Ethnographic elements within management consultancy

This week, I’ve been dragging old boxes out of storage, rummaging through their contents, keeping or discarding. Among the piles of stuff is a reflective essay from my Masters degree, in which I wrote about my job, which was at that time, running a regional film locations office Film Illawarra. In that paper, I talk about that venture from a management and marketing perspective, but I peppered it with examples of day to day tasks within the office: conversations had, deals made, inquiries answered.  It’s a window into how my work life intersected with my studies.

16 (!) years later, I’ve found myself doing some similar reflection about my work’s intersection with my research. I’m currently reading about ethnography: what it is, its principles and its application. While doing so, I’m thinking about 10 years spent as a business adviser and a management consultant. It’s a very different activity to ethnography and yet there’s a Venn diagram-style cross over territory between the two, where the methods employed are similar, although the aims and outcomes are very different. In the spirit of that dusty old essay, I wanted to jot down some thoughts about that cross over, and what can be taken from my professional experience, into the methodology for my research into entrepreneurs in the creative industries.


Ethnographers Margaret LeCompte and Jean Schensul talk about ethnography as a way of investigating questions relevant to the culture of groups of people. It is about producing a picture of those groups from the perspectives of the group’s members. They talk about the way in which ethnography can help clarify problems with are difficult to define, can illuminate complex problems embedded in complex interrelated systems, and can clarify the range of settings where issues are occurring and explore the factors associated with the issues examined.

Le Compte and Schensul’s overview of ethnography points towards its utility on research problems which are difficult to define and contain and whose complexities spill over between the participants’ social interactions and cultural structures. It reminds me of the concept of “wicked problems”, as first identified by Rittel & Weber (1973) – complex, multifaceted problems, often based in public policy, where key issues to be solved unclear and where, post attempts for intervention, it is unclear whether or not the problems have been solved.

Management consultants are often faced with such wicked problems, but paradoxically, in a context where the parameters for problem solving are well set. Management consultancy is concerned with improving the productivity and profitability of an organisation; in a for-profit context, this is about improving the return to a company’s shareholders. The wicked complexities which arise are not matters of fuzzy mission definition.

Instead, they arise out of the trickiness of diagnosis; of identifying a root cause (or causes) of poor productivity or profitability. Such causes could be strategic, operational, financial or social in origin and could be interacting with each other in apparent or obscured ways. Multiple and diverse data has to be collected, anlaysed and, at times, inherent contradictions explored.

Then there is the added trickiness of prescribing remedies, often on the basis of a consultant’s prior experience of what he/she has seen to work in the past in similar companies or industries. Success is never certain. Through the implementation of remedial action, new problems can emerge, existing problems can be further illuminated and data upon which initial analysis was based can be challenged, superseded or discarded. Tactics must alter. In many cases, an iterative process of strategizing, implementation and restrategizing based on those results is required over the long term to solve the problem originally set.

So what sets out well defined and guided by a clear objective, quickly becomes complicated, and impacted by many factors which are difficult to predict, manage and trace relationships between. I think of it like a pinball machine, on which the ball ricochets off a variety of objects, each changing the direction of the ball, each changing priorities, each interacting with each other. But all still contained within the same game table.

A particular passage in LeCompte and Schensul’s book, Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research caught my eye. They say:

…another reason why ethnographic research is preferable to survey or other approaches to research… is that ethnography emphasizes discovery; it does not assume answers. Ethnography uses open-ended methods that allow investigators and others to gather information identifying the source of the problem, rather than simply assuming that it is known from the start. The fact that ethnography is almost by definition participatory also facilitates investigation… The ethnographer’s unique relationship with key individuals in the study… brings all of these individuals into the research process and calls upon them to offer important insights – which constitute data for the ethnographer – to help clarify the situation. (p33)

There is much here which is common to my professional practice as a management consultant. Although every engagement is different, each nearly always starts with a process of discovery, where an analysis of the needs of the organisation is undertaken. This process starts not with data, but with people – the owners and/or senior staff of an organisation. Open-ended questions are asked. No pre-determined outcomes are set. What is being said and what is being unsaid are equally important. Even at this early stage, a consultant is picking up on what drives the people they are interviewing, identifying what is important to them and collecting data on where the root causes of the problem/s being investigated might lie. The skills used are analytic but also personal; trust must be built and confidence gained.

Quantitative and qualitative data are collected, from multiple sources. The qualitative data can be collected through interviews or through facilitated workshops (as discussed in my last post), or other methods such as focus groups, case studies and so on (also noted as ethnographic methods by LeCompte and Schensul). General areas of interest are identified, and specific questions are asked to better examine key issues. This process is pre-planned, but there is also an intuitive element which comes into play when considering the answers of the interviewees, their personal drivers and the information being revealed. Decisions about additional questions are made on the go, chasing down useful lines of inquiry. It is investigative but also collaborative. Interview participants provide information and offer insights; often it is the consultant’s questions which allow the client to make cognitive jumps to solutions they had not considered before.

At some point in the process – sometimes at its conclusion but often progressively throughout the process – the consultant draws conclusions about the data he/she has collected. As noted above, these can be based on prior experience. Or they can be based on logical reasoning. Or they can be hunches or best guesses. Here we can see differences emerging between ethnographic techniques and the work I conduct as a consultant. A consultant or adviser will not only draw conclusions and prescribe remedies but also work to gain support from their clients to implement those solutions. There is an element of seeking to influence which is missing from pure ethnographic research, which seeks to examine rather than intervene.

It seems to me that as the consulting process reaches a conclusion, it moves back towards its original objectives which differentiate it from ethnography; it seeks to problem solve for a distinct purpose – the improvement of a company’s or organisation’s operations. It is not concerned with groups or communities, as LeCompte and Schensul say ethnography is, other than the group of people within a company or organisation. Management consultancy shares some techniques with ethnography, but ultimately its aims are more focused, and its context more firmly defined.

However, there is a flow on effect which brings management consultancy techniques back into ethnography’s orbit. If I think about my career specialising within the creative industries, it has allowed me to establish a knowledge base about people and companies within those industries. I can identify patterns of behaviour, common problems and growing or declining trends. Such patterns are not definitive but become useful in articulating industry norms. These norms can help contextualise problems and guide decision making. And of course, they then influence the management consultancy process, hopefully making it more relevant to and efficient for the client, but also introducing a set of assumptions and biases which a consultant needs to be aware of and compensate for.


What’s useful in this comparison for me, is a consideration of what my own skills and experience can bring to a data collection exercise, and to a wider method for my research. Last post, I proposed a method of data collection which is drawn from my own professional practice, but also from the accumulated knowledge base I refer to above; my own personal experience of collecting data from creative entrepreneurs and which facilitated interview techniques I know work well with that set of people. As I move closer to defining that method, it’s interesting to reflect (as I did 16 years ago) on how my professional practice shapes my research and note that whether through training, instinct or common sense, some ethnographic techniques are already present, to be further refined and re-deployed.


LeCompte, Margaret Diane. & Schensul, Jean J.  (1999).  Designing and conducting ethnographic research.  Walnut Creek, Calif :  AltaMira Press
Rittel, H.W.J. & Webber, M.M. Policy Sci (1973) 4: 155.

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