December 9, 2009
Futures of Entertainment 4: From Cool Hunters to Chief Culture Officers: An Interview with Grant McCracken

One of the high points of our recent Futures of Entertainment conference was a presentation by Anthropologist/Consultant/Blogger Grant McCracken on his new book, Chief Culture Officier: How to Create a Living Breathing Corporation. McCracken is a lively and engaging speaker and one of the most provocative thinkers I know when it comes to addressing the social, cultural, technological and economic changes shaping the world around us. McCracken has long been part of the brain trust behind the Convergence Culture Consortium and he writes an exceptional blog, This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.

I had a chance to read Grant's book in draft form and have been eagerly awaiting its release because of the conversation it is going to spark both within universities and within corporations about the value of cultural insights for modern business and where those insights were likely to come from. When we launched the Comparative Media Studies Program a decade ago, one of our early backers encouraged us to train our students for jobs that didn't have names yet -- jobs which depended on their ability to think across media and to understand the intersection of culture, technology, and industry. Through the years, many of our best students went into industry, often into jobs created around their expertise and talent. Recently, we've called them "thought leaders." I've seen these same kind of students through the professional programs in Annenberg and the Cinema School at USC. I constantly meet prospective students with this kind of vision for their future, but so far, few academic programs have embraced this alternative professional trajectory for their students or have developed curriculum which encourage a more applied perspective.

McCracken proposes a new title, "Chief Culture Officer," and argues that the most powerful companies in th world need to have people in the top ranks of their leadership whose primary job is to attend to the culture around them. While some may disagree, I would contend this expertise is most likely to come from programs in media and cultural studies, anthropology, and other branches of the humanities and the qualitative social sciences. It certainly is not the expertise fostered in most business schools. If we take McCracken's arguments here seriously, they have implications for how we train our students -- not limiting them for an increasingly constipated academic job market but giving them the background and experience they would need to navigate through a range of other sectors being impacted by media change. And it also has implications for how companies think about their consumers, how they anticipate new developments and how they pay respect to more stable, slower changing aspects of their culture.

All of these issues surfaced during the panel discussion which followed Grant's presentation. Respondents included am Sam Ford - Director of Customer Insights, Peppercom, and C3 Research Affiliate; Jane Shattuc - Emerson College; and Leora Kornfeld - Research Associate, Harvard Business School. The moderator was William Uricchio, chair of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program. You can watch the video of the event here.

I was lucky enough to get Grant McCracken to address some of the key issues in the book in an exclusive interview for this blog conducted earlier this fall. Here, he lays out some of the key premises of the book and its implications for how companies and universities think about the future.

What do you mean by a "chief culture officer" and what role would such a person play within the modern corporation?

Corporations have been notoriously bad at reckoning with culture. They manage the "problem of culture" with ad hocery of many kinds. They call on ad agencies, consultants, gurus and cool hunters and, when all else fails, the intern down the hall. But there is no single person and, worse, there is no senior manager. Even as culture grows ever more dynamic, various, demanding, and participatory. So that's my argument: there ought to be someone in the C-Suite who's job it is to reckon with culture and to spot the opportunities and dangers it represents.

Your professional training was in anthropology yet you've spent much of your career as a cultural consultant. What kinds of advice have companies sought from you? What has been the biggest adjustment you've had to make from anthropology as it exists in the university to ethnography as a basis for making business decisions?

Sometimes I am supplying the ethnography, and this means quizzing consumers about how they see the world. This is culture from the bottom up, as it were. Sometimes I am supplying anthropology and this means reporting on the categories, distinctions and rules that make up our culture. This is culture from the top down, so to say.

As to the adjustment, it was a horrible slog for awhile, like riding uneven circus ponies. But eventually my academic self and my consulting self found a way to work together. There are moments of surprising coincidence and the interactive effect can be terrific. And then of course you find a way to respect the demands of Christ by forgetting Caesar (and the other way round.) The good news is that consulting forces a grueling pace of problem solving that builds skills for one's academic work, I think. And vice versa.

You cite "Cool Hunters" as enemies of the Culture Officer. What are the limits of the current "cool hunting" process and how does it lead companies astray?

The trouble with cool hunters is that they are a little like cats. Cats have more rods in the retina than we do and this gives them the ability to see movement better than we do. The price that cats and coolhunters pay for this adaption is that they are not very good at seeing things when these things are still. Which is a too elaborate way of saying cool hunters are maximally responsive to culture in motion and disinclined to take an interest in culture when more static. Actually, we can go further than this. Cool hunters are generally pretty hopeless when it comes to the deeper, slower and more static aspects of culture. They don't even appear to know that they exist. If one had to guess at a metric only something like 30% of our culture is fad and fashion. That means the better of our culture escapes the grasp of the cool hunter and the corporation who relies on him/her.

What is the argument for embedding cultural expertise within the company rather than outsourcing it through some kind of consulting firm?

