March 5, 2021

Becoming a Business Anthropologist and Mastering the Tools of the Trade w/ Oscar Barrera

Becoming a Business Anthropologist and Mastering the Tools of the Trade w/ Oscar Barrera

Oscar Barrera is a Business Anthropologist based out of Veracruz, Mexico who brings a global mindset to helping businesses turn hurdles into opportunities for positive change. He is an expert in innovation, change management, and strategy. In this episode in partnership with Experience By Design podcast cohosts Adam Gamwell and Gary David dig into Oscar's story to learn the steps he took in moving from academia to business. We also dig into

  • follow along case stories of how Oscar used the social sciences to help businesses see and solve organizational problems, find new marketing opportunities, and help people craft new narratives that empower them to be the heroes of their own stories
  • why we believe it is not only ethical to bring the social sciences into business, but why it is fundamentally necessary to do so
  • how to get started learning the world of business

This episode is jam packed with great stories and advice!

Connect with Oscar on LinkedIn

Oscar's website (Spanish): Antropología Corporativa

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A Guide to Anthropological Entrepreneurship with Oscar Barerra

Adam Gamwell: [00:00:01]  Hey everyone and welcome to This Anthro Life, today we're bringing you another crossover episode with my sister podcast, Experience By Design, co hosted  by my friend, sociologist professor and business consultant Gary David. Today we ‘re sitting down with business anthropologist Oscar Barrera. Oscar is based out of Veracruz, Mexico and what I love is that his work aims to bring humanity into corporations with basic problem solving. I think this is one  of the fundamental takeaways of this episode. We can think about anthropology as a toolkit that brings human centered problem solving to corporations. Now what's interesting about Oscar and his profession is that he is able to kindle a greater compassion within corporations through the application of basic anthropological theory. Whether that’s generating intercultural communication in the workplace, developing a more personal and individualized marketing scheme, or just simply cultivating a more benevolent, altruistic, and more human relationship with consumers. Now while some might believe there is no space for collaboration between anthropology and business or that there is some sort of unscrupulous or dishonorable notion to it, I just want to point out that it is my stance and the stance of this podcast that that is just not true. Oscar helps us see how business as a form of exchange is fundamentally about human relationships. Now Of Course when we look at many corporations its ebay to see how both employees and consumers can be exploited and preyed upon by people choosing to make bad, selfish, or inhuman decisions. But the stories Oscar shares in this episode help reveal the crucial ways that participation as an anthropologist within the business world becomes an ethical decision to act, to try and better the lives of those in the system, and if we’re being frank that means everyone. So in this episode we’re going to dig into Oscar’s journey from academia to the business world and how we can translate anthropological tools to real world application. And if you’re interested in doing more work in business or how to get into it, this episode has really great examples where Oscar walks us through how he did his anthropological work within business. We hope you enjoy.   

Thanks for joining us today. We're really excited to talk with you and get your perspective as a business anthropologist and as an organizational consultant and so much of the other work, you're an author right. Or you put together courses, you put together training. So there's a lot of really, really great directions to start with. So I think one of the, one of the cool things to kind of start off is a bit about your own superhero origin story. And tell us a little bit about how you decided to like go study social sciences and anthropology and what that path was like for you.

Oscar Barerra: [00:00:37] To keep a long story short, I got a bachelors degree in tourism studies in Mexico City, I grew up in Mexico city. Then by coincidences I end up in San Cristobal, delas casas enrejadas de la chiapas. I met several anthropologists there and there was one in particular ,he’s Mexican and he’s so funny, so funny, but extremely clever, and I said, I want to be just like him. And I said, this guy, he's just brilliant. How is he able to, to analyze society, cultural things like that. And I say, I want to be just like him. And then I made a decision to become an anthropologist.  I was invited to study, my graduate studies at University of Washington, invited by Peter Van Den Berg. He invited me to join the PhD program. And that's how I ended up in Seattle, Washington studying anthropology. But basically I was fascinated by the way that anthropologists see and understand the world.

Gary David: [00:02:17] I think it's a pretty common thing. Actually, when people say to me, what's the difference between anthropology and sociology? I usually say anthropologists are cooler and funnier. I'm actually serious. If you're hanging out with a bunch of sociologists, you would agree too. So, I am not surprised by your story, that the anthropologists was both funny and cool and persuasive three things that sociologists often lack.

Adam Gamwell: [00:02:42] It's funny too, cause it's always this, this like maybe internal social science debate right up. Yeah. Which who's cooler, I guess. But then it's funny because as anthropologist, I'm curious, I wonder if you found those too, but a lot of dialogue actually from anthropologists, uh, like when I was in graduate school, they, they kind of would always be like, well nobody ever calls anthropologists. They always call sociologists or economists when they need a problem solved. They being the public or the government.  Did you find that people talk about that too, when you were, when you were studying? I don’t know if  it's true.

Oscar Barerra: [00:03:13] No, actually I didn't hear that when I was in graduate school.

Adam Gamwell: [00:03:18] Good then. Okay. Maybe it was just, maybe it's just the weird East coast thing who knows?

