Working at General Motors, the Anthropology Careers Video, and Consulting in Organizational Culture: An SfAA Oral History Interview with Elizabeth K. Briody
Elizabeth K. Briody developed her career in business anthropology as a senior researcher at General Motors and her consulting firm Cultural Keys. She completed her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published extensively in support of anthropology in business. Her accomplishments have been recognized by the SfAA’s Bronislaw Malinowski Award and the Robert B. Textor Award for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association. This interview was done by Riall Nolan at Purdue University. The transcript was edited by John van Willigen
NOLAN: So, this is Riall Nolan. It is Wednesday, March twenty-second . We are at Purdue University, and I am in the company of Elizabeth Briody. And I'm going to be interviewing Elizabeth, for the Society for Applied Anthropology Oral History Project. I have a number of questions for Elizabeth. I'm going to ask questions in a fairly general way. She's going to answer, I'll follow up as needed. Let me start with the most general question that we have which is where and under what family circumstances were you raised? How'd you get started?
BRIODY: I was raised in Beverly, Massachusetts by two Irish Catholic parents. They married late in life, and my mother had me when she was forty-two, and my sister when she was forty-five. So, we had older parents, but parents had quite a bit of life experience. My dad had served in WWII. My mother had always worked and had lived with her mother, as was often common among Irish American families. I was raised with a grandmother in the home. I went to Catholic school through grade eight, then switched to the public school system, because we really didn't have the means for me to attend a parochial high school. When I was in my, I think, my sophomore year, I heard about a program called American Field Service. A young college student came into my high school French class and talked about her experience on this program. And I thought to myself, "Boy, that's what I want to do." So, I applied for the program, when I was a senior in high school, and I was lucky enough to be accepted into it. And strangely, I was sent to France where I lived for a year with a wonderful family in the North; they lived near the Belgian border. And there were five children in the family, plus I made six. I attended a French lycée. And I, ended up, passing the French baccalaureate which ended up being quite helpful to me because I only returned to the U.S. and had to take three years of college. While I was in college, I was at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and there I fell in love with anthropology, and haven't turned back.
NOLAN: So, tell about your education in anthropology. Key influences, teachers that might have been important, ideas, books, you know, what sorts of experiences and things did you encounter as you became an anthropologist that were formative.
BRIODY: Yeah, I think the first experience with global cultures came well before I was at Wheaton. I remember my mother reading the book Heidi to me as a child. And I so wanted to go to Switzerland and understand more about the Swiss people. I was just fascinated by this little girl who had a German friend, and I wanted to know about who these kids were, and what they did, and I dreamed about it. So, the book Heidi had an enormous influence on me as a young child. And then, as I said, I had this opportunity to live abroad for a year, taking the last year of French high school, in the French lycée system, and what became my first year of college. So, I think those two sets of experiences were undoubtedly very important. While I was in college, I actually got very attracted to Latin American studies. The anthropology professor that I had was Ina Dinerman, who now goes by the name of Ina Rosenthal-Urey. She was someone that I looked up to a lot. She was a woman who had returned to get her PhD after she raised five children. So, she was an older woman when she finished, but she was quite accomplished. And she spoke to the students at Wheaton, which at the time was a women's college, as if we could pretty much do whatever we wanted. She was a Latin American specialist. And I think, perhaps implicitly, I thought, "Well, if she can be a Latin American specialist, I can too." And, by the way when I was a senior in high school, I started studying Spanish. And I took, Spanish I for the first semester, and then, I took Spanish II in January, and then in February I switched into Spanish III, so that by the end of my senior year I was reasonably competent—at least as, American high school Spanish is taught. And so, you know, I had some language skills already, and was able to just really find a, a pretty decent appreciation for cultures where Spanish was spoken and did so fairly effortlessly.
NOLAN: So, what got you interested in anthropology in the first place, and why did you decide to go to graduate school in it, to make that commitment?
BRIODY: Well, I think, again, it was this role model that I had. All along I was interested in anthropology just because I found it interesting to study and learn about culture. And I had that personal experience with different national cultures already in my toolkit, if you will. But it wasn't until my senior year in college right before the Thanksgiving break that my professor, Ina, said to me out of the blue, "I think you should go to graduate school." And I said, "No, I'm going to be a French teacher." And I already had it all planned out: I was going to minor in Spanish, I was minoring in education, I was fulfilling all the requirements so that I could teach high school French, I had planned on doing my French student teaching in the spring. And I was very upset with her because I thought, "Wait a minute, she's wrecking my plans here." So, I went home, and I had an absolutely miserable Thanksgiving weekend. And I came back to Wheaton mad. And on Monday, that Monday, I walked into her office, and I didn't even say hello to her. And I just said, "Well, if I went to graduate school where would I go?" And she looked me right in the eye, and she said, "You would go to the University of Texas at Austin." And I said, "And why would I go there?" And she said, "Because it has the best Latin American collection in the world—the best Latin American program in the world. But you wouldn't specialize in Latin American studies, though they offer that, you need to specialize in a discipline, and so, you are going to specialize in anthropology." And I thought to myself, "Boy, she's got all the answers." So, still not sure of where my life was headed, I left her office, and then for the next several months I thought about it, and I finally got around to applying. I applied to one graduate program, and guess what it was? The University of Texas at Austin. And I got in, but I got in provisionally because my standardized test scores were abysmal. But my letters of recommendation were strong, my course work was strong, I was well-rounded from their standpoint in terms of different extra-curricular activities, et cetera, et cetera.
NOLAN: And applied anthropology?
BRIODY: Yeah, there wasn't much going on at the University of Texas at Austin, with respect to applied anthropology. And at the time, I really wasn't even sure I knew what applied anthropology was. I know there were no formal courses taught in it, but while I was at Texas, which was about six years, nine months, and a few days, I think that's right—or maybe it was six years, eleven months, and a few days—ended up spending a lot of time and had an office in the Population Research Center on campus. The people who were part of the Pop Center were mostly sociologists, but it was really a mix of people. There were some psychologists, some geographers, some historians, and I was, you know, an anthropologist. And I, being exposed to their research, and the kinds of issues that they were interested in, brought into my scope, and some of them were quite pragmatic. With, one of my professors, Dudley Poston, I ended up publishing a couple of pieces on involuntary childlessness in Mexico, which has obviously, some, practical applications. And so, I think that's part of what happened. But I also remember Ina telling me that I really—she said to me one day, "You know, you really don't like ideas." And I think she really meant theoretical ideas. And it was true. I really wasn't much of a theory person. I really liked field work. I really liked detailed analyses, but I wasn't much on theory, and contributing to theory. It just wasn't for me.
NOLAN: So, two questions which are linked then. Talk about the first job that you had as a trained anthropologist, and then talk about how that led you into your specialization in business anthro.
NOLAN: If there's a connection. There may not be.
BRIODY: There is. I was on the job market my last year of graduate school. So, this would have been in the fall of 1984, because I finished my PhD in July '85. And, in early fall, actually in August, the American Sociological Association meets, has its annual meeting. And a good friend of mine from the Pop Center came back, and she said, "Hey, I met this guy from GM at the ASA meetings, and he's looking to hire an anthropologist." And I said, "Well, why didn't he go to the triple A meetings?" And she said, "He did. And he didn't find anybody." I said, "Oh, that's interesting." And she said, "I think you should apply for the job." And I said, "Well, I'm not interested. I'm going to be an academic." And her response was essentially, "Don't be ridiculous. This is a job opportunity. If nothing more, it will be really good practice for your academic interviews. Why not follow up? Send the man your resume, or your CV, or something." So, I thought, "Okay, yeah, that makes some sense." So, I had a good friend of mine in the business school at UT, help me with my cover letter to this gentleman at GM. And I, I sent along a copy of my CV, because I didn't know how to make a resume at that point. And he responded and he kept asking me for more information. He wanted to see a sample of my writing. He wanted to get letters of recommendation. And these were all individual requests over the course of the fall. Then I went home at Christmastime, to be with my parents, and on the, I think it was the twenty-seventh of December , the phone rang, and it was him. And he said, "Would, would, you know, uh, hello this is Carroll DeWeese from General Motors." My response was, "How did you get this number?" And he said, "Oh, I just called the Anthropology Department, and they gave it to me." (laughter) So, I said, "Okay, well, what can I do for you?" And he said, "Well, we would like to you to come to GM and spend the day with us, and do a seminar." And then he proceeded to tell me what the seminar had to incorporate. It was to be in four parts. In the first part I was to tell them a little bit about my background, where I was raised, much like this discussion here. Next, I was to talk about my dissertation field research, which was along the Mexican/U.S. border with farm workers. Next, I was to talk about some of my other research interests. And finally, I was to explain, why General Motors should hire an anthropologist. And the position was for a researcher: it was a senior research scientist position in GM Research Labs, which was at the time a premier research lab in the United States. And I was to do all of those four things in twenty minutes. And I said, "Okay." And so, again, I had my buddy who was in the business school at UT help me. He got rid of all the jargon. And I went to General Motors, was taken out to breakfast, and picked up at the airport, and the whole nine yards. They put me up downtown at the Renaissance Center in Detroit. And then, the next morning, we had breakfast, and they took me out to the Tech Center, which is where the Research Labs was built. And incidentally it's a national historic site because it was designed by a Finn by the name of [Eero] Saarinen. And, I spent the day going from, researcher to researcher chatting with them. And at some point, during the morning, I gave my seminar that seemed to go over very well. And as part of that I had to explain, why should an anthropologist be hired for GM. And I said, "Look, I specialize in issues related to work. So, for example my master's thesis was on janitors. My research after my master's thesis was on migrant farm workers, people that worked in the tertiary sector in South Texas, and Catholic sisters and priests." And I made the case that studying GM engineers and designers was not a whole lot different than studying janitors or Catholic sisters, and they bought my argument. And I stand by that argument even today. So, a few weeks later, I got a letter of offer and never looked back.
NOLAN: So, if I'm hearing it correctly, you did a master's thesis, and a PhD thesis on areas related to this, but there was no specific training in your background for business anthropology per se.
BRIODY: That's correct.
BRIODY: That's correct.
NOLAN: Did you ever do an internship as part of your PhD?
BRIODY: No, they didn't know what an internship was then.
NOLAN: Were there anthropologists that you either knew or read about that were like role models in any sense? People that you know?
NOLAN: No. Okay.
BRIODY: No, the closest—I mean, the closest thing that I can think of, which wasn't really close, but again, it kind of touched on the fact that it was—that anthropology was this global, uh, area of study, and that was that a woman by the name of Caroline Bretell came to UT to give a talk. And she spoke about migration in Europe. And since I was studying migration patterns among, farm workers in the U.S. who were from—originally from Mexico, there was a lot of overlap. And plus, having spent so much time in France, she was looking at Portuguese to France migration patterns, but that, that really was more anthropology. It was not applied anthropology.
NOLAN: No, right. So, I want to talk to you a little bit of—in more detail about the work you did at GM from '85 to 2009. . . But before I do that, one other quick question, I mean, when you were up there, were there any other anthropologists around?
NOLAN: Did you have—you didn't have much of a support network like—
BRIODY: —No, there were no other anthropologists. In fact, there were no other qualitative researchers at all. There were three sociologists, however. One was a demographer, so she was very much a quantitative person. The other two I would say did a mix of work, and they had the capability of understanding what anthropology could do to help General Motors. So, without their facilitation, and guidance, I think that it would have been really tough. One was this man, Carroll DeWeese, and the other was Ken Barb. And both of them, really had a very strong and lasting influence on me while I was at GM Research.
