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My Jakarta: Amalia E. Maulana, Ethnographer

We’ve all heard of Geography. Maybe even Oceanography. ?But Ethnography? Ethnography is what big companies use to better understand their customers and what they want. In a nutshell, ethnographers like Amalia E. Maulana are the reason why we use terms like user-friendly and even why some stores look the way they do.?Today, the founder and CEO of Etnomark Consulting explains why companies rely on ethnography, how it can help us solve traffic problems and why she wishes there were 40 hours in a day.

What is ethnography?

It’s a branch of anthropology. We learn about human beings and their way of life from various dimensions. We gain an understanding by using various small case studies to give us a broader understanding of culture and people. In ethnography, we try to gain some insight into how and why people do what they do. Perhaps you weren’t aware that iPod used ethnography to develop the user interface and the Apple Store experience. ?

How does Apple use ethnography?

Ethnography is the reason you can use things like the iPod so easily and intuitively. The iStore is designed around how consumers might use the equipment in their everyday life.

What other factors are at play?

Various dimensions. For example, we learn why a customer sometimes loves a product but doesn’t buy it, why some people buy but never use and so on. Ethnography links culture with behavior and understanding. ??A perfect example is how people define ‘cool.’ Culture plays a big part; behavior will play a part as well. Why do BlackBerrys sell better in Indonesia than iPhones? It’s because of Indonesia’s friendly culture, which is linked to the behavior of chatting. ?

What has ethnography taught you over the years?

Jakarta is a heterogeneous metropolis, rich in stories. You can find people from everywhere in Indonesia in Jakarta. Their original culture, way of thinking and behavior have blended to make a ‘new society’ in Jakarta. ??From an ethnographical perspective, to solve Jakarta’s problems, we can no longer divide people into traditional categories such as demography [age, income, occupation, etc] or psychographics [interests, values, etc]. ??We need to sort people by behavior complemented by other dimensions, such as psychography and demography.

What have you found?

By using ethnography, and if you observe closely, Jakarta people like commuting together. ??That’s the concept behind Web sites like nebeng.com and omprengan. Several people that take the same route pay one driver to do the commuting. ??Rather than enforcing the 3-in-1 with fines and ending up with jockeys, we should encourage people who live close to each other to commute together.

What is omprengan?

It works like this: Let’s say we live in Bogor. I’ll park my car at a certain place. I’ll wait for my friends to come to my car and we we’ll leave together. ??I’m the driver, so all of you have to pay, let’s say Rp 10,000 ($1.10), to me for a one-way journey. ??Some are purely due to same direction and can leave at the same time, some are commercial. ??Web site nebeng.com advertises people who will leave in a certain area to a certain destination.

So ethnography is used to better understand consumers?

Companies today can no longer understand their consumers based on traditional research methodology. ??All the consumer-controlled media, like Facebook and Twitter, have changed the way people behave. ??Therefore, you need to understand consumer behavior to understand spending behavior.

Did you have any doubts about starting a consultancy based on this niche service?

I was excited and thrilled. I have a long track record as a professional in multinational companies. ??Initially, I had my doubts, but my sister, who’s a successful entrepreneur, gave me some powerful advice: ‘Now or Never.’ ??In a short time, I had my first client and it was a multinational company.

You got your PhD in Australia, so why come back to Jakarta?

After thinking about my life for a long time, I realized I’d be more valuable if I worked in Indonesia rather than abroad. ??Plus, I knew that my chances for success would be higher in my own country. ??Before I left for my PhD, I had a strong network in Indonesia. Networking is your main asset in business. After returning to Indonesia, I envisioned myself as an agent of change. ??I looked for a niche to differentiate myself and then I realized that I could use ethnography as a tool to detect and understand important issues for Indonesian companies.

Can you give us an example?

I can’t give an example due to client confidentiality.

What is the difference of traditional career versus academic career?

In traditional career, your key performance indicators have been set and are clear. In an academic career, you set your own KPI. ??You look for your own research topics and find results. ??In traditional corporate life, you will see the fruits of your labor in just a short time. In academic, you need at least two years.

You have three children and also teach, how do you manage to balance your life?

I can’t really answer this. I’m still not good at time management. I wish there was 40 hours in a day [laughs].

Published at The Jakarta Globe, November 21, 2010

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