Why An Anthropological Approach Should Shape The Development Of Your Product Or Service

Why An Anthropological Approach Should Shape The Development Of Your Product Or Service

Vantage Managing Director Tony Milford explores how the study of anthropology offers the key to business success.

Like many people of a certain age, I’ve just been through the hope, expectation and trepidation of my eldest daughter waiting for her A level results. Thankfully, due in no small part to her getting my wife’s brains, she flew through and will be off to LSE to study Social Anthropology.

Until Anna began to express an interest in Anthropology as a potential area of study, the subject was not something I had consciously associated with the life of a small business. But as we started to discuss the nature and scope of the subject, I began to see our operations and decision making at Vantage from an anthropological perspective and to realise that the benefits of such an approach were directly applicable, if not essential, to the successful delivery of any product or service. Why and how did we make certain decisions, and how did we engage with our existing and prospective clients to establish where we needed to focus our efforts?

It is unarguable that the world is changing at an extremely rapid pace, and that businesses need to recognise that their next generation of customers and employees are very different from those they knew in the past. Cleverer people than I have pointed out that change is one of the things human beings generally find most difficult to cope with. Despite what people might ‘say’ most people struggle with change, and the ways in which people cope with change varies widely depending upon their age, culture, experience and the way that change is presented to them. The same is true of customer expectations and the factors that affect their buying decisions.

Most people come to work every day to make a living. They try to find a place where they feel comfortable and, ideally, one that has a culture where they feel they belong. Humans are herd animals by instinct and that’s the same whether they’re finding a place to work or evaluating a supplier or service provider.

In a world that is changing so rapidly, it is important to recognise that there is at least the potential that all things that made you a successful business might no longer be as relevant as they once were. Maybe it’s time to step out and observe your business as if it was a “foreign country.”  If we applied a little anthropological observational research to our clients, staff, products and services we might better see, feel and think about what possibilities await us. Often our customers and our colleagues are telling us about their pain points, those unmet needs, and how we could actually help them. But sometimes we’re so busy running around doing ‘things’ that we may not really hear them.

In the course of reading around the subject I naturally found a huge amount of sometimes quite complex and scholarly opinions and thought pieces.

One piece that I found particularly succinct was penned by HR consultant Kay Heald in her article Anthropology In Small Business (see http://www.kayhealdhr.co.uk/hr-articles/small-business-anthropology/) In this Kay defines Anthropology as a field of research which draws on social and biological sciences to understand human behaviour, interactions and cultures. It’s well worth a read and if you take the time to find out a little more about her business you can see real value in her approach to HR.

As an example of its direct application to the business environment, Kay talks about how Adidas changed their approach to advertising campaigns.

Adidas had focused its entire advertising and marketing campaigns on ‘being the best’ and winning competitions, but anthropological research fed back that most people who wore Adidas trainers wanted to exercise to lead a healthier life, not win races! Their customers’ definition of ‘sport’ had changed and this was only discovered when researchers took time to observe people’s daily lives.”

This shows more than anything that as businesses we need to understand what makes our customers, clients and partners tick and to recognise that this changes over time and depending upon cultural or social factors. Sometimes the tried and tested route is the wrong route and we need to instead find out how people really benefit from what we do, and how it really applies to them.

Kay points out what might seem blatantly obvious; that there has been a massive shift in consumer and work behaviour and attitudes since the turn of the century:

“consumers no longer buy products – they buy experiences, workers are no longer machine parts – they are thinking, feeling, human beings”.

She points out that “Once again, it’s the smaller businesses that have the big advantage. Owner managers are already in the driving seat when it comes to observing and responding to human behaviour. They can interact with their customers, employees and workers far more easily than their corporate counterparts and tailor their services and communications to their different audiences both quickly and efficiently. Small businesses just need to recognise this important competitive advantage and then think creatively in how they can capitalise on the latest social trends, cultural differences, technological advances and societal pressures to ensure people are always at the very heart of what they do and deliver”.

Whilst we do not yet claim to be at the forefront of the application of anthropological best practice to the world of service management software, we did at least understand when we were embarking upon the initial design and scoping Vantage Online, that it was vitally important for us to understand the ways in which our customers wanted to use the software. Based upon their use of our legacy Service Accent system and their own business needs, what did they see as its strongest features? What, as a user of the system, did they find most useful? And of course, what would they want from a replacement? Never mind what we thought would help them as a business – what did they need and how did they actually work? Only once we had established that, could we really begin the scoping and development of the product that we expected them to use.

Anthropologists today are much more focused in their study of human behaviour than they used to be. Originally, in its infancy, Anthropologists would study a culture as a whole, now as the breadth of the potential application of the subject becomes increasingly apparent they are just as likely to be looking at a narrower aspect of life such as the potential impact of the ‘internet of things’ or the cultural and organisational impact of the march of the robots.

The ‘herd’ instinct also applies to the way people adapt to change. As demographics shift, people’s expectations collectively tend to move in unison with the world around them. We can’t ignore these changes, or we’ll be left behind. In fact, the only way to stay ahead of the curve is to be the change.


What can we do to apply this at Vantage?

The first thing we intend to do is use some research methodologies that I found whilst reading around this subject and embed several of our experienced staff inside our clients’ organisations for an extended period of time. We’re also looking at making it part of our induction process for all new staff to spend at least 2 weeks working at a clients’ office to witness for themselves how our customers actually use our software and then feed back to us, without the encumbrance of accumulated presumption, what they believe we deliver well and what our clients believe we can and should improve.

As my daughter embarks on her journey towards her degree, I’ll be trying to continue to learn from what she’s being taught and perhaps pick up some tips on how we can go about better aligning our products and services to the real needs of our clients. I hope to use her experience to motivate me to find new and more innovative ways to truly understand what our clients really need – and how we as a service provider can improve our products and services to better meet those needs. We all know that the world of Managed Print Services is changing; the question is how are we going to adapt to that change and are we going to embrace it and thrive or ignore it and carry on doing the same things we have always done?

Thank you!

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