Ok, Ok!! What is Corporate Anthropology and Why Should I Try It?


With the launch of On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” my new book on how corporate anthropology can help businesses grow, I have had a barrage of questions about what is this thing called “anthropology” or “business anthropology” and why should I know about it — much less use it to help grow my business.

In addition, I cannot tell you how many people have contacted us about their son or daughter who is in love with business anthropology in college or with just anthropology itself. What kind of jobs are there waiting for an anthropology major anyway? That is particularly perplexing when anthropology was ranked as the worst major for finding a job after college. #1 among the worst.

Maybe it is time to change that! 

There is a very big role for anthropology and anthropologists in business and organizations. It is time to make it less academic and more easily understood and applicable. 

One recent review of the book said a great deal about the need to rethink the role of this discipline in our society today. Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Society got a copy of the book and read it an week. He sent a lovely email that went:

“Dear Dr. Simon, I received a copy of your new book, “On the Brink,” earlier this week, and picked it up to browse through during a lunch break on Tuesday. It pulls together nicely in one place a good deal of welcome wisdom, clearly written for a general readership, and I ended up gulping it down from cover to cover over the past four days’ lunch breaks.I hope that the book enjoys great success…We need more members with your background and outlook.”

Thanks Ed. Now, what should you know about anthropology and why it might help your business or organization sustain your growth during these rapidly changing times?

What is this thing called “Corporate Anthropology?”

Cultural anthropologists seek to understand the internal logic of another society. It helps outsiders make sense of behaviors that, like face painting or scarification, may seem bizarre or senseless. Through the comparative method, an anthropologist learns to avoid “ethnocentrism,” the tendency to interpret strange customs on the basis of preconceptions derived from one’s own cultural background. Moreover, this same process helps us see our own society through fresh eyes.

Originally, anthropologists pieced together a complete way of life for a culture, viewed as a whole. Today, they more likely focus is on a narrower aspect of cultural life, such as a business, or high speed rail service, or the coming of robots, or the work style of Gen Y.

Corporate anthropology is evolving, along with business anthropology, as a theory, method and tool kit to help apply the approach developed in smaller societies to our complex ones — and particularly to the cultures, values, beliefs and behaviors of business.

What has that to do with my business?

People come to work every day mostly to make a living. They try to find a place that feels comfortable and has a culture in which they belong. Humans live in herds or tribes. That is no different when they find a place to work or when they engage with a vendor or product that they need to solve their own business or life style needs.

Once they find that workplace they are driven by the habits that are a company’s “way we do things here.” It is very efficient to let the habits drive your daily life.

But in today’s world, customers, competitors, companies themselves, are all facing fast moving changes. As these changes are taking place all around you, your brain fights them. Your brain, and most everyone else’s brains, hates to change. So it ignores what it is seeing — discounts it

Problem then is exacerbated as customers find new solutions. With the shifting demographics, business also have to recognize that their next generation employees and customer is very different from those they knew in the past.

As all of these new options emerge, you aren’t hoping they stop. You are not watching the trends. And, you are not shaping those trends.

All the things that made you a successful business might leave you. It has now become essential to step out and observe your business as if it was a “foreign country.”  If you applied a little observational research yourself you could easily “see, feel and think” about what possibilities await you. Often your customers are telling you about their pain points, those unmet needs, and how you could actually help them. But you are so busy running your business you aren’t listening and cannot hear them.

Additionally, non-customers, not even your current customers but non-customers, are trying to solve their problems without you.

What do you do? Go Exploring!

A little anthropology can help you continue to innovate, adding value but more than just incrementally.Here is how you can start your exploration, and why you should make it part of the “way we do things here.”

Observation into Innovation is my tag line and the processes we use are not hard. They are all designed to use those eyes and ears to help you push the brain past the pain of change. This is not just qualitative market research. It is about stepping out of your organization and watching it as if you were a foreign visitor trying to learn the language, customs and values as you observe, listen and interact with your employees or customers or potential customers.

Some tools to try – with a wide open mind.

We have a whole bunch of tools you can use at www.andisimon.com. Here are some to consider as you go looking for fresh ideas. Try one or two of these and see what you are missing:

  • Spend the day in the life of a customer or prospective one.
  • Take a look at Undercover boss and mimic it — participate and observer, listen with open mind to the stories being told inside your own firm or even in others.
  • Lunch and listen — Take a favorite client out for lunch and listen to the stories he or she is  telling about the trends and challenges they are facing.
  • Participant observation might be perfect if you go and do some jobs with prospective clients.
  • Deep hanging out is simple. Go find a place to sit and observe.
  • Culture assessments are great if you are ready to step back and look at your culture. Take the www.ocai-online.com and see what you find.

Take a note book and write down everything. Or record your thoughts. Try and say: “that’s a good idea.” And never say “no, but that isn’t how it is done.” This is a time for you to go exploring. 

Remember Marcel Proust’s quote, I share often: “The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but it having new eyes.” Time to go exploring, isn’t it. 

Observation into Innovation,



Andrea J. Simon, PhD
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants