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Wells Fargo, Applied Anthropology, and the Culture of Corruption

John Stumpf, the CEO of Wells Fargo, announced yesterday that he is retiring from his position. What exactly Stumpf will do next is anybody’s guess, as he doesn’t need to work ever again. During his time at Wells Fargo, he amassed a fortune estimated at over $130 million.

How did Stumpf do it? He created a structure of compensation that relied on systematic fraud to create a river of money flowing into the accounts of the top leaders of the bank. In the most egregious violation, Wells Fargo created a sales force that was paid according to the number of new bank accounts that were opened up, in which workers were told to increase their numbers by any means necessary. That’s exactly what the salespeople at Wells Fargo did, setting up immense numbers of fake bank accounts for people who hadn’t authorized them, and for people who didn’t even exist.

These criminal practices at Wells Fargo weren’t just recently discovered by Wells Fargo executives. The Los Angeles Times exposed the problem three years ago, in an article with the headline Wells Fargo’s Pressure-cooker Sales Culture Comes at a Cost.

That article’s reference to a “sales culture” brought to mind a series of more recent articles in which National Public Radio described a “toxic sales culture”, the New York Times wrote about a “poisonous sales culture”, and Cory Doctorow referred to the “culture of blackballing threats and coerced corruption” at Wells Fargo. It seems that a number of journalists are observing that Wells Fargo had something more fundamental than just a legal problem. Wells Fargo, they’re saying, has a cultural problem. What could that cultural problem be?

If you want to understand a cultural issue, the best person to go to is a cultural anthropologist. As luck would have it, Wells Fargo has been in close proximity with anthropologists. This summer, Wells Fargo sponsored a meeting of applied anthropologists – EPIC 2016 – in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Applied anthropologists are people who specialize in studying cultural issues in corporations and consumer culture. EPIC, short for Ethnographic Praxis in Industry, is a professional organization established So, if anyone could have been able to assess the cultural problems with Wells Fargo, the people at EPIC would have been the ones.

Only, looking back at the deliberations at EPIC, it seems that no one involved in the organization raised any alarm bells about the cultural problems at Wells Fargo – not even after the journalists at the Los Angeles Times prominently announced the problem back in 2013. Over the last three years, there have been no articles, no lectures, and not even any member forum discussions of Wells Fargo’s problems with corporate culture.

That’s not to say that the applied anthropologists at EPIC have completely neglected the subject of Wells Fargo. In 2006, Robin Beers and Pamela Whitney, employees at Wells Fargo, presented a paper at the EPIC conference at which they purported to describe “how Wells Fargo, a leading financial services institution, builds user- centered online experiences on a foundation of ethnographic insight.” Beers and Whitney specifically claimed to have gained “ethnographic insights into the corporate culture” of Wells Fargo. Their ethnographic report mentioned nothing about any ethical problems in the corporate culture of Wells Fargo. Of course, that was 10 years ago.

In 2011, Robin Beers presented another paper to the EPIC Conference, joining Tommy Stinson and Jan Yeager of Cheskin Added Value. In their paper, these three claimed that “ethnography became a catalyst for organizational change” at Wells Fargo “to improve customer experience”. Specifically, Beers bragged, her ethnographic expertise was used to contribute to a group “tasked with developing a multichannel strategy for sales and service”. The future for anthropologically-informed study of Wells Fargo’s corporate culture was bright, Beers suggested, writing that, “Ethnographers earned our seat at the boardroom table!”

In their 2011 paper, Beers, Stinson and Yeager did observe that Wells Fargo had “a sales-driven culture forms the bank’s ‘power core,’ with sales-optimized channels enjoying primacy within the touchpoint ecosystem,” and that Wells Fargo had “little collaboration between groups, and focus within groups on increasing revenue generated by sales and reducing service costs.” However, the trio’s recommendations were shallow, centering around the suggestion that Wells Fargo needed the “integration of sales and service”. Beers, Stinson and Yeager failed to uncover the ways in which the sales-driven culture of Wells Fargo was leading to widespread fraud.

Of course, given the position of Beers as an employee of Wells Fargo, perhaps such findings simply weren’t considered as relevant.

In a paper presented to the EPIC Conference in 2013, John Curran of JC Innovation & Strategy offered only the banal observation that “Leading US banks such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, consumer goods companies such as Coca-Cola and 3M, and retailers including Wal-Mart are all using Big Data analytics to improve the running of their business models and to anticipate changes in demand before they actually occur.” We know now that this observation was not at all accurate, at least not in terms how business was actually run at Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo was crafting analytics that pushed its employees to ignore issues like actual customer demand, degrading the business model of the big bank. It seems that Curran based his observation about Wells Fargo on news reports, rather than actual ethnographic research.

