Project Delight

In the coming month or so, I will step down from the governing body of our intranet, the Portal Business Group (PBG).  I helped formulate the concept of the group in 2003 and was one of its founding members.  During my tenure I was responsible for representing the interests of a quarter of SAP’s employee base – ten thousand sales and marketing employees globally.  From my point of view it has been one of the most successful virtual teams I’ve ever participated in, but after five years it is more than time for a change.  Fortunately, one of the guys that worked for me had sat in for me during my maternity leave last year, and so I had a clear successor. 

In May last year, I worked with my User Experience Manager to conceptualize and run an information architecture workshop for the PBG.  Based on multiple user research studies and a lot of research on best practices, our work has led to a multi-year plan to redesign the corporate portal.  It was great to bring our expertise to such a large scale effort!  And then in January of this year, the Jakob Neilsen group announced that we had been recognized as a Top Ten Intranet based on our initial launch of the portal on the NetWeaver platform.  With those two achievements, I feel that I have made a significant contribution to the organization, and I also feel that the value of my User Experience team is well understood across the multiple Board areas that are represented in the PBG.  So I am definitely leaving on a high note, though with such a large, complex system, there is always more to be done. 

There were a couple of people in IT who I have collaborated with since the launch of the corporate portal, and I felt it only right to let them know of my plans before announcing them more widely.  So while Dirk was in the U.S. this week, I let him know that I would be stepping down in the coming weeks.  He has been ready to make a change too, so we spent some time reminiscing, and then got to talking about what we hoped to do next.

Towards the end of our meeting, we got to talking about the Sonos music system that he wanted to buy and bring back to Germany.  The Euro continues to gain against the dollar, so it seemed worth the trouble of getting it home on the plane.  I had purchased a Sonos when they first came out, and couldn’t say enough good things about it.  Prior to the Sonos I had been listening to my music through my home theater on two 400-CD jukeboxes.  Although I was frustrated with the lag as the system switched CDs, I loved the shuffle feature by genre.  I felt that my setup had transformed how I listened to music, and in fact enabled me to listen to a much more varied selection of music than I would have by selecting individual CDs.  

But the jukeboxes were getting full, and I didn’t want to buy another one.  We had moved from our small row house in the city to a larger house in the suburbs, and the home theater was not in the main room (family room / kitchen) where we spent most of our time.  In addition, I was buying more and more of my music from iTunes, and I was having to burn one CD for the jukebox, and another for my car.  It was time consuming, felt redundant, and I had a hard time keeping track of my new music.  The Sonos has changed all that.  I used the wireless network to position amplifiers and speakers on all three floors of the new house.  I download music from iTunes to a network-attached storage device (NAS) and I can sync both my iPod and the Sonos system with the library.  The playlist feature is easier and more powerful than the one in iTunes.  And now I have an iPod jack in my car, so I don’t have to burn CDs at all.  I can listen to new music in the house and in my car just as soon as it’s downloaded.

Dirk and I got to talking about user experience, then, and why it is so hard to bring that type of compelling, easy flowing experience into the enterprise.  If we could launch a Project Delight, what would it accomplish, and how would it enable and entice our users?  It’s a good question, and one that I continue to think about as my work at SAP grows and changes.

Sustaining Stories

Abstract

Ethnographers, in a sense, play the role of story creators and storytellers.  For “in-house” ethnographers engaged in the long-term work of making sense of and contributing to organizations, a challenge emerges: discovering and managing the retrospective and prospective meaning of their storytelling. The narratives produced in these contexts – and the fieldwork from which they emerge – may make visible trajectories of practice for both subjects and researcher alike.  Here we reflect on the challenges and opportunities of sustaining ethnographic inquiry in a large global software company. Reflecting on close to ten years of participant observation, we outline some of our practices related to positioning, re-framing, and expanding ethnographic work, a dynamic that continues to shape our practice and its relevance within this corporate environment.

