Bring in the anthropologists

The FT’s Gillian Tett makes a strong case for why Western for-profits should consider having an anthropologist on staff.

“Cross-cultural exchanges,” she says are gaining relevance.  Proctor & Gamble discovered this when selling diapers in Brazil.  Instead of biodegradable, the American multinational observed that waterproof was more important for Brazilians.  Now, companies are reconsidering how innovation flows.  West to the developing world, or rich to poor, isn’t the direction any more.

As the emerging markets and businesses grow in economic importance, some global business executives are now less focused on transplanting ideas from the “west” to the “developing” world (or from rich to poor) – and are asking instead how emerging market innovations can be brought into the west too (from poor to rich.) “In the west we assume that innovation is there to make products more powerful, flashier, faster – but in emerging markets, innovation is about commoditization, about cutting costs,” observed the chief technology officer of a giant American multinational. “But maybe cheaper, simpler products are what western consumers would prefer too.”

There’s much the West can learn and benefit from the developing world.  Innovation is but one area.  Judging by Friday’s events in Egypt democracy might be another.  But I’ll leave that thought for now.

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