Inside a secret software lab: an ethnographic study of a global software package producer
Grimm, Christine Franziska
This is an ethnographic study of the creation of a particular type of standard enterprise software package: Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, which support wide-ranging organisational functions within large and medium sized enterprises. Drawing upon the Social Shaping of Technology perspective and recent related attempts to theorise the Biography of Artefacts, this thesis addresses the under-researched area of ERP system development and ERP system support. In providing a system vendor’s viewpoint, it seeks to overcome current shortcomings in social research, notably from Information Systems and Organisational Studies, which focus almost exclusively on a user organisation perspective. Mostly concentrating on the moment of implementation, existing studies do not help us to better understand the software producer’s viewpoint or to find explanations as to how ERP systems are produced and supported in such a way that they can meet the specific requirements of their highly diverse users (the current market leader SAP had over 12 million users (2008)). Overall, we have very limited understanding of what happens within software package laboratories and how such organisations organise their relationship with their wide and diverse user base throughout the different phases of the product life cycle. Addressing this gap in the social study of software packages, this research offers an ethnographical insider’s perspective of the day-to-day working practices within one of the world’s leading ERP system providers, encompassing both its development and support functions. Based on rich ethnographic data, the study demonstrates first, how a supplier manages its relationship with its diverse user base during the moment when the system re-enters the vendor’s circle of responsibility through the software packages support channel. The sophisticated and mature mechanisms and policies are highlighted, which allow the vendor - not without challenges – to accommodate competing exigencies of its user base at this moment of product life cycle. Second, this research highlights how the software development phase is organised, by empirically describing and analysing from a social viewpoint, the software development process during a period of organisational change, in which the vendor reorganises itself in search for a new way to respond to the expectations of the market. Third, the account reveals unexpected communitarian behaviour amongst software developers at all levels, demonstrating the social character of programming, a feature which has not been adequately recognised by current studies in this area. Fourth, overall, this study highlights the need for a change of the current research agenda in social software package research towards a vendor organisation’s perspective, if we aim for a more complete understanding of the social aspects such type of technology.