Gary David: [00:03:21] Yeah, it's just Brandeis.

Adam Gamwell: [00:03:23] Yeah, that's funny though but it makes sense too. I mean, like I was actually, I was talking to a colleague Helen Fisher, also an anthropologist. She did biological anthropology the other week, but she's really been, big and doing work on like love and sex and relationships. And it's been studying that for years. And she says, it's funny. Whenever I meet an anthropologist, I've never met one that I didn't think was interesting. I might not like them, but at least they're interesting.

Gary David: [00:03:51] I've met plenty of sociologists, who I didn't think were interesting. So there again of anthropologists being cooler and more interesting.

Adam Gamwell: [00:03:59] I'm curious,  was your graduate studies? Did it focus on, on business itself or did that, was that kind of a piece that you decided to build into your work? And then when did that start to happen? When did that the idea of thinking about business and organizational culture come in.

Oscar Barerra: [00:04:15] My interest in business started after I finished my PhD. I lived in Africa and Europe. It was year and a half overseas, just living and working in different places. Then I decided to, to base my home  in Berlin, in Germany. So after striving to find a job as an anthropologist for NGOs and for civil society, international organizations and civil society, I couldn't find a job. The budgets were very tight. They were interested in my qualifications, but they had no money. So I said, I'm not interested in waiting tables. I'm not interested in doing, I don't know this kind of manual work. I want to really pursue my career as an anthropologist. So, uh, I decided to return to Mexico and I started my business as an anthropologist and a friend of mine in Berlin. She said, well, Oscar, if you cannot find the job of your dreams, why don't you create it? And I say, yeah, that's very smart. Okay. I'm going to do, and I want to go back to Mexico and do it. And it took me a while to first, to have the courage and second, to figure it out how these business worlds function, which is very, very different from academia.

Adam Gamwell: [00:06:00] Yeah. So, tell us a bit about what were some of those differences that you ran into? 

Oscar Barerra: [00:06:12] Let me tell you this very straightforward, what helped you to get here, won't be able to help you to get there. So I was a good graduate student. I was smart. I did a very decent dissertation. I wrote a novel. I did an experimental ethnography and I said, I kept with writing, I'm creative. I am very, uh, restless in my mind. So certainly I can, I can start out a business construct company consulting for companies. Well, I was working for a school here in Veracruz.. And then, uh, I decided to go on my own and start my own consulting business. And I had savings for three months and I say, well, in three months, Sarah told me I can find a client. Yeah. So after three months I have no money, no income, five months, six months. And I said, wow, nobody told me this. Nobody told me this. And it was very stressful. Uh, working with businesses, it's a different kind of mindset. You need to understand the market. You need to understand selling. You need to understand marketing. You need to understand a bunch of things that you never learned in graduate school. So I had to learn, I had to be very self diligent and I start to get a master's or a PhD in business, teaching myself,

Gary David: [00:07:58] That's awesome.

Oscar Barerra: [00:07:59] I swallow books and businesses. I listened to all the podcasts. I contact a bunch of, uh, business owners. I joined a BNI business network network international. I learned how to do networking. I learned the kinds of things that you shouldn't do in business, the kinds of things you should do in business, by just as an anthropologist, by just watching and observing other business owners. And I say, well, this is something that I must copy or that's something I should never do. So just by observing, by trial and error, I did several mistakes, several mistakes.

Adam Gamwell: [00:08:48] Like what?

Oscar Barerra: [00:08:50] Like thinking that your product is great, like any recent entrepreneur, right? You think that your product is great. Right? My first sales pitch was with a company and I was overpriced. I thought it was way too good. And they say, well, Oscar we cannot afford you. Do you have any way to, how can we pay you? Well, you can pay me in installments. Well, at the end, I didn't know how to negotiate. I didn't know how to, you know, have to do all the basics. Right? I mean, you are going to be in the business world, you need to know the basics, how to negotiate. How to read people's, uh, uh, body language of the person that you are trying to convince. I mean, you're all of these kinds of things that I had to learn along the way.

Gary David: [00:09:49] I find it pretty impressive that you overpriced yourself because usually social scientists go the opposite way. It will work for almost nothing. So I think it's, I think it's a good sign that you were too expensive because in business, in the mind of business people. You must not be worth anything if you're too cheap, but if you're really expensive, you must know a lot of stuff. So good for you for going big.

Oscar Barerra: [00:10:14] I went very big and then I started to go down, down, down.

Adam Gamwell: [00:10:21] Yeah.

Gary David: [00:10:21] But then you look generous and now it's, uh, you know, you look like you're doing them a favor and not just starting really low and trying to scratch and claw your way up,negotiation, pricing. Those are all things that they never teach us in graduate school. And I'm with you. You know, people ask me when I talk to sociologists about this stuff, they're like how do I learn this?

I say, act like an anthropologist or an ethnographer. Go do field work among the business types and learn the ways of that tribe and that group, you know, and apply those same skills you would use for doing a field study to understanding the nature of that, that area of work that you want to work in.

