Strategic Ethnography and the Biography of Artefacts

Strategic Ethnography and the Biography of Artefacts

Neil Pollock (University of Edinburgh, UK) and Robin Williams (University of Edinburgh, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0303-5.ch013
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Abstract

In health research and services, and in many other domains, the authors note the emergence of large-scale information systems intended for long-term use with multiple users and uses. These e-infrastructures are becoming more widespread and pervasive and, by enabling effective sharing of information and coordination of activities between diverse, dispersed groups, are expected to transform knowledge-based work. Social scientists have sought to analyse the significance of these systems and the processes by which they are created. Much current attention has been drawn to the often-problematic experience of those attempting to establish them. By contrast, this chapter is inspired by concerns about the theoretical and methodological weakness of many studies of technology and work organisation—particularly the dominance of relatively short-term, often single site studies of technology implementation. These weaknesses are particularly acute in relation to the analysis of infrastructural technologies. The authors explore the relevance to such analysis of recent developments in what they call the Biography of Artefacts (BoA) perspective—which emphasises the value of strategic ethnography: theoretically-informed, multi-site, and longitudinal studies. They seek to draw insights from a programme of empirical research into the long-term evolution of corporate e-infrastructures (reflected in current Enterprise Resource Planning systems) and review some new conceptual tools arising from recent research into e-Infrastructures (e-Is). These are particularly relevant to understanding the current and ongoing difficulties encountered in attempts to develop large-scale Health Infrastructures.
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Some Shortcomings Of Existing Research Into Technology And Work Organization

Research into technology and work organisation has suffered from the fragmentation of enquiry between various disciplines and schools of analysis—with their differing foci and concerns—and which have tended to be associated with different kinds of study. We draw attention particularly to the divide between a relatively small cohort of researchers (mainly from Science and Technology Studies [STS] but also from Information Systems, etc.) who have undertaken studies that encompass technology design and development (Mackay, et al., 2000) and a much larger group which has focussed more narrowly on their organisational implementation and use. Here we find a substantial body of work informed by diverse perspectives within Management Schools—including Organisation Studies, Technology Management, and Strategic Management—as well as Information Systems Research and Science and Technology Studies and what we may describe as socially-oriented computer-science, including Social Informatics and Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). Studies of organisational adoption constitute the overwhelming bulk of contemporary research into enterprise systems and other organisational technologies (ERP Research Group, 2006; Pollock & Williams, 2009); only a very small number of studies (largely from Science and Technology Studies) address technology design and use in tandem (Mackay, et al., 2000; Williams, et al., 2005; Hyysalo, 2010).

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