In a recent episode of the Anthropology in Business podcast, organizational anthropologist Matthew J. Hill shared his journey from studying chemistry to applying the principles of organizational anthropology in the business world. His experiences offer valuable insights into the unique lens anthropology provides for understanding and driving change in complex organizational systems.

The Value of a Holistic Perspective

One of the key strengths Hill highlights about anthropology’s approach to organizations is its holistic perspective. As he notes:

“Organizations are really complex systems. They have structure, they have silos, they have varieties of different types of processes. You know, they need to be constantly developing strategies and so forth.”

Traditional business approaches often focus narrowly on specific aspects like processes or structures. In contrast, anthropology recognizes organizations as interconnected systems embedded in broader social and cultural contexts.

By taking a holistic view, anthropologists can:

  • Uncover the underlying dynamics shaping an organization
  • Identify root causes of challenges rather than just symptoms
  • Develop solutions that consider the full complexity of the system

As Hill emphasizes, this systems thinking is critical because “every complex problem has a simple solution that’s wrong.” Anthropology equips practitioners to embrace that complexity.

Deep Listening and Organizational Diagnosis

Another area where anthropology shines is using deep listening and observation to diagnose organizational issues. Hill explains:

“I think our training as anthropologists, as people that are really good at participant observation and deep listening really equips us to do organizational diagnosis in a very deep and effective way.”

Some key aspects of this organizational diagnosis process include:

  • Conducting interviews, focus groups, and observations across the organization
  • Involving a steering group of stakeholders to guide the work
  • Synthesizing findings to make sense of complex dynamics
  • Facilitating workshops to collectively design solutions

By probing below the surface through extended observation, anthropologists can unearth insights that may not emerge through traditional business research methods. This allows them to paint a richer picture of the organization’s realities.

Collaboration and Humility

Importantly, Hill notes that organizational anthropology is an inherently collaborative endeavor. As he puts it:

“Here you’re really having to work as a part of a multidisciplinary team. You have one perspective, but you have to have a lot of humility and be learning from other people’s perspective.”

Some key aspects of this collaborative approach include:

  • Partnering closely with clients who have deep organizational knowledge
  • Drawing on the expertise of related disciplines like psychology
  • Creating alignment through a cycle of steering group meetings and workshops
  • Generating shared ownership of solutions rather than delivering findings in a vacuum

This collaborative orientation requires anthropologists to approach the work with humility, recognizing the partial nature of their own perspective. It positions them as facilitators of a collective sensemaking and change process.

Driving Meaningful Change

Ultimately, the goal of organizational anthropology is to drive positive change. As Hill explains, this change process is not a discrete event, but an ongoing cycle of learning and adaptation:

“Organizations are continuously undergoing processes of change, just like all of us are in one way or another. It’s part of the human condition.”

By partnering with leaders committed to collective problem-solving, anthropologists can support organizations in navigating change more effectively. They bring a unique toolkit to:

  • Facilitate alignment around complex challenges
  • Design solutions that account for cultural dynamics
  • Identify and navigate points of friction and resistance
  • Create processes for continuous learning and adaptation

In this sense, organizational anthropologists are not just researchers, but change agents equipped to grapple with the messy human realities of organizational life.

Forging a Path in Organizational Anthropology

For anthropologists interested in applying their skills in organizational contexts, Hill offers a few key pieces of advice:

  • Partner with groups focused on organizational effectiveness, like HR departments
  • Network with other practitioners at conferences and through online communities
  • Look for opportunities to contribute to projects, even in small ways initially
  • Embrace a “pracademic” approach that marries theory and practice

As the business landscape grows increasingly complex, the demand for anthropological perspectives will only rise. By cultivating the unique lens and toolkit of organizational anthropology, practitioners can position themselves to make meaningful contributions to the future of work.