NOLAN: Okay. So, let's talk about the work at GM. You've already explained how you got the position. Tell us a little bit about where you worked, what division, or divisions, within the company that you worked. And I'm going to reverse the order of these because I think it makes more sense. Where I'd like you to talk about the most interesting projects that you did, the ones that you thought were the best for GM, or the more interesting to you.
NOLAN: See what I mean? And then talk about how you worked with your GM co-workers. What kind of backgrounds did they have? What did they think you were as an anthropologist—(laughter)—and how did you learn to talk to them? I can repeat some of that later.
NOLAN: But start with the projects maybe, the things that stood out for you that, that you did while you were there?
BRIODY: Okay. Well, I spent my entire career from '85 to 2009 at, what was then, initially known as the GM Research Labs. And it later changed its name a few times. It became GM Research Center, and, then it became GM Research, and then it became R&D Center. So, it changed its name, but I was always in the same division of the company. And we had central funding, which means that we didn't have to go out and sell a proposal idea to another part of GM. We were to work with those parts of GM, potentially, to design projects, or we would cook up a project on our own, and then go and seek some support—not, financial support, but interest in having us work with other people in the company. So, that was the process. I started, as I said, as a senior research scientist, and I ended up as a technical fellow. And it was really, that, that whole process of becoming a technical fellow is much like it is to become tenured, except harder because there are so few technical fellow positions. And then too, I was a technical fellow who had this field that was not quantitative. And so, you know, they really looked long and hard at my application, or my nomination, and my letters of reference and so on. It was quite a grueling process. I was lucky enough to become a technical fellow at the end. You were asking about my projects. I worked all over the company, I worked with the newcomers. I worked with people who took international assignments all over the world working in General Motors facilities. I worked, in manufacturing plants. I worked with sales and service people. I, I worked with engineers, and designers. I worked on a strategic alliance. I worked on a global product program. I worked with their public policy and healthcare people, and particularly with the GM doctors who are located in GM plants. I mean, I really did a wide variety of projects. My absolute favorite, favorite project was one that I had the chance to begin I guess it was maybe a year, or less than a year after I started. That was in 1986. I spent three months in an old truck and bus plant that no longer exists. But they made, at that time, school buses in that plant – or at least the chassis for them. They made, the big semi-trucks. They made medium duty trucks. I mean, there were four different product lines in that plant. And I just poked around. My section manager Ken Barb, the sociologist, he helped me to approach that plant, because I really didn't have too much experience gaining access. But, you know, it all worked out very nicely, and I, I basically was reporting to the woman in the plant who was charged with the plant newsletter. So that was kind of an interesting person to touch base with every time I went. But I went several times a week. I wore a t-shirt and jeans, and I hung out on the line. And I tell you it was the greatest experience. I came to appreciate so much, about the people who worked in that plant, the really difficult work that they have to do. Difficult in the sense that, you know, your body hurts at the end of every day. And you have to be in extraordinarily good shape in order to really continue to do the kind of repetitive work that was required then because there were many people who did not have it, let's say, ergonomically easy. There were a couple of key things that I learned about that, and I've written about it [in] one of my books, called Transforming Culture. It's chapter three of that book. So, if anyone wants to take a look, it's a hoot. What I learned was that blaming was rampant in this plant. It seemed initially like everybody was blaming everybody else, but it turned out when I actually looked at my field notes that you only blamed in a particular pattern. You blamed the people who were upstream from you in terms of the assembly line process, not the people downstream from you. You blamed the previous shift, not your own shift. And I figured out why that was all going on, and it was because you really needed to have allies. If you had four truck bodies coming down the line in a row, and they all required, let's say, air conditioning units to be put in, there was no way you, the assembler, would be able to keep up with the pace of the line. You needed to rely on your allies, so to speak, in order to help you get through. Because that was clearly a scheduling problem with the way they, they put those bodies on the line. They should have been staggered, but oftentimes they were not. So, that was one thing I learned. And then I learned that people wanted to avoid being blamed for something that went wrong, because if you ended up being the target, people had the sense that you could get in really big trouble. And so, you did these extraordinary things to avoid getting blamed. And the thing that could really be bad would be if they—if the parts ran short. Let's say you were using a particular kind of screw or some other kind of fastener, and you didn't have enough parts to get through your shift, then they—if it were a serious enough problem—they would have to fly in these parts by helicopter. And you would be blamed. And you did not want that to happen. And so, what you did, thirty-percent of the parts that were in this plant were these small parts that you could keep, really in your own workstation area, in your locker, let's say. And so, what you would do first is you notify—you the assembler would notify the material handler that you were running short on a certain part. Or the foreman would tell the material handler, "Hey, this part is hot!" meaning we're running short of it. And I, I did this a number of times, I went around with the material handlers trying to find the parts. The inventory system in that plant was a wreck, it was a train wreck. And you couldn't find anything. So, you would go to the docks thinking, okay, well, maybe it just got—a bad box of parts got put on the wrong dock. And so, we'd check all these docks. There were a ton of them. And you couldn't find the stupid part, okay. So, then what do you do? Well, so you come back, and you tell the assembler, "I'm sorry, I can't find the part." Okay, so the, the assembler then realizes, all right, let me look through my locker, maybe I've got that part. Cause you stored parts because you knew that these little parts often ran short. So, you want to be prepared. All you want to do is get through the shift because then it's not your problem anymore, right? It's the next shift's problem, and you don't care about the next shift. So, you look through [your locker]. Well, if you don't have it—the part that you need—you only have one more option. And the option is to enter the vast trading network that existed on the plant floor. And so, as I mentioned earlier, there were four product lines. So, you go over, let's say you're on the medium duty line, that produces medium duty trucks, well, you just go over to one of the other lines, the bus line, or the p-wagon, the UPS, vehicle line where they made the chassis, and you say, "Look," You know the guy over there, who's got more or less the same part. I mean, you, you've met this person. And you say, "Look, Harry, I've got to get through to the end of the shift. Have you got any parts like this that I can use?" And if Harry's got some extra parts, Harry will give them to you. And then the next time Harry runs short, he's going to come to you. So, it was this perfect match, assuming that it was within the thirty-percent of the parts that were the small ones. Now you had a real problem if you ran out—ran out of head lamps, or if you ran out of something else that was much bigger that you couldn't keep in your locker, or that he couldn't keep in his locker. But at any rate, this was all to avoid being blamed for something that you had absolutely no control over. And the upshot of the whole blaming pattern, both in terms of how it mapped out into the plant floor, and the previous shift, as well as this business of entering the trading network and hoarding parts, is that the inventory system, as I said, was a mess, and yet, the plant management was busy espousing the importance of quality while still telling everyone in the plant in many different ways, the only thing you really need to do is get this truck, or bus, out of the door. That is your number one job. And we really don't care what shape that truck or bus is in. If we have to pull it off for repair later, not a problem, we'll just put it in the yard, and when we get to it, we'll send a repairman out, and they'll deal with it, whatever. Or if it goes to the dealerships, whatever. So, it was really a story of culture—cultural contradictions where people were told one thing, as the official way. Oh, yes, we're a very high-quality plant, and we believe in quality, and we want you to take this training in quality. But, by the same token, they really valued quotas. And they—there were a certain number of trucks and buses that they had to produce each hour, and if they didn't meet their quotas, everybody got yelled out.