There are two problems with hiring in culture expertise. Culture is increasingly various and changeable. Corporations are increasingly complex and changeable. To find the fit between them takes an exquisite knowledge of both. Hiring culture knowledge in gives the corporation a collection of partial views as rendered by people who may or may not understand the corporation. No corporation would dream of handling finance, technology, human relations this way. It's something that has to be done in-house to be done well.

What should humanities programs be doing differently in order to fully prepare their students for the position of chief culture officer?

Humanities programs turn out to be the heroes of the piece. It gives people the frame-shifting, assumption-jumping, intellectual nimbleness they need to reckon with the complexities of culture and the corporation. We spend a lot of time these days looking at new developments and asking, "is this something or nothing really?" and if it's something, "Ok, is this X1, X2 or notX at all?" The liberal arts are wonderfully good at cultivating this gift. Certainly, engineering and finance create formidable intellectual abilities. The most fluid, the most elegant mind I trained at the Harvard Business School was a product of the British military. So, clearly, many cognitive styles qualify. But the humanities have a certain advantage. They seem to endow people with the pattern recognition the CCO needs. Of course, the humanities have problems of their own. Postmodernism has turned many minds to mush.

One model for cultural analysis which has gained some traction in the corporate world is Eric Von Hipple's concept of the lead user. Von Hipple encourages companies to use early adapters as test-beds for their products, often looking there for insights which may allow them to innovate and refine their offerings. How does this model align with your claims for the value of ethnographic perspectives in the board room?

Lead users are useful. The trouble is they are so enthusiastic about an innovation they are perfectly happy to make any adjustments necessary to adopt it. And as Geoffrey Moore says, this makes them a bad guide to the larger market of later adopters. These people expect the innovation to conform to them. And this takes another order (and probably another round) of product development, which development must be informed by our knowledge of the cultural meanings and practices in place. Without cultural knowledge, the innovation cannot "jump the chasm" to use Geoffrey Moore's famous phrase. (All of this is Moore's argument.) Ethnography is especially useful as a way of discovering what this culture is.

You write about the "Apollo Theater effect," as you try to explain the shifting relations between cultural producers and consumers. Explain. Why may we be outgrowing the concept of consumption?

I take your lead here, Henry. As you demonstrated so early and so well, more consumers are becoming producers, and this makes us as Apollo theatre audience of us all. Because we make so much culture, we have become more observant and critical, and less passive in our consumption of other's productions. And on these grounds I've suggested that perhaps its time that we start called "consumers" "multipliers." I except your wisdom here: "if it doesn't spread, it's dead."

Some companies are now monitoring Twitter to try to see how consumers are responding to them. What are the strengths and limits of this approach?

This is a good and necessary idea, as a way of spotting emergent concerns around which consumers are organizing themselves. On the other hand, Twitter is very like a key hole. It's hard to see very much and unless we follow up with some more thorough inquiry, we are missing a great deal.

Many executives assume that cultural knowledge is "intuitive," something they absorb by growing up in a culture. Yet, you are arguing that cultural knowledge requires a certain kind of expertise. Why is intuition not enough?

Intuition is indeed the instrument by which we often deliver cultural insights, but it is also a way for the corporation to diminish cultural intelligence by calling them "soft" "vaque," and "impressionistic." As we become more expert, more professional and more disciplined about our study of culture, I hope we will encourage a new comprehension of what culture knowledge is and how it adds value.
Does the cultural knowledge companies need become even more of a challenge as companies start to do business on a global scale?
Indeed, this is a challenge. How do we speak to several cultures and many segments with a single voice. There is a global culture in the works. It will be a long time coming, but it is coming. But as you and others have pointed out, the real opportunity for the world of communications is to move from the monolithic message to the nuanced, multiple one. We can speak to many communities with many voices, and this really takes a virtuoso control of knowlege and communication. The good news is that as we engage more consumers in acts of cocreation, they will help.

You've argued for advertising and branding as activities which are involved in the management and production of meanings. How would branding change in a world where more companies had chief culture officers?

Yes, that's my hope, that the presence of a CCO would make the corporation better at the production and management of meanings. At some point, I think, our destination must be this: a living, breathing corporation, that fully participates in and draws from and gives to the culture around it. We will have to teach the old dog many new tricks to make this possible. Old asymmetries and boundaries and assumptions will have to be broken down. The good news is that many of the old models are just not working and the corporation in its way has always been keenly interested in what works. I'm hoping the book will help a little here.

Grant McCracken holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in cultural anthropology. He is the author of Big Hair, Culture and Consumption, Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning and Brand Management, Flock and Flow, The Long Interview, Plenitude: Culture by Commotion, Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture, and Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation. He has been the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge and he is now an adjunct professor at McGill University. He has consulted widely in the corporate world, including the Coca-Cola Company, IKEA, Chrysler, Kraft, Kodak, and Kimberly Clark. He is a member of the IBM Social Networking Advisory Board.