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Date Submitted: 11/22/2011 03:07 AM

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Ethnographic Research: A Key to Strategy

by Ken Anderson

Corporate ethnography isn’t just for innovation anymore. It’s central to gaining a full understanding of your customers and the business itself. The ethnographic work at my company, Intel, and other firms now informs functions such as strategy and long-range planning. Ethnography is the branch of anthropology that involves trying to understand how people live their lives. Unlike traditional market researchers, who ask specific, highly practical questions, anthropological researchers visit consumers in their homes or offices to observe and listen in a nondirected way. Our goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives. Ethnography at Intel initially focused on new markets. The company had provided products only for the workplace, but in 1995 managers wondered

whether users at home would become a distinct market. Ethnographic research showed so much potential that Intel set up a business unit to concentrate on processors and platforms for home use. Recently, Intel ethnographers have veered into strategic questions. Like many high-tech companies, Intel makes long-term bets on how markets will play out. Will television and PC technology converge? Are baby boomers retaining their PC and TV habits as they age, or are they comfortable shifting to new media? Will smartphones take over most of the functions of personal computers? Intel can analyze the latest buying patterns and customer surveys for useful data. But people often can’t articulate what they’re looking for in products or

services. By understanding how people live, researchers discover otherwise elusive trends that inform the company’s future strategies. With smartphones, for example, we can contrast the technology perspectives of teenagers,...