Oscar Barerra: [00:10:59] Yeah, joining the business network International organization really was the school for me. I learned so much about behaviors. I learned a lot about good practices. I learned about, as I said, the kinds of things that you shouldn't do as an entrepreneur. I use them to create my own branding, my own personal brand by just observing what others were doing. I want to do the opposite.

Adam Gamwell: [00:11:37] It's funny. I mean, even if it sounds like too, in the way that you're thinking about this, that your skills as an anthropologist or an ethnographer that kind of gave you some of, at least the way to think about how do I learn what I need to learn? Right.

Oscar Barerra: [00:11:54] Yeah. As an anthropologist,  I knew that there were so many things they didn't even know about, electronic marketing, e-marketing. But I, as an anthropologist, I knew how to figure it out. Right.

Adam Gamwell: [00:12:13] It's funny they say at the end of the day, like businesses is people, right. It's relationships and that's something that like ethnographers, sociologists, anthropologists are trained, you know, at the base level and thinking about, I guess, one other question too, that I'm thinking about what this is how do you define what becomes business anthropology? This is, is anthropology applied to a business context or helping solve business problems? Like how do you, how do you think about what makes business anthropology different from anthropology by itself?

Oscar Barerra: [00:12:47] Well there's a big difference. The methodologies are different. Here in business, you are paid by results. You cannot tell the professor, oh, I need another week or, or the informants don't have time for me to respond. Well in business, you figure out a way. You get paid by results and therefore you need to show the results.

And sometimes I have to create a proposal in two hours and I do the best, it’s not a perfect and the greatest proposal as I thought I produced when I was in my graduate school. But it worked, the project was accepted and I think the big difference is the mindset you need for business.

You need a business mindset for, if you are doing social research. Well, you just focus on doing social research, but for business, you need to understand the language of business and the dynamics of business.

Adam Gamwell: [00:14:21] That makes good sense. Gary I'm curious. So Gary teaches classes in, in experience design in employee experience in the business school at Bentley University. And so I'm curious, thinking about that too. Like obviously you're teaching students and like they have a different incentive in terms of getting grades and, and classwork and stuff like that.

However, does that resonate with you, Gary? The idea of how do you kind of train the mindset for business thinking while also kind of training people in the social sciences?

Gary David: [00:14:49] Yeah, the mindset is different with the students I typically get because, and I don't mean to be stereotypical, but I'm going to be stereotypical that the business students tend to be more focused on vocational skills, a transactional kind of relationship. I need to know X in order to get paid Y, and really lack the larger, broader thinking ability. The innovation piece is I would say, comes from our ability as social scientists to integrate disparate and divergent pieces of information in new and creative ways. And often the business students don't even know that's a thing, right?

They're fixated on problem, solution, answer,result. Versus how can I look at this differently? How can I shift the perspectives? What kind of theoretical lenses could I apply to this, to come at it from a different way? How do I think about even the subjective nature of reality and what that means for expanding our understanding of a topic. I've found sociologists, arts and sciences students, they get that, that excites them, the business students, not so much. And so you got to kind of excite the business students with that, but then with the arts and sciences students, you've got to embed them in a practicality of, at some point, you've got to turn it into something as Oscar was saying that shows results and it can be delivered.

Adam Gamwell: [00:16:23] Yeah, that makes sense too. And I think that that's an important piece that I think it's one of the great challenges of education today, but also even for entrepreneurs to do social impact work or have in social sciences infused into entrepreneurship, also requires that broader lens.

And so I think it's interesting too, because it's like, I feel that we're seeing more and more social scientists, grad students wanting to go into business or into industry which is great. I mean, it's partially where a lot of work is, you know, academia is a tough place to get into.

And it's a different mindset obviously but back to your point. I was going to before that, like, it's, it's even just having to realize what business acumen you didn't have coming out of graduate school. And that's my same experience too. It's not like I've had to learn as an entrepreneur, what it means to market myself and my business.

And Gary has actually been really helpful, as I was getting started to think about how do you put together a proposal that you were talking about too. Like the idea of what does it mean to put together a proposal in a few hours, that is two pages, maybe three pages long that details the statement of work and what it's going to cost and the timeline, and like being about to estimate those things at first feels impossible, you know, but then as you get you do it more, you kind of understand how long it takes to do different kinds of projects.

But there is a lot of space for that too. I think podcasts like Entrepreneur on Fire and in businesses and in books and stuff that are all about helping people figure out what are the methods and stuff we need. So, I guess we're doing this right now, but I'm like, I feel like we need to make an explicit podcast that's about social science and business. Oh, wait, we are, Gary David: [00:18:01] Yeah.

Adam Gamwell: [00:18:03] That's the right move, I think. So I'm curious Oscar, at what point did you feel like you were, making it obviously that maybe when you got paid, which would it be helpful? Right. But when you feel like you have started to finally crack the code and you've been able to talk to businesses and have them set up work together. What was that like? When you finally cracked into business.

Oscar Barerra: [00:18:26] Well, I think I would say that when you feel like you have cracked into business, it's a personal experience. The numbers might be a reflection of it. I mean your bank account,

Adam Gamwell: [00:18:46] Yeah. That helps.