NOLAN: That's quite a story. So, I have two related questions. When you think back of all—on all the different projects you did, was there any one in particular that really grabbed the attention of General Motors?
BRIODY: Well, that one did. That one was presented at the GM Board meeting. So, when I say the GM Board, I'm talking about the outside advisors to General Motors who meet on a regular basis and play a fairly important role in the company in terms of its strategy and so on. And this, I—now interestingly because I was just the little researcher, I was not allowed to present my own research.
BRIODY: Somebody else had to present it for me. Although I will say that that man who was from communications did a very nice job. But I thought it was hilarious that I'm the researcher, I'm sitting there at the board meeting, but I can't talk about my own project cause my status wasn't high enough. (laughs)
NOLAN: Okay. Then a related question is, was there any aspect of your work, that really, resonated with fellow anthropologists? You know, you've published quite a number of things, but it—was there anything in particular out of that GM work that people responded to?
BRIODY: Well, yes, I worked on this one project also when I was a young researcher on people who took international assignments for GM.
NOLAN: Right, yeah.
BRIODY: And one of the papers that I published with Meta [Marietta] Baba, back in '90, '91 I think it was, ended up getting the Morton Fried Award from the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association. And so, that was a pretty nice recognition that we got. The paper for which we got that award, was really about how GM had two different systems. They had a system that was very US-focused. And they had the rest of General Motors, which was very globally focused. And the higher status of the two was the GM domestically-focused group. And so, there wasn't much mixing and matching between the two. And in the old days, like say back in the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies even, you stayed within the overseas group for your entire career. You were a career person, just like you might be a Chevy guy on the domestic front, if you were part of overseas operations, you were an overseas guy. And you took one overseas assignment after the next. You may come back to—at the time they had offices in New York—you may come back to New York for a while, and sit at a desk doing some, you know, interim stuff. But as soon as a new assignment come up wherever, South Africa, or some place in South America, or in Asia, off you would go with your family. And you typically spent a minimum of three years in the next location, sometimes a little longer. And then, another assignment. So, that is what your life was like. Your children were raised abroad much like diplomats’ families as an example. So, anyway, this one paper that won the award was really about these two different systems and how they worked. And how one, the domestically-oriented one, was extremely ethnocentric. They had absolutely no use for these overseas people, because they thought about things in a very different way. And besides, you haven't done anything for me lately, you know, I represent Pontiac, and, you know, you've been working—where have you been working again, over in France? Really? That doesn't help me out here in the US. Cause, of course, Pontiacs were only sold in the US. So--
NOLAN: —yeah. I remember that paper. It connected with some of my own interests in cross-cultural adaptation. And so, yeah. Okay, so let's talk a little bit about the people that you were working with. I said that we'd get back to that. What sort of co-workers did you have? What were their disciplinary backgrounds? What did they think an anthropologist like you did, and how'd you figure out how to talk to them?
BRIODY: Right. Well, it was interesting. I had colleagues from all different disciplines in my department, as well as in the Research Labs. The Research Labs at the time had physicists, metallurgists, engineering, natural sciences. They had some social sciences, mathematicians, computer scientists. It was, it was pretty much wall-to-wall PhDs. Although there were a lot of MAs as—or, I should say MS people as well. Frankly, I did not do much interdisciplinary research when I first started out. I worked with other anthropologists as a rule. So, as I said, Meta Baba, at the time, was at Wayne State, and that is not too far away from GM's Tech Center—I don't know, maybe twenty-five minutes by car. So we ended up working on a couple of projects together. And she had some students. And then there were other students who came to work in Research, one through a friend of mine, Jan Benson. Jan had a young woman who wanted to do some work with door engineers. And so, I ended up working on the door project. Did you know there were 500 parts, at least, to a door? So anyway, that particular project was about complexity, and how do we manage it—particularly when you need to change some of the parts, and those have an effect on the neighboring parts. Initially for the first several years, I really didn't work with too many other disciplines. And the longer I was there, however, I did. And I ended up working with my friend Jan, who was a sociologist. I also worked with a computer scientist. I'm trying to think who else. You know, I routinely would have people from different disciplines read and review our papers, because all of our technical reports were peer reviewed, much like it is in academia. You know, you had to be able to make yourself understandable to them. If they couldn't understand what you were talking about, it wasn't going to be very helpful to the company. So, we always used people from different disciplines to review our work. And they were pretty much fascinated by what I did, and what people I was working with did. By the end of my time there, there were about six or seven of us [anthropologists]; I had some contract people, I had some university people, and we were all sort of a strong team. But what ended up happening at the very end was that GM was facing bankruptcy in 2009, and I was told in September of 2008 that my job was targeted for, for, uh, I--
BRIODY: --reduction--I was going to be, you know--
NOLAN: --riffed, yeah--
BRIODY: --I was going to be riffed. And so, I made a choice at that point that it was far more valuable for me to try to get out as much work, based on the research that I had already done, as was possible, than for me to try to dream up a brand-new project that might have a chance of saving my job.
