation. Before the project even begins, it is our duty to learn their business from the ground up. For us, this means physically visiting their site – a huge must. Being present in their work space is essential in order to get a feel for how the business lives and breathes, while also establishing that we are invested in their company’s success.
This analysis stage consists of meetings with department heads and all stakeholders, visiting different parts of the site to see the business as it operates in real time, as well as parsing apart individual workflows. These situations call for the meeting of interdepartmental minds, and very often, it is only through these discussions that potential roadblocks will be revealed, enabling corrections to be made before we progress further.
It is evident that one of our key responsibilities is to ask the right questions: What and where are the pain points in current processes? What would make your life easier? Can we modify your data entry in a way that will benefit you? How will you handle the change interdepartmentally? Instead of trying to change client behaviours to adopt to our software, we adapt our approach. Implementing software isn’t just installing something, handing it over, et voilà! It requires a deep understanding of the humans behind the spreadsheets in order to effect a positive change.
I have learned that it’s not until you meet the faces behind the business that you can grasp how they operate, and these learnings can not be drawn from a computational algorithm – they require effort and real interaction. The success of any ERP implementation relies on total collaboration with the users.
An anthropological approach can be used in our office culture, too. Good rapport is probably even more important within your team, after all – teamwork makes the dream work! In my department, no one is anonymous. No one hides behind a screen. We cannot operate to our full potential without the assistance of other people. Working in a collaborative, open plan physical environment strengthens teams and ultimately helps deliver results.
A great example of this is daily stand-up. Every day at 1pm without fail, we stand up from our desks and update each other on our workday. This facilitates discussion on what impediments each person is facing and how we can overcome them as a team. What have you achieved today, and is anything blocking you? This information is crucial for us to make the right business decisions and also allows us to build a culture that’s inclusive of every individual’s unique perspectives and needs.
At Jonar, I have found that our company’s success is based on many things, but at our core, we believe in treating people like people. It’s kind of an anthropologist’s dream. Within our reflexive culture, we are encouraged to use our voices and have honest opinions, all while respecting and observing our colleagues, and empathizing from a place of shared humanity.
So, what can anthropologists bring to the business world? It might be too much to ask for a scaling back from machines, algorithms and number crunching, but we should work harder on being aware of the importance of human connection and interaction. Human sociality thrives among bodies of people who are present and reactive upon the interaction with fellow human beings. So, let’s make an effort to turn to the person next to us when we have a question, rather than asking Siri.