Reflecting on EPIC 2014

The view from the Hudson river during the conference dinner cruise.

Ten years ago about 160 people gathered on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington State. They were attending the first EPIC conference (learn more about past events). Fast forward  and switch to the other side of the US. In 2014, EPIC took place at Fordham Business School, a few blocks south of Central Park, NYC. As in previous years the conference brought together people engaged in work that revolves around ethnographic practice. I suspect everyone who attends EPIC subscribes to the following ‘belief’:

Ethnographic research yields rich forms of knowledge and understanding that can make a pivotal contribution to longer range strategic planning and near term tactical or operational activity.

Nowadays, that contribution is made in the corporate world, non-profit and public sectors. EPIC is always both an affirmation and celebration of this. Its also a forum for discussion as to how to extend the relevancy of such work. Many themes, concerns and debates recur each year at EPIC. Old anxieties and challenges surface each year. But at the same time attendees cover new ground by sharing experiences and developments from their own fields.

Here’s my partial take on EPIC 2014. I’d encourage people to take a look at for further blog posts and 9 years of conference content. It’s a rich resource. (Free registration required).

1. Intangible and tangible value It’s always been clear to me that the sort of research that EPIC people do has two sorts of value. First, it creates rich and compelling accounts that revolutionise how people understand the world and can provide concrete guidance on the ‘what next?” question that drive immediate tangible outputs.

But there’s a longer term impact of this work. While there’s often the moment of epiphany when the world is re-revealed through a powerful insight we are also engaged in a long term process of shaping how our clients or host organisations see the world. We are often pressed to focus on the short term: actionable insights and tangible ‘outputs’. But we should stand behind the idea that the impact of our work can take longer to become clear. Changing minds doesn’t happen overnight. We should be confident in asserting the intangible, long term value value of our work.

2. The temporality of ethnographic practice Several papers spoke to the relationship of time to our work. A paper (Hanover, Conifer Research) on rapid ethnography in Ghana examined the challenges of doing work quickly but getting penetrating insight. A paper (Cefkin, IBM) on changes in the workplace considered how we think about change (and practice) over the ‘longue durée’. These papers surface the intractable debate about how much time we need to do ethnography ‘properly’. But these they also pointed to the value of putting research into a longer term frame. One pecha kucha (Kopenski, Design Concepts) explored the way ‘doing’ is always measured in business but ‘being’ isn’t. Doing is all about activity, acting quickly and not slowing down to reflect. Being is about thinking more slowly, taking time to process.

“Like artists who embrace white space in their work, people who take time to ruminate, to pause, will make fewer brush strokes. And those they do make they do make are that much more articulate and powerful. Learn how to be brave and find those small moments of white space in your business life.” – Kopenski

Exhortations to ‘doing more with less and quicker’ or ‘Move quickly and break things’ ring in our ears. EPIC offered time, space and plenty of content to reflect on the tense relationship between thinking and doing, between creating immediate value and having the confidence to assert our work is also a longer term project of changing how people see the world.

3. Short and very sweet

The Pecha Kucha sessions at EPIC have really become a true delight. They have benefited from exceptional curation in the last few year (Suzanne Thomas, Intel, ably supported by Molly Steven, Google). There’s no doubt too that the discipline of crunching a story down into a little over 6 minutes distills the essence of the message.I love the variety of the topics presented. I like the fact that they tend not to be connected with ‘official’ work. They showcase ‘off duty anthropology’.

If ethics is about how you behave when no one is looking, than Pecha Kucha at EPIC is about what people do and think about when they are not being paid.

There’s been a clear trend towards presentations of personal projects that are not responses to a formal brief. Some of my favourites this year: Documenting and reflecting on a daily commute. Tracing informal Chinese markets across the year (Zach Hyman) and rubbish collection in a city neighbourhood, also in China (Molly Stevens). Working through the grief of a recently departed mother (Sara Jo Johnson, SCAD). Exploring how research brings new understanding to our participants – what the author calls ‘collateral revelation’, (Ratliff).

The result is that pecha kucha sessions have become a true showcase for the work of the EPIC community. They highlight the rich and meditative modes of thinking ethnographic practice engenders.

4. Speaking the language of business

There was a time when research was in a ghetto. No longer. The rising visibility of ethnographic work has given business leaders familiarity with what it involves and yields. More exposure ups the ante. Practitioners need to ensure they speak the real language of business. This was the central message of Madsbjerg’s keynote.

As our influence and exposure increases at the heart of business we will need to understand a wider range of issues. The need to enhance technical knowledge will increase. There is an opportunity to extend the scope of work we do and to create new value propositions.

But in adopting the concepts and language of business we need to remember that its register can be dry and dehumanising. The conceptual models of business are often mechanistic. We need to retain the distinctiveness of our accounts of the world. We should remember that our value lies in understanding the mental models of others. There are dangers in going native.

5. The value of the humanities.

Despite (or maybe because of) of big data and the apparent victory of the quantitative mindset, the value of the humanities in business is increasingly recognised. Madsbjerg and Rasmussen’s recent book The Moment of Clarity, and the press around it, has created more awareness of this issue. Yet in higher education – in the US and UK at least – the contribution of arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) has been talked down and funding cut. As this 2004 report by the British Academy made clear the AHSS are part of “that full complement of riches” required to develop strong businesses and societies. (I was involved in the writing of a similar report in Ireland, more prosaically called Playing to our Strengths). We need to strengthen the case for the unique contribution we can make to business and society. EPIC is uniquely placed to advance this agenda in a time of need.

6. Envisaging and materialising the future 

Others may think that ‘epic people’ are futurologists. I doubt few would wish to accept that title. But this is not to say that our work is not connected with the future. First, by looking at the long arc of past and present contexts and practices we’re well placed to see where the future might go. Second, by informing the design of product, service or other interventions we play a role in bring the future into being.

A paper on Anticipatory Ethnography (Lindley, Sharma & Potts) explored how we might study the future. They considered how ethnography might draw inspiration from the speculative design movement. Specifically, design fiction and diegetic prototypes.

Design fiction may not be a new idea to many. But the authors’ call to think more about how ethnographic work could collide with such design speculation is worth heeding.

7. We should not divorce design

Christian Madsbjerg’s keynote argued that EPIC should divorce design. I  disagree strongly with this (though I suspect he was being deliberately provocative). I think his point was that design or design thinking are inferior activities to the work of research and sophisticated analysis which should remain the preserve of paid up social scientists. But for our work to have any inpact it needs to made tangible. That’s not about the work of transforming it into physical artifacts. To take a broad definition of design, we are all designers in our own way:

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”  – Herbert Simon, The sciences of the artificial (pg 111: 1969)

Design is everywhere. It’s almost everything. Moreover, how our ideas are communicated, how they are given form, the potential for collaboration across multiple design-related disciplines all require close association with design as a way of thinking and doing.

Design extends not limits our orbit and sphere of influence. I for one would prefer to jump into, not out of, bed with design.

So, thank you…

Finally, having run EPIC twice I know how much work it is. Well done to Tim and Rogerio for making it happen. Thank you. It was a blast.

See you in São Paulo for EPIC 2015? In the meantime, wait for the proceedings to be made available on epicpeople.