Transformation in Ethnography and Business

The hard sciences don’t understand people. And to succeed in business you need to understand people. Not just how people are in the office, but how people are, period. What makes us human, and what the dimensions of the human experience are. It is particularly important in the presentation of what the business is and what the business does.

We might say this is a time of change or a time of uncertainty. How can businesses cope with uncertainty and grow? How can employees and managers chart a course through it? Ethnography offers a higher vantage point, and while this field seems far away from the lives of most, it is the very means of understanding our own lives in changing times. Ethnography can be deployed in business in interesting and compelling ways.

One of those ways is through stories.

There is a common scenario in business, starting up a new enterprise or project: It is often reasonable to ask, is this something we’ve done before, a core competency or a continuation of an existing idea? It is rare in business to begin something completely unique or original, simply because the alignment of forces necessary for it has not been fully accomplished, ideas may not been expressed or tried, making the gaining of consensus problematic.

What does it take to step out of the tried, true and failed to the not tried, new and possible? What does it take to look pure potential in the eye?

This is an example from ethnographic study, in this case, a film about the restoration of the Elwha River and the removal of the two hydroelectric power dams on it, that showcases an unfamiliar opportunity for many: Transformation.


While companies speak of transformation or transformative experiences, if we do not have it in us to transform our ideas, or in fact to transform ourselves, how can we transform a company? Many of our abilities are conditioned in the mind through culturally based experiences.

Transformation occurs when a major cultural change or shift is desired. For example, transformation in the sales department may well be about a program which changes the culture of an organization from product pushing to a customer centric and customer needs based.

Some cultures refer to transformation intrinsically. In Coast Salish communities, alongside Coyote and Raven stories, teaching moral and practical lessons using animal traits and personalities, there are Changer or Transformer stories. Transformer is a pre-eminent spirit-being who can change a person into an animal or even into a river.

For these ancient peoples, an inherent adaptability or flexibility has been a matter of cultural and physical survival. “Shape-shifting” has always been a part of the Coast Salish worldview. In the worldview of the dominant culture, today, if you can “shape-shift” you just might begin to run your organization better. If your organization can “shape-shift” it can be more nimble, adaptive and original.

The trick, at its most basic, is believing that you do not need to be what you were yesterday, realizing that change need not be incremental.

On the Elwha River, whose life sustaining salmon runs were blocked by dams 100 years ago, there was a history of a Changer “up where the dam is.” Through the making of the historic documentary film “Unconquering the Last Frontier,” which built consensus in its making, and created awareness through national PBS distribution, change was helped along.

Under the lower dam, beneath a mountain of early 20th century concrete, according to Klallam Indian tradition, was a Changer.

Eventually, it came to pass that the hopes of the people, the tradition of the Coast Salish culture, and the strength of Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe were revived and restored by a belief in what is possible.

In 2012, the dams began to be removed, in the largest dam removal and ecosystem restoration project anywhere in the world, and the prolific and life-sustaining salmon runs that had nourished the people began to return to the upper river.

When communications professional and filmmaker, Robert Lundahl, began to tell the story, the prevailing wisdom was, “that’s impossible.”

Remember this story next time you want to try something new, begin a new initiative, or take a risk.

Remember it the next time somebody tells you “that’s impossible,” because it surely isn’t.

Transformation is an important part of the human experience, and manifesting the possibilities simply requires that you believe in the potential.

In this case, the outcomes and their historical and cultural importance cannot fully be expressed in words alone, but for those who believe in the transformative potential of the human spirit, a simple thank you confirms anything is possible.

From Rachel Hagaman, Economic Development Director, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe:

Hello Robert… Just wanted to say hello, and ask you how you are doing. We are getting ready to go fish for chum salmon. I am sure you have heard by now, the fish are already starting to utilize the habitat up above where the projects used to be located. It is awesome, and it is going to keep getting better. I just want to say that I know in my heart that your film and the work you did had a huge impact on the ways things turned out and I am still very grateful to you. Thank you again

-Rachel L. Hagaman

Unconquering the Last Frontier is available from Bullfrog Films. Clip narration by Beatrice Charles and Adeline Smith. Watch a full length preview screener here. To enjoy more filmmaking from Robert Lundahl and RL | A visit