It is Time to Rethink Your Corporate Culture. Can an Anthropologist Help?

Corporations, in their quest to stay ahead in the fast-paced world of modern business, often seek fresh perspectives. One such perspective is offered by the field of corporate anthropology, a discipline that may seem esoteric to some but holds the promise of invaluable insights for businesses willing to delve deeper. With over three decades of experience as a corporate anthropologist, I have personally witnessed the transformative power of this approach. My role? To immerse myself within organizations, observing, listening, and understanding the unspoken cultural dynamics that drive behavior, innovation, and success. 

These have become challenging times for corporations as they adapt their cultures to hybrid work, a diverse workforce, and fast-changing technological transformations. Cultures are all about “how we get things done here.” For a leader looking out at the organization, it is often evident that the “way we do things” is no longer working. But they ask, “What should we do to change it?”

They may need the help of a corporate anthropologist.

The Essence of Corporate Anthropology

Corporate anthropology is not just a theoretical concept. It’s a practical tool that applies the methodologies and perspectives of anthropology to the corporate environment. It’s about understanding the ‘tribe’ within a company, from its rituals and languages to its social structures and belief systems. This understanding can help businesses identify both strengths and barriers to change, leading to more effective strategies and a competitive edge.

The Corporate Anthropologist: Observer and Catalyst

What exactly does a corporate anthropologist do? We immerse ourselves within your organization, adopting an outsider’s perspective to see the ordinary in extraordinary ways. We uncover how company culture influences decision-making, teamwork, and innovation through ethnographic techniques such as participant observation and in-depth interviews. Our goal is not just to observe but to act as catalysts for change, helping companies to navigate and adapt to rapidly evolving markets and consumer expectations.

Unveiling New Perspectives

Corporate anthropology provides a mirror for companies to reflect on their internal and external environments from an anthropological standpoint. This reflection often reveals blind spots in an organization’s understanding of its operations, market position, and customer interactions. By bringing these blind spots into focus, companies can develop strategies more in tune with their workplace and market ecosystem dynamics.

Driving Innovation Through Cultural Insights

Corporate anthropology has the potential to be a game-changer in driving innovation. By understanding the cultural context in which a company operates, anthropologists can identify unmet needs and emerging trends that are invisible to those deeply entrenched in the industry’s status quo. This outside-in perspective can lead to the development of breakthrough products, services, and business models that speak directly to consumers’ evolving desires and needs, propelling the company forward in a rapidly changing market.

Facilitating Change and Adaptation

In times of change, corporate anthropology proves to be an invaluable asset. Resistance to change is often deeply rooted in cultural norms and unspoken fears. By identifying and addressing these cultural barriers, corporate anthropologists can help companies navigate transitions more smoothly, whether it’s the implementation of new technologies, entry into new markets, or organizational restructuring. Our role is to guide companies through these changes, helping them adapt and embrace them as opportunities for growth and innovation, instilling a sense of confidence in the process.

A Case for Corporate Anthropology

Consider the story of an innovative company struggling to grow despite significant investments in R&D. They were specialists in reducing the risk that other companies faced. Through ethnographic research, it was discovered that a culture of fear around failure was stifling creativity. Employees hesitated to propose bold ideas due to a history of punitive responses to unsuccessful projects. By addressing this cultural issue — shifting the narrative around failure to one of learning and exploration — the company reignited its innovation pipeline and regained its competitive edge.

Or a healthcare client might resonate better with you. This client lost over $25 million annually and had to change its culture. Physicians took significant salaries for poorly managed jobs, often sending referrals to competing hospitals. The culture was an important issue. As we worked with the leadership team, we realized the organization was ready for a new approach to “how they got things done.” It was never easy, but it was essential for the organization as reimbursements shrunk and expenses rose.

Conclusion: Perhaps Your Future Needs Some Anthropology

In an era of rapid change and complexity, corporate anthropology offers businesses a unique tool to understand and leverage the human dimensions of their operations. It encourages companies to step back and view their challenges and opportunities through a fresh lens that prioritizes cultural insights and human-centered design. As businesses increasingly recognize the value of this perspective, the role of corporate anthropologists like me will become even more critical in shaping the future of business. Our work helps companies not only to survive but to thrive by fostering cultures that are adaptable, innovative, and deeply human.

In conclusion, corporate anthropology isn’t just about “hanging out.” It’s about deeply engaging with the fabric of an organization to uncover insights that can lead to transformative change. As we look to the future, integrating anthropological perspectives in business strategy will not be a luxury but a necessity for those looking to navigate the complexities of the modern marketplace. It’s time for businesses to embrace this shift, seeing their operations through numbers, charts, and the rich, revealing lens of culture and humanity.

From Observation to Innovation,

Andi Simon PhD

CEO | Corporate Anthropologist | Author