BRIODY: And so, I ended up, doing the former. I was very glad I made that decision. I lost my job the following April but in the meantime, had gotten a book contract. And the book contract was from Pearson, and it ended up in the book called Transforming Culture where the team of six or seven of us had worked in the manufacturing environments, building on the work I had originally done with the blaming in the truck and bus plants. And, that book got written over that summer in 2009. I mean, that's all I did, and my two co-authors, Bob Trotter and Tracy Meerwarth. We turned that book in in September, and it came out in the following year. And it ended up winning the Textor Prize through the American Anthropological Association. So, we were happy about that. And then shortly after that happened, I ended up working for a medical start-up, for a short period of time as part of my own consulting business, which I started, just a week or so after I lost my job.
NOLAN: Let me come around to the, the Cultural Keys part of it.
NOLAN: Just a second. But before we do that, um, I want you to tell me the real story about the anthropologists at work video.
NOLAN: Just tell me the story, and if there's anything left out—
NOLAN: —I'll come back to it. Was there a behind the curtains story?
NOLAN: I think that this is a good time to talk—
NOLAN: —about that. In whatever way you want—
NOLAN: Just tell the story—
BRIODY: —Well, well first I'll say that there is a little article that came out in Practicing Anthropology that describes lessons that we learned from the experience of making the video. So, you can read about it there. But based on my recollection, I'll try to tell you some of the key things that happened. We knew that students were desperate to learn about anthropology, and the kinds of jobs that a person could potentially do as an anthropologist. We knew this because students routinely asked us, let's say at, at the SfAA meetings, the AAA meetings. And so, this was a project that NAPA, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, which is a section of the AAA. This was a project that they said they would be willing to take on. Okay, now I wasn't quite sure about this at all. I had absolutely no video or filming experience. I knew nothing. But I had a friend who at the time was named Dawn Bodo, now Dawn Lehman. Dawn had worked in the production industry for twenty-five years. And she said, "Oh, no, this will be a piece of cake." She says, "Here's what we'll do. We will advertise in a local journal that these technical people read." You know. And I said, "Well, what do you mean by technical people?" She said, "You know, the people that make the films, the narrators, the sound people." She said, "They've got this magazine, and you can just put a little ad in there and say that you're putting together this video for students" because that was our targeted audience. "And these people are going to love to offer you their time, and their talents, because they are so sick"—this is a direct quote—"of shooting sheet metal." And shooting sheet metal is that what they usually do. It is work for the automotive industry, where they are taking, you know, films, and, and video, whatever, of cars, and trucks. That's what the sheet metal is. And so, she said, "No, this will be real easy." Well, it was real easy. We didn't have trouble at all attracting a technical crew to work with us to do the filming. And then we also had success in working with a post-production studio who put all the footage, the narration, the original music, et cetera, et cetera, together to make the film. So that part ended working very well. This was a project that took pretty much somewhere between three-quarters and maybe eighty-percent of my time over the course of the year, one year. And my boss at the time, Gary McDonald, was willing to allow me to do that. I think that he saw that this would be a very valuable tool for academia in general. And, you know, we are researchers at GM Research. I mean, we are all very closely connected with various universities, either through contract work or through other means. And I think that he really respected that I, I was willing to try to take this on. So, between Dawn and I, we gathered together various groups of anthropologists, and we told them that they needed to work together to help us. So, we had a content group where people would review and talk about what should be included in the video. We had a fundraising group. Okay, we did need some money. We had expenses. We needed to travel to do the filming, for example. Okay, so the airlines are not going to pay for you to do that. You need money. So, we had a fundraising group. We had these various groups, and we came up with the idea that if an individual gave us $100, we would put their name in the credits. If a university department of anthropology gave us $250, their name would get in the credits, and they also would get a copy of the video free to use to share with their students. We had the video, not done, but quite close to being done. It did not yet have all the footage, but it had—it had most of the footage. It had the narration, but I don't think the music was part of it. And then we tested it out. We tested it out at Bucknell University with Tom Greaves and his students. We got more feedback. And that was a very useful experience. Enter the AAA. We had a problem. We were collecting money. Sections of the AAA are not allowed to do that. And so, here we were, we had already collected a whole bunch of money. And so, what to do? And then came the issue of copyright. NAPA was not allowed to affix a copyright, because they didn't have one to affix. So, the AAA would be the only people that could affix the copyright. And the executive director at the time was not a hundred-percent sure he was interested in this, and there was by now, you know, a lot of talk, I think, that was going around. And we had actively gone to the AAA looking for funding, and they said no. They didn't have the money to support this. And so, we said, "Well, we're going to do it anyways. So, we'll just find a way to do it." We did go to SfAA and they ended up giving us the $250, and so, their name became part of the credits. And ultimately, the AAA did put its copyright on it. But it was a battle. And what happened was there would be a five-person group who would review the video to see if it was good enough—
NOLAN: —I see—
BRIODY: —to put the AAA copyright on it. And I remember at the time Dawn had a very good relationship with Jim Peacock, who was one of the people. And she basically, you know, helped him to understand the value, and make sure that he was on board. But the other people were a bit of a wild card. And then the executive director was one of the votes. And so, there were four faculty, and one executive director. The vote was three to two in favor.
BRIODY: Just barely.
NOLAN: Yeah, really.
