Nowadays, organisations experience rapid environmental changes and harsh competition. To stay competitive, most organisations use technologies and artificial intelligence to gain customer insights and steer on KPIs. This may cause organisational myopia in the sense that firms merely trust on ‘single-minded’ – technology driven – analysis. To maintain or create a more complete picture and truly understand one’s customers, the principles of ethnography should be used. Ethnography is the dominant branch of anthropology. This article explores ethnography as it helps organisations to create a competitive advantage and helps business forward.
What is ethnography?
Ethnography is a way of thinking and a theory of practice that aims to understand how people live their lives. ‘Ethnography’ originates from the ancient Greek language. Where ‘ethnos’ refers to a folk, nation or group of people, ‘grapho’ means I write. Literally, ethnography means ‘the writing of people’. In other words, the systematic study of people or cultures.
Ethnography strongly focuses on ‘practice’. To figure out how ‘practice’ looks like, we should focus on human action and social interaction. This is done through using any number of the full range of methods that is available to us. Through this, we try to make sense of the world around us in our daily lives. Watching, experiencing, absorbing and living helps us to create a complete picture of one’s culture, event, object, process or ‘how things work’. We cannot exactly learn what ‘actually happens’ or about ‘how things work’ in organisations or people’s lives without doing the intensive type of observational or participative research that is part of the ethnographic endeavour. Compared to other approaches, ethnography enables us to get an understanding of ‘local meaning’ – i.e. what happens and what is valuable to oneself in one’s daily practices and therefore is suitable to capture what ‘actually happens’ or ‘how things work’.
In traditional ethnography, researchers would fully immerse themselves into the lifeworld of their research subject. Over a long period of time, researchers would participate and be part of the ‘subject’ group. This process, however, is very intensive and time consuming. Researchers might not always have the opportunity to go ‘native’ and conduct such intensive research. However, to gain fruitful information, it is not always necessary to go native. Using some aspects of ethnography is already useful for organisation to get a grip on certain phenomena and understand how things work. To put it briefly, organisations can make use of different ethnographic tools to make sense of certain phenomena. Depending on the intensity it takes to do research, techniques that are regularly used are participant observation and unstructured in-depth interviews. The first consists of spending a limited amount of time with the research subjects and observe how they act and what they experience. Researchers may even sometime participate and immerse themselves into the research subjects’ . The latter is often used when gaining information, including perception, from the customer’s point of view. Besides these dominant methods, researching archival data is also often used to make sense of how things currently or in the past work.
Our main argument to use ethnography is to see what actually occurs and how people experience phenomena. Instead of traditional market researchers that ask highly practical, and most often, superficial questions, ethnography delves deeper in the customer’s life world and their ‘lived experience’. Through this, we can thoroughly understand what goes on people’s mind, but also – more importantly – how people’s entire experience looks like. In other words, we should understand people’s behaviour on their terms, not ours.
Focused on the context of organisations: ethnography increases their understanding of customers. The customer insights that are gained through this may bolster for example innovation. We strongly advocate organisations to use embrace ethnography since it can be a catalyst for improving one’s value promise and service.
Examples from practice
The following examples illustrate how ethnography is or can be used in practice.
Ethnographic research is very popular at Ikea. Instead of keeping a distance to customers, Ikea’s researchers take a first-hand look themselves. They often conduct home visits and will even live in a volunteer’s residence. Besides this, Ikea recently installed cameras in people’s home in different metropolitan cities to understand how people move around in their houses. For example, they focused on how people use sofas. A main takeaway was that people do all kind of things except for sitting on the sofa and watching TV. Most people sat on the floor and used the sofa as a backrest. This led to serious adjustments to Ikea’s sofas that made them, ironically, more comfortable to lean on instead of just sit on. Besides the sofas, Ikea also conducted ethnographic research how people use kitchens. It came to light that kitchens are not solely used for cooking and eating but that it is the main part of the house where people spend most of the time. This led to kitchen designs that allow people to comfortably spend time with their family.