Oscar Barerra: [00:18:48] but also I might say that there are, there were moments in which I have said to myself, Oscar, this is so great. The numbers in my bank account are great. Good projects. And then all of the sudden, you know, something like a COVID 19, everything is starting to change and you say, huh. So that's an illusion, right?

As an anthropology, you say, well, everything is relative, right? Everything is relative. So, I think for me, it's when I felt like I am doing like a major contribution for a company. This is, I feel like I am in my element. I am like a fish in the water. Like, it feels so good because I'm making a difference. When I am working with an entrepreneur that he's pursuing to build an empire and he's very selfish, self centered. And I jump into the company and try to make the company more human, where people could, could value each other for who they are, not for what they do and what they produce.

So when I add these human element in a company and people start to see themselves differently and the outcomes in the company are different. I feel like, okay, this is it. This is good. Or when I see a challenge or they are facing a challenge in their sales and I jump with some crazy Oscar ideas and things start to move. It’s like okay, this is good. For me, those are my special moments.

Gary David: [00:21:37] There's a really important thing. I think Oscar just said that I don't want to, I don't want to miss and it's I've come across sociology students and professors who think it's unethical and immoral to work with businesses because we come from a mindset of disenfranchised peoples who are taken advantage of by large corporations.

What Oscar said is so important because I would say it's unethical to not engage with these businesses to try to make them more human. To hold back what we know and hopefully infuse that humanistic element, that humanistic impulse, which is why we got into these professions in the first place to hold that back and not try to engage I actually think is immoral, unethical, or at least not living to the promise of the disciplines themselves. So I just wanted to really underline or highlight that point that you made Oscar of, we're not just doing this for the money. We're doing it to try to make a positive difference for those who are affected by the companies, either as internal employees, external customers, or stakeholders that live in the communities where these companies reside.

Oscar Barerra: [00:22:49] I thoroughly agree with you and I, I firmly believe that you don't change something by fighting against it. You've changed something by creating something new to replace it. So that's what I'm trying to do with my business model.  I work better with companies that are thrilled to change, that are wanting to do things differently and in a very creative way, even though they don't know how, where to start or what to do, I love to help those companies who are willing to do something different.

So,  let me start a case, of a company that sells medical equipment. This company was doing very good in terms of the numbers they were growing. Listen to this, they were growing at a rate of 20% every year in the last three years, they were growing a lot. So they didn't have any problems with the numbers.

But when you look at the people, they have serious problems with people. They laid off a lot of people all the time permanently in their sales department. And they hired new people. And inside there was a lot of animosity. There was a lot of tension because the company arrived at the results by pressuring people, by coercing people, by putting ultimatives.

So,the people were making money, but the ambiance, the atmosphere in the company was very tense. Even the first day that I started working as a consultant. They laid off a salesperson because of some internal issue. So for the first two weeks, I spent some time just hanging out in the company, doing ethnographic research to get a sense of what's going on. So for two weeks I did take notes, I sat in the conference room. I walk around in the, in the hall and see people's interactions next to the water cooler. And I sit in their offices just observing and taking notes. And then I realized what was going on.

I knew what were the reasons for the frictions and tensions among people. So I knew that if I write a report and tell the board of directors and the owner, okay, these are my findings. I knew if I show up with a report that will say, Oh, that's interesting, that's interesting. We'll do something about it. And I know that wouldn't do anything about it. So I said, okay I know what's going on, but I first need to do an assessment with everybody in the company. So in a big room, all the employees, staff, directors, owners were in the room and I conducted the OCAI, the organizational cultural assessment tool or instrument. And in that workshop, people were able to see the culture that prevail in the company, which was hierarchical and people hate it, but they became aware, they became conscious of what was going on and with this instrument, you not only get a photograph of what's going on in the current moment, but also you project in the future.What is the kind of company where the culture that people want to work in one want to work in? 

So everybody chose to work in a democractic kind of culture, where people were able to make decisions, to make proposals, to provide ideas and the results were for product of people's consensus instead of just following obedience orders about what to do.

So this was like a crucial moment for the company, because everybody became very aware that we couldn't go on anymore with this kind of hierarchical culture, we need to do something different. So I design a plan as an anthropologist to work on three, three lines. 

The first line was this one to make people aware of where they were at in terms of their culture. The second was to change people's story and to change people's story was that people needed to feel different. People needed to be the protagonist or the actors of the characters of the movie, the actors of the movie, instead of just being the puppets and the and the third line was to work on the system and procedures because most of the frictions among people were due to very broken systems and procedures. So it will be kind of futile to work on people's relationships if the costs will still prevail. So I conducted workshops with people in different departments in order to arrive at the pain points in each department and what are the frictions with the other departments?

So it was in a very democratic kind of atmosphere, people voice their issues, people make proposals, suggestions about how to change things. So it was a very collaborative kind of system or work and people arrived at different kinds of rules and different kinds of systems to work.

For instance the salespeople used to send the orders to ship the equipment to the doctors at any time during the day, but the people in the storage room, they were really stressed out because the UPS service arrived only until 3:00 PM. So they had to package everything very nicely.

