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Draft of Chapter Three from: Neil Pollock and Robin Williams (2009) Software and

Organizations: The Biography of the Enterprise Solution Or How SAP Conquered the
World, London, Routledge.

Chapter Three: The Biography of Artefacts Framework

Here we describe the approach that we will adopt to study these various technologies.
Building on earlier studies that have examined the mutual adaptation of technology
and organisation, we develop a framework for investigating the ‘biography’ of
software systems. Drawing on work from Science and Technology Studies, Material
Culture and Cultural History, amongst others, we suggest an approach that follows the
actual packages themselves as they evolve and mature, progress along their lifecycle,
and move across sectoral and organisational boundaries. In this endeavour we address
multiple timeframes and locales.


STS has from the earliest days been concerned to resolve the question of adequate
models for the analysis of technological innovation and associated societal change –
as these frame the analysis and guide the methodology adopted and thereby what it is
we can and cannot find out. This project in particular seeks to apply and further
develop the biography of technology perspective, which emerged from our earlier
work on organisational technologies (Brady et al. 1992; Clausen and Williams 1997;
Pollock et al. 2003; Pollock and Cornford 2004). Our aim is to build a comprehensive
understanding of the evolution of a technology – encompassing both technology
design and implementation/use - and how it is shaped by its specific historical context
across multiple social locales.

This research project was designed to exploit the opportunity to achieve insights from
a longitudinal contemporaneous study, building upon our earlier research, including
studies of Computer-Aided Production Management (CAPM) and other integrated
automation systems in the late 1980s and early 1990s that were the progenitors of
ERP and other ‘enterprise’ software packages of today (Fleck et al. 1990; Webster
and Williams 1993; Fleck 1993; Clausen and Williams 1997). Underpinning this
endeavour was an attempt to develop modes of enquiry that might be adequate to

explore these complex technologies in terms of both the design of empirical research
and the conceptual tools advanced to explore them.

The project was inspired by our unhappiness with the way that most existing research
into packaged software and ERP in particular was framed. As we noted in the
previous chapters, there is a huge literature addressing ERP and the development and
adoption of workplace technologies more generally. This research is often weaker in
theoretical and conceptual terms than STS (which only constitutes a small share of
this literature), particularly in its understanding of innovation, and is less concerned to
consider issues of methodology and epistemology. The bulk of these studies are
framed, somewhat unreflexively, within particular well-established modes of
research, constrained within particular loci, timeframes, disciplinary perspectives and
concerns. Our contention is that the framing of these studies can produce unhelpful
readings about the character and implications of these technologies. Moreover, as
Grabot and Botta-Genoulaz (2005) observe, particular types of research (e.g.
quantitative survey, qualitative case studies) give salience to certain kinds of issues.
We need to be in a position to reflect upon the implications of research choices for the
outcomes of an investigation.

In this chapter, we first advance a critique of the dominant modes of enquiry into ERP
and similar workplace technologies. We then go on to develop a research framework
– based on our Biography of Artefacts Framework – that will be more adequate to the
task. Here we draw upon research within our own tradition of STS, and also on
related work from Organisational Studies and Information Systems perspectives
which shares some of our presumptions and concerns (and we note that there is not
always a clear dividing line between these disciplines, particularly in relation to work
informed by constructivist insights, much of which has been influenced by STS

We want to explore how some of the general debates within STS, outlined at the end
of the previous chapter, relate to the concept of the Biography of Artