Ethnography of international software development

Net-working for a living: Irish developers in the global workplace, Sean O’Riain. In “Global Ethnography” edited by Michael Burawoy et al., 2000

Given the popularity of software development as a research topic, it is surprising that ethnographic studies are rare in this field. Whereas software design is discovering ethnography as a tool for better understanding user requirements, the developers themselves are rarely studied.

Sean O’Riain’s work is a notable exception. In 2000 he published an ethnographic study of Irish software developers working for a US company. He observed the interplay between American headquarters and the development team in Ireland as well as additional intercultural effects that arose from the diverse national backgrounds of team members.

He discovers an ‘intensification of space’ that arises as a counterbalance to the difficulties of long-distance collaboration. Each location develops its own culture and identity – shared space allows people to create meaning and a shared identity.

Somewhat less directly, he also posits an ‘intensification of time.’ In the global workplace, direct control over other people’s work is not possible. Deadlines become the means of control over distance – thus the intensification of time.

More details

O’Riain’s conclusions strongly contradict the idea that communications technology and globalization create a workplace that is no longer embedded in geographical space. Instead, he sees the global economy as something that happens in limited key regions and the connections between them.

Reich, Giddens and others argue:

The dominant image of these workplaces is that of places lifted out of time and space, places where communication and innovation are free from the drag of local cultures and practices and untainted by power relations. Robert Reich argues that new information and communication technologies make it possible and even necessary to reorganize firms into ‘global webs’ and employees into global telecommunters. … The global workplace is ‘lifted out’ of its temporal and spatial contexts and becomes a ‘pure’ space for communication based on shared rules of interaction and understanding.

By contrast, O’Riain finds that,

the demands of the global economy for increased flexibility and specialized learning actually make the local context and interactions of the global workplace even more critical. Efficient production and constant innovation require the construction of shared physical spaces where workers can interact and communicate on a face-to-face basis and where shared goals and meanings can be created and maintained.

This argument follows Piore and Sabel, Saxenian and Storper in its emphasis on the importance of shared space and face-to-face relationships. Each development lab creates its own culture and its own web of interaction. Crucially, this happens through differentiation from other groups – and ‘us versus them’ mentality. It is reinforced through a higher sense of accountability and loyalty between people who interact frequently and face-to-face.

While software developers may move quite regularly from job to job, they have an intense relationship with each other once in a particular job. … Members of such teams are usually located in close proximity to one another, as this allows the team to handle the complex interdependencies among them through easy and constant communication and allows them to build a coherent collective identity, which becomes the basis of cooperation within the team. … By contrast, information flows to the United States can be patchy and tend to be limited to broad strategic decisions. As one of O’Riain’s managers put it, ‘Having a remote manager has made getting a process of communication in place a lot more difficult.’ Problems which would require solution in a face-to-face context can be swept under the carpet or become a figure of fun in a context where communication is by phone and the Internet.

O’Riain also observes that, where such transnational ‘virtual’ relationships work, they are constantly supplemented by travel to meet the team or teams in the other country.

Overall, he concludes that, while face-to-face interactions were critical to conveying complex information or to building and sustaining trust, computer-supported communication seemed ‘especially suited to maintaining intermediate-strength ties between people who cannot see each other frequently' and for passing on routine information.

A final important factor that O’Riain brings up is that long-distance communication is not just limited by space and technology, but also by time zones. Where coordination is time-sensitive, much time can be wasted, waiting for a relatively simple response from someone several time zones away.


jp said...

There's a highly interesting article published last year on the Information Technology&People Journal by Neil Pollock on ERP Systems. It even got an Emerald Literati Network Award for Excellence. Have a look at it!

Petra said...

Thanks for the tip, JP!