Ethnographies to guide strategy

Ethnographies are descriptions of people with their habits and points of difference (typically, in their natural settings). They explore the richness, depth, and complexity of some phenomena. These descriptions are based on extended observations, which make this type of studies particularly difficult to produce. Popular in social, geographical and psychological studies, ethnographic-based research studies are hard to come by in computer science and software engineering. This is to no surprise as, historically, empirical software engineering was rooted in the quantitative paradigm and many pundits still believe that ethnographic research is less rigorous than other “hard”, quantitative methods of scientific inquiry (a multi-decade old positivism vs interpretivism argument). Still, ethnographic methods are slowly gaining popularity (see published studies on the topics of agile teams dynamics, conflict in software engineering teams, distributed teams, maintenance work).

Importantly, ethnographies are also getting attention in the industry. Corporate ethnographies are being used nowadays not only to explain customer behavior but to actually inform strategy and long-range planning. Ethnographic research is complementary to market research. In a short column of March 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, Ken Anderson, an anthropologist at Intel Research, explains how it is different in a way that unlike market researcher who tend to ask specific and highly practical questions, ethnographers observe people in a nondirected way – the goal is “to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. ” He describes how ethnographers have veered into strategic questions (in particular, in a business unit that is concentrated on processors and platforms for home use). Anderson concludes that “ethnography has proved so valuable at Intel that the company now employs two dozen anthropologists and other trained ethnographers”. He believes that “ethnography is so beneficial that it will spread widely, helping firms in every industry truly understand customers and adapt to fast-changing markets”. I tend to agree with this prediction.

At Microsoft, we too use ethnographies. I was actually quite happy to find people with job titles “UX – Ethnographer”. I am going to see if I can get any of them engaged on the Enterprise Library project. With their help, I plan to gain additional insight into how developers actually use Enterprise Library, not just what they say about their experience.