The Biography of Artefacts Framework

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New approach to study complex organisational information technologies (like enterprise resource planning systems), containing a criticism of current localist and situated approaches (as well as some comments about the limitations of actor network theory).


Draft of Chapter Three from: Neil Pollock and Robin Williams (2009) Software and Organizations: The Biography of the Enterprise Solution Or How SAP Conquered the World, London, Routledge.

Chapter Three: The Biography of Artefacts FrameworkHere we describe the approach that we will adopt to study these various technologies. Building on earlier studies that have examined the mutual adaptation of technology and organisation, we develop a framework for investigating the biography of software systems. Drawing on work from Science and Technology Studies, Material Culture and Cultural History, amongst others, we suggest an approach that follows the actual packages themselves as they evolve and mature, progress along their lifecycle, and move across sectoral and organisational boundaries. In this endeavour we address multiple timeframes and locales.

HOW MODES OF RESEARCH FRAME THE ANALYSIS STS has from the earliest days been concerned to resolve the question of adequate models for the analysis of technological innovation and associated societal change as these frame the analysis and guide the methodology adopted and thereby what it is we can and cannot find out. This project in particular seeks to apply and further develop the biography of technology perspective, which emerged from our earlier work on organisational technologies (Brady et al. 1992; Clausen and Williams 1997; Pollock et al. 2003; Pollock and Cornford 2004). Our aim is to build a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of a technology encompassing both technology design and implementation/use - and how it is shaped by its specific historical context across multiple social locales.

This research project was designed to exploit the opportunity to achieve insights from a longitudinal contemporaneous study, building upon our earlier research, including studies of Computer-Aided Production Management (CAPM) and other integrated automation systems in the late 1980s and early 1990s that were the progenitors of ERP and other enterprise software packages of today (Fleck et al. 1990; Webster and Williams 1993; Fleck 1993; Clausen and Williams 1997). Underpinning this endeavour was an attempt to develop modes of enquiry that might be adequate to


explore these complex technologies in terms of both the design of empirical research and the conceptual tools advanced to explore them.

The project was inspired by our unhappiness with the way that most existing research into packaged software and ERP in particular was framed. As we noted in the previous chapters, there is a huge literature addressing ERP and the development and adoption of workplace technologies more generally. This research is often weaker in theoretical and conceptual terms than STS (which only constitutes a small share of this literature), particularly in its understanding of innovation, and is less concerned to consider issues of methodology and epistemology. The bulk of these studies are framed, somewhat unreflexively, within particular well-established modes of research, constrained within particular loci, timeframes, disciplinary perspectives and concerns. Our contention is that the framing of these studies can produce unhelpful readings about the character and implications of these technologies. Moreover, as Grabot and Botta-Genoulaz (2005) observe, particular types of research (e.g. quantitative survey, qualitative case studies) give salience to certain kinds of issues. We need to be in a position to reflect upon the implications of research choices for the outcomes of an investigation.

In this chapter, we first advance a critique of the dominant modes of enquiry into ERP and similar workplace technologies. We then go on to develop a research framework based on our Biography of Artefacts Framework that will be more adequate to the task. Here we draw upon research within our own tradition of STS, and also on related work from Organisational Studies and Information Systems perspectives which shares some of our presumptions and concerns (and we note that there is not always a clear dividing line between these disciplines, particularly in relation to work informed by constructivist insights, much of which has been influenced by STS perspectives).

We want to explore how some of the general debates within STS, outlined at the end of the previous chapter, relate to the concept of the Biography of Artefacts, about what would constitute an adequate analytical framework, equipped to address the multiple interfaces between technological artefacts and society. Studies of particular socially/temporally bounded locales, for example, the typical ERP implementation 2

case study or survey are, we contend, ill-equipped to get to grips with these complex technologies which are instantiated at multiple sites (Clausen and Williams 1997; Kallinikos 2004b). Koch (2007) suggests that we need better spatial metaphors for addressing such objects. He draws attention to the evolution of perspectives, moving away from single site studies to multi-locale studies, and has further advanced the suggestion that we should analyse ERP as a community (Koch 2005, 2007).1 These suggestions are thoroughly congruent with the broader social learning perspective we outlined in the previous chapter (Srenson 1996; Williams et al. 2006). The task of this chapter is to chart out an analytical framework for such an endeavour.

Existing studies of technology and work organisation have in general paid inadequate attention to these kinds of debates (which is not to overlook outstanding exceptions to this generalisation and the increasing strength of social science research in Business Schools for example). There is a large amount of unreflexive research, including the many impact studies, addressing the organisational consequences of particular technologies, which pay little attention to questions of research design and theory. Amongst academic research, disciplinary divides have served to separate those studying technology supply from its adoption/use and technical from organisational issues.

The success of the organisational case study as a research model within Business Studies (as well as Information Systems and Technology Studies research) valuably focuses attention on local negotiations and choices around the design or the implementation and use of new technologies. Studies of technology and work have benefited greatly from the growing influence of interactionist perspectives (inspired for example by the exciting work of authors such as Lucy Suchman [1987]) and an associated enthusiasm for local ethnographic studies, which has been very effective as a research methodology in producing a rich local picture. However, this emphasis on local processes and actors may be at the expense of paying less attention to more generalised and long-term shaping processes.

Our work however seeks to explore how these local struggles are taking place within broader circuits of knowledge and influence including economic and social structures and material structures (and we suggest that a study of technology needs to engage 3

with technology as a materialised institutional form) which mobilise beliefs and visions and provide various incentives, resources and penalties and which thus set the parameters in which local actions are played out. We are also keen to explore how local outcomes may react back on and transform the broader setting, through diffuse and gradual processes of influence, which may not readily be detectable within shortterm local studies (Williams 1997).

Within the study of technology, the SST perspective has been marked by its insistence on the need to pay attention:


to the specific material characteristics of technological artefacts and systems; and,


to the influence of social structure and history which pattern innovation, and which explain the patterns of uneven access to resources and sites of influence.

These considerations inform our search for a research strategy that addresses the multiple locations and different timeframes in which technologies operate. To this end, we examine the utility of various conceptualisations of arena (Fleck 1988b; Jorgensen and Srensen 1999), to explore the hybrid spaces in which different actorworlds interact, and of an agora of technological and organisational change (Kaniadakis 2006), which provides a framework for looking at the relationship between different arenas and levels, and how local actions are set within broader settings. The agora is conceived in a relational sense; it is a complex space captured through the viewpoints that different actors (and analysts) make of this. Within this framework, we may wish to focus upon local, immediate settings of action or more widely dispersed institutionalised patterns. And this endeavour also suggests that we need to provide a register of the multiple different historical timeframes at play: from the immediate moment of action to the long term in which institutions emerge and evolve.

Before we turn to these questions, we shall first review the different kinds of research that have been carried into technology and work organisation and in particular ERP. 4

We wish to explore how these characteristic modes of empirical study impinge upon the framing of the research and on their findings.

EXISTING STUDIES OF TECHNOLOGY AND WORK ORGANISATION AND THEIR SHORTCOMINGS Snapshot Studies When a new technology comes to the fore, many of the first papers appearing are from the trade press and practitioner journals. The concern is to demonstrate the benefits of the technology and how these benefits may be successfully achieved. As a result the focus is typically on what Botta-Genoulaz et al. (2005: 574) describe as impact factors. Moreover, impact studies are also often what mig