Now Available for your Xmas giving, Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken!

chief culture officerI am pleased to let people know about a new book by fellow social science innovator, Grant McCracken.  Hi book “ Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities” was a major inspiration for me when I started my career in design anthropology and have have been reading his blog ever since.  (Grant, please..please go back to the old format!).  Below is the press release, and I will follow up after I give it a read.  I downloaded it to my Kindle and then realized I have left it at the office!

If you are interested in what anthropology has to offer business thinking and the practice of innovation, do your self a favor and pick up any of Grant’s books

In Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation (Basic Books; December 1, 2009) anthropologist and consultant Grant McCracken argues that products and ads succeed when corporations capitalize on culture.  Not corporate culture or “high culture,” but the world outside the company—the body of ideas, emotions and activities that make up the life of the consumer.  Major corporations like Apple, Nike, Virgin, and Volkswagen study and cater to their customers’ behaviors and values—they found a way to read their audience’s culture and then speak to it.  We can also see the costs of misreading culture: Coca-Cola missed out on the demand for a diverse selection of drinks to the tune of $1.4 billion; Best Buy purchased Musicland just as people began downloading music online; and Levi-Strauss missed out on the hip-hop trend.  In each case, executives failed to notice what was happening in world outside the corporation, and they paid dearly for it.

Not only do corporations live or die by their connection to culture, but too often, many are completely dependent on big-name “gurus”—Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Martha Stewart, Silvia Lagnado—for insight and guidance. Or worse, they outsource the task to marketing firms, consultants, branding experts, or the office intern.  McCracken has consulted with an array of major companies, including Campbell Soup, Coke, L’Oreal, IBM, and the Children’s Television Workshop, always with an eye on the value companies can derive from culture.  In CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER, McCracken argues that the American corporation needs a new officer in the C-Suite—a Chief Culture Officer, or CCO—who will harness the near-uncanny cultural insight exemplified by gurus like Jobs, and make it systematic and professional.  A company’s CCO would develop a deep understanding of culture—both its fast-moving trends and its deep, enduring waves—along with a strategy for applying this knowledge in a way that creates value.  With CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER, McCracken hopes to reach those inside the company who want to make their company more intelligent, strategic, and responsive, as well as those outside the company who want to turn their knowledge of culture into a career.

In an insightful overview of pop culture, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER takes readers through major cultural movements of the past century—the hippies, the yuppies, the new avant-garde, the networked community—and examines the successful qualities of popular television shows and movies, analyzes the preppy culture of the 1980s, shows how teens today identify with not one but several groups, and describes how “cool” overtook status.  McCracken’s witty romps through culture demonstrate how successful brands listened to and interacted with their consumers, while other executives led their companies in the wrong direction, following “hunches” and intuition alone.  And with an aim to put culture in the C-Suite, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER profiles a number of figures—from gurus like Jobs and Stewart to real-life “stealth CCOs” who are already acting the part—and reverse-engineers their skills and strategies.  Through these insightful character sketches, McCracken demonstrates that cultural knowledge involves not just keeping up with trends, but active participation, as well.  Only then can the CCO discover what their consumers truly value—and what makes them tick.

To those inside the corporation, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER provides a bonus appendix with ten real-life candidates for the new CCO position—from a 17-year-old named Justin who loves military history, to Eric, who, while getting his physics degree at Stanford, also ran the alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer FAQ and played volleyball.  And for the aspiring first generation of CCOs, the second bonus appendix provides a toolkit for understanding both slow culture and fast culture—from what to read, watch, and attend, to who to lunch, what to outsource, and how to transform others in the company into active, thoughtful observers of culture.  With authority, wit, and keen insight, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER provides the description—now it’s time for companies to post the job.

The Chrysler Peapod, The Reason Innovation Gets a Bad Name

I believe the time of the electric vehicle is drawing near. It makes a lot of sense: we already have the ubiquitous infrastructure for “fueling” – any electric socket -, can be recharged with renewable energy, and does not have the fear factor some people have about driving around with a tank of hydrogen in back of them. (BTW, hydrogen as fuel is as safe as standard gasoline using modern storage methods). The major issue is energy storage: batteries. They are heavy, take a long time to recharge, have a limited lifespan, comparatively expensive to make and very unfriendly towards the environment at the point of disposal. There is also a weight vs. energy issue, the reason why the vast majority of a rockets weight is in fuel to get it going. Gas has a pretty good ratio of stored energy to the weight, batteries don’t. But like personal computers, they will get there. It will not surprise me if my next vehicle purchase, maybe 5 years from now, is an electric vehicle.

So long as we don’t get distracted by such goofy ideas such as the Chrysler Peapod. Even though I have left the product design and development world behind me, there are somethings that just cry out to be mocked as an example of why the lives of reputable, hard working, customer and client focused innovation folks are harder than they need to be. With a Chief Innovation Officer pushing this kind of “innovation,” it’s no wonder the word leaves such a bad taste in peoples mouths.

