The Corporate Jungle
Anthropologists Find Business Studying
By ELEENA DE LISSER
Reprinted from wsj.com, The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition
– September 28, 1998
Anthropologist Karen Stephenson, who once spent
months at a time studying ancient Mayan culture in the rain forests
of Central America, now has a different focus – the temples
of the corporate power.
Today, the Harvard educated, University of
California-Los Angeles professor is using her skills and training
to cut through the underbrush of company inefficiency and bureaucracy
as a “corporate anthropologist.”
“I’m a bridge between theory and
practice,” says the ebullient 46-years-old Texan who teaches
management at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business. So, when
she’s not instructing future MBAs about organizational behavior,
she’s out developing fledging business, called NetForm.
The two-year-old company sells proprietary
software she created that allows executives to measure and map the
“knowledge networks” within their firms. The software
can be customized to identify internal management problems, design
corporate marriages, study diversity or measure employee performance.
Dr. Stephenson’s work is part of the
expanding link between academic “soft sciences” such
as anthropology and the world of consulting. According to Marietta
Baba, a professor and chair of the anthropology department at Detroit’s
Wayne State University, at least 40 % of the 2,000-plus anthropologists
with masters and doctorates degrees works in the private sector.
“If you’re an anthropologist, you’re
interested in life and patterns of living,” says Dr. Baba.
“Studying a corporation has an incredible vitality and immediacy
And businesses and other organizations, from
the federal government to nonprofit organizations, are turning to
them for insights into how to improve their operations. It appears
to be a good fit since an anthropologist’s training is rooted
in careful observation of humans and their behavior.
“That’s were anthropology is a
real advantage to and organization,” says Neil Toshima, an
anthropologist who heads LTG Associates Inc., a consulting firm
with offices in California and Maryland. “We’re trained
as professional outsiders and we have to get inside.”
For Dr. Stephenson, the path to becoming a
corporate anthropologist was a circuitous one. As an undergraduate
at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, she majored in art and chemistry
and even tried to pursue a career as a painter in New York City
after graduation. But she rejected art as a career because she felt
it wouldn’t allow her the interactions with others she enjoyed.
Her interests soon turned to anthropology,
the “study of humanity,” which she viewed as melding
her interests in art and science. While working on her master’s
degree in anthropology at the University of Utah, Dr. Stephenson
became fascinated by the way knowledge is gathered and then shared
through the invisible social networks that exists within companies.
Her research started to take shape while getting the doctorate at
For Dr. Stephenson, the business world is an
“exotic” living tribal culture. Take for example, a
typical office meeting. There are the tribal elders milling around
a huge polished wooden slab, shaking hands and pounding each other
on the back. The men are dressed in the same costumes with their
“loin cloths” held up by suspenders or a belt, and their
feet encased in black polished footwear.
Indeed, she noted that in both small and large
companies tribal leaders govern, enact and carry out internal tribal
law that may or may not be beneficial to the people within the tribe.
“The experiences of cooperation, solidarity,
rejection and mistrust are shared by all peoples, whether triumphantly
marching into the village after a headhunting expedition or sitting
in a board room surrounded by bronze busts of corporate patriarchs,”
Dr. Stephenson says. “A chief in Melanesia, a CEO of a major
corporation or a general manager all have in common the challenge
of leading and managing people.”
At the foundation of Dr. Stephenson’s
corporate anthropology is the organizational chart that typically
shows the corporate hierarchy, a ranking of who is in charge. But
what it doesn’t show is how things get done within a company
and who is actually doing the work.
“I knew this stuff was going on but I
couldn’t see the networks,” Dr. Stephenson says, recalling
the early days as a research chemist for the federal government.
“But I could feel it, feel it, feel it.”
Now that Dr. Stephenson has figured it out,
she’s not advocating some touchy-feely pseudoscience.
Instead, she has crafted algorithms that quantify
the value of a social network. Motivated by a belief that any company
culture is a “kind of a DNA” that can be measured and
studied, she has collected data on the social networks of more than
200 organizations, both profits and not-for-profit over the part
two decades. What she has discovered is that there are patterns
of interactions within a company regardless of its industry, nationality
The one constant that has emerged from her
research is that there are always people who fill the roles of what
she calls hubs, gatekeepers and pulsetakers.
