Category Archives: anthropology

Designing a Failure: AOL/Time Warner’s 10th Anniversary

Remember “synergy?” AOL Time Warner was designed to save money and make money. But it was not designed to be a true organization.

New York Times: Gerald Levin and Stephen Case in happier times

10 years ago, Time Warner aimed to blast into the 21st century by “synergizing” with America Online. The New York Times has a fabulous retrospective of the merger. In their teaser video, Robert Puttnam, former co-COO of the merged entity tells us:

The thing that makes a merger work is culture. These were two mergers of equals And now you’re trying to put two together and if the cultures aren’t somewhat aligned, you’re going to have problems. And we had big problems.

The article traces in historical detail where the merger’s economic logic went awry, but more importantly where it’s cultural integration went awry. The story provides first-person accounts of key milestones in the negotiations. Key are the recollections of key executives in Time Warner, who had been kept out of the loop until the deal was finalized. They were aghast. Don Logan, the head of Time Inc., said simply “The dumbest idea I had ever heard in my life.”

The entire article is a testament to “the power of the people,” in the sense that senior leaders can make all the change they want, but if they do not enrol the organization, change will never happen . Culture is indeed the wild card in mergers. 45% of executives say their mergers are failures. 45%! That failure rate is astoundingly high, considering that improving success can be as simple as adding sociological inquiry to the pre and post-merger cultures.

I recently completed a sociological study of a merger for the express purposes of designing a new, cohesive, innovative organization. The key lesson I learned in that process is that truth telling about the organization’s true values is difficult but necessary. Cultures try to reproduce themselves, even if it means lying about their true values. Maybe an organization doesn’t actually value diversity. That truth needs to be told.

It was the conflict in values that brought down the merger. As one Time Warner executive told the NY Times:

I knew and I loved Time Warner. I saw it as a company with a vision and a set of values, and I saw AOL in a much less favorable light, much more opportunistic, made up of folks who were really trying to merely exploit the market they were in as opposed to developing something that was enduring, and I was very leery about this deal.

In the case of AOL Time Warner, AOL’s truth was that it set out to make money, not to actually “revolutionize” the media landscape. Telling this truth would have made the AOL culture much more authentic to the Time Warner culture, and may have actually saved the merger.

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Why are Japanese lunches so beautiful?

I am a big fan of MUJI, the simple Japanese housewares company. So I was quite interested to read a post by their art director Kenya Hara on the New York Times’s “Room for Debate.”  Hara argues that Japanese people have

…a special ability to focus fully on what’s right in front of our eyes. We tend to ignore what is not an integral part of our personal perspective. We ignore that our cities are a chaotic mess, filled with ugly architecture and nasty signage.

Hara believes that Japanese simplicity is a function partly of this narrow focus. Beautiful designs are better appreciated because of this focus, in Hara’s opinion. (Well known design guru John Maeda also weighs in and argues that the dearness of Japanese food is the primary issue).

A Beautiful Japanese Lunch: New York Times

Philosopher Dennis Dutton argues, interestingly, the American lunch box is of the same instinct: Americans have attempted to make their lunch beautiful but in distinctly different ways. Dutton leaves the symbolic interpretation of these competing “lunch beautifying” methods up to the reader’s imagination.

This reader thinks that by using exterior packaging instead of the food itself, Americans are not beautifying lunch as much as they are obscuring it. Indeed, they even commodifying it by making each lunch, regardless of content, look similar. The content of the lunch itself is irrelevant; whether it is fresh, healthy food or rotting, cheap, fast food, every lunch looks the same in a lunch box.

Perhaps this is indicative of the American spirit if industrialization. Mass production in the Fordist tradition (“You can have whatever colour car you like, as long as it’s black”) is an American value that has been spread around the world. Forget about the content of the thing, instead focus on its packaging, its marketing or its uniformity. This is what Ritzer means by the “McDonaldization of Society.” When the content of a thing matters less than how much of it is sold or how efficient it is to sell it, this is the height of capitalism — and perhaps of American culture.

