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Workshop on Ethnography, Systems and Strategy

This workshop was held at the University of Lancaster, 22-23 April 2002, and involved the Department of Sociology, University of Lancaster, the Department of Computing, University of Lancaster and the School of Management, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. It was organised by DIRC and AMASE (Advanced Multi-Agency Service Environment)

The focus of the Workshop

Society’s dependence on computer-based systems continues to increase, while the systems themselves - embracing human organisations, computers and engineered systems - become ever more complex. Achieving sufficient fitness-for-purpose in these systems, and demonstrating this achievement in a rigorous and convincing manner, is of crucial importance to the fabric of the modern Information Society. Much scientific progress has been made in achieving high dependability in computer hardware and software, but wider systems involving computers, people and organisations ­ particularly in the context of significant change in strategy and/or structure - are often unsuccessful and the cause of financial losses, or abandonment, or worse. It is evident that satisfactory resolution of such problems demands major breakthroughs in understanding the fundamental problems that arise in attempts to build systems, which are often envisaged as instruments of major change, involving complex interactions amongst numbers of computers and human beings.

An increasingly popular and fruitful approach is to use ethnographic methods to understand the context in which such systems will be used. There are two major aspects which perhaps the ethnographer can illuminate. The first is the architectural aspect: deciding how the computer-based system is to be designed and how the dynamics of the context in which it is to be used is understood so that the system is fit-for-purpose. There are both process and product issues to be understood by the architect, and the relationship between these can be very problematic. The second is the strategic aspect: identifying the interests of the strategist, defined as the one who owns the responsibilities for postulating the need for a computer-based system, deciding how it might be known in the future whether the system is serving its intended purpose, and managing the change processes in its design and deployment. There is also the position of the ethnographer to be considered. The nature of the responsibilities of the ethnographer to the architect and the strategist often need to be clarified, particularly with respect to understanding the sense-making of a system that occurs after its introduction. It is also important to ensure that trivialisation of the ethnographer’s message does not occur, and this should be a shared responsibility of some sort.

It is all too easy simply to assume that the problem is the asymmetry of power between the ethnographer, architect and strategist, that it is the architect who assumes the position of power, interpreting instructions from the strategist and using data provided by ethnographer. What would it be like to have a more equal distribution of responsibility in which the three discourses of ethnographer, architect and strategist could be brought simultaneously into equal comprehension? Currently each specialism has its own particular frame of reference through which it makes sense of a situation, a fact which makes it hard to identify those key issues common to all perspectives and those which are not present in any. The aim of this workshop is to open a debate about the respective roles and responsibilities of the ethnographer, architect and strategist and to improve the quality of this debate, and indeed raise the whole problem of its ownership. It will examine systematic ways in which the narratives told by the ethnographer can properly reflect the policy concerns of the strategist and can also be translated into, or give rise to, design guidance for the system architect.

Programme

The workshop featured a number of keynote speakers from experts in the field including Robin Williams and John Hughes. The programme for the event is available.

 
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