Tips for the R&D Anthropologist

January 1, 2010

TIP: Create a tech project manager role that is a matchmaker of direct relationships between development and the customer rather than a translator between the two.

The back story: I worked for a software company that developed and patented an enterprise document manage/workflow system using a client-server architecture in the mid-eighties. But bits/bytes are not the point of this post, managing change is.  Let’s just say this PC-based server architecture went where only mainframes had gone before, and for that moment in time was “disruptive technology,” – the business solution offered competitive advantage and cost savings but would fundamentally change (disrupt) how the work was done, and to some extent the work culture. Fast forward:  this is mainstream technology now. Usually the management of disruptive change happens after the fact. We all know how much fun that is. Alternatively, anticipating change could be a part of collaborative product development – that’s what we did, and it worked. Literally, on-site development (the R&D anthropology concept). Today developing project-duration social network/collaboration sites is another way.

Here’s a short video about how Pitney Bowes does customer-collaborative product development.

Leave your tips for R&D anthropology by adding a comment. Serious play is good for business.


We hear a lot about R&D anthropology: innovation centers, consultants who use anthropology research methods, focus group with one way mirrors, managers going to the customer environment and reporting back. I’m talking about the R&Ders themselves-as-anthropologists working side-by-side with customers in their ecosystem. Together, responding in real-time when a product fails and celebrating when the product makes work feel so much better than before. It’s easy to coach R&D professionals to go to customer environments and it’s a good way to get buy-in from an end-user culture when done right.

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