posted 10 Jun 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 9
Put it to the board: Ethnography in the workplace
Over the past 15 years, technology change has swept across our workplaces. The way we were and how we work has undergone significant shifts. The promise of ubiquitous computing has been delivered, but not as expected. If we were to time travel from a meeting in 1989 into a typical meeting today, we would face a technological tidal wave of ‘futureshock’.
An early Gartner definition of KM was, ‘an emerging discipline arising out of the organisational and economic changes caused by IT.’ But despite the growth of KM, technology has yet to be tamed.
Workplaces across the UK and Europe suffer from a low-tech equilibrium. A recent iSociety report Getting By, Not Getting On: Technology in UK Workplaces provides a candid look at the reality behind ICT deployments. The report reviews how technology really works, is used and what people really think about it. It shows that workplaces are not getting the most from ICT and how techno-scepticism thrives in many boardrooms. However the report’s ‘ethnographical’ approach is just as important as the findings and helps us understand how technology works or doesn't.
The KM field emphasises the need to understand culture and yet, paradoxically, deterministic deployment methodologies prevail in organisations. Similarly, those who buy technology may refer to the importance of the softer aspects and need for change management, but rarely do they walk the talk or budget according to these espoused sentiments. The emergence and contribution of ethnography in this report is a welcome balance to the structured questionnaires and systematic project methodologies that dominate much of the current ethos on technology deployment.
Ethnography’s roots are in anthropology with social scientists observing tribes in their natural habitat. When applied to organisations, we can see what people do, not just what they say they do. We can appreciate the reality of organisational life in routines and rituals that are typically developed as workarounds. More importantly, as the report shows, it brings to light e-denial (some interesting observations on e-mail overload) and the messy reality about what ICT is and can do. By adding the use of video cameras, it can initially be intrusive and voyeuristic, and the output can be as banal or insightful as any reality TV programme.
This report is a wake-up call for any organisation or KM professional. ICT is underperforming and under-delivering. We need to broaden our repertoire of skills to avoid contamination from the malaise of impoverished technology deployments. This methodology may not appeal to those with a conventional scientific approach. We may not like what we see. Nor may we enjoy observing our daily organisational behaviour. It is also true that an ethnographic approach takes time and can reveal the obvious. But it must move mainstream. Used widely and wisely, ethnography can help us break away from the low-tech equilibrium. Before we can change the workplace we have to understand it.
Nathan, M., Carpenter, G. Roberts, S., Ferguson, L. & Knox, H., Getting By, Not Getting On: Technology in UK Workplaces (The Work Foundation, 2003)