4 lessons for HR from Organizational Anthropology

In the last months I have been able to take some distance from my work, as my physiotherapists gave me a lot of homework for my left hand and shoulder. As my head is working properly, I have the idea I am able to observe the culture and the behaviours of people in my organisation more clear. Sometimes I feel like an organisational anthropologist, who has taken a deep dive into one organisation to learn more about the nature of organisations in general. As an amateur organisational anthropologist, I have to take some basics of the profession into account. I selected four:

1. You learn best by participating, and not just observing

Participating and observing requires specific skills. Very important for HR: get involved in the game, enter the arena, participate and observe at the same time.

2. Do not generalise entire populations

You need real observations. Do not assume that what you observe in group A will be similar in group B. Personally I think I am a specialist in ‘Corporate Life’. I have worked at four different headquarters of large corporations, and I (probably not right) assume it must be similar at other HQs as well. It becomes more difficult in multinational companies. Without real participative experience, it is difficult to make any statement about let say Brazil or India. For the organisational anthropologist a two or three day visit is by far not enough.

3. Regularly take a step back and reflect

The skilful organisational anthropologist, even when he or she is disguised as an HR professional, has to take a step back regularly, and reflect. In real-time: in meetings or workshops it helps a lot to bring back some observations to the group. A longer timeframe should be taken as well:  the first 100 days, Year one, “What did I learn in the last five years”.

4. The observations are just one data point

The modern organisational anthropologist looks for more data points. Do the actual results of a team or a unit confirm a hypothesis? (“This is a very effective team”). Is there the possibility to track how people spend their time? (In meetings, with clients).
Prejudices are dangerous. Only too often assumptions are based on a too limited set of observations.

HR can develop their role as organizational anthropologists. Organizations can benefit from people who explicitly bring an ‘outsider’ perspective, based on real inside experience.


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