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The Biography of Artefacts Framework

The Biography of Artefacts Framework

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Published by Neil Pollock
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).
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).

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Categories:Types, School Work
Published by: Neil Pollock on Dec 06, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Draft of Chapter Three from: Neil Pollock and Robin Williams (2009)
Software and Organizations: The Biography of the Enterprise Solution Or How SAP Conquered theWorld 
, London, Routledge.
Chapter Three: The Biography of Artefacts Framework
Here we describe the approach that we will adopt to study these various technologies.Building on earlier studies that have examined the mutual adaptation of technologyand organisation, we develop a framework for investigating the ‘biography’ of software systems. Drawing on work from Science and Technology Studies, MaterialCulture and Cultural History, amongst others, we suggest an approach that follows theactual packages themselves as they evolve and mature, progress along their lifecycle,and move across sectoral and organisational boundaries. In this endeavour we addressmultiple timeframes and locales.
STS has from the earliest days been concerned to resolve the question of adequatemodels for the analysis of technological innovation and associated societal change –as these frame the analysis and guide the methodology adopted and thereby what it iswe can and cannot find out. This project in particular seeks to apply and furtherdevelop the biography of technology perspective, which emerged from our earlierwork 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 comprehensiveunderstanding of the evolution of a technology – encompassing both technologydesign and implementation/use - and how it is shaped by its specific historical contextacross multiple social locales.This research project was designed to exploit the opportunity to achieve insights froma longitudinal contemporaneous study, building upon our earlier research, includingstudies of Computer-Aided Production Management (CAPM) and other integratedautomation 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; Websterand Williams 1993; Fleck 1993; Clausen and Williams 1997). Underpinning thisendeavour was an attempt to develop modes of enquiry that might be adequate to
2explore these complex technologies in terms of both the design of empirical researchand the conceptual tools advanced to explore them.The project was inspired by our unhappiness with the way that most existing researchinto packaged software and ERP in particular was framed. As we noted in theprevious chapters, there is a huge literature addressing ERP and the development andadoption of workplace technologies more generally. This research is often weaker intheoretical and conceptual terms than STS (which only constitutes a small share of this literature), particularly in its understanding of innovation, and is less concerned toconsider issues of methodology and epistemology. The bulk of these studies areframed, somewhat unreflexively, within particular well-established modes of research, constrained within particular loci, timeframes, disciplinary perspectives andconcerns. Our contention is that the framing of these studies can produce unhelpfulreadings about the character and implications of these technologies. Moreover, asGrabot 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 theoutcomes of an investigation.In this chapter, we first advance a critique of the dominant modes of enquiry into ERPand 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 thetask. Here we draw upon research within our own tradition of STS, and also onrelated work from Organisational Studies and Information Systems perspectiveswhich shares some of our presumptions and concerns (and we note that there is notalways a clear dividing line between these disciplines, particularly in relation to work informed by constructivist insights, much of which has been influenced by STSperspectives).We want to explore how some of the general debates within STS, outlined at the endof the previous chapter, relate to the concept of the Biography of Artefacts, aboutwhat would constitute an adequate analytical framework, equipped to address themultiple interfaces between technological artefacts and society. Studies of particularsocially/temporally bounded locales, for example, the typical ‘ERP implementation’
3case study or survey are, we contend, ill-equipped to get to grips with these complextechnologies which are instantiated at multiple sites (Clausen and Williams 1997;Kallinikos 2004b). Koch (2007) suggests that we need better spatial metaphors foraddressing such objects. He draws attention to the evolution of perspectives, movingaway from single site studies to multi-locale studies, and has further advanced thesuggestion that we should analyse ERP as a ‘community’ (Koch 2005, 2007).
Thesesuggestions are thoroughly congruent with the broader social learning perspective weoutlined in the previous chapter (Sørenson 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 inadequateattention to these kinds of debates (which is not to overlook outstanding exceptions tothis generalisation and the increasing strength of social science research in BusinessSchools for example). There is a large amount of unreflexive research, including themany ‘impact studies’, addressing the organisational consequences of particulartechnologies, which pay little attention to questions of research design and theory.Amongst academic research, disciplinary divides have served to separate thosestudying technology supply from its adoption/use and technical from organisationalissues.The success of the organisational case study as a research model within BusinessStudies (as well as Information Systems and Technology Studies research) valuablyfocuses attention on local negotiations and choices around the design or theimplementation and use of new technologies. Studies of technology and work havebenefited greatly from the growing influence of interactionist perspectives (inspiredfor example by the exciting work of authors such as Lucy Suchman [1987]) and anassociated enthusiasm for local ethnographic studies, which has been very effective asa research methodology in producing a rich local picture. However, this emphasis onlocal processes and actors may be at the expense of paying less attention to moregeneralised and long-term shaping processes.Our work however seeks to explore how these local struggles are taking place withinbroader circuits of knowledge and influence including economic and social structuresand material structures (and we suggest that a study of technology needs to engage

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