Role of the Participant-Observer in Organizations

Frozen Teardrops

Conversation involves many different perspectives.

    Take for example the conversation on technology  older generations and women have been written OUT of technology, yet they're very much in there. Women are the early adopters. In a Q&A for Bryn Mawr alumni bulletin [h/t to Constance Semler], Intel's Genevieve Bell talks about what I called uploading humanism:

Women mastered the first round of what were in some ways intensely unreliable gadgets—refrigerators, washing machines, ovens. They became similar custodians of telephones and television. They led the way in driving mobile phones from road warriors into the general population. I am always interested about the way we tell the story that erases women’s technology prowess—in no small part because most of the technologies women mastered became invisible very quickly. They became appliances. We took away the sexiness of mastering them.

Does technology fail us? Asked from its perspective, do we fail technology?

    Today, the most important stuff happening with technology is happening outside the US. Bell says in 1999, 70 percent of the world’s Internet users were based in North America. By 2009, it was less that 16 percent. In India, getting a husband is a database problem.

    Bell is co-author of a recent book on with Prof. Paul Dourish of UC Irvine of Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (MIT Press, 2011), where the authors take to task the need to understand applications of computing not only technically but also culturally, socially, politically, and economically. The main idea is to understand people and culture first, then technology.

Role of the participant-observer

    From an anthropological point of view, the idea of ubiquitous computing translates into the chief participant-observer.

    A participant-observer is someone who can speak more than one language and uses it daily. She is able to participate in the culture and communications of an organization while observing its behaviors and those generated by the interactions.

    Participation observation is a qualitative method with roots in traditional ethnographic research, whose objective is to help researchers learn the perspectives held by study populations. This might be a useful role in the future of work inside organizations, and as embed externally in social media.

Mature brand strategy

    It's a valuable role when working with mature brands in search of growth, and in mature markets. The reinvention and innovation start with learning to see and tell a different story based on the new position in which the organization finds itself, and the context it seeks to create.

    With a mature brand that is looking to reinvent its way to growth, in addition to the smart decisions the business needs to make, the game is about purpose and movement, who is going where. Many younger brands leverage momentum from action successfully today.

    A conversation based on purpose and meaning moves from static to relative position, integrating feedback from observation and orientation (analysis/synthesis between previous experience and new information) into decision-making.

    Action is not a reaction to external input, but a smart elaboration of it based on principles and goals. In this sense, mature brands:

  • own the movement, a direction
  • reflect flexibility and speed in holding the course
  • bring customers/people on a journey, a specific path moving forward

    The game is about who is going where as interaction with the external environment unfolds. Organizations that use this dynamic system may also find that integrating media and social networks across the business learn to observe better by virtue of participating more.

    In mature industries purposeful movement creates velocity, rather than just speed. The main difference between the two concepts is direction. Direction provides clarity and a reason to believe, delivering:

  • focus on creating and energizing
  • relationship capital from collaborating with customers, partners, and the business ecosystem
  • attention to vision as a way to provide direction
  • a mechanism to identify better opportunities along the way

    Purpose is a powerful catalyst for doing one's own thing and are not being occupied completely with competing. To activate this idea of participation observation, there's no substitute for going direct. The feedback and data we receive through activation make the integration of technology in our environment at the point of use powerful.

    The role of the participant-observer is valuable for gaining an understanding of the physical, social, cultural, and economic contexts in which people live and work. It makes the relationships among and between people, contexts, ideas, norms, and events observable so we can learn from them. Shared purpose and deliberate actions create mutual success.