customer experience

Leaders: Use Social Ethnography to Wander the Ecosystem, Meet People, and Learn

April 23, 2016
by Ken Gordon

How well do you know your ecosystem? I don’t mean: Have you read your team’s latest report on consumer trends? I mean: Do you have relationships with the people who populate your teams? Do you regularly speak with your customers? your suppliers? the people who sell your goods and services? those who write about your company in the media or who tweet about it to their followers? You likely live worlds away from the denizens of the ecosystem. Few leaders possess such personal, qualitative systemic knowledge. Because this kind of understanding is so rare—quantitative knowledge is a given in most businesses—those who acquire it have a distinct advantage and can profit greatly from it.

Ironically perhaps, statistics argue for the notion of the ecosystem-minded executive. In a recent Economist survey, 4,000 professionals were asked to choose a single area in which top execs could improve. In response, the execs themselves opted for technology and finance… and everyone else picked leadership and emotional intelligence. What does it mean when leaders think one thing and everyone else the opposite? Perhaps that it’s time to try something new.

What does it mean when leaders think one thing and everyone else the opposite? Perhaps that it’s time to try something new.

But how can a busy leader get to know an ecosystem? Years ago, Tom Peters talked about MBWA or Management By Wandering Around. By rambling around one’s professional environment in an unplanned manner, engaging in amiable conversation with co-workers, a manager gets a good sense of what’s happening around the office. Easy to transpose this into the key of leadership. By pairing MBWA with two other ideas—ethnography and social media—you can get an authentic read on what’s happening in your world.

I work at an innovation design consultancy. We’re known for, among other things, our ethnographic research. We meet customers in their natural environments, observe them, talk with them, get to know and understand them, and then employ this information to create new products and services that help our clients grow their businesses. Our ability to connect with real people enables our insights. I’m not an ethnographer per se, but on Twitter I do an enormous amount of rambling around, speaking with business leaders, professors, social medial folk, innovation junkies, doctors, teachers, consumers, patients, nurses, government officials, you name it. The openness of social channels means that I have a rich, real-time flow of information from the four corners of my ecosystem.

You could have a similar stream of insights and connections flowing into your executive office—without ever stepping away from your laptop.

You could have a similar stream of insights and connections flowing into your executive office—without ever stepping away from your laptop.

Business leaders, isolated by endless boardroom meetings, professional commitments, and a thousand other details of executive life, can dive into their ecosystems by engaging in what I’ll call social ethnography. Do so, and you just might see what my colleague Toby Bottorf calls a return on learning. On social media you can create an instant, easy rapport with the inhabitants of your ecosystem at virtually any time. Such easy, instant access is radically new; in another time, this kind of connecting would have required physically slipping out incognito into one’s stores. Note: This isn’t just one social media strategist talking. According to a recent report, 76% of executives said it was good idea for CEOs to socialize.

So where to wander? I can’t pinpoint that on a map for you. You’re the only cartographer for that job. The point is to use this opportunity to travel where your interests lead you.

  • If you spot a smart and relevant article, follow the author’s tweets on social—and when relevant, engage with him or her: ask questions, volunteer your own opinions. NB: Talking in real time with journalists isn’t for every leader, but it can be a huge boon for the bold.

  • When you see customers say something surprising on your company Facebook page, maybe jump in and add pointed questions. Many people will offer unvarnished and honest opinions of your company on social; be smart and collect this customer-feedback gold. Don’t take any comments personally. You’re there to learn, not fight.

  • When you find Twitter chats or Facebook Groups dedicated to topics that are relevant to your business, join. You need not become an active member to learn a ton—but becoming active just might well increase the depth of your knowledge.

  • When an academic publishes new research that’s relevant to your world, subscribe to her blog. Take note of this, and share it with your team. Social does amazing things to bridge the worlds of academia and business—no reason why you shouldn’t cross this bridge.

When you think of yourself as a citizen of the ecosystem, you have permission to travel anywhere. Imagine yourself as an ethnographer, and you’re allowed to ask all kinds of questions, in the service of finding answers. Now get wandering. Perhaps start by connecting with me on Twitter

Image by Karen/ CC/by-sa/2.0

filed in: customer experience, employee experience

About the Author