This is perhaps the essence of why Americans can accept truly horrible food, while the Japanese and the French famously reject it. But it doesn’t explain why Hara thinks Japanese aesthetics are ruled in part by the ability to “focus” on one thing.

Is the Japanese form of capitalism less in need of obscuring and masking than the American? Is ugliness more tolerated by Japanese society and therefore, less of a threat to its form of capitalism?

The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out.

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people  do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon. Now, you’re ready to give a 1-hour lecture on it, complete with illustrative examples.

Now if that thing is, say, kitchen use, then stand back! You’re not an Iron Chef, you are a Platinum Chef! You have spent hours inside kitchens of all shapes and sizes. You know how people love them, how they hate them, when they’re ashamed of them and when (very rarely) they destroy them. You can tell casual observers it is “simplistic” to think of how many people have gas stoves. No, you tell them, it’s not about how many people, it’s about WHY they have gas stoves! It’s about what happens when you finally buy a gas stove! It’s about….so much more than how many.

Welcome to the world of verstehen. When you have verstehen, you can perhaps count how many people have gas stoves. Sure, you could determine that more men than women have them. Maybe you could find out that more of them were built between 1970 and 80 than 1990 and 2000. But what good is that number? What does it even mean?

When you’re designing, you must know what the gas stove means. You must know what it means to transform your kitchen into one that can and should host a gas stove. You must know why a person would be “ashamed” to have a gas stove (are they ashamed of their new wealth? do they come from a long line of safety-conscious firefighters?). You must know more than “how many.”

So the next time someone asks you, “how many people did you talk to?”, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter. You can tell them you are going to blow them away with the thick description of what this thing means to people. You are going to tell them you know more about this thing than anyone who ever lived, and then, dammit, you’re gonna design something so fantastic, so amazing that they too will be screaming in German. You have verstehen!

See my discussion about sampling methods in qual and quant research for more insight into the reasons why “how many” is irrelevant in qualitative research.

Designers are from Venus, Six Sigmas are from Mars

DT has a great post over at Design Sojourn that discusses Six Sigma methodology and how it relates to design. He cites Tim Brown at IDEO who argues that Six Sigma is essentially Newtonian, while design thinking is quantum. In his own design work, DT expressed doubts about using Six Sigma:

After studying the Six Sigma process, I point blank said: “There was no way any of my designers are going to be judged on the quality and success of a design based on how many sketches or iterations we did before we deliver it.”

Both Brown and DT cite Sara Beckman, who recently discussed the topic in the New York Times. Beckman reviews how Six Sigma focuses on incremental improvements, while design and design thinking focuses on big changes. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Six Sigma, it’s a method pioneered by Motorola, which aims to reduce the number of errors to 3 in one million. The “six sigma” refers to six standard deviations. The number of errors should be at the extreme end of the normal curve, or between + or – 3 standard deviations, represented by the Greek symbol sigma.

I argue that design is more complementary to the “interpretivist” paradigm of qualitative research while Six Sigma is positivist. Interpretivists don’t believe the world is a static place. They see reality as being continuously created by you, me and other social actors. There is no such thing as “The Truth” in interpretivist approaches, just different versions of the truth. Typical methods of interpretivists are ethnography, in-depth interviewing and discourse analysis. Positivist research, on the other hand, assumes that reality is static. Positivists believe that “The Truth,” is out there to be discovered. Typical methods would include quantitative surveys.

Designers should focus on interpretivist methods, therefore. They should uncover different versions of the truth using observation and interviewing, as well as deep reflection on symbols and their meanings. Surveys and other quantitative methods are more Six Sigma in that they can measure improvement over time. Designers ought to consider measuring improvement, but starting with qualitative approaches is best.

Organizational culture 101: a practical how-to for designers

My article on understanding organizational culture is now up on the interaction design site, Johnny Holland. The post provides an overview of key factors in organizational culture and how these factors affect an organization’s culture. It’s specifically intended to help designers understand their clients’ business culture and to avoid the all-too-common trap of “missing the social” in a design project.

