EPIC Europe Network Meeting 2012 – Review

Posted on 2012/05/15 by


ELISAVA, School of Design and Engineering in Barcelona

In the beautifully sunny and bustling city of Barcelona, the first EPIC Europe Network Meeting last Friday, May 11th, brought together 100 of Europe’s finest ethnographic researchers working in the industry (hence the name “Ethnographic Praxis in Industry”).

The goal was to discuss and explore ways of advancing the state of ethnographic research practice in industry in Europe.

It all took place at ELISAVA, the School of Design and Engineering in Barcelona, right in the middle of the old quarter “Barri Gòtic”.

by Fabian Klenk

EPIC Europe welcoming its visitors

The global EPIC community sometimes seems to be too far away for Europe’s business ethnographers. Understanding this situation, the EPIC Europe Network held its first formal meeting. They wanted to improve collaboration and communication, discuss the current state of ethnography in Europe and start a European platform for ethnographers in industry.

100 participants travelled to Barcelona to this first EPIC Europe meeting and discussed the following three topics in separate sessions:

  1. Mapping (industrial) ethnographic practice in Europe
  2. Evolving the industry – academia collaboration
  3. The corporate perspective
Below is my review of each of the above sessions and topics.

Session 1 – Mapping ethnographic practice in Europe

This first session showed how diverse the landscape of ethnographic practice in Europe is. In most european countries ethnography as a tool is still undervalued and its key advantages as a method not yet fully understood by outsiders.

My main take-aways were:

  • The results of a survey, conducted by EPIC Europe’s organizers showed, that many ethnographers are concerned with how to best sell the method.
  • The diversity of fields ethnographers work in became apparent by all panelists’ presentations, as well as in the discussion part of this session.
  • The interest in ethnography in most western countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy) is slowly picking up speed.
  • In the UK however, which is trailing 5 years behind the US, the interest in ethnography seems to decline, maybe due to high costs involved. In some cases ethnography is the first part of a study proposal getting scrapped.
Other salient questions raised were:
  • How to define success criteria for research?
  • How to translate soft research into hard insights?
  • How to combine ethnography with other methods?
  • How to generate not only simple insights but crystalizing moments for business changing decisions?

What I really liked in this session was the distinction of 4 areas in which ethnographers are working in Spain at the moment. The 4 areas are “Design Research,” “Usability and User-Centered Design,” “Organizational Culture (HR)” and “Strategic Innovation”. This makes it very clear that ethnography can successfully be used in many different circumstances to gain important insight.

4 fields ethnographers work in Europe, presented by Sara Forell of Piece of Pie

Personally I was amazed by how many Germans – especially from Berlin – attended the meeting and also how few Scandinavians were there. This view was further supported by the many site visits to EPIC Europe Network website from inside Germany. This made me feel that the meeting’s participants did not fully represent Europe’s ethnographic landscape, lacking Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans.

Map of ethnographers in Europe (and look at all those attendants from Berlin!)

Session 2 – Evolving the industry – academia collaboration

The second session was concerned with the lack of collaboration between these two spheres. There are still some obstacles that need to be overcome, e.g.:

  • The type of collaboration expected, e.g.:
    • students getting trained in industry projects,
    • industry getting theoretical input from academia or
    • academic researchers working in the industry
  • financing,
  • intellectual property rights,
  • the difference between pragmatism and theoretical founding,
  • lengths and content of published articles and
  • lastly time constraints.

After considerable discussion, the consensus was to further pursue the collaboration between both spheres and engage in building long-term partnerships. This problem in particular was tackled well by the type of meeting EPIC Europe was, as it stimulated a lot of conversations.

The most interesting insight for me was that the boundary between industry and academia starts to blur. Simon Roberts from ReD noted that more and more design schools work like industry and more and more industry research divisions begin to act like academic institutions.

Some good examples of collaboration were also mentioned:

  • the Design Ethnography course at University of Dundee from where quite a few students came from to support the organizers,
  • SPIRE in Sønderborg was also positively mentioned in bridging the gap
  • as were University College London‘s Digital Ethnography Master and
  • TU Delft‘s Design Research programme.

Session 3 – The corporate perspective

The last session showed the way ethnography is bound to take: It moves higher in the company internal food chain, being able to influence more strategic decisions. This also comes with methodological freedom and openness concerning the types of deliverables. The huge challenge however is, to fully communicate the rich picture of the research. Tom Robinson from Swisscom therefore requested deliverables to be:

  • more interactive
  • immersive and
  • iterative.

And I can only support him in his requests.

The topic of really understanding your client was another great insight in this session. More often than not agencies do not fully understand timelines, tasks and internal politics of the client and to uncover these important topics, ethnography can and should also be used. One discussant called this the “full” ethnographer.

Other heavily discussed themes were:

  • How to accumulate insights for longer term, e.g. as a “Portfolio of insights”?
  • How to get “targeted insight” and not to go astray from the original research questions?
  • How to keep up the project legacy inside of big companies after projects have been finished?
  • Big data will be a huge challenge for ethnographers, as a lot of behavior can now be found in there; this includes analytics.
  • The absence of a clear job description or quality criteria for good ethnographic research.

Interestingly enough, 3 out of the 5 panel participants were from telecommunication companies (Deutsche Telekom, swisscom and Telenor). The social and public health sector, which was quite prevalent on earlier conferences, was hardly visible at all.

And a last great recommendation to follow: “Start by defining the questions; the method and answers will follow”.

On a side note: the drippy T

Drippy T model (via instagram)

A very interesting topic that came up in my discussion with another researcher (@markusedgar) was the drippy T model from Geke van Dijk and Marianne Guldbrandsen from STBY. It basically says, that a more realistic representation of the classical T-shaped profile of professionals has drips. They express that besides the main competence (the stem of the T) everyone has a multitude of other competences as well. But not every competence has the same kind of depth. I quite like this idea as it also perfectly fits the task of ethnographers digging deeper into these drips themselves.

I wonder if they came up with this idea after ethnographic observation and reflection in a project.

Summary and outlook for ethnographic praxis in European industry

Wrapping up EPIC Europe 2012

To summarize the meeting, it was well worth to visit to Barcelona, not only to meet and connect with interesting and likeminded people, but also to start an important process for European ethnographers in industry. On this goal it greatly succeeded. And there are further great news for European ethnographers: next years “global” EPIC will be held in London in autumn.

However, what I personally would like to see more at EPIC Europe Meeting 2013 (which will most likely happen) is, to bring practical tricks of the trade more to the forefront of discussion, to learn from others and share best practices and maybe even to discuss unfinished work. Hopefully the meeting will grow only a little in size, but will still be small enough to have the familial feel that was so great in Barcelona.

Additionally I am looking forward to the online platform launching in the next few weeks. It will enable researchers working with ethnographic methods in business or industry contexts to connect and collaborate better. It might even stimulate small local best practice sharing events, similar to the Design Thinking Network or Service Design Network, maybe even in Berlin?

UPDATE: There was a followup #euroEPIC Meetup in Berlin on June 8th. You can read a review by Heinrich Schwarz. Documentation is also coming soon!

So, thanks again to the organizers and the other great people I meet. I hope to see you all soon online or next year in spring!

Further reading

Here are some resources that cover the meeting itself:

The following resources cover the topic of business anthropology, design anthropology or ethnography in industry that popped up during discussions.


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