Download

The paper is part of the EPIC 2008 proceedings, which you can download here.
You can also view the presentation in this blog post.

 

Sustaining Stories … In-house, Ethnographic Practice

In 2008, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) was held in Copenhagen.  Unfortunately, global economic and personal circumstances required a last minute change in our travel plans, and my co-author Johann and I were not able to attend. We asked Simon Pulman-Jones (our session curator) to deliver a shortened version of our presentation using this script.  You may also be interested in reading the full paper from the EPIC 2008 proceedings.

Sustaining Stories:  The Versatile Life of Sustained, In-house, Ethnographic Practice in a Global Software Company

This presentation was prepared in collaboration with Johann Sarmiento-Klapper, Ph.D.

Paper Abstract

Ethnographers, in a sense, play the role of story creators and storytellers.  For “in-house” ethnographers engaged in the long-term work of making sense of and contributing to organizations, a challenge emerges: discovering and managing the retrospective and prospective meaning of their storytelling. The narratives produced in these contexts – and the fieldwork from which they emerge – may make visible trajectories of practice for both subjects and researcher alike.  Here we reflect on the challenges and opportunities of sustaining ethnographic inquiry in a large global software company. Reflecting on close to ten years of participant observation, we outline some of our practices related to positioning, re-framing, and expanding ethnographic work, a dynamic that continues to shape our practice and its relevance within this corporate environment.

Session Abstract

This panel was curated by Simon Pulman-Jones
In sight on site: revealing and sustaining valuable knowledge for corporations
For panel participants and details, visit the EPIC 2008 website.

Presentation

Market Discourse and the Evolution of Corporate Anthropology

Market Discourse and the Evolution of Corporate Anthropology

A man uses a mobile phone in front of an electronic board displaying market indices from around the world, outside a brokerage in Tokyo

Paper Abstract

As anthropologists, we position the value of our perspective and services in the corporate context.  Thus, we both perpetuate and are subject to the discourse of the market.  This paper describes one company’s transformation from a technocratic to market-driven mindset, and how workers are managed – through the proliferation of market discourse internal to the corporation – to become not simply producers, but consumers of the company’s future and their own careers. This paper goes on to argue that these changing patterns of work and worker control have an impact on the corporate form and those individuals – including anthropologists – who survive in its ecosystem.

Session Participants

  • Melissa Cefkin, IBM (Organizer & Chair)
  • Brigitte Jordan. Palo Alto Research Center
  • Melissa Fisher, Columbia University
  • Donna K. Flynn, Microsoft Corporation
  • Martin Ortlieb, Yahoo Corporation
  • Ari Shapiro, Hall and Partners Healthcare
  • Patricia Sachs, Social Solutions Inc.
  • Elizabeth Tunstall, Arc Worldwide
  • Francoise Brun-Cottan, Veri-phi Consulting
  • Rick Robinson, NOP World (Discussant)
  • Jeanette Blomberg, IBM Research Almaden (Discussant)

Session Abstract

Workplace and Consumer Studies: A Dialogue

In this panel consumer and workplace researchers explore the common and different issues raised by their work, addressing their experiences as experts sought out to reveal hidden truths on the one hand, and to provide research-based scientific validation of concepts and programs on the other. We explore how business ideologies and structures, modes of knowledge production, and consumer and workplace practices are impacted by the work of anthropologists within consulting, design, branding, and market research firms. We ask how understandings of consumers are embedded and reified in organizational contexts and market discourses, and how understandings of work and workers come up against orthodoxies of company tools and operations. Finally, we frame questions about the anthropological enterprise itself by considering the practices of anthropologists in collaborative  research teams and in the process of building understanding together with stakeholders in business enterprises.