It’s happened to all of us. We walk into what we think is a Web redesign project, only to find we have unwittingly ignited the fires of WW III in our client’s organization. What begins as a simple design project descends – quickly – into an intra-organizational battle, with the unprepared interaction designer caught in the crossfire.

Read the whole post.

Social scientists: the next big thing for business

The technology consulting firm Gartner is predicting that social scientists will be very much in demand by businesses. Eweek summarizes Gartner’s outline of four types of roles for social scientists:

Web User Experience roles that include UI designers, virtual-assistant designers and interaction directors.
Behavior Analysis roles that include Web psychologists, community designers, and Web/social network miners.
Information Specialist roles that include information anthropologists who are expected to play historical Web fact finding and assisting in legal analysis, intellectual property management and where the quality of information is at risk.
Digital Lifestyle Experts roles that include helping senior management understand whats going on and stay aware, and building personal brands and managing online personas for desired online effect

Gartner’s Vice President Kathy Harris appears to have faith in social scientists’ ability to be creative:

Creative, artistic and clever people will develop the early iterations of these new jobs. This will enable businesses and government to take early advantage of new capabilities and develop them into mainstream skills.

I’m in full agreement that social science trains people in the right kinds of skills for the digital age. I was disappointed however to find that sociology had failed to capture Ms. Harris’s specific attention.Interestingly, the report mentions anthropologists and psychologists specifically, but not sociologists.

Sociologists have recently complained that they have not been given a place at Obama’s table. I argue that it’s because they’ve done a poor job of publicizing the great skills they have. Just last night I sat down with two other sociologists, one is a specialist in the sociology of science and the other in the socio-legal implications of changing family forms. Aren’t these the very people we need to help us understand the effects of genetic engineering? Or the potential outcomes of changing same-sex marriage laws?

I personally will continue to proclaim my training as a sociologist, and will convince business people that the “soft stuff” is a differentiator. I will also try to nudge my colleagues into the world of design, where their training in empathy and critical thought is welcome.

The Importance of Symbols: doctors and their (dirty) lab coats

The New York Times reports that the American Medical Association is considering doing away with the venerable symbol of the physician: the lab coat. There’s a very good reason to get rid of lab coats: they’re dirty. But the symbol of the lab coat is far more important. The New York Times reports the empirical flaw in wearing lab coats:

The group’s Council on Science and Public Health is looking at the role clothing plays in transmitting bacteria and other microbes and is expected to announce its findings next year.

This empirical finding shouldn’t be surprsing. We also know, for example, that male physician’s ties are wearable petri dishes. The verdict ought to be clear, therefore that we should get rid of lab coats. Not so fast, say physicians.

Getting rid of the lab coat is getting rid of one of the most important symbols of a physician’s identity. Dr. Richard Cohen told the New York Times how important that lab coat is:

“When a patient shares intimacies with you and you examine them in a manner that no one else does, you’d better look like a physician — not a guy who works at Starbuck’s.”

Here is the lesson for designers: empirical “fact” is not the whole story. What role any particular symbol plays in social life is just as critical. What’s fascinating about this story is that physicians are now trained in “evidence-based medicine,” meaning they are trained to diagnose and treat based on more “rigourous” science (I have my doubts about that rigour, but that’s another blog post).

Yet here is a clearly “scientific” reality about the danger of treating patients while wearing a bacteria-infested lab coat and/or tie, and physicians continue to wear them. For all their protestations of “evidence,” physicians too are social beings, embedded in a social world. They too must convey an identity, even if the symbols used for doing so compromise their ability to complete their stated vocational mission.

The symbol is powerful. Designers who base their decisions on so-called “evidence” ought to pay attention to other kinds of evidence, such as the enduring patterns of social interactions. We should pay attention to any enduring patterns of social behaviour but *especially* those which fly in the face of supposed “logic.”