We all need to be ethnographers

March 28, 2008

me.jpgTrent Batson writes about research collaboration in the ephemera of Web 2.0

“Part of research now is not just the research, but keeping abreast of new collaboration technologies. We all need to be ethnographers.”

Absofreakinlutely!

An ethnographer gathers information about everyday life so they can understand how and why people do what they do. I am an ethnographer (this picture provides some proof of that or, explains the origin of the humungous line I have running between my eyebrows). I didn’t always think like an ethnographer as an educator/trainer in the field as much as I do now, as a researcher. I should have. Perhaps I just didn’t think about it as consciously as I should have.

What is the ethnographic study of learning in the workplace?

It is the examination of the ways in which work gets done. It leads to the identification of the kinds of new collaboration technologies people could benefit from. It results in you making recommendations for tools that can provide support. Some thoughts on how you incorporate ethnographic study into your practice…

  • Step back from the problem. Observe people in their job and then step back from things and see it as a foreigner would. How are people interacting with their environment?
  • Know people. Immerse yourself in your learners environment and take “fieldnotes.” I am always amazed at what I learn. What you think you know about the environment is often not accurate and is forever changing.
  • Talk to people. Conduct informal interviews with individuals and groups. Ask questions. Get out of your L&D cubicle.
  • Look for trends. Ethnographers analyze and identify patterns and trends even if they don’t like what they see. This type of thoughtful analysis saves a lot of time and heartache.

You can do this in the online environment too. How are people interacting? What work are they doing? It’s been called webnography, a portmanteau of web and ethnography. This type of research also goes down the road of Internet marketing and, at least among researchers, has its critics because it lacks some common practices of traditional ethnography. Jenny Ryan writes about webnography. I just started following her work.

Now I’m wondering if I could add ethnographer to my job title…more interesting conversations about ‘what you do?’

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/tomwerner Tom Werner

    Hi Janet, I think that something in particular from ethnography (and qualitative research in general) that would benefit the field of corporate training is the practice of the qualitative researcher acknowledging his or her own biases.

    Because qualitative research isn’t objective (i.e., another researcher wouldn’t make the exact same observations), the qualitative researcher is supposed to say upfront, “I acknowledge upfront that these are my biases, this is what I expect to find, and here’s how I’m going to try to offset my biases.”

    Imagine if everyone at a corporate-training conference said things like,

    “I acknowledge that I am a stand-up trainer, so I am predisposed to value face-to-face training,” or

    “My background is that content should be designed and delivered, so my bias is against collaborative learning in which the content emerges from the learners,” or

    “I was taught that information is not instruction, so my tendency is not to consider information-sharing tools to be instructional tools,” or

    “I am a vendor of e-learning software, so I have a stake in publicizing case studies of successful e-learning.”

    An ethnographic researcher saying something straightforward like, “I am feminist and I wanted to observe female leaders in action and my bias is that female leaders encounter gender-related resistance to leadership behaviors,” is very refreshing and something that you rarely see in our field.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/tomwerner Tom Werner

    Hi Janet, I think that something in particular from ethnography (and qualitative research in general) that would benefit the field of corporate training is the practice of the qualitative researcher acknowledging his or her own biases.

    Because qualitative research isn’t objective (i.e., another researcher wouldn’t make the exact same observations), the qualitative researcher is supposed to say upfront, “I acknowledge upfront that these are my biases, this is what I expect to find, and here’s how I’m going to try to offset my biases.”

    Imagine if everyone at a corporate-training conference said things like,

    “I acknowledge that I am a stand-up trainer, so I am predisposed to value face-to-face training,” or

    “My background is that content should be designed and delivered, so my bias is against collaborative learning in which the content emerges from the learners,” or

    “I was taught that information is not instruction, so my tendency is not to consider information-sharing tools to be instructional tools,” or

    “I am a vendor of e-learning software, so I have a stake in publicizing case studies of successful e-learning.”

    An ethnographic researcher saying something straightforward like, “I am feminist and I wanted to observe female leaders in action and my bias is that female leaders encounter gender-related resistance to leadership behaviors,” is very refreshing and something that you rarely see in our field.

  • http://mystro2b.edublogs.org/ Ken Pendergrass

    Janet-

    I really resonate with this post. I’m coming here by way of music education, where “best practice” is usually imitating a mentor teacher you had in high school or college, with no regard for the tools you mention in your post: step back…know people…talk to people…look for trends. I think all educators, and especially educators who create policy in a top down format, need to be ethnographers. In my building, I am the ET (educational technologist a.k.a the tech geek) and while I may have my pulse on the latest web 2.0 collaboration tools., without an ethnographic lens and approach to helping teachers, I’m useless.

  • http://mystro2b.edublogs.org/ Ken Pendergrass

    Janet-

    I really resonate with this post. I’m coming here by way of music education, where “best practice” is usually imitating a mentor teacher you had in high school or college, with no regard for the tools you mention in your post: step back…know people…talk to people…look for trends. I think all educators, and especially educators who create policy in a top down format, need to be ethnographers. In my building, I am the ET (educational technologist a.k.a the tech geek) and while I may have my pulse on the latest web 2.0 collaboration tools., without an ethnographic lens and approach to helping teachers, I’m useless.

