I truly enjoyed my Culture Trumps Strategy conversation with Genevieve Bell, the Chief Anthropologist at Intel. She is anthropologist by training, holding a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford, and also by association, having grown up in a family of anthropologists.
She left a tenure-track teaching position and joined Intel in 1998. She was hired because Intel had a tremendous hunger to understand who might use technology and what they might do with it. As an Anthropologist, she was uniquely positioned to answer those questions.
Genevieve believes that as you are thinking about new products you should not think about how to factor in consumer culture – you just never can factor it out. Culture is what makes human beings human. It shapes how we relate to each other, it shapes how we think about ourselves, it shapes how we think about time and place, and it shapes the way we are in space. To her, culture is everything. You cannot take a person out of culture – a mistake that we frequently make.
Another common mistake that people make is to assume that all cultures are interchangeable. Some cultures have very strong orientations to one thing that other cultures don’t care about. Culture impacts not just how we are as consumers, but also how we are as citizens, how we are as workers, how we are as family and parents. Culture runs through everything and it will impact what enterprise solutions make sense as well as what consumer solutions make sense. So for her it’s not about “are we innovating products to meet consumer needs,” it’s about “are we marketing them, do we have the right partners, and are we making the right decisions about the branding collateral.”
You cannot understand culture by asking people to tell you about their culture. Culture happens in the doing. So to understand it we need to watch what people do – we learn by doing. When you do that, you will often find a discrepancy between what people say they value and do, and what they actually do. Culture is dynamic, it changes, it grows, it stretches, and it evolves. That is why the dissonance between cultural ideals and cultural practices can sometimes be very steep. That being said, as you think what it means to make things that will make sense in the world, you have to deal with both the cultural ideals and the cultural practices.
According to Genevieve, we cannot isolate consumer cultures. People live in citizen cultures and other cultures at the same time. The locus of her work is in people’s homes. She will go to the market or the temple with them sometimes, but the home seems like the most important place to make sense of things. As you are doing your research, you look for patterns – what do people keep saying, what are they not saying, what repeats and what never surfaces.
Often times, as you are trying to understand cultures, you do not want to approach the people that sit in the middle of the culture, or the normative ones. Instead, you want to seek out those that are at the edges, or the margins of those cultures – the excessive users of technology, or people who will do something to an extreme. These people often have a better picture of the whole than those that are in the middle of the culture. Their excessiveness is revealing of what is considered less excessive or more normative in that culture.
Her time-horizon varies – spending time on products that are already in market and need revisions to products that won’t be in market for a decade.
In order accommodate input from social scientists within the product development process; Intel had to change its culture. When she joined the company, Intel’s mission was basically “make Moore’s law true more often,” now it has been changed to “to touch and enrich the lives of every person on the planet.” That changed everything in the product development process – from the way they talk about who they are to themselves and to others, the way they measure success, the way they think about data, the kind of processes they use to drive innovation, and the kind of language they use to talk about their consumers.
Other things we discussed include:
• How to conduct semi-structured ethnographic interviews.
• How they think about market segmentation to conduct research.
• How internal cultures have to be aligned with the brand values.