Making an impact

Last Friday, I finished a 2 month freelance project for Copenhagen Living Lab, a small Danish innovation consulting firm. The project was an ethnographic exploration and mapping of the business development and production practices of Danish computer game companies in order to identify central challenges shared by such companies and suggest ways in which such issues could be solved.

This has been my first proper experience with business ethnography, and I have learned a lot. Just presenting the findings to the customer (a business development consulting and services firm) was a very different experience. Preparing the presentation felt very much like preparing for another exam. But the process had been very different since the sole result of the project was the presentation and the slides. All the data I had gathered and processed, and all the analysis that I had developed (both on my own and with the good people at Copenhagen Living Lab), all of it was to be transformed into an hour’s worth of presentation and power point slides.

Indeed, the analysis had better fit the format, or else it wouldn’t really get across. It was very much a question of learning the language spoken among consultants. The language of bullet points, of findings, of matrices and “Next Steps”, of challenges and possibilities. It was a matter of learning that presenting ethnography in a business context really revolves around understanding how your findings might be interesting to your customer, and not (just) to your informants, since these are rarely the same.

And generally, your customer wants to receive their data filtered, chewed, handled and prepared so that the only tricky complexities present are those which they need to make decisions on. It is a matter of preparing your analysis in such a way to allow them to decide what they want to do next. It’s difficult to get the hang of, but I received good help from the other consultants.

And then, upon having presented my findings for the customers, something I hadn’t really expected happened: Not only did the customers find the presentation relevant in relation to their work, but they couldn’t wait to start discussing how these findings might impact the way they did their work. Unlike the other presentations and exams that I’ve done before, which always marked the end point of a given project, perhaps with a good grade and a pat on the back, presenting this project seemed more like the starting point than the end point: “Now we know all these relevant details, what is the next step? Where do we want to go from here?”

Nobody had ever asked me that at an exam. The gathering of information had always been an exercise for its own sake. But here I had delivered the information and the analysis that these people needed, and which allowed them to go further in their own work. I felt like I had actually made an impact. That I’ve helped clarify the challenges and opportunities present for Danish computer game developers. For a lot of creative people who are passionate about their craft, and hopefully, my work will help our customer to be able to support these creative people to allow them to succeed.

And it brought me to the realization that this prolonged feeling of achievement, of building something useful, something which allows others to build on top of it, is a feeling that is very rare in academia. And I expect that that is why so many students feel unsatisfied with their work, because they write something which very few people will bother to read or use or build upon.

Up until last Friday, I had toyed with the idea of applying for a Ph.D. To delve deep into some topic for its own sake. But now, I have lost some of that drive. For now, I want to work with problems that the people involved with them perceive to be important themselves, and which will help them make decisions relevant to their work and lives. And hopefully, that way I can help make an impact..

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