And the salespeople just were coming in and out at any time. So they were very stressed out and the frictions came for these kinds of I mean, this was only a small case. Right. But just to illustrate that people were creating tensions among themselves. So when I conducted the workshops, people established a new set of rules and they have to be accountable for them.

So the first week was a little bit tense because people still wanted to drag their own way of doing things. But after the first week, things start to go smoothly.

Adam Gamwell: [00:31:06] Yeah, that's great too. So, even in this idea of raising people's awareness of what their internal culture is like, that's a great example. Cause it's simple, but just having the sales team, not realize that there is a shipping cutoff, it's an externality to the company, right. UPS just doesn't run after 3:00 PM or doesn't pick up, it's an incredibly important detail that it's partially about communication and raising awareness. Yeah.

Oscar Barerra: [00:31:32] Yeah, and also, as I said this is a company that gets things done at any expense, right? So before there was this practice that the salespeople wanted to ship something, but if there's the storage, people didn't want to do it. They call the boss, they call the owner and the owner gives the order. You just go, put that packet because the customer needs it.

So there was a traffic of influences, right? So, uh, with a workshop, the owner, and the board of directors were there. So they knew that they were also participants of the chaos and they have to be accountable themselves too.

So to put everybody on the same page was key for the cultural transformation of this company. When people become aware that they need to change and they are aware that if they change, people change. Otherwise if you force them, if you motivate them, nothing's going to happen.

People need a reason, a powerful reason. That's why the other pillar of my methodology was to change people's story. To make people themselves, the heroes of their own story, they have to be in charge. It was not dependent upon the owner or the board of directors. If we want to change, we would need to do something ourselves.We cannot expect for the change to come from outside or from somebody else. We need to do it ourselves.

Adam Gamwell: [00:33:25] It makes perfect sense too. I'm curious then, so what did that look like in terms of helping people retell their stories or kind of become the hero of their own story? Is this part of the workshop? 

Oscar Barerra: [00:33:48] They just knew that there was this Dr. Oscar, coming up with this crazy workshop and crazy procedures and crazy meetings. And who knows what all of this is taking us, but things are changing.

Adam Gamwell: [00:34:10] Okay. Yeah. Interesting.

Oscar Barerra: [00:34:11] So they know that by putting people together in a room, working their pain points and coming up with new solutions, they were changing their story. They didn't know that. Me as an anthropologist I knew it, but they were not, they didn't have to. I mean, that's why the anthropological gaze is very important because you are able to see what ordinary people without training cannot see.

Gary David: [00:34:43] The funny thing about that is that it's not that they can't see it because it's not there, it's visible, but they lack the ability to see it. Adam and I were joking the other day and I said something like, I notice things, that's what I do. My job is to notice things and, you know, and we've been trained to see things that are right there to be seen, but other people are going to miss because they don't know how to notice them.

And it doesn't have to be some major event, often in the smallness of the moment that we can find the most important piece of information about the nature of the culture and the relationship. 

Adam Gamwell: [00:35:20] Yeah. And I think too, something else that really jumped out to me there that I think is important is that the anthropological,sociological training does give us a specific way of seeing something. And so I think there actually really is an interesting point Oscar about doing workshops and kind of identifying pain points and raising awareness within the community itself was a fundamentally important practice that like then the other side of it is the anthropologist kind of sees we're actually helping you create your own narratives, right. Even though they don't use that language, but that's, it's an interesting piece in terms of thinking about how business and social sciences work together, because there are pieces of social theory, like you're talking about, like, how do we think narratively about helping somebody feel more positive about the work they're doing or their contributions.

And it is about like helping them get a sense of ownership of their story. Right.The workshop itself is like pain point identification and then identifying solutions that we could use to solve that. And I think that's really important. And one of the, one of the other, the other cool pieces of thinking about how social sciences work, right.

And so why businesses might not see the social science side, but then the flip side of why social science students can't see the business side because they don't realize the methodology just sounds different. Doing pain points and, and affinity mapping maybe. Right. But they're doing the same thing. And I think that's like a really, really fundamentally important piece of what you're saying too, is that learning to see both sides there.

Oscar Barerra: [00:36:43] One thing that also was crucial is to empower people. I mean, following this other pillar of helping people to create their own story. For me, it was important that the employees felt heard and felt empowered. So I suggested the formation of a committee of employees with a representative, with a member of each department in the company so that this committee will have the voice of all the departments.

And this was the cultural committee. They were in charge of organizing activities to make the company more cohesive. So they organized like a football or basketball tournament, football bowling, some workshops, some celebration of a holiday, independence day, things like that.

And they had a responsibility to encourage all the members of the company to participate. Of course it was optional, I mean, no one was forced to do it, but everybody participated. And these activities help people in the company to level up their differences.

They were able to see themselves more for who they are as human beings. And not because he's the one that does all the accounting, right? So I came up with some suggestions that will help people to change our story. So it was not only about conducting workshops. It's about with your anthropological or social scientists, gaze and sensitivity.What, can be good for this company? What can be good for these people in order to arrive to the goals that they want, which is how they could be more autocratic.