PeapodThis is the Chrysler Peapod. Design-wise it is best described as the skull of a hydrocephalic squirrel-monkey grafted onto a Smart Car. It’s simply dreadful and not much to redeem it. This used to be the GEM, and then Chrysler inexplicably brought in Peter Arnell as its Chief Innovation Officer and spun off Peapod with Arnell in charge. Arnell’s history with Chrysler is considerably less than stellar, as he was the creator of a famously disastrous ad campaign for Chrysler that has only recently been eclipsed by his widely reported failures for Pepsi and causing a 20% drop in sales for Tropicana.

But hey, lets get to the important stats of this transportation innovation: How Far, How Fast, How Much?
It is has a top speed of 25 miles per hour!
It is street legal in nearly 40 states!
It can get “up to” 30 miles per charge!
Takes only 6 to 8 hours to charge!
Starts using my Ipod (a need we have all expressed right?
It is illegal to drive on ANY road in ANY state with a posted speed limit exceeding 30 miles per hour!
Looks like the skull of a hydrocephalic squirrel-monkey!
All for $12k! That’s right only $12k for a… umm…um…. Golf cart?
I hope it has a rack on the back for my Segway!

The car has been dubbed an “NEV” for “Neighborhood Electric Vehicle.” Apparently this designation gets around those pesky issues like… um, safety regulations. Renaming an incredibly expensive golf cart to an “NEV” is akin to renaming a Pet Rock to a “Sedentary Lithic Companion” to distract you from the fact it’s just a damn rock. Neither one is a solution to the actual need and desire of people. On top of that other manufactures are already leaping far ahead with vehicles that, while more expensive, provide a much more holistic solution and look a lot like… a car. I know, cars are so 2009. I know what you are saying, I am missing the opportunity to be driving around looking out the eye holes of a squirrel monkeys skull, but I have enough dating problems already. Granted, I have wasted many hours sitting in my car, scrolling through my iPod selections trying to get my car to start with no luck. Usually by the next day I am towed to an impound lot where a helpful officer shows me how to use the same keys I use to open the door to start the car. I remember thinking afterwards “That’s so clever… after my opening the door, my keys are in my hand anyway… I can just put them in that little keyhole thingy on the steering wheel.” My step-mother, being much more technically savvy actually has a little plastic thing in her pocket that she does not even have to take out! Why just walks up, opens the door and drives away! However, there was an Apple store nearby, and maybe that is why the car started… more testing may be needed.

Things like the Peapod that are strictly about one person ego (its PEA for Peter Arnell’s initials) have nothing to do with innovation. But worse, it gives more entrenched technologies something to point at and say why electric can’t work. For the discipline of innovation its ample evidence that innovation is just cotton candy and fairy stories without anything substantial behind it.

A Rejuvenating and Inspiring Experience.

I had the opportunity to attend a youth summer camp that the company I work for (http://www.uaii.org) holds every year in Big Pine, CA. The camp is for American Indian children (ages 5 to 17 years) residing in the Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and Fresno areas and it is a week long. This is the second time I’ve attended, as I did attend last year’s camp as well, and  just like last year I was so inspired about the overall

Summer Camp Participants!

Summer Camp Participants!

experience and specifically a couple different things.

First of all, I was amazed at how you (or at least I) feel so very rejuvenated and inspired after spending that much time with our youth. By “our youth” I mean American Indian youth (I am also American Indian, a member of the Chukchansi tribe of Coarsegold, CA). I’ve heard various people claim that American Indian culture is being lost and will eventually cease to exist because of assimilation, however, after having this camp experience and seeing the efforts made in my local American Indian community…. I’m not so sure I believe that.

The camp is great fun for the youth. Around 70 youth attended the first camp, and the second camp is going on as I write this and has about the same amount of youth. They participate in so many activities: horseback riding, archery, pow wow dancing, drumming, pinewood derby, and theater to name a few. Some elders of the Paiute tribe also came to sing some songs for the youth. But I believe another highlight for me was the farewell ceremony. A ceremony was held where adult staff and volunteers did a blessing, prayer, and sang a traveling song. The real highlight was two youth (around 8 year old male and female) sang a song in their own tribal language. These are youth that have been raised in the city, many experiencing difficult life situation… but it spoke volumes to me the pride and courage they showed singing in front of the crowd and the extent to which they knew a great deal about their tribal cultures. In addition to that, every person in the crowd shook hands with every other person at camp during the ceremony, and as I was shaking their hands I was amazed at how many young ones were able to tell me farwell in their tribal languages. It makes me sad to think American Indian tribal traditions are being forgotten over the years, but this inspired me to think otherwise.  It confirmed what I’ve been taught in school….cultures change. But in this case it may be changing but traditional practices are not totally being lost.

I was also amazed at how well the youth listened. They were so well behaved for the most part and I believe that is because their interest was consistently captured on positive activities.

