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The User's view: Customer-centric innovation

Anthropologists help IT focus on how employees really work.

By Mary K. Pratt
May 29, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When David Lindahl added a new position to his unit, he didn't hire a programmer, a business analyst or a network administrator. He hired an anthropologist.

Lindahl, a computer scientist who co-manages the digital initiative unit for the University of Rochester's River Campus Library, hired Nancy Fried Foster two and a half years ago as lead anthropologist and co-manager of the seven-member group.

Alexandra Mack and Jim Euchner of Pitney Bowes Inc.
Alexandra Mack and Jim Euchner of Pitney Bowes Inc.
Image Credit: John Rae
He says Foster helps her co-workers see problems and solutions that they might otherwise miss. "The values that her profession brings raise the quality of the work," Lindahl says.

The same is true at Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes Inc., which provides software, hardware and services to help companies manage their flow of mail, documents and packages. Jim Euchner, vice president of advanced technology and chief e-business officer, first worked with an anthropologist about 15 years ago when he was an IT executive at the former Nynex Corp. Based on his successful experience there, he brought the practice to Pitney Bowes in 1999. He says his decision is paying off, since his two anthropologists continually bring unique perspectives to projects.

A Different Approach

The IT world has a bias that automation is always good. Technologists bring that bias to the drawing table when they design products, and it can sometimes blind them to the true needs of users. Enter anthropologists, who are trained to ask questions about how people work, how they relate to others, which tools they use and which ones they don't. That kind of research allows anthropologists to see the world from users' perspectives.

Although IT anthropologists are far from common, some companies and IT shops are hiring them to provide that insight, which in turn helps technologists develop applications and systems that best meet users' needs. IBM computer scientist Eser Kandogan sums up the relationship like this: A technologist can make a tool usable; an anthropologist can make sure it's used.

Kandogan works with anthropologist Jeanette Blomberg, manager of the people and practices group at IBM's Almaden Research Center in California. Blomberg says she and other anthropologists use surveys, focus groups, interviews and observations to learn what people need to do their jobs.

"People who aren't trained as anthropologists often come to solutions very quickly," Blomberg says. "They don't often take the time to ask, 'Why are people doing it that way?'"

At IBM, Blomberg studied how systems administrators did their jobs and found that they developed their own local tools -- spreadsheets, programs and bits of code -- to help them manage their systems.

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