  • http://joanvinallcox.wordpress.com/ Joan Vinall-Cox

    My Ph.D. thesis was an arts-based autoethnographic study of how I moved from being a technophobe to being a technophile, using the web in my teaching. I have now (tooting my own horn!) got it up online – http://www.scribd.com/doc/2063617/Following-the-Thread-A-New-Technology
    I learn by playing and having a learning community, and that’s what I (hope I)demonstrated.

  • http://joanvinallcox.wordpress.com/ Joan Vinall-Cox

    My Ph.D. thesis was an arts-based autoethnographic study of how I moved from being a technophobe to being a technophile, using the web in my teaching. I have now (tooting my own horn!) got it up online – http://www.scribd.com/doc/2063617/Following-the-Thread-A-New-Technology
    I learn by playing and having a learning community, and that’s what I (hope I)demonstrated.

  • http://karynromeis.blogspot.com/ Karyn Romeis

    Excellent post, Janet! And getting out of the L&D cubicle is a good call. I had cause to do that recently and it gave me a healthy dose of perspective!

  • http://karynromeis.blogspot.com Karyn Romeis

    Excellent post, Janet! And getting out of the L&D cubicle is a good call. I had cause to do that recently and it gave me a healthy dose of perspective!

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Thanks so much for sharing your Ph.D. thesis Joan. I love how wrote using your different ‘voices’ as a way to tell the story (your story) of being a teacher of writing in the age of computers. Your memories are so rich. I’m smiling now thinking about your walks to school and your love of school.

    One of the things I like about qualitative research is the ability to present it in different ways. I am in awe… What an fulfilling self-exploration process this must have been for you.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Thanks so much for sharing your Ph.D. thesis Joan. I love how wrote using your different ‘voices’ as a way to tell the story (your story) of being a teacher of writing in the age of computers. Your memories are so rich. I’m smiling now thinking about your walks to school and your love of school.

    One of the things I like about qualitative research is the ability to present it in different ways. I am in awe… What an fulfilling self-exploration process this must have been for you.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Yes, Tom, acknowledging biases is critical and I think we should see it more. In my experience, I think it would be unusual in the corporate environment to actually say what your biases are…in the corporate environment it’s your ‘agenda.’ It’s political.

    It’s all about the need for transparency isn’t it? This is second nature at the university…one can spend an entire week flushing out biases for a simple assignment. (I did and feel as if I could use some therapy)

    I think writing a blog is a good way to illustrate your “agenda,” your biases…at least for me it is.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Yes, Tom, acknowledging biases is critical and I think we should see it more. In my experience, I think it would be unusual in the corporate environment to actually say what your biases are…in the corporate environment it’s your ‘agenda.’ It’s political.

    It’s all about the need for transparency isn’t it? This is second nature at the university…one can spend an entire week flushing out biases for a simple assignment. (I did and feel as if I could use some therapy)

    I think writing a blog is a good way to illustrate your “agenda,” your biases…at least for me it is.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Hi Karyn-
    When I read this statement on your post…”I was a drop in the bucket – no more significant that all the other drops” I was reminded of a despair.com lithograph that says…”no one raindrop believes he is responsible for the flood.”

    In all seriousness, your post reminds me how important it is to work as a team and brought back warm memories of two particularly enjoyable large implementations I worked on.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Hi Karyn-
    When I read this statement on your post…”I was a drop in the bucket – no more significant that all the other drops” I was reminded of a despair.com lithograph that says…”no one raindrop believes he is responsible for the flood.”

    In all seriousness, your post reminds me how important it is to work as a team and brought back warm memories of two particularly enjoyable large implementations I worked on.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Absolutely Ken. I imagine some people would think they knew what was going on around them…but I’m not sure they really *see* it. Hats off to you. I hope your organization knows how important that skill is.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Absolutely Ken. I imagine some people would think they knew what was going on around them…but I’m not sure they really *see* it. Hats off to you. I hope your organization knows how important that skill is.

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  • Chris Lawson

    Hi Janet,

    I am a college student at DeVry University and I am doing an Ethnography Project in the workplace. I am choosing to do a doctors office and I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on what to takes notes on and some questions to ask for my interviews. I would really appreciate it.
    Thanks.

  • Chris Lawson

    Hi Janet,

    I am a college student at DeVry University and I am doing an Ethnography Project in the workplace. I am choosing to do a doctors office and I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on what to takes notes on and some questions to ask for my interviews. I would really appreciate it.
    Thanks.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Hi Chris – regarding questions, it’s best to start with your problem. What are you hoping to find out? What problem are you trying to solve? I have found field notes or tape recordings are good. Questions s/b open-ended and not leading. Best of luck on your project.

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Hi Chris – regarding questions, it’s best to start with your problem. What are you hoping to find out? What problem are you trying to solve? I have found field notes or tape recordings are good. Questions s/b open-ended and not leading. Best of luck on your project.

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