Corporate or business anthropologist?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 26, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

People are intrigued by the work we do at Anecdote. When they hear how we use stories in a business setting they often mistakenly think we are helping leaders tell better stories. Most of the time we leave that side of the discipline of business narrative to the Steve Dennings of this world. We help organisations collect and make sense of their stories. We’ve called this story-listening.

When people ask, “so what do you call yourself then Shawn?” I sometimes respond, half jokingly, by saying I’m a corporate anthropologist. Some people laugh, others love the idea.  As with any title, it’s not entirely accurate. The traditional anthropologist or ethnographer makes observations and then interprets them. This interpretation becomes an expert’s opinion. This article is a good example of the expert ethnographer at work in a business setting.

We also observe but more often than not we coach the organisation to observe things for themselves, and more importantly we help a group of people, representing the stakeholders that might be affected by any planned improvements, interpret these observations. Of course the observations are collected in the form of stories.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. tonyj says:

    That is an interesting article, thank you for sharing. It might be worthwhile to contemplate what value the ethnography (and ethnographer) added for the corporation. One result that came quickly to mind was that the ethnographer developed and provided a history of the company’s action over time. A corporate memory if you will.
    Does the corporation not value history? Or, in the rush of business and email these days, is memory no longer a valuable commodity? Perhaps these concerns were a part of the motivation of the study; one can’t tell these details from the story.
    As you have mentioned before, good stories are best told as mysteries. And so the ethnographer brings a certain kind of cultural detective work to bear, along with a skill in sorting the mundane from the mysterious in the rapidly shifting vernacular of everyday discussions.

  2. Shawn says:

    I love the work ethnographers do. And corporate history could be a role they can play. I’ve done a few ethnographic studies in organisations. One time I was in a call centre for a bank. The team I was working in was due to have their weekly meeting for 1 hour. It was tough to organise as they had to call in favours to have colleagues man their phones for them. When the meeting started I decided just to sit and watch and to everyone’s amazement the meeting finished in half the allotted time. Because I was there no one elaborated on anything. The team leader said, “We are not leaving here until our hour is up. So what did everyone do over Christmas?” I knew I had to get involved so I told a story about how we accidentally locked our cats in the house before we went on holidays. Everyone started to relaxed and then we got back to business where all the juicy tidbits of information was shared. I was now part of the team. I understand this sort of thing happens often in ethnographic work.

  3. John Tropea says:

    This website seems to collect these types of articles:
    Mathemagenic has some posts on reflexive ethnography:

  4. AJ says:

    Hi Shawn & everyone else,
    I’m an anthropologist who’s just finished a study of a small government department. After reading your story above, I thought I’d share the value of understanding corporate histories, corporate kinship & traditions I learned during my doctoral fieldwork.
    This particular agency had a culture of purposely obfuscating exact budget expenditure amongst the executives and reporting incorrectly to Treasury. Don’t interpret this the wrong way – no one was taking any public money, rather, they were shuffling it about so that money given for one purpose but not spent was being used elsewhere within the agency. Lower ranked managers and field staff widely condemned this practice, and simply couldn’t understand why it happened.
    When I examined the agency’s history, it turned out for the first three years of its existance (1955-1958) it had been legislatively created *without* a budget. Thus, the original directors had to fight, lie and cajole to get money just to employ staff and maintain public infrastructure etc. Also, this agency had its own powers to employ staff directly rather than via usual public sector channels. This upset the mandarins in the public sector and they gave the agency a really hard time for more than 20 years by consistently withholding funds … this was around the same time the executives who I dealt with were first being employed as junior officers. It was stated quite openly to me by people now retired that they didn’t tell Treasury anything truthful because the buggers would cut their budget if they did …!
    Of course, this habit of ‘shuffling’ money and not telling Treasury everything became a tradition passed from one group of senior managers to the next – even when the organisation became large and powerful during the 1980s & 1990s.
    The senior execs all drank with each other, went bush with each other, played golf etc etc. and inducted newly promoted members into their ranks in this way… thus the tradition was passed on until last year when a director from outside was hired, came in, took one look at the annual report and the figures on the computer and went HUH?!?!
    So just a short tale about the role of history, tradition & kinship in g’ment … from an ethnographer living in her tent (like Malinoswki) studying natives in the field.
    By the way, Anectdote is a great resource. Thank you so much for your work and sharing.

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