Adam Gamwell: [00:39:24] And I think too, like having that perspective and that idea of you know, what is good to this organization? What is good to this community? Right? Thinking as the anthropologist, what is good for them is fundamentally important too.

Instead of just saying here's what you should do, you're actually helping them be autocratic by. helping them put together a committee to then do activities that will help them be more cohesive.

Right? So it's like helping goodness in their own terms, big to be able to flourish by not telling them what to do in order to be good. But let's set the path that we can see, that'll help you then define good for you. And then to enact that. I think that that's also a really important piece too, where it's flexible based on what you're seeing, that the community is defining for themselves. And I think to me, that's also like an important piece of social science thinking is that, you know, taking people on their own terms as it were right, seeing their own perspectives and like they're allowed to define their own goals kind of thing. And then obviously we can come in with ideas.

But it's also basically what we see from the anthropological gaze is how to then what are we seeing that they are saying, this is good. I want to do that. I want to do more autocratic and that we can help them enact that. This is a good thing, it's a good example of how that can happen without telling people what to do without being prescriptive.

Gary David: [00:41:02] The other thing I like about this is that it's very subversive speaking as a sociologist, when we see labor movements down in the United States union membership down the organizing ability of workers down. When we start talking about employee experience, for instance, as a field that I teach a course in. We can translate the needs of employees into language that organizations can understand to have positive impacts on culture quote unquote, but also on the employees lives. And so, and as I would tell, you know, companies, if you want to improve customer experience, you need to start with employee experience.

And the good news is I can point to any number of business consultants and business leaders who say the same thing. And then that creates an opening for us and to be subversive and go in and say, plus the fact that you use the OCAI tool. Now you have numbers in a survey, which is recognizable to them as evidence to say, well this is what the numbers are telling us we need to do.

And then they'll accept that versus if you were just saying, you know, based on my field notes, the field notes would have told you the same thing probably, but you needed that kind of quantitative representation of evidence to make it a fact in their eyes, which then allowed you to be subversive.

So it's really a beautiful story in all of those very nuanced elements of what you did and how you accomplished it.

Oscar Barerra: [00:42:46] Yeah. Currently the company is doing very good as a result of the work that I did. This was a project last year. So they were able to cope with COVID-19 in a very successful way, in a very, very successful way because people start to work from home and people were just accountable and they were just happy to work at home. And there was so much support towards each other in this process.

Adam Gamwell: [00:43:18] I love this idea that it's a subversive power. That's actually helping them flourish in a time of challenge, like during COVID-19 right. That they can actually do well at home because they have a sense of cohesion and community and purpose in their work that they may have not had before, or some tensions have melted away, you know? And it's great to just, yeah, to you know, cycle back to this idea that the anthropological gaze in this lens is a way of seeing, but then it actually works really well. I liked your point, Gary, we can borrow the tools like OCAI and then get some quantitative metrics we could do net promoter score stuff. You can do whatever kinds of methodologies on top of the anthropological gaze that you might need in order to present quote, unquote facts to the business. So they can say, ah, yes, we see evidence that your research or your work is finding something or doing something and that we can follow it.

And yet, like the cool thing is a lot of times our field notes or observations or participant observation work would end up finding some of the same information. But then it's like, we can present the same idea in multiple different ways and use different methodologies to get the same data, which actually for us, and actually just speaking to the anthropologists, sociologists and social sciences in the audience too.This is actually I think a powerful point of also the social science flexibility. We can actually take methods from quantitative high scores and net promoter scores and surveys and get the same results if we did a quantitative or qualitative, you know, observational research too, and interviews and present them either way, depending on who our audience is.

And so I don't think that quantitative data can do that as much as qualitative can. Right. We have a flexibility kind of built into how we collect. Methodologically agnostic, right? We can kind of use a bunch of different methods and even to your point Oscar before, you know, you had to learn new methods when you wanted to move into business that academia doesn't teach you because they either don't know. Most grad classes in soc or anth classes don't teach business thinking for one, they don't even teach design thinking but even that idea, design thinking I think is very fundamentally important for doing problem solving. But it's also business 101 you know? And so even understanding what methods we could do and the fact that we actually have a flexibility of drawing from qualitative and quantitative and business methods and other forms of data collection. There's more flexibility that we have, I think, than I see in other industries in the groups. And so I think that's actually another, like thumbs up for anthro and soc. I got to be inclusive of social science you know,

Gary David: [00:46:19] Embraced diversity, even of the quantitative people.

Adam Gamwell: [00:46:22] Yeah, exactly right. We've got a few minutes left, so, um, I think, uh, I'd love to hear a little bit about, um, if there's any other stories that come to mind that you think kind of help fill this idea in a little bit more?

Oscar Barerra: [00:47:07] Let's talk about some cases because people love to hear about stories, right?

Gary David: [00:47:12] I like stories.

Adam Gamwell: [00:47:13] Or both let's do it. So let's start with the memorial services. Then tell us, tell us a bit about that project.

