Doing Good by Doing Well in Business Anthropology

It is axiomatic that educators hope that students use their skills to improve their communities. “Doing good” in the world outside of academia can often translate into “doing well” in academic work. This is the philosophy of Business Anthropology training at the University of Minnesota. The Business Anthropology course combines academic work and real-world problems in business and public service arising in the Greater Twin Cities community.

Boats float on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, MN. Jon DeJong/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Students visit local corporations that employ anthropologists and anthropologically trained researchers in the local area. These are often the high points of the semester as students see how employees close to their own age use ethnography effectively in business.

The Projects

Students are grouped into teams of four or five for class projects. Each team member comes from a different disciplinary background, mirroring the interdisciplinary teams in most business anthropology research in real world situations. A typical team would consist of one student each from anthropology, business, design, and engineering, all of whom had carried out ethnographic projects in observation, interviewing, and research design before approaching the final project.

As instructor, I contacted members of the business and civic community for projects that would both have anthropological problems at their core and address a business question or issue that our business collaborators had not fully resolved. Each team met with their “clients” to sharpen research questions and formulate a research design. As the instructor, I helped modify the designs before the student teams began their research.

In 2017, the class undertook six projects:

  1. What is Recreation?

The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Department serves many constituencies. There are multiple recreation centers throughout the city. The Department asked the research team to help them understand what “recreation” means for these multiple communities to improve participation in their many programs.

The research showed that indeed, the respective ethnic communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul view recreation differently. For some, recreation was about family outings and picnics. For others, it was about sports activities. One impediment to realizing recreation opportunities fully was under-utilization of the 45 recreation centers located in the parks. These centers have directors, equipment, and activities, but many users of the parks were unaware of the recreation centers. The teams suggested explicit outreach to raise awareness of the centers. Parks and Recreation put on a successful “movie night” at one center, and the team suggested that similar events could increase community engagement with the Park services.

  1. Allocating Boating Slips for Park Patrons

Most gratifying, however, was that several of the students in the course were offered internships in the companies where they carried out their research.
Another project with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Department boating on one of the many lakes in Minneapolis for which constituents need rent boat slips. These boat slips are extremely popular and prized, so allocating them every year is a challenge. This has traditionally been done by lottery with much disappointment. The Department requested that the teams address how to improve the allocation process.

The team found that customers were not aware of boat slips at other lakes in the city. The team suggested that rather than allocating the slips on a lake-by-lake basis, the slips for all lakes should be allocated at a single event.

  1. Understanding a Customer Base for a Publication

The leading business publication in Minnesota distributes their publication free of charge and holds many events during the year to serve the business community. They wanted to better understand what the Publication means to their readership and participants in their events to better serve them going forward.

The team discovered a nearly even bifurcation in the customer base between older and younger readers and attendees at the Publication events. They suggested that the Publication should explicitly address both communities both in print and in their event planning to further serve their readers’ needs.

  1. Recruiting Minority Community Workers

A business consulting agency partnered with a medical device manufacturer in a joint venture to develop a recruitment and retention strategy for workers for a new manufacturing plant in North Minneapolis. The manufacturer wished to reach potential employees from minority populations in the Twin Cities. The Business Consulting Agency asked the research team to help them formulate this employment strategy.

The team found that the device manufacturer and the consulting agency were working through traditional employment resources. They suggested using community organizations and agencies, which they identified, that would be better resources for identifying and recruiting this employee base.

  1. Understanding Impediments to Employee Retention

A major trucking firm located in the Twin Cities region noted that the turnover for drivers in the trucking industry is nearly 100 percent over the course of two years. Although this firm is more successful in retaining its own employees than the industry as a whole, they still wanted the research team to help them identify the reasons for this high turnover.

Of the many factors the team uncovered that were affecting retention—time away from family, the rigors of the road, and employee relations with their supervisors—two stood out. First, because of high turnover, recruiters were highly active trying to sign up new drivers, often developing good social relations with them. However, once the drivers were hired, the recruiters ceased contact with them, leaving the drivers to feel abandoned, especially when difficulties arose on the job. Second, the drivers were quite upset that they did not receive pay for “wait time”—only for “driving time.” Sometimes they would have to wait for more than a day for trucks to be loaded or unloaded, or for weather delays, for which they were uncompensated. The team suggested that specifically addressing these issues would improve employee retention.

  1. The Meaning of “Clean”

A manufacturer of floor cleaning equipment serving manufacturing and other institutions throughout the world requested that a research team help them identify what the concept of “clean” means for various customers. Additionally, they wanted the team to identify the extent to which their customers link floor cleaning efficiency with the overall efficiency of the facilities where the equipment is used.

The teams used Mary Douglas’ work and that of other anthropologists on purity and pollution to draw out distinctions between physical cleanliness and symbolic cleanliness. The appearance of the floor cleaning equipment itself proved to be key to the perception of cleanliness. For some, the cleaning operation was “tidying up” the facility. For others, it was an essential hygienic operation. Since machine operation was much the same wherever they were used, the team suggested that the company would improve its customer image by specifically addressing users’ symbolic concerns.

Career Training Benefits

The course addresses five areas where business anthropology is most commonly applied in commercial employment: Marketing and Advertising, User Experience (UX), Product Design, Corporate Ethnography, and International Business.

We were fortunate that these projects addressed all five of the principal business anthropology applications. In addition to benefiting the community through this research, students demonstrated the value of anthropology to their business partners. Most gratifying, however, was that several of the students in the course were offered internships in the companies where they carried out their research. One graduating senior was hired by her project partner—doing well by doing good, indeed!

William O. Beeman is professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has been teaching business anthropology since 2007.

Cite as: Beeman, William O. 2017. “Doing Good by Doing Well in Business Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, November 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.696

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