Over the years, it’s been harder and harder to find academic or industry conferences that I really enjoy and learn from. The American Anthropology Association has so much infighting, and SO little support for practicing anthropologists that I haven’t attended in a few years. I’ve even stopped my membership, because they have the gall to charge a sliding membership fee, knowing that practicing anthropologists probably earn more, but doing next to nothing to support us. Furthermore, the conference papers are typically not that strong, and the proceedings are not published (less prestigious). It is also such a large event that it’s not a great way to connect with people. The Society for Applied Anthropology is a much smaller event, usually in a great location (Portland, Santa Fe), and many of the anthropologists I want to connect with attend. The papers are not all in my area of interest / expertise, but there have been some great sessions that I’ve learned a lot from – anthropology research with diabetic Americans, for example.
Several years ago, a couple of anthropologists from Intel and Microsoft came together and established a conference called Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC200#.com). Although I’ve had to miss it once when I was pregnant with Auden, I’ve attended it every year since it’s inception. I’ve really enjoyed it every year, because it’s typically 150-250 people, with fairly large but somehow intimate evening events in interesting venues. It is an opportunity to see many of my favorite anthropologists at once, which I really appreciate. And, although the papers vary somewhat in quality, but they are generally interesting to me. In the past few years, I’ve participated in a double-blind review of EPIC paper proposals, and this year once of the guys working for me submitted a paper topic on our behalf. And we were accepted – very exciting!
This is the first year that the conference was planned abroad, this time in Copenhagen (a city I’ve always wanted to visit!). Johann Sarmiento-Klapper is a Human Factors Engineer on my team, and he proposed a paper that would look at the emergence and evolution of my User Experience team, beginning with the ethnographic study I conducted on SAP salespeople in 2005. It was great to finally tell that story, and to begin to bring some Foucaultian thinking to how the team is evolving today. In brief, the underlying theme for me is the same as it was in my dissertation. That is, there is a market / consumer discourse inside of SAP now, and especially in the U.S. offices since we were listed on the NYSE in the late 1990s. As a result, there has been an increasing focus on shareholder value, and on related issues like operating margin. We work in an Operations function, and our ability to be successful in positioning User Experience has everything to do with our ability to align with that discourse around revenue generation, cost cutting, process efficiency, and so on.
Writing the paper with Johann was A LOT of work, much more so than I had anticipated. But I was SO glad he had submitted the abstract! Collaborating with him was a great way to get to know him better, and it was good to finally tell the story of how my team has come to be. Our paper was positioned as part of the closing panel for the conference this year. Other panel participants included employees from Intel, Microsoft, and Google.
Unfortunately, SAP’s cost-cutting measures (and news of a pending layoff for my partner) all hit around the same time. So my travel was cut, and I didn’t think it prudent to pay for a trip to Copenhagen under the circumstances. That meant that our panel moderator (Simon Pulman-Jones) has to present the paper on our behalf. Simon said that our “session that was very well received, and … seemed, by all accounts, to bring a satisfying conclusion to the four days of EPIC 2008”. Other people told me that the session indicated a very positive trend for the role of ethnographic methods in industry, and that they believed that the themes from our session might shape the focus of next year’s conference. We’ll see!
Needless to say, not being able to attend was a huge disappointment, mitigated only by the fact that our paper will still be published in the final proceedings. If you’re interested in reading the paper, seeing the presentation or reading the talk track, everything is available on my website.