Funny You Should Ask.

How Is a Woolly Mammoth like a Customer?

Written by Marsha Shenk

Anthropologists don't study engineering or finance, which begs this question: Why are companies like Intel and Wells Fargo hiring them? Because the fundamental question in business is, what do people want? And face it, humans are strange creatures; if they weren't, anthropologists wouldn't have jobs. Here's Marsha Shenk, a business anthropologist, explaining what early humans can teach us. - Tracy Staton

Why is there so much interest in business anthropology?
Because everyone's trying to innovate. Since the first human community, people have been figuring out things they hadn't been able to do... [Unfortunately] today's leaders aren't in great shape to set that up.

How did people do it in the past?
They'd notice that, say, I'm able to throw stones at a predator, but I don't remember which herbs are good for a sick child, and you do. I'd ask you for help, and you'd ask me. People would set up exchanges, so they'd get to do what they did well and get help with what they didn't.

Sounds great. Why don't we operate that way?
It's counterintuitive. Most modern Westerners go to schools that teach us to know the answers rather than to be grateful for what others know.

What should savvy managers do, then?
Make it easy for people to make offers to each other. Make it easy for people to admit they aren't doing something well. Then people can do their best work together.

I Feel like Somebody's Watching Me

Wondering how an anthropologist could help your company? Just take a look at these three successful case studies.

1) A new CEO at Pfizer Pharmaceutical wanted company scientists to operate differently, but they balked. Anthropologist Marsha Shenk asked them what they'd define as a more effective operation. The scientists realized that ever since they were grad students, they'd been in business to keep their projects funded for as long as possible - because in science, funding is a status symbol. But in business, it's more efficient to kill projects that don't show potential for big financial payoffs. About-face! They moved from judging themselves by how long they could string a project along to how quickly they could quash it.

2) After observing, recording, and videotaping families at breakfast, anthropologist Susan Squires realized that moms want their kids to eat nutritious food, dads prefer to eat comfort food that reminds them of childhood, and kids want to eat fun or sweet food (like cereal that turns the milk blue). Plus, everyone eats on the go. So Squires recommended developing a breakfast food that was healthy, portable, and fun. The result? Go-Gurt, which brought in $37 million during its first year in the dairy section.

3) A small hotel chain wanted to pull a Madonna and remake its identity. A team of anthropologists observed guests for days, recording words and body language. They also handed out disposable cameras and then used the pictures from them to get guests to talk about their trips. One finding: The hotels essentially ignored kids. Now when families arrive, the hotels check in the kids instead of the parents. That and other changes have boosted the chain's leisure business by some $500,000.

Sources: Marsha Shenk, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, and Inc. Magazine.

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