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Adapt or Die: How Cultural Anthropology Can Inform Business Strategy

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Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock
  • Corporate anthropology is a twist on traditional anthropology.
  • Social sciences and consumer relations
  • Benefits of corporate anthropology

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, the 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."

A corporate anthropologist basically combines traditional anthropology with business. In other words, they dig in to study customers and products, and how the products, workers and customers are put together.

It's well known that marketing plays an important role in knowing what customers want, which allows corporations to develop the ideal, most in-demand product. A corporate anthropologist talks to customers and asks in-depth questions that help clarify what type of consumer they are, where they shop, how they pay for products and what are the factors in their decision to buy.

Anthropology is "the study of humans." Corporate anthropologists help corporations understand their customers, different cultures and different departments that make up the company.

Corporate anthropology is an extremely important subfield of business as well as anthropology. Corporate anthropology applies anthropological theories and the practices of organizations to improve customer need and want.

A corporation may hire an anthropologist for a number of different reasons, but the most common reason is marketing and consumer behavior. If you are new to the corporate world and have an idea of what you want to do, but you aren't sure exactly how to get the business where you want it to be, the targeted audience of your business and how to reach your targeted audience, corporate anthropologists can help you accomplish these goals.

A corporate anthropologist observes the environment of your company, including those who make up the population of the business, and determine how this all works together. They won't just talk to people; they will pay attention to what your business looks like and how the people work there. They will use participant-observation to gather valuable information in order to determine what the organization needs to develop relationships with their employees as well as the customers they serve.

The purpose of corporate anthropology is to understand the classification categories, meanings and representations of different groups by interpreting the information collected to understand what people think and what they ultimately want.

Getting to know your consumers and understanding what they do and think while they are consuming helps to develop effective marketing strategies. Corporate anthropology focuses on modern consumption, how it relates to your production and how it can be improved.

The ability to have a dedicated consumer base will ultimately allow you to target your product to specific consumers. In the long run, this can help your business be more productive and possibly save money during the process. Instead of dividing your focuses, you are targeting the specific needs of your consumers.

If you are on the cutting edge, you'll want to consider the applications of your organization and how you can prevent it from being cut off before you get started. 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.

Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily was founded in 2010 as a resource for small business owners at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Our site is focused exclusively on giving small business advice, tutorials and insider insights. Business News Daily is owned by Business.com.