Oscar Barerra: [00:47:32] Well, this company, they have their salesforce that we're having a really tough time selling, their mortuary services here's almost like an insurance where you pay now for all the expenses that are going to be, that will have to be covered when, after you die. Well, anyway, the salesforce had a hard time selling these services to people because people don't want to hear about their own death, right. And even less the death of their loved ones. So, they have a hard time to sell these services. So they were doing some publicity in social media also with no results.

Gary David: [00:49:16] I'm just trying to imagine, like on, you know, scrolling through my Twitter feed. Have you thought about dying today? Well, actually, yes I have because there's a pandemic, but continue. It's just, that seems like the funniest thing in the world that try to sell funeral services through, um, social media, like Instagram, like your here's a nice picture of a casket.

Adam Gamwell: [00:49:33] a great tombstone. Yeah.

Oscar Barerra: [00:49:36] When I was listening to the story of this client, I immediately came to my head it's like, okay, there are two issues here. One is the issue of trust. People don't trust, why should they engaging in acquiring now a service of something that they will eventually use in an uncertain future?

And the second was the second aspect of this, the taboo of talking about death. So I said, well, we need to, we need to diminish as much as we can, these two factors. So my suggestion was to create a tribe of followers. Not a tribe about death, but rather, a tribe of followers around a company there is willing to offer some value for the spiritual life of their audience, of their people.

So they had very nice gardens, very nice halls and chapels and rooms. And I said, why don't you put it to use them, offer them to the community. Offer your space for Bible courses, to celebrate masses, for all these kinds of spiritual activities for the community, so that they can use your facilities and have the opportunity to know you better to know what you have, because they have beautiful gardens.

So once they have experienced of when they go to a circle of prayer, people have experienced the physical experience of being in your very nice chapel and your very nice rooms, or even in your very nice, marble bathrooms they will be in their memory. So whenever they suffered the loss of a loved one, immediately they will think of it because they already have an experience. So they bought my idea. They like my idea. And they decided to create a campaign for all of the all different kinds of religious groups to celebrate their activities and courses in their facilities. So, they start to develop a name and all of the sudden the relatives, family members and friends of the people who assisted and have really the experience of the, of the, of the Memorial services facilities they thought of them and they started to have some sales based on the word of mouth that started to spread out basically on creating value or offering value for the community.

Adam Gamwell: [00:52:57] And also, it sounds like that's like a way of building trust too. Right? Appealing that you're talking about, that they can trust this organization to be there for the community. Right. Right.

Oscar Barerra: [00:53:07] Yeah, exactly. So they use Facebook on social media, not to publicize the death, but rather to publicize all the services that they were doing for the community. So it was like a big tour in order to get to your target market.

Gary David: [00:53:29] And if I if I was going to use a, an anthropology word, if I might, you create this reciprocity where we're giving something to you and in exchange, other people will feel maybe not consciously holden, but in some way, connected to like, we should, you know...

Oscar Barerra: [00:53:51] Reciprocate.

Gary David: [00:53:52] return and use this organization as well.

Adam Gamwell: [00:53:56] Yeah, that makes sense. That's cool. And that's a nice example too, of a part of life most people are uncomfortable with, but that we have to deal with. And it's like also adding value in life. Right. But also again, and it seems also interesting too, cause it's like, you're trying to talk about explicitly spiritual events they were at their offering too. So it's a nice idea of, you know, having a Sunday school or a mass or something. Y'all gonna end up there, so you might as well have a good time before you get there, you know?

Oscar Barerra: [00:54:39] Yeah, these methodology or what I proposed to them was this is something I could have use also for a company that we're selling I don't know, some items, some material goods, assembly services. But, instead of using what is called the, the brutal force instead of using discounts, promotions, or sales. By providing value to your customers, you create a brand of followers in which they are already convinced of you. They already trust you that they don't need the push of a sale, the push of an offer because they already trust you.

Adam Gamwell: [00:55:33] So it's like almost bypassing the sale.

Oscar Barerra: [00:55:36] And you create value for yourself. I mean, by doing this for a community, you create a position in which you don't need to offer discounts. Because they already trust you.

Adam Gamwell: [00:55:48] Even better, right?

Oscar Barerra: [00:55:49] They already recognize you.

Adam Gamwell: [00:55:52] And it's funny cause that that's also a quietly subversive practice, right. It's actually you know, building trust. And then in the kind of saying, this is honestly, it also seems like it's not entirely about sales for them either. Right? It is about like, how do we build a community and give back or build reciprocity. And then they take care of themselves, which is cool.

Oscar Barerra: [00:56:12] Yeah, this reminds me of the other case that I wanted to share with you of the optical store in San Luis, Potosi, Mexico. They sell sunglasses and prescription glasses for all kinds of people. Their store is located in downtown San Luis, Potosi.

With COVID they had a hard time coping with no influx of people, because all the cities in Mexico were pretty much deserted. So the company rely upon their sales near 70% of their sales come from people who walk into the store. So with COVID they collapsed completely. So they didn't know what to do. They did some Facebook ads and some social media advertising with no, that much success. So they didn't know what to do. They are these company they're in my list of subscribers, we stay in touch and I said, I got help you. So I didn't know exactly what I was going to do.

