Fighting IT failure with ethnographic research [podcast]

Solving IT problems rooted in organizational dynamics can be difficult because cultural issues are hard to measure and change. Ethnographic research methods offer a way to gain deeper understanding of the organizational factors contributing to failed IT projects.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor on

Many IT failures are ultimately rooted in negative organizational culture and related political dynamics. For example, failures can arise when critical information is not shared across internal corporate boundaries (or even among members of a single team).

Solving these problems can be difficult because cultural issues are hard to measure and transform. Ethnographic research methods offer a way to gain deeper insight into organizational dynamics that contribute to failed IT projects.

To learn about ethnographic research and its ability to help explain why IT projects fail, I spoke with Dr. Natalie Hanson, a corporate anthropologist and ethnographer employed by SAP. Natalie manages a team of 30 people in the company's global Business Operations group.

Natalie Hanson

Here are some interesting points from the interview:

On ethnographic methods:

Ethnographic methods are a form of shadowing, or what an anthropologist might call participant observation, which is to embed oneself in an experience with a set of users to better understand that experience.

On the relationship with quantitative research:

Ethnographic methods complement more quantitative methods by telling us more about what's not being said....You start to see and understand things that you might not understand otherwise.

[This] longitudinal aspect of ethnographic methods makes it quite interesting and provides rich feedback, but also makes it challenging to bring into the business setting. If not handled properly ethnographic research can be cost-prohibitive and time-consuming to analyze.

On IT failures from an ethnographic perspective:

To me, it's actually much more than just the system side. We say there's a technical aspect to it, so something going on in the system that might need to be addressed; there's a business aspect; and then there's the user, or people, aspect, what we might call user experience.

In an email, Natalie discussed the impact of small sample sizes on her research:

One of the most common objections we get to the ethnographic research is whether we can have meaningful data with such a small sample size. The answer is a resounding 'yes'! We really only need five people within the same job type or role, and oftentimes we see the patterns after the third person, using the subsequent ones to validate or refine the themes we see emerging. Beyond that, we tend to experience redundancy and less value.

Cultural issues inside organizations can be notoriously difficult to quantify and measure. Since understanding current states is often a prerequisite to introducing transformation measures that can prevent failed projects, analytic techniques such as ethnographic research are important.

To learn more about about ethnography in business, see the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry conference.

[Image courtesy Natalie Hanson. Thanks to Steve Mann for introducing me to ethnographic research in business.]

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