This dialogue is intended to put the two distinct but interrelated areas of research – workplace and consumer studies – into dialogue in order to challenge and advance this area of practicing anthropology and ideally to deepen the value these areas of work on both the discipline of anthropology and on the social contexts of their practice. Researchers in these areas contend with over-determined notions of scientific rationality while artfully engaged in sense-making endeavors that remain true to the interests and expressions of their study participants. What implications do the differences between these areas of study have for the kind of work that practicing anthropologists do, the questions they ask, and the approaches they use?

Consuming Work, Producing Self – Chapter Summaries

This dissertation will describe the how practices of employee control in the corporation reflect both the changing global context and specific, local forces at play in one U.S. high tech corporation.  The chapters are organized to some degree around Foucault’s four arenas of power (see pages 7 through 10 of the Introduction), though there are almost always multiple dimensions of power enacted simultaneously.

Chapter 2: Control from the Core describes technologies of power – the bureaucratic framework that is in place to manage the corporation, with a particular focus on global management of the U.S. subsidiary.  Global policies and programs seek to reinforce the authority of the parent company.  This chapter explores how experiences and perceptions of the global organization vary widely within the diverse populations of the subsidiary.  The chapter also explores how and where local understanding diverges from the global.

As computing technology and technical literacy become more prevalent in corporations, computing technologies play an increasing role in the lives of workers.  This is especially true in the high tech industry.  Does (or how does) the experience vary for employees who are physically or strategically proximate to the core?  How are computing technologies used in tandem with other means to elicit the desired behaviors from employees?  Chapter 3: Trouble Tickets and Time assesses the way(s) in which employees are constituted as part of the socio-technical systems in which they work, and how they co-construct the technologies of power and production to which they are subject.

Given that corporations are dispersed around the globe and that many working teams are no longer co-located, Chapter 4: The Ant Farm explores the significance of space in relation to corporate values and priorities.  What meaning does a headquarters building have in this context, how do understandings of space differ, and why?  In general, how does placement in space (relative to the core) or even absence of space have significance?  In other words, how is space a technology of power, and what form does the Panopticon take in this new work context?

In order to ensure employee compliance in the attainment of corporate objectives, mechanisms of control must be personalized in such a way that they constitute the worker as subject.  Chapter 5 seeks to explain how this transpires in the high tech corporation.  What forms of discipline – including technologies of the self – are at work in corporations today, and what discourse frames them?  As global markets expand and contract and as mergers and acquisitions alter the competitive landscape, the free market system demands increasing differentiation (Leslie 1995:403).  Chapter 5: ‘Outside In’: Personalizing the Market further explores how the corporate discourse evolves in response to these pressures.  Internally, do new more totalizing mechanisms emerge as Foucault, Burrell (1988) and others would suggest?  Do or how do these new practices build on the old?  How do both sign systems and the relationship with external audiences evolve, and what impact does this have on employees?

Chapter 6: Organizing and Re-organizing also explores what happens when theoretical concepts of management theory meet the realities of corporate life.  Building on the legacy of Weber and others, management theorists argue for a progression of corporate forms and practices; these are the primary analysts of corporate practices today.  But can these theories account for the complexities and human concerns of everyday reality as experienced by employees?  Do (or how do) employees make sense of rapidly changing categories in the high tech corporate setting?  In exploring these and other questions, Chapter 6 furthers the case for ethnographic approaches in the study of corporations.

In conclusion, Chapter 7: Conclusion evaluates how the ethnography of TechSoft America furthers our understanding of the current practices of high tech corporations, what this means for the lived experiences of employees, and for the future of work in a globally dispersed corporate context.  It closes by assessing the larger implications of this research and suggesting areas that warrant further exploration.

Downloads

You can download my complete dissertation, or use the links below to download just the sections that are of the most interest to you.  You can also watch my dissertation defense here.

Table of Contents
01 Introduction
02  Control from the Core
03  Trouble Tickets and Time
04  The Ant Farm
05 ‘Outside In’: Personalizing the Market
06  Organizing and Re-organizing
07  Conclusion
References Cited