21 June 2006

Working knowledge [Computing Business]

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Maersk containers
“Social science is playing an increasing role in the design and development of hardware and software products, with the field of ethnography especially being exploited by academic and industrial research labs, including the likes of Xerox, Intel, IBM, HP and Microsoft. It is also benefiting IT leaders in the design of business IT systems,” writes Andy Crabtree, principal research fellow at the School of Computer Science & IT, University of Nottingham, in a thoughtful and analytical feature piece in Computing Business.

Crabtree, who is also the author of the book Designing Collaborative Systems: A Practical Guide to Ethnography, states that the ethnographical approach implies that “the design of IT systems should be grounded in, and be responsive to, the interactions actually taking place during work, as design is inevitably intertwined with them. Even where design is intended to develop a completely new system, significant value may be gained from understanding the lively context of work, the professional relationships that inhabit it, the skills and competences that people exercise, and the bearing that these may have on work redesign, which is what systems design actually amounts to.”

Ethnography, says Crabtree “may produce a sensitive analysis of the working practices and real-world demands that a new IT system will have to respond to if it is to be properly exploited by a business, rather than merely worked around.”

The article also contains a short case study on the Dragon Project, a series of “ethnographic studies focused on customer service work in Maersk Line, an international container shipping company across Europe, Asia and the US, [which] informed the development of a prototype that served as a product specification for commercial implementation. The role of ethnography was to uncover the actual work practices of customer service operatives, rather than the working practice according to job descriptions and procedures. Ethnographic studies enabled the design team to move beyond the abstract view of work to take into account the real world, real-time skills and abilities of people.”

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