Gary David: [00:57:52] But I could help. I knew I could help.

Oscar Barerra: [00:57:54] Exactly.

Gary David: [00:57:54] I didn’t know exactly how I was going to help, but I knew I could help.

Oscar Barerra: [00:57:56] We chatted we had the first meeting and I said, okay sounds like you're going through difficult times. Let's do a project. So it was the three month project it’s finishing next week, actually during the first session ID as an anthropologist, I, you start to pose a lot of questions.

Before the first meeting, I gave them, um, an assessment, which they have to fill out with near 50 questions about that. It's a very deep analysis of their business. So even though they don't answer all the questions, they are forced to think differently about their business and their possibilities and what they were doing.

When we had the first meeting, they already had a bunch of ideas as a result of answering the assessment or doing the assessment. So in the interview or the conversation, it was very evident that there was no way under the current circumstances that they could bring people in to a store. I said, but in the conversation, I discover that they had bad CRM. It was a one year period, CRM. And when they remembered to fill it in, they, they just, uh, Whether they have the information, but they have near a hundred people in that database. And I say, well, I think that's, that's going to be the first move. Like the first move is to recontact those customers as a follow-up from their last purchase.

And we will create a script. In which the idea was not to sound salesy or rather, how can we be all, how can we be helpful last time you bought these kinds of prescription glasses, or you bought these sunglasses who want to know how you're doing? Are they okay? They are not broken. Are they no scratch?

What, what's your experience with current glasses so far? So there was this script that they needed to follow with some in order to provide value to the customers. And as a result of doing that of contacting those customers their sales increased 20% in the first 15 days. Their customers were so happy to hear about it. Oh, I'm bless you. I'm glad I'm important to you. Okay, by the way I needed to change my glasses.

Adam Gamwell: [01:02:00] That's cool.

Oscar Barerra: [01:02:03] Yeah. So by working with them, I was able to tell them to change their mindset about creating value. And I said, you don't want only their money. You want their loyalty. I noted the pro to create loyalty. You need to provide them with value. So I shared with them the story that I had when I was living in Berlin. In Germany. One of my glasses was kind of broken in one of these legs, on my glasses.

So I went to a store in Berlin and they fix it and I say, okay, how much they say, no, it's for free. I said, what? Yeah, it;s a service for you. I said, wow, this is amazing. So when I told the story to this business owner in Mexico about what he could do in his business. He said like a really that happened? Yeah, I said. What you want is to provide people with excuses, with experiences, for they to return and say, I want a pair of glasses from you based on what Gary said, because I owe you something that you were so kind to me because you repair my glasses in the past and you didn’t charge me. I feel morally, almost responsible to competence to, to pay back the favor that you did to me.

Gary David: [01:05:09] It's funny because you know, one of the most, from a theoretical standpoint, also what that's doing is it's changing the nature of the roles and the identity, because if you went to a friend to fix your glasses. And they said that'll be $5. You likewise would see that as a violation of the expectations.

So by not charging it, you, in some ways, whether consciously or not you reconstitute the relationship from customer and, and worker transactional into relational of doing favors and who does favors for one another? Friends, do. And this a little act can recalibrate the nature of the roles and the expectations in those kinds of moments.

Oscar Barerra: [01:06:04] Let me tell you a piece that is very important that in this process, in which you create value, you provide value to your customers with the, uh, expectancy that the customer will come back to do business with you. There's a piece that needs to be taken into consideration that when you are providing value to the customer, you need to remind the customer like I'm doing this because these are my values. Whether you come back or not, uh, it's up to you. I'm doing this because of me. Because this is who I am and this part is so crucial. 

Adam Gamwell: [01:09:24] Yeah. And it provides a window into your authentic self, right. And this is who I am and my business reflects who I am. Right. It's kind of the idea. 

Oscar Barerra: [01:10:19] And I have seen many businesses and entrepreneurs that they do follow these kinds of, uh, actions as business tricks. You need to create the conditions, the social conditions, emotional conditions, the cultural conditions to be effective. Otherwise the message doesn't come across.

Adam Gamwell: [01:10:59] Yeah. That's I guess that's a hundred percent correct too. I empathize with that and agree. So Oscar, I want to thank you. This has been a great conversation. 

Oscar Barerra: [01:13:27] Thank you for inviting me.

Adam Gamwell: [01:13:28] Thanks again to Oscar Barrera for joining us and Gary David for co-hosting this conversation, it has been super interesting to think of the subversive power of anthropology for helping organizations understand their own culture, helping folks rewrite their stories and to build in intrinsic motivation for positive change. I’d love to hear stories of your work and business. If you work in business, or are a consultant shoot me a message at or DM on Twitter. How do you use anthropology in business, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced? What are some of the successes you’ve won doing this kind of work? Today’s episode was edited and produced with the help of Sarah McDonough and myself. It’s been a pleasure as always and I hope you are staying strong and safe out there. I’m Adam Gamwell and we’ll see you next time.