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Lead Your Team Strategy

Adapt or Die: How Cultural Anthropology Can Inform Business Strategy

Adapt or Die: How Cultural Anthropology Can Inform Business Strategy
Credit: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Seldom does business acumen come up in the same discussion as social sciences like anthropology. However, one corporate anthropologist, Andi Simon, marries success in the business world with lessons learned from studying human social interaction through the millennia. The business insights provided by the study of humanity might surprise you, and even give you a leg up on the competition.

"Our success comes from helping people at all levels better 'see, feel and think' about their business and themselves with fresh eyes," Simon said. "The real value of anthropology is to help people pause, step out and look at the way they have always done things in new ways – and then make them happen."

At its core, corporate anthropology is about adaptation. Both internally and externally, Simon said, the business world is changing. Whether it's the dawn of artificial intelligence, rise of e-commerce, expansion of automated business processes or influx of millennial workers, business operations are being forced to change the way they do things. On the outside, buyers are responding differently, forcing businesses to rethink their marketing strategies, value propositions and their engagement with the world at large.

"Darwin may have said it: 'It is not the smartest or the strongest that survive, but the most adaptive,'" Simon said. "Adaptation and evolution select the most appropriate out of many options for a particular need. The same applies to business today. Anthropology is a vital part of the business toolkit today for those who want to understand their business and how to keep it active and agile in fast-changing times."

While anthropological study is typically conceived of as analyzing past and present human societies, businesses are essentially microcosms of society. Each company has a culture and its own way of engaging with the outside world. By studying the habits, policies and procedures within a company and how they've changed over time, anthropologists gain the same insights they would when studying larger social groups, Simon said.

"Someone asked me why other anthropologists and I were not studying small-scale societies, such as the Trobriand Islands or Samoa. My response: why didn't he think a business culture was a small-scale community?" Simon said. "The rituals were similar. The symbols are necessary. The 'way we do things' is very clear, and if they just watched how a new hire was onboarded, they could see those cultural norms articulated clearly in everything from the policies and procedures to the equivalent of hazing a new hire."

By examining those cultural norms and reassessing what works in the modern business environment and what does not, companies can harness the lessons of anthropology to become nimbler and, as a result, more competitive, Simon said. When conceiving of markets and companies as human groups with their own cultures and sets of norms, it's easier to see how anthropology can inform an effective business strategy.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.