Coffee break anthropology with Jeanette Blomberg

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Jeanette Blomberg works at the IBM Almaden Research Center in California and is adjunct professor at Roskilde University in Denmark. She works with organizational analysis, where she studies linkages between human action, digital data production, data analytics, and business or societal outcomes. In her recent book, An anthropology of services, Jeanette Blomberg investigates how services are being conceptualized today and the possible benefits of taking an anthropological perspective on services and their design. She has previously worked at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), at Sapient Corporation and at the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden.

How did you get your first job as an anthropologist? What challenges and opportunities did you meet?

Right after I completed my PhD in Anthropology I taught in the anthropology department at the University of California, Davis, filling in for faculty who were on leave.  But my first job outside the academy was at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where I was on contract to conduct a study of the use of a new copier that was just coming on the market.  There was a puzzle in the organization because user evaluations of the copier were not aligned with the actual performance of the copier as measured by the number of service calls.  The ethnographic study I conducted showed that there were other “social” or organizational factors that were effecting users’ experience of the copier beyond the number of times a service technician was called.  The findings of this study clearly demonstrated that technology, in this case a copier, could not be defined in isolation from the sociomaterial “context” of its use.  At the completion of this study, I got the opportunity to continue working at Xerox PARC to help the industrial design and human factors group at Xerox develop approaches to understanding the in situ use of copiers (and other emerging technologies), applying insights from ethnography.  

When in your career have you developed most as an anthropologist?

I don’t think there was one period when I developed more as an anthropologist than at other times.  I have continued to learn how to apply and integrate my anthropological training and sensibilities into the many diverse settings in which I have worked and conducted research.  The projects I have worked on have differed by the project focus, who my collaborators were, and the organizational context.  After over 30 years working as an anthropologist I continue to learn and adapt to the particular situation at hand.  Right now I am involved in a project to design a “cognitive” tool to assist highly skilled technical architects define IT (information technology) solutions. This tool is being developed using an agile methodology which requires tracking and staying connected to the development of the tool and its use incrementally and iteratively over time. So the study focus and context is ever changing and the challenge is to find durable patterns in the midst of change.

How do you use anthropology in your work? Can you share a specific project?

Anthropology is the foundation of my work, both the methodologies and techniques I employ and the conceptual and epistemological sensibilities I apply.  The focus of my research is on work and organizational practices, often in the context the design and deployment of new technologies.  One recent project involved a study of the introduction of a workflow tool into the work of responding to clients’ requests for new IT services.  The workflow tool was being resisted by users and our ethnographic study of the work practitioners who were asked to use the tool both provided insights into some of the reasons the tool was not being adopted as expected and also provided design ideas for how to make the data generated by use of the workflow tool more useful to users of the tool. The implementation of our design ideas led to increased adoption of the workflow tool as the workers asked to use the tool now benefited from their use of the tool.

What value do you as an anthropologist bring to your workplace?

My research provides alternative ways of seeing relations between work, technology and organizational practices. The challenge has been finding ways to convey these alternative views so that they actually have an impact on the organization where I work.  Over the years I have come to appreciate small, incremental change. While we may strive for big, radical change, we must have faith that small changes add up over time.And you never know when something you said or did changed the course of events in ways beyond what you could have imagined. I have had people come up to me years later and say they began to see the world differently after working on a project with me where we brought anthropological sensibilities into play.

What has been the best piece of advice you have received in your career? Based on your own experience, what advice would you pass on to a starting anthropologist?

The best piece of advice I’ve received was to be willing to compromise, while at the same time knowing when to say “no”if something just doesn’t make sense or violates your ethical values.  And when saying “no”, do your best to provide alternative ways forward.  The naysayer role is a lonely one and overtime loses its ability to effect change.  It’s okay to be a critic, but you’re most effective if the critique is accompanied with ideas for addressing the issues/problems identified.

My advice to anthropologists starting out in the careers is to value your coworkers and cultivate allies.  Look for the goodness in others and realize that they may see the world differently than you, and that isn’t a bad thing.  You can learn from them and also help them see things in different ways.  At the end of the day, when you look back over your career, you’ll cherish those times when you worked with others and discovered you could never have done it alone. 

Header image: Cait Opperman, 2018

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