Monday, January 24, 2005


Workplace ethnography

My friend Louise Ferguson has recently written up a good Ethnography reading list. I thought I'd add a couple insightful ethnographic accounts of IT and design not on her list I've read recently.

Gideon Kunda's Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-Tech Corporation (Temple University Press, 1992) is readable account of work and life at a company I assume is the late Digital Equipment Corporation, though it might be Hewlett Packard. The title is a wonderful double entendre, exploring the dissonance between the espoused humanism of an employee-centered company with the reality of pressures placed on employees. Gideon describes the situation as a "culture trap" that combines "normative pressure with a delicate balance of seductiveness and coercion". In companies with strong corporate cultures, "corporate definitions of reality serve as unquestioned criteria for their [the corporation's] self-definition and their world view."

A surprisingly similar account is offered by Andrew Ross in No-Collar: the Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs (Basic Books, 2003). Ross looks at dot boom darling Razorfish, the web design successor to the employee-centered workplaces of HP and DEC. Ross describes in detail how Razorfish tried to become family and religion to 20-something designers, making them believe that company loyalty was an act of self expression. "Employee self-management could result in the abdication of accountability on the part of real managers and an unfair shouldering of risk and responsibility on the part of individuals." "Perhaps the most insidious occupational hazard of no-collar work is that it can enlist employees freest thoughts and impulses in the service of salaried time." Ross refers to such companies as "needy", compared to traditional companies that are simply greedy.

Both accounts look at the ideology of the workplace, the words and symbols that the companies use to define themselves, and how these play out in the everyday working lives of employees. In this age of unrestrained enthusiasm for all things branding (i.e. strong brands = good), it is good to see detailed descriptions of what is involves in reality. Beneath the idealism can be disfunctional, even cynical, psychological manipulation.

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