The anthropologists are coming!

The following is a slightly amended version of the speech our associate, Ezri Carlebach, gave to the Institute of Internal Communication summer event in London, 10 July 2017.

I may be giving away too much information about my age here, but when punk first appeared in the long hot summer of 1976 I was an impressionable teenager and I’d never seen or heard anything so exciting.

One of my first memories of punk is a heated discussion with my mates at school about exactly what punks looked like. Yet within a few short months I had joined a band and we knew all about the markers of punk identity – safety pins, ripped shirts, pink hair, bondage trousers – I could go on, but you get the idea.

In other words, we’d assimilated the markers of punk culture, through a combination of first-hand experience, TV and newspapers, gossip, and a dollop of our own imaginations.

We don’t have time here for the curious story of the influences that shaped punk, or to consider its wider impact. Instead, I want to highlight a single connection. The Sex Pistols, the band that most perfectly encapsulated the punk ethos, performed in public for the first time at Central Saint Martins school of art on the Charing Cross Road.

This was at a time when art schools were all about rebellion and social critique. Today, Central Saint Martins is part of University of the Arts London, and a couple of weeks ago I attended the launch of their first-ever MBA course, in partnership with the business school at Birkbeck College. It’s a design thinking MBA, drawing on creative approaches and social engagement, and the tag line for the course is “what happens when you mix an arts school with a business school?”


Image via @amyhegs 

I’ve been developing an interest in design thinking for a while now. I did a session on design thinking at IoIC Live in Brighton a couple of years ago. And a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the incredible week-long design thinking bootcamp run by the Design Thinkers Academy(disclosure: I’m an Associate of the Academy now). What’s interesting about all of this is that it is evidence of a rapid and ongoing breaking down of old certainties, of the barriers between ‘arts’ and ‘business’, ‘commerce’ and ‘creativity’, ‘work’ and ‘play’.

And it’s also part of an invasion of ideas into the business world, ideas that come from very different places, and from some very smart people. And some of them are going to eat our lunch as communicators unless we wise up. Yes, folks, the anthropologists are coming!

Let me explain.

Just over ten years ago I was hired by Barclays as head of internal and change comms in the UK Retail division. In one of my first meetings with the then CEO Deanna Oppenheimer, she asked me to describe my ideal internal comms team. Without hesitating I said, “two journalists, a designer, a poet, and an anthropologist”.

Deanna looked at me and said, “no, really, what’s your ideal internal comms team?”

I wish I’d stuck to my guns and trusted my instincts – instead of mumbling something about an intranet manager and a couple of business partners – because even then I could see that internal comms is all about understanding the tribes and cultures (note the plural) in an organisation, and I knew that anthropologists’ work involved making scientific studies of human cultures.

Perhaps I could have tried harder to bring that perspective to my spell in the financial services sector. It’s certainly interesting to see the way that design thinking is shaking up the banking industry now. I guess I was just ahead of the times…

You may be thinking that anthropologists have studied businesses and organisations for many years, it’s nothing new – and that’s very true. But what is new is an explicit move by some very smart anthropologists into the area of organisational communication.

There are two aspects in particular of anthropology that I want to mention in this context – ethnography, which is about understanding; and framing, which is about influencing.

Ethnography, says Wikipedia, is “the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study”.

In a nutshell it’s a research method that focuses on getting a deep understanding of a particular group of people by immersing the researcher in their customs, habits, and worldview. In short, their culture.

It’s a big part of the design thinking process, because designers have long understood the importance of understanding the end users of the products or services they are designing. And note, it’s not just by asking end users their opinions. It’s a much deeper process of observing, analysing, and understanding.

So applying ethnographic methods to communications in general, and internal comms in particular, reveals just how much culture mediates, or gets in they way, of communications. For example when we talk about ‘hard to reach’ employees we mostly – not exclusively, but mostly – focus on channels. We need to change that thinking and focus on cultures.

Nat Kendall-Taylor is one of the smart anthropologists coming after the comms lunch, and he says, “we have to understand that culture always complicates our job as communicators” – our job, please note. “If we can go a step further and understand how people use culture to think about our issues, we can be dramatically more effective in our roles.”

It doesn’t matter if those issues are fundraising for a non-profit, health and safety in a mining company, or the perfect customer journey in a hospitality setting.  Culture influences how people process information, how they make meaning from messages, and how they take decisions and actions.

The next step is to establish how we can effectively – and ethically, of course – influence those actions. All of us in comms have had the experience of spending ages developing a great campaign for the business, but when it gets out into the real world it fails to ‘land’ with the intended audience (a very passive term for groups of employees, but that’s another story). A lot depends on how the messages have been framed.

Nat Kendall-Taylor runs an organisation called the Frameworks Institute, and their job is to frame issues in a way that makes the associated messages meaningful and actionable.

He points out that “understanding is frame-dependent. The choices that you make as communicators matter. Sometimes the little things, like the choice of pronoun, or the verbs that you use, and sometimes the big things, like the values you use to explain why your issue matters. Those things frequently have dramatic impact on what your people are willing to do, and how people are willing to act and engage with your issue.”

The clincher, of course, is that as a social scientist he has evidence to back up his claims about framing, just as ethnographers have evidence about what they do. It’s a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence, and it’s very powerful.

So just at the point when we thought we’d nailed the need – and the methods – for quantitative measurement in comms, along come the anthropologists with more convincing arguments. The challenge for comms folks now, whether they’re in internal comms, PR, corporate comms or any other flavour, is to get to grips with tools from social sciences like ethnography and framing.

We must understand and act on this emerging shift, from measuring to mapping, from counting to analysing, and from planning to testing and validating with end users.

Otherwise, the anthropologists are going to eat our lunch.


Two men, possibly anthropologists, having lunch.

[First published on]

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This article was written by Ezri Carleback, and is the second in a series from Belonging Space’s associate network. Ezri is our specialist in leadership and engagement communication. He helps us connect the big themes of strategy with everyday business.