Anthropological Thinking, Big Data & Sensemaking

Matt Artz, the founder and principal researcher at Azimuth Labs will be presenting at the 2018 Northeastern Association of Business, Economics, and Technology (NABET) conference with Dr. Rex Dumdum

The two papers they will be presenting are titled Why Analytics Needs Ethnography and Building Sensemaking Capacity: Drawing Insights from Anthropological Thinking.

Why Analytics Needs Ethnography Abstract

Big Data analytics have increasingly gained prominence in business because it has provided beneficial insights regarding emerging trends, behaviors and preferences.  Relying exclusively on analytics to address the vast majority of business uncertainties, however, is detrimental to our ability to solve problems. Madsbjerg and Rasmussen, in a WSJ article, insightfully captures the essence: “By outsourcing our thinking to Big Data, our ability to make sense of the world by careful observation begins to wither, just as you miss the feel and texture of a new city by navigating it only with the help of a GPS.”

If we are to gain a better understanding of our customers and the business itself, we must not miss “the feel and texture.” We need to see problems and opportunities in terms of human experience and capture and interpret data with a human context. We need to examine and understand how people live their lives from their own perspective, rather than from traditional business’ perspective. This applies to markets and products, as much as it applies to corporate culture because humans are complex and difficult to qualify and quantify. By using ethnographic research methods, we can uncover and understand the needs and desires – the whys and the feel and texture – that drive the emotional lives of customers.

This paper argues that businesses need to combine analytics with ethnography for richer and even more valuable insights to move ahead in a global market. It also provides some suggestions on how to combine analytics with ethnography.

Building Sensemaking Capacity: Drawing Insights from Anthropological Thinking Abstract

Businesses, according to an IBM global study of 1500 CEOs, are facing a rapid escalation of complexity. Capitalizing on complexity and customer intimacy to create innovative ways of delivering value are business’ significant challenges. The study further revealed that “enterprises today are not equipped to cope effectively with this complexity in the global environment.” To help address this problem, we advocate drawing insights from anthropological thinking.

Increasingly, traditional business practices are proving not fully adequate to identify, interpret and robustly understand implications of emerging developments.  This is due to our tendency, whether we are trying to make sense of consumer markets, design products or lead a corporate culture, to often try to understand problems we face based on what we already know, instead of seeking that which we truly do not. 

The value-add of drawing insights from anthropological thinking is found in its ability to help uncover unknown unknowns that exist and explain the “why.” To more effectively address the most pressing business problems and make better strategic decisions, we need to build sensemaking capacity to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” while developing empathy to understand humans and giving them a voice.

This paper provides examples of successful corporate breakthroughs aided by insights drawn from anthropological thinking.  It highlights how theories and methods of anthropology, particularly ethnography and phenomenology, can be applied to help develop a rich understanding of complex business situations. The paper also provides some suggestions for incorporating anthropological thinking towards building our sensemaking capacity.


The Northeastern Association of Business, Economics and Technology (NABET), formerly known as The Association of Pennsylvania University Business and Economics Faculty (APUBEF), originated in the late 1970s providing an opportunity for interested economics and business professors to meet and discuss their research and controversial issues in business education and in the state government of Pennsylvania. The original APUBEF charter is dated in 1976. Subsequently, a formal academic conference with published proceedings became the fundamental platform to conduct APUBEF’s mission. In the mid-nineties, the APUBEF Journal was created. In 2006, the APUBEF organization was renamed the Northeastern Association of Business, Economics and Technology (NABET). The journal was renamed, the Journal of Business, Economics and Technology (JBET, formerly JNABET).

NABET 2018

The 41st Annual Meeting is November 1st and 2nd, 2018 at the Days Inn Penn State in State College, PA. The Northeastern Association of Business, Economics and Technology invites papers for presentation at its Annual Meeting. The meeting provides an opportunity to present new research and discuss a variety of current issues in business, economics and IT. This is your chance to get involved with a dynamic, regional academic organization. Faculty Submissions can be based on either complete or incomplete scholarly work, workshops or discussion panels. NABET is politically non-partisan. Please do not submit papers that focus on political, religious, gender, or other societal and cultural issues. Such papers will be deemed inappropriate for the NABET Conference.

About Matt Artz, MS, MBA

Applied Anthropologist, User Researcher & Product Manager 

Matt Artz is the founder and principal researcher at Azimuth Labs. Using ethnography, he helps organizations unlock hidden insights with users, employees, data, markets, and products.

Matt has led research, design, and agile product management efforts to ship and scale web and mobile products in the enterprise and consumer space. He has experience working in energy, biotechnology, healthcare, financial services, telecommunications, entertainment, fashion, broadcasting, and nonprofit. Current customers of products he has led include public Fortune 500 companies, as well as a venture-funded startup featured on Apple’s TV show Planet of the Apps.

To give back to the anthropology, user experience (UX), and product community, Matt writes and volunteers. He writes extensively on his own website about the application of design anthropology to UX and product management, as well as contributing similar articles to UserZoom and other industry publications. He is a volunteer and guest host for the podcast, This Anthro Life where he discusses the application of anthropology to business, technology, and design.

Matt’s research interests include the application of anthropological thinking to direct-to-consumer genomics (DTCG), big data, and sensemaking.

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