Ethnography at the service of Innovation

Nowadays, as part of the process of creating value that generates innovation, one of the critical factors in the success of innovation is "the market (consumer)" in which anthropology is important, as it is expressed in in an earlier article called "The Contribution of Anthropology to Businesses"; as "social science that studies the human being in an integral way"; and to my way of thinking, there are several reasons that explain the great influence that this discipline can have on the management of innovation.

For this reason ethnography has taken great importance (from the Greek ethnos, which means "tribe, people") is a method of research of social and cultural anthropology that facilitates the study and understanding of a concrete socio cultural environment, in most of the occasions a human community with its own identity.

Ethnography is based on interviewing and observation, where fieldwork is a basic tool of the research process. In this sense, ethnographic research tries to obtain representative information through qualified informants who, likewise, are members of the group under study. In this way the collected data present a dense and detailed description of their customs, beliefs, myths, genealogy, history, among others.

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How important is ethnography to innovate

Innovation is not an accident, but a process. The modern concept of innovation is that it involves an improvement process over time and is used to achieve corporate growth goals, which are applied by companies such as Microsoft, P & G, BMW, Amazon, Apple, Google, etc ...

In a world where access to knowledge is open, markets are free and there are more and more players in competition, the ability to innovate on a permanent basis is critical for business survival.

To innovate systematically, a company has to develop three essential work platforms. It must have a platform for consumer observation, to detect latent needs before its competitors; a platform for creativity, which allows generating surprising and effective answers for those needs; and a platform for the capture of value generated by these proposals.

In this sense, the attraction of an innovative product is, precisely, that leads the consumer to realize that they have a need that nobody had understood until now. This is where innovative companies must become experts in observing consumers. Careful observation in the consumption situation is necessary.

In this way, observational methodologies allow capturing the consumer's information in the real consumption circumstance. This is an advantage over the surveys and focus groups, methodologies in which the consumer is asked to offer their perceptions and opinions, far from the moment of consumption. This introduces a bias to the answers, because nothing guarantees that you will remember exactly the thoughts, sensations and behaviors you had at the time of consumption. It is also possible that the person feels that they should give a "correct" response to the interviewer, instead of giving true information about their habits.

In this context, ethnographic methodologies have acquired a great importance in innovation. Ethnography is a research methodology in social sciences (and especially in anthropology) that starts from the principle that every social group is a system whose components can not be understood if considered separately. It is an immersion methodology that records the behavior patterns of people, their customs and ways of life. In an ethnographic work, researchers accompany the individuals observed for days, recording their behavior, expressions of emotion, language and functions that are fulfilled in a chain of actions associated with the pursuit of an objective.

Methodologies used by ethnography to innovate

Keep in mind that every innovation needs a prior analysis process to adapt the application of a new improvement, creativity or invention to a market (push approach) or to find the need or opportunity on which to build an innovative solution (pull approach). Ethnography offers a series of characteristics to this analysis that makes it relevant for an innovation process:

  1. Ethnography does not study clients, it studies people. From my point of view one of the biggest mistakes of a market study is to analyze population groups as clients. There is no product or service that does not have lateral or wider effects for the person who buys it, that is, that has no effect on the client as a human being.
  2. It allows to analyze the social networks of the individual. As people we relate, we maintain contact with other people creating networks of social contact that influence us and that we influence. Any new product or service can have an effect on these networks or be influenced by their use.
  3. It offers a broader vision and 360. This change in focus allows a broader view of the segment studied, not focused on economic or market criteria, so that the information is more complete and does not leave criteria or data untouched. They can be very relevant when developing an innovation project.
  4. It allows to find unknown markets. The study of the social relationships, of the networks and social groups that are created and how they affect the product or service, and how this affects those, helps to find new answers and functionalities of the product or service, by being able to analyze that impact not only from the prospective client's perspective, but also from their population group. Analyzing social communities allows us to find possible groups for which our innovation may be relevant.
  5. Relativizes the importance of the proposed innovation. It is important to be realistic when developing and implementing an innovation that responds to a need. That realism implies placing that innovation in the right place within the social context of the subject. What for us can be a relevant and fundamental product when it comes to billing and adding value to our business portfolio, may be irrelevant to the prospective client not only because of the inadequacy of the proposed solution, but because of the low relevance that may have in a specific social context, where other needs are more urgent or easy to satisfy.

In short, ethnography does not forget the economic or market element as part of the social reality of individuals, but it adds other elements of key analysis to understand the human being in society and, therefore, as a recipient of an innovative solution in a given environment, with certain influences and certain social relationships.

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