Actually, Curran was arguing that the term “ethnography”, which used to refer to prolonged, thickly qualitative research of human culture, should be radically expanded to include impersonal, automated, radically removed methods such as those of Big Data. With such a broad definition of ethnography, what kind of research wouldn’t be called ethnography? Who could say that doing a Google News search and reading an article about Wells Fargo’s analytics programs wouldn’t count as ethnographic work under Curran’s understanding?

This year, just a few weeks before the news about the pervasive, “poisonous”, “toxic” “culture of blackballing threats and coerced corruption” at Wells Fargo became public, Senior Vice President Christine Birtel was joined by Vice Presidents Jason Pajtas and Michelle Green from the Customer Insights division at Wells Fargo made a presentation to the EPIC Conference with the title “Unleashing the Power of an Analytics Organization: Why a Large Financial Institution Used Ethnography to Transform Analytics”. Once again, Robin Beers was part of the research team. Birtel, Pajtas, Green and Beers claim to have “conducted ethnographic research with employees in analytics roles throughout the entire enterprise, across lines of business, and at all levels of seniority”, to have “conducted 34 interviews of analytic team members across Wells Fargo, representing every line of business, every experience level and every major job function.”

What we know now is that the analytics at Wells Fargo were a significant force in maintaining the company’s culture of fraud. In fact, the Wells Fargo “ethnographic” team that presented at the EPIC Conference this year represented this corrupt culture through their own work, which by their admission focused on “quantifying the opportunities” more than conducting a full and rigorous qualitative assessment of the actual impact of Wells Fargo corporate culture on the customer experience. The common practice of setting up large numbers of fake accounts in order to meet quantitative metrics should have been plainly visible to any professional researchers who truly “conducted ethnographic research” “throughout the entire enterprise” “at all levels of seniority.”

We can’t know the choices these researchers were faced with. We can’t know what pressures they faced or what their motivations were. Nonetheless, the complete absence in their research of any description of the company-wide cultural dynamics leading to massive abuses against Wells Fargo customers is remarkable, given the supposed scope of their interviews. Birtel, Pajtas, Green and Beers either completely failed in the task of observing the dominant feature of their own employer’s corporate culture, or they purposefully omitted that observation from their report to EPIC.

Instead, in their “ethnography”, the research team crafted a series of insipid personas purporting to describe personality types working within Wells Fargo: “Steady Steve”, “Focused Felicia”, “Strategic Line Sid”, and so on.

The team wrote, in August, that their research showed that “Wells Fargo has embraced real change and possibilities. Now the real work of harnessing the promise of big data begins!”

What was actually going on is that the most craven data systems imaginable were driving Wells Fargo into the ground. Wells Fargo’s customer data system was being falsified, and then fed back to support behavior among employees that abused customers and destroyed the reputation of the company.

How could Christine Birtel, Jason Pajtas, Michelle Green, and Robin Beers have conducted ethnography within Wells Fargo and failed to raise an alarm about this problem?

One explanation is that their ethnography wasn’t really an ethnography. Like much of the “ethnography” that’s presented at EPIC, their research was methodologically thin, and skewed to serve a political purpose within the organization it purported to study. Not a single member of the project team was ever actually trained in cultural anthropology.

Though it is a sub-group within the American Anthropological Association, EPIC has embraced the idea that people without any training in anthropological research can go around conducting ethnography without any negative consequences. The failed ongoing research relationship between EPIC and Wells Fargo researchers shows how flawed that contention has been.

Yet, no one at EPIC seems willing to consider the lessons of the fundamentally-flawed “ethnographic” research that has been conducted by the group’s presenters in partnership with Wells Fargo over the years. No one at EPIC is talking about the responsibility that the Wells Fargo “ethnographic” researchers bear in the thorough corruption of the company’s culture.

Perhaps that’s because the culture of EPIC, has become thoroughly corrupted itself. Rather than conducting actual ethnographies, the presenters at the conference seem to have fallen into slapping together whatever research methodologies seem convenient and profitable, hiring themselves out to serve the needs of whomever will pay.

EPIC has released no comment about its financial sponsorship by Wells Fargo. In a recent article about the “wisdom” that emerged from the EPIC2016 conference, there is no word about the Wells Fargo debacle, and the role that EPIC played in enabling the bank’s dishonesty. At this year’s article from Birtel, Pajtas, Green and Beers, there have been zero comments from EPIC members challenging the research’s astonishing misrepresentation of Wells Fargo corporate culture.

This is not what ethnography does. This is not what anthropology does.

Most of the people involved in EPIC aren’t really practicing ethnographers. Few are anthropologists – not even applied anthropologists. Of course, people who are not anthropologists can become capable of conducting ethnographies. However, that’s not what appears to be going on at EPIC, which has masked an anything-goes attitude toward research with an ethnographic facade.

The time is long overdue for the American Anthropological Association to manage its own culture. If it does not, ethnography means nothing, and anthropology means nothing.

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