Historically, ethnography has been used to understand behaviours seemingly ‘strange’ to our own – most famously, coming of age rituals in Samoa, as documented by Margaret Mead. These days, ethnography is seen as valuable in understanding the more ‘familiar’ world around us and is increasingly being applied in the workplace. This year, investment banks will be using it as a tool to study their own internal cultures and understand how they can effect change.
But what exactly is it? And how can it help with culture change?
Ethnography is a research method used in anthropology and sociology concerned with studying cultures by observation in an undirected fashion. It could be critical to overcoming one of the most pressing challenges facing financial services today: cultural change.
It’s a “unique tool to diagnose problems, reveal hidden issues and hypothesise why existing efforts might have been ineffective,” says Dr Daniel Beunza, ethnography expert, associate professor of management at the Business School and award-winning author.
Such is its potential that the BSB, through its Change Ambassadors programme, is training employees from six investment banks to conduct ethnographic research and gather a new perspective on their workplaces to help them achieve much-sought after cultural change.
Here Dr Beunza tells us more about the potential of ethnography for financial organisations.
Why is ethnography a valuable tool for studying organisational cultures?
Over the past decade, organisational culture has become a focus of attention for banks and financial institutions across the UK and the US. Organisational psychology has been central to this; but for an issue as wide as culture, a range of techniques are helpful. Ethnography complements quantitative measures of culture with a qualitative and immersive approach, rooted in anthropology. As such, it can shed light on the reasons for changes in survey results and provide examples that turn numbers into stories, adding to the toolkit of the HR or culture manager.
How does one ‘do’ ethnography?
The core research method associated with ethnography is participant observation. The inventor of the discipline, Bronislaw Malinowski, became famous for pitching a tent among the inhabitants of the Trobriand islands, and living among them rather than in London. Participant observation entails witnessing behaviour as it happens, and taking field notes in real time. The ethnographer needs to be careful to question his or her own subjective understandings of the world and embrace instead those of the people he or she is surrounded by. By doing so, ethnographers can develop more accurate insights about phenomena.
But what about in a virtual world?
For many people, the Covid pandemic has led to a work from home regime where organisational life takes place in a digital setting, rather than a physical one. This poses a challenge for ethnographers, as it would seem they are left without a place to pitch their tent and watch. Yet the discipline of digital ethnography has rapidly developed over the past two decades as ethnographers recognize that social life has shifted online. Digital ethnography entails the use of digital platforms such as Zoom to observe social interaction in real time, and the use of social media and other forms of digital traces (email, team chat applications and marketing softwares etc.) to complement direct observation. It is generally accepted that digital ethnography can be faster, less expensive, and just as accurate and unobtrusive as traditional ethnography.
Are there additional benefits to conducting ethnography in the virtual working environment?
Absolutely. There has never been a better time to conduct virtual ethnography than the present. Given the sheer novelty of the work from home environment, managers are finding it difficult to establish what “is going on” at the bank. While in the past they could walk around the office, talk to a few, and come out with a sense of having observed “the bank,” now that experience has been replaced by an elusive sequence of Zoom teleconferences, phone calls, emails and videos. Digital ethnography can address that sense of fragmentation and uncertainty by providing a robust and systematic tool to turn digital traces like Zoom meetings, etc, into a reliable picture of the organisation.
What is the benefit of having employees of an organisation trained in ethnography?
There are three core benefits. For those in function units such as HR, Culture, Compliance or Risk Management, ethnography can complement existing quantitative tools and processes and ensure they are fit for purpose. For those in the line, whether it’s retail or investment banking, ethnography promotes managerial skills in observation, reflection and attunement, as well as a greater awareness of how to make culture work for oneself. For change agents, ethnography gives a unique tool to diagnose problems, reveal hidden issues and hypothesise why existing efforts might have been ineffective.
What examples can you give of what ethnographic studies have uncovered in financial services in the past?
Starting in 1990s, there’s been many successful ethnographies of financial institutions. In “Global Microstructures,” Karen Knorr Cetina showed how trading terminals such as Bloomberg, transformed trading into an early form of social media, shifting action away from trading floors and to the screen, and turning markets into a global form of tapestry that is weaved in real time on the screen. In this new world, shared experience is not defined by working in the same room, but instead by watching the market at the same time — even if from different parts of the world.
In “Liquidated”, Karen Ho showed how Wall Street banks attract humanities and social science graduates from Ivy League universities who had traditionally not been interested in finance by appealing to their elitism. However, that same elitism then becomes a key part of organizational identity and leads bankers to disregard the consequences of their actions (whether mergers, divestitures or layoffs) on corporate employees at the receiving end.
My own work, “Taking the Floor” shows that the use of risk management models poses a risk of moral disengagement on the part of traders if they perceive they are being unfairly treated by the risk managers and their models. Like any model, risk models are imperfect representations of the actual danger entailed in a given position; for that reason, a rigid commitment to models as a form of governing risk is bound to undermine the very restrain it means to achieve.
Dr Daniel Beunza is Associate Professor of the Business School and award-winning author of Taking the Floor: Models, Morals and Management in a Wall Street Trading Room.