Value Proposition Research Program (VPRP)
In the VPRP, I use ethnographic research in two ways. First, to identify value-in-use of customers. This is done by visiting customers in their natural setting to understand how they use and experience a product or service. Second, ethnographic research is used to investigate value co-creation processes from both the supplier’s and customer’s perspective. What this means in practice that I visit both parties and spend time to investigate how current value creation processes occur and how this can be improved in the future in order to enhance the customer’s value experience.
What makes good ethnography?
So, what makes good ethnography? There is a couple of key factors that we should consider when practising ethnography.
Lived experience is a key concept that researchers aim to understand through doing ethnography. It is the ‘experience-as-we-live-through-it’ in our actions, thoughts and situations. In stead of solely asking people about their perceptions, we should focus on their lived experience. Ethnography enables us to capture this.
In order to fully grasp one’s lived experience, the action taken by researchers is to immerse themselves into the world of the subject. This can also be seen in the Ikea example where researchers live together with residents. However, in some instances, full immersion is not possible (e.g. when dealing with confidential information or sensitive business contexts). In such instances, the intensity of immersion can be adjusted. This can differ from full – participatory – immersion, to a more focused – ‘quick and dirty’ or ‘in and out’ – immersion. In the first, the researcher is better allowed to get the full picture but it takes time and you have to gain full access. In the latter, also referred to ‘jet plane ethnography’, gaining access is easier, but there is a danger of gaining insights that does not represent the full picture.
Depth and meaning through ‘fine grained data’
In doing ethnographic research, it is a must to create depth and meaning. Rich content is of key importance to achieve this. Researchers should focus on collecting fine grained data, or often referred to as ‘thick descriptions’, that thoroughly describing the customer’s lived experience. This can be for example done by creating detailed fieldnotes through conducting fieldwork. Fieldwork gives rise to ethnography and is therefore essential. It is recommended to do this in combination through collecting in-depth information gained from in-depth interviews.
Context, time and idiosyncrasy
It is important to embrace the context that each individual customer is in. Referring to the milkshake example discussed in our article about value-in-use, a businessman experiences a milkshake totally different during the week when on his way to work, compared to the same businessman spending time with his son at the McDonalds in the weekend. We can conclude that customer insights (and the value-in-use of customers) depend on the context and time that customers are in. Moreover, customer insights are idiosyncratic (meaning that they differ per individual). Organisations should therefore recognise the importance of context, temporality and idiosyncracy and should keep track of all three in a detailed way. This implicitly means we should embrace subjectivity.
A customer’s lifeworld cannot be marginalised to numbers and objective metrics. Thus, accept the customer’s lifeworld complexity because this provides richness. And indeed: content is everywhere!
As being part of someone’s world, researchers may have an effect on the setting that we are situated. Therefore, we should be reflective about that our role as researchers. Also, researchers are preconceptualised by their own backgrounds, interest and experience, which might influence our view on the world.
Both points of view
Finally, a crucial aspect to take into account is to involve both the customer and researcher’s point of view.
How can your business use it?
Ethnography can be used in lots of ways to draw conclusions on macro, meso as well as micro level. In other words: understanding the customer’s lifeworld. Insights into customer behaviour or customer needs renders new information that feed internal processes such as new product or service development.
Takeaways for businesses
It is inevitably discomforting to argue that organisations are not going to find out much unless they get close to the action. In other words, organisations should focus on what actually happens, and not what people say what happens. Therefore, I advocate that ethnographic methods are useful for organisations to make sense of certain phenomena, of which customer behaviour is in our case foremost interesting. Especially in adopting an external focus, ethnography allows to further our understanding of the true relationship between businesses its customers, and as a result, what the business’ offering needs to succeed. This helps to better facilitate customers in their value creation process, create a competitive edge and more fit for future.