BRIODY: So, it was pretty tight. At the AAA meetings in November of '93, I think that's right, '93, so we had been working on it exactly one year. We had a video to show the premier, so to speak, that NAPA sponsored, and we showed the video. And I think it was in the evening—I don't remember the circumstances. People were blown away. They couldn't get enough of it. And we were so excited because we had worked so hard, that we were just thrilled at how it came out. I mean, yeah, you can quip and—about this and that, you know, maybe we wouldn't have had such a long section towards the end, ‘cause we had quite a bit of footage on WAPA, which is the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists. So, maybe, you know, there are things that might, we might have done a little bit differently. But overall, it covered the four fields. It had people who were telling students, and their faculty members, and parents, here are some careers that you can do as an anthropologist, you know? And we had, we had things pretty much covered. From the biological end, we went to the Smithsonian, to the cultural end, the linguistic end, the archeology end, we covered it all. We had students who were talking in the video. I mean, we tried to show as much demographic diversity as we could. So, yeah, we didn't make it outside the US, but for a US product by a US team, I think we did a pretty good job in one year. We came in on time, on budget. And we just were thrilled!
NOLAN: Yeah, I remember seeing it. I don't remember when, it wasn't at its premier. It was later.
NOLAN: And I had the kind of reaction that—now, this is going to sound a little flippant, but it's what I thought about. I thought, just like a lot of people thought after we elected Barack Obama, okay, it's post-racial now. I thought when I saw that video, oh good, applied is—we're on our way.
NOLAN: Well, we sort of are, except that it didn't solve all our problems.
BRIODY: No, of course not.
NOLAN: It was so impressive at the time; you see what I mean? Everybody—
BRIODY: —yeah, absolutely—
NOLAN: —everybody said, oh my God, you know, this is so cool.
NOLAN: This is so cool. Yeah.
BRIODY: Well, it made explicit something that was not—
BRIODY: —explicit. And that was what its value was. I mean, too many people were asking what can I do, or what can my child do, or how do we even think about this? And so I think it did serve its purpose. And it was a stand-alone for many years until Northern Arizona did its subsequent video, and then there was another one that Emily Altimare worked on at GM when she was an intern with me. And so, you know, there are some videos out there that students can look at and get ideas. That was the whole point.
NOLAN: And your video is, is on You Tube.
BRIODY: Oh, is that right? Oh, I didn't know that.
NOLAN: Let's talk about Cultural Keys then.
NOLAN: And then after that it's a couple of wrap-up questions.
BRIODY: Okay, perfect.
NOLAN: You know, about the future—
NOLAN: —and advice, and so forth. So, Cultural Keys.
BRIODY: Okay, so Cultural Keys, came into being in May of 2009. I had left GM, in late April. And so, about two, three weeks later, I filed paperwork with the state of Michigan, which is where I live and work. And I created this, limited liability corporation, called Cultural Keys. I chose the name because I had an old set of keys that belonged to my father, who had died. And I thought, you know, cultural keys, it unlocks something. It tells us, you know, that the key could help us. And so, that's how the name came about. And one quick story, my dad, during his life had met Fred Gamst, who wrote, The Hoghead, and many other, train-related articles and books. He knew the rules of the rail. And my father was an old train guy. He worked for the railroads as an inspector of perishable items that in those days traveled by freight—meats, fruits, vegetables. And so, one day I was going into Boston University, where Fred worked. And I asked my dad if he wanted to come in with me and meet Fred ‘cause I thought, you know, they might have some things in common. Well, anyways, so, we took the train in, and we went to Fred's office. And honest to God I didn't get a word in edge-wise. Those two were just yap, yap, yapping the whole time. And, and I say that because my dad made quite an impression on Fred, and vice versa. And then after the visit, Fred typed up—in those days you typed up a nice note on stationary, and he sent it to me, and he asked to be remembered to my father. And years later, after I opened up Cultural Keys, he looked at my business card, and on the business card are my dad's keys on a keyring. And he looked at that, and he said, "Are those your father's keys?" And I said, "Yes, they are." And he said, "Do you know, Elizabeth, those are train keys?" I said, "Are you kidding me?" I had no idea.
NOLAN: Yeah, yeah.
BRIODY: So, you know, the train people know each other—they know their culture, and it's just a very exciting thing for me to kind of carry on. And it reminds me of my dad, so anyway. Cultural Keys, as I said, first started doing some work for a medical start-up. At the time they were very much focused on working with physicians who had their own independent offices, and who were being pushed by the insurance companies to become much more responsive to patients. The model was the patient-centered medical home where your primary care physician would be, you know, sort of your coordinator. You would go see that person, that person would advise you: “Yes, you need to go see an orthopedist, I don't like the looks of that on your ankle” or whatever it was, and then information would circle back from the orthopedist to the primary care, and so the, the idea is the primary care is the home base for all of your medical care. And you keep—the primary care is always the one in charge, in the loop, keeping things going—not the patient because the patient doesn't even necessarily know what's the matter with the patient. So, I worked on that for quite a period of time, and helped train people who would go into offices of doctors to help them with process improvements in their office staffing, and in their office processes. And it wasn't work that I was particularly interested in, but I could see its value. These were mostly quality engineers who would come and help people in the office environment figure out how to do things better. Like why haven't we got a system in place at the end, or at the beginning of summer, or at the start of fall, to make sure that young kids have a sports physical so they're ready to go when fall goes around, or something. We just can't get our act together. Or the kid's got to go to camp, and we can't seem to get the form signed for the mom. What is our problem? So, it was—those kinds of issues were, a real pain in the neck to deal with in these offices. So, I helped with that. And then little by little I got some consulting work, and have worked for a number of for-profit, as well as non-profit groups. Those have ranged from healthcare, to pet foods, to hotels, to research institutions, consumer products, you know, just sort of all over the map.
NOLAN: Anything in particular that's, that's been very interesting?
BRIODY: Oh well, the funniest, I guess I would say the funniest story, and you can read all about this in a new book that just came out, called, what is it called? Well, the, the editor is Maryann McCabe, and it just came out, in 2017 under Taylor and Francis. It's Collaborative Ethnography in Business Environments. I have an article with Ken Erickson in that book, which is a must read if you are interested in the question of why don't panties talk to bras.