I love how the young ones are sometimes so funny (in a good way) in what they say, and they don’t even realize.

I’m doing a video documenting the experience so I’ll have to see if I can post it up here.

j

An HTS Debate

An experience I’ve been meaning to share since the end of December concerns the Human Terrain System (HTS). Dr. Henry Delcore at California State University, Fresno, invited me to act as a judge for a class debate. The question of debate was, “Should the American Anthropological Association (the main professional organization for anthropologists in the US) discourage anthropologists from working in the Human Terrain System program?”

The debate was part of their final requirements for passing the course, and I thought it was a new and interesting method of engaging the students. It was evident that it was also effective in getting the students to really research not only the HTS system, but also techniques and etiquette of formal debate. One reason it was probably effective is that if you weren’t fully prepared with a firm knowledge of the information, it would have been pretty embarrassing when it came your turn to speak! The students had excitement, healthy competition, and seemed sincerely interested in the topic and task at hand.

I was very impressed because the student’s arguments were so good that I assumed that they got to pick sides ahead of time and that they chose the team that represented their own personal viewpoints. I found out after the debate was over that the students were asked their personal viewpoints ahead of time and purposely placed on the team to argue the alternative viewpoint! Kudos to the students for being so objective and convincing even when they were debating a viewpoint they did not personally support! In addition to this, I found myself constantly analyzing which team was in the lead, and I found that it swayed many times. In the end, the team arguing the negative came out ahead, but it was certainly a close call.

One of many major points of arguments came when the team arguing the negative viewpoint said that the HTS system is a new program and therefore has the opportunity to make positive changes in our military and in reducing harm. They argued that it was up to those anthropologists accepting positions on the HTS teams to develop the HTS program into a program that is positive, transparent, and which upholds high ethical standards. The affirmative argued that this was not possible because of environment and situation, and due to the fact that the anthropologists would be associated with the military, dress in military attire, and would have to carry weapons. This, they argued, prevented the anthropologists’ ability to be seen as a neutral party. The debate went back and forth, both sides making strong points.

I believe that activities like this are such a great way to capture the student’s attention and to get them really passionate about researching a topic. As a former and future student, I know that I am certainly more satisfied, excited even, when an instructor implemented new methods of graded activities rather than just sticking to the typical lecture, reading, examination routine. I was so impressed with the students’ excitement, I even found myself wishing to join the debate!

Personas

I had the opportunity to attend the 2008 EPIC conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last October. A hot topic there was the use of “Personas” in usability research, with the idea that it was an effective and quick way to communicate the results of the research to the client. Personas are fictional characters developed as a representative of the research subjects as a whole in order to identify the characteristics/patterns of the subjects and as a way to “get to know” the company’s “typical” customer on a more intimate level so that the company may make better operational decisions to fit the majority of their customer’s needs and wants.

This was a somewhat controversial item because, in my group at least, half of the anthropologists disagreed with the effectiveness of a personas. The argument was that personas are just characters, and although they are developed from real anthropological research, they are still fictional. Those who supported this viewpoint suggested that the actual research data should be reported to the companies in lieu of persona (confidentiality protected of course). After all, why should someone make up a fictional person when real living people had been studied and could serve as [more valid] representatives? They believed that the clients should view the data of the real consumers in order to get the most effective results.

I certainly understood the viewpoint of those anthropologists that supported presenting the actual data rather than a representative character, however, I personally support the viewpoint of the companies/researchers that use personas. I’ve heard, and although I have no first-hand experience with clients consulting with me for usability research, and from the explanations provided from the Copenhagen research companies I visited, I believe that personas are an important and effective mode of communication of the data from the researcher to the client. The reason I take this stance is that companies, and more importantly the executives with the ability to commission such research, usually have absolutely no time, or often desire, to read some long drawn report of findings or statistics. This is why they hire consultants to do the research so that they may gain the intimate understanding of their customers without having to expend their non-existent time researching it themselves. There are critical pieces of that data that they do need to take the time to review and I’m not saying they need not receive a full report of the research results, however, having a persona allows them to “get the point”, so to speak, of who exactly their typical target customer is and what their needs and frustrations are, in a very brief amount of time. And I believe the reality is that many of the executives will not read the full research reports because of time, disinterest, or other factors and therefore making the efforts of the whole project useless because without implementation it becomes only interesting [but operationally ineffective] information. As an Office Manager for a non-profit organization, I certainly understand, from experience, the lack of time available to do this research, even though it would significantly impact the quality of the operations or client services. Furthermore, personas are an easy tool to communicate research results to employees.

As a side note, the EPIC participants were able to visit multiple that do usability/business research projects. Copenhagen has many of them and they are highly respected. The ones I visited did projects for the Denmark hospital system, police force, and a variety of other organizations. There was also a wide variety of company types/projects that these companies were hired to do research for. That says to me there is great hope for the future of this type of research.