The hubs are well-connected employees who know
a lot of people and hold a lot of face-to-face conversations. The
gatekeepers are the connectors between the hubs, who channel information
out to other employees. If this person likes you, he or she comes
across as an insightful co-worker who shares information; if the
gatekeeper dislikes you, he appears to be reticent.
Meanwhile, the pulsetakers have the most indirect
ties and are described by Dr. Stephenson as “unseen but all
seeing.” These workers wield a lot of clout but it tends to
be subtle and beneath the surface. Dr. Stephenson calls Niccolo
Machiavelli, the infamous, crafty Italian statesman, one of the
all-time greatest pulse takers.
Often there is overlap in companies, where
the same employee acts as both a hub and gatekeeper. And interestingly,
people who inhabit these roles generally do so beneath the radar
of upper management.
For example, one of Dr. Stephenson’s
clients learned that an employee several layers below the divisional
hierarchy was acting as an unofficial, informal “personnel
department.” Although it wasn’t part of her job, the
employee was giving co-workers career advice, informing them about
job openings and directing them to training programs. Dr. Stephenson’s
research uncovered this behind-the-scenes activity and the woman
At another company, a senior executive at a
telecommunications company was going to fire one of the vice presidents
because he felt the junior executive wasn’t following instructions.
But Dr. Stephenson noticed that the junior executive was a “hub”
in the company, who was well respected and trusted by his colleagues.
So she advised the senior executive to re-examine
his decision, telling him that “if you remove him it will
have a downward effect on your status, not his.”
The executive took her advice, and the two
men patched up their differences. The senior executive “not
only preserved the organizational structure but he kept the knowledge
capital in place,” Dr. Stephenson says.
While the two-year-old NetForm has yet to turn
profit, Dr. Stephenson and her Norwegian business partner, Svein
Hana, are planning to step up production of the software and expand
the availability of their consulting services. By the end of this
year, they hope to add 40 consultant, up from the current 10. NetForm
is expected to generate $500,000 in revenue this year.
When clients buy the software, they also get
Dr. Stephenson’s expertise. As the company’s chief consultant,
she trains the client’s in-house personnel on how to use the
software, helps the client craft the survey questions to elicit
applicable employee responses and then months later she reviews
the survey data with the client.
Mike Duff of TTC Inc., a telecommunications
and data networks company, hired Dr. Stephenson when he became the
vice president in charge of human resources and marketing services
at the Germantown, Md.-based company. “I didn’t understand
how the department got its job done and by charting it, I thought
would be great benefit,” he says.
Under the umbrella of marketing and services
were five different departments. While they were all charged with
various aspects of marketing the company products and services,
they didn’t talk to each other. Using the NetForm software,
TTC could see where the channels of communication flowed smoothly
and where they were getting dammed up.
Deciding to Decide
One weak spot that the research uncovered was
the inability of employees to make even simple decisions without
first getting higher-ups approval. The employees had been conditioned
to wait for guidance from the former division vice president. That
was a task Mr. Duff didn’t want.
“I wasn’t going to be able to make
decisions for these people,” he says, noting that he didn’t
want his job to just be about saying yea or nay on the simplest
things. “They needed to improve communication among themselves.”
As a result of Dr. Stephenson’s training
and the use of her software, the company has created “cross-functional
teams” made up of workers from the different business units.
Also, employees may now communicate with different departments without
having to go through a supervisor.
These days, Dr. Stephenson is delving into
Charles Schwab & Co., The discount brokerage based in San Francisco.
The company hopes that the NetForm software will pinpoint gaps in
communication between groups of employees, along racial, gender,
and work specific lines.
Julius James, the Schwab vice president working
on the project, says Dr. Stepheson’s anthropology background
helped her to beat out other “organizational consultants”
who were offering similar assistance to Schwab.
“She puts a foundation on things that
we simply observe and not know what it means,” he says. “She
can help you read cues and see the symptoms.”
- Ms. De Lisser is a reporter in
the Atlanta bureau of the Wall Street Journal.