BRIODY: All right? So, for all of you that are interested in intimates, intimate apparel, this story is a hoot. So, I'll just tell you very briefly. This was a project that Ken Erickson, who's now at University of South Carolina, but has previously had his own company called Pacific Ethnography for many years [got]. He does consumer research. And, Ken had this contract with a global intimates manufacturer, and they were interested in some organizational culture issues. They were interested in the impact of the organizational culture on what was going on with customers. So, customers go into a particular store, whether it's a, a department store, like Macy's, or a big box store like Target or Walmart, and, you know, people are shopping for underwear. And, they wanted to know what's the impact of the organizational culture. So, we did some interviews at the headquarters of this firm, and in one of my early interviews, maybe the third or fourth, I was talking with a young woman who worked in an area of the company—something like consumer insights—so, a lot of survey data, and, and other forms of data that she was trying to pull together. And I asked her a question, I said, "Can you see the culture of this company on the sales floor?" And she thought for about thirty seconds. And I didn't think she was ever going to answer. Finally, she answered. She said, "Yeah," she says, "bras don't talk to panties." And I looked at her, and I said, "What?" (laughs) And she--and I started laughing, and she said, "Look around here." She said, "The bra people are over here, and the panty people are over there, and we don't even have lunch together."
BRIODY: And so, I said, "Oh." And, you know, I'm trying to process what she said because I was still laughing so much. Well, it turns out that if you go to any intimate apparel section of a store, you will find exactly what she said. The bras are on one side of that department, and the panties are on the other. Now you might say, well, who cares. Well, I'll tell you who cares. Many women want to have matching sets. So, you can't put them together if they're not right next to each other. So, what ends up happening is you'll see this woman walking around with a bra, and she's trying to match it with panties, but she can't because she, you know, it, it's like, the fabric is different, and it just doesn't look right. The best you can hope for is to coordinate. So, many—you have a print pair of panties, and you've got a, fuchsia bra. I mean, that's your best thing. So, we went back to this company and we—oh, and then, in addition to that, we went into peoples' homes, and we talked with them about their underwear. And routinely we were told that the women wanted matching sets. Now, not every woman wants a matching set, but enough want matching sets, and they're not finding them with this company. So, we go back to the senior people at this firm, and, you know, we were talking to them. We said, “What is this about matching sets?” “Oh, women don't want matching sets.” I'm thinking to myself, well, that's not what we found. We found that they want matching sets, and they can't even get them. And as a matter of fact, we were at the Macy's in Herald Square in New York, and we walked into the intimates department, and guess what? On four mannequins, right in front of us, there were matching sets.
BRIODY: So, I go up to the lady who's in that department, and I said, "Hey, this is great! You know, we keep hearing that women want matching sets." She's like, “Oh, I got to take those down.” I said, "Why do you have to take them down?" She said, "We ran out." I said, "Well, can't you get any more?" "Oh, no, we can't get anymore." So, it turns out that this company does make a limited number of matching sets, almost like a tease—come and shop in our department—except when you want matching sets you can't get them. And they do the same thing on their catalogs, and on their website. They show matching sets, but you can't buy them for love or money, unless you want black.
BRIODY: Or white.
NOLAN: Oh my God.
BRIODY: So, if you want to read all about silos--
NOLAN: —yep, yep—
BRIODY: —which is exactly what this is all about organizationally speaking that the bras are in one silo, and the panties are in the other, and guess what? Where those items are produced in Asia, the bras are produced in one plant, and the panties are produced in a different plant.
BRIODY: And you go and you ask these people at this company: “Why don't you have them produced in the same plant?” “Oh, well, do you know how long it takes to make a bra?” And I said, "No." “It takes eighteen months to make a bra.” And I'm thinking to myself, eighteen months to make a bra, are you serious? Well, it does take eighteen months. And I'm thinking General Motors can make a car in eighteen months. How is it that a bra takes eighteen months? Well, from the start of the design, to getting it packaged and everything else—
BRIODY: —on to the floor, it is eighteen months. So, you've got—and panties, what, panties don't take that long. So, you've got this time difference. You've got a plant difference. And you have a fabric difference. The fabric for bras is different than panties, and so therefore part of the problem here is a technical issue. The dye lots are different. It's really hard to match that fuchsia color you might want. And besides, what are we going to do if, you know, we don't sell all the sets? We're going to have all this leftover inventory. And we don't want that. So, their solution was, we'll make a teeny number of matching sets, get people in, and they'll buy something. Well, hate to tell you people, but it's not working because who's take—who's taking you to the market? Well, it's Victoria’s Secret.
BRIODY: They are the ones who have all the colors.
BRIODY: All the style, all the sex, everything that you want is at Victoria’s Secret, and that's where, especially young women but also older women, will shop, and they will get at least their coordinated sets, if not their matching sets.
NOLAN: That's amazing. (laughs) Reminds me—
BRIODY: —it was a great, it was a great project— (laughs)—
NOLAN: —reminds me of the development story, which I'll tell you afterwards.
NOLAN: Okay. So, a couple of questions just to wrap up.
NOLAN: All right. And, and they are predictable, and, and going to be very useful when people hear them. What advice have you got for junior colleagues as they start their careers in applied anthropology? What recommendations have you got for the discipline in terms of educating people to become applied and practicing anthropologist? And what do you see as the future course—particularly for your own sort of interests in business anthropology?
NOLAN: But, you know, that's it. Advice for junior colleagues, advice for the discipline—
NOLAN: —and what do you think the future is going to look like?
BRIODY: Well, I think for the young people that are going through college, and then graduate school now, I think the most important thing is—aside from learning enough anthropology where you feel somewhat proficient—is to get as much work experience as possible doing something where there is a link to anthropology. And that can happen through internships, but it can also happen through volunteer work, and it might even happen at your uncle's store, you know, or, or some other place where you haven't even thought that you might be able to make a difference. So, that would be one suggestion. And a second suggestion is to use those experiences, and the people you meet as part of those experiences, and keep track of them. So, in other words, learn how to create a professional network, and maintain it. So, you never know when someone will think of you as a person who might be good on a particular project, or who might be interested in a particular job opportunity. And you never know where you will end up, but you might remember a person who had a very similar interest, and now that person would be ideal for you to work with. So, I would say those are the two key things: work experience where you're using your anthropology and networking. In terms of the discipline as a whole, I think there is a pretty big change afoot. I say that for a number of reasons. But one is there is a consortium of applied, practicing and applied anthropology programs. It goes by the acronym COPAA, and you can google it. COPAA, COPAAinfo.org I think is the website. And there are now thirty-one, thirty-two programs that are associated with COPAA, and they are in a position to share information with each other, project ideas with each other, et cetera, et cetera, and that is precisely the way in which students and their faculty members can benefit and learn more about it. They also offer a visiting scholar scholarship—I guess it's the Visiting Scholar Program it's called—which provides money for a professional anthropologist or practitioner to go to a particular university and work with the faculty at that university in a partnership so that both parties benefit. And there's a sum of money that the practitioner would get. And to make it useful for the practitioner—not just that the practitioner is giving time—but the practitioner may have some things that he or she would like to do. For example, there may be an expert, in a particular area that faculty, that department, has, and maybe it's possible for the practitioner to get more information from that person, sit down and have a conversation. Or it could be that the practitioner, would be interested in having the students test out a new method, or take a survey, or provide feedback on something that the practitioner is doing as part of their own work. So, that would be the way the practitioner could benefit. And then the university obviously benefits because the students can connect directly with that person, hear that person's views, hear that person's story, get ideas, get connected with other people. So, it's, it's truly a potentially very good benefit for both parties. So that's one thing that's going on. I think though, that more and more departments are feeling like they need to offer courses not just in applied anthropology, but professionalization skills. And I think we're not seeing enough of that yet. So, this is an area of potential future focus where you really have a boot camp, and you essentially run it so that students feel comfortable interviewing, so that students feel that they know what to expect, how to approach somebody, say, in a particular business, or in a particular non-profit or government agency, whatever it happens to be, how to prepare a resume, and can you go to two pages, or should you keep it to one? I mean, all these simple little questions, that aren't so simple. I think there's a lot to be learned. I remember even when I was a grad student, the sociologists in the Population Research Center were doing it then. They called it the training seminar. And it was mandatory. If you were a grad student, every Friday afternoon for one hour you were at the training seminar, and they were being taught how to become more professionally oriented. So, one week it was on grant writing. The next week it was on resumes. The third week somebody was going to be giving a talk at a conference. And so you had to listen and give advice to that person. And it was extremely useful. I'm not sure why anthropology programs don't do that routinely right now. That would be immensely important. And, you know, there's all these alums that live nearby universities, or they can Skype in, and you could ask them to give talks. It's no cost to anybody.
BRIODY: So, this huge opportunity is out there.
NOLAN: All right. So, final question, what's the future? What does it look for application? And you can talk about in relation to business anthropology if you want to, or just in general.
BRIODY: Yeah, I think for the future, it's always hard to predict. But what we know from past history is that the number of people interested in practice careers has grown exponentially. We now have about twenty-five-percent of the anthropological association that is non-academic, that is, they are holding jobs outside of academia, in various kinds of organizations and community settings. So, that number has increased over time, and I think it's going to continue to increase. We hear more and more about how few tenure-track jobs there are. So, you not only have an interest factor on the part of the students who want to do things that are out there in the world, but for those who even continue on with a PhD, there are very few academic jobs. So, they too will end up doing practice work. And I think that, you know, there's still going to be a few academic jobs, but I think the model has to shift in the heads of faculty. They should not be training their students for academic jobs, because most of them, almost all of them, will not get an academic job. And so, you know, faculty really need to start thinking about professionalizing their students –particularly at the master's level, but not exclusively. And I think that that would be a tremendous service. I talk to students all over all the time, and it's always the same issue.
BRIODY: You know, they want to know more, but they don't have anybody they can go to. And it's not a question of laying blame. It's just a question of you—this is something, this is an opportunity for faculty to help. And I am very pleased to say that I spent the last three years on the Board of the American Anthropological Association. And I found that my other colleagues on that Board, of which there were seventeen total, were very interested in what they could do to help their students. They recognized that their best students were not getting the academic jobs. So, the tide is turning. And I think now what we—what the practitioners, the professional anthropologists need to do, perhaps working through COPAA, perhaps working in other ways, is to help those faculty help their students.
NOLAN: Great, well thank you.
BRIODY: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.
Briody, Elizabeth K. and Ken C. Erickson. 2017. “Success despite the Silos: System-Wide Innovation and Collaboration,” In Maryann McCabe, ed., Collaborative Ethnography in Business Environments. London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 26-59.
Briody, Elizabeth K. and Marietta L. Baba. 1991. “Explaining Differences in Repatriation Experiences: The Discovery of Coupled and Decoupled Systems,” American Anthropologist, 93(2), June: 322-344.
Briody, Elizabeth K. and Marietta L. Baba. 1994. “Reconstructing a Culture Clash at General Motors: An Historical View from the Overseas Assignment,” In Tomoko Hamada and Willis E. Sibley, eds., Anthropological Perspectives on Organizational Culture, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 219-260.
Briody, Elizabeth K. and Tracy M. Pester. 2017. “Redesigning Anthropology's Ethical Principles to Align with Anthropological Practice,” In Timothy de Waal Malefyt and Robert J. Morais, eds., Ethics in the Anthropology of Business: Explorations in Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy. London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 23-43.
Briody, Elizabeth K., Robert T. Trotter, II and Tracy L. Meerwarth. 2014. Transforming Culture: Creating and Sustaining Effective Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
McCabe, Maryann and Elizabeth K. Briody, editors. 2018. Cultural Change from a Business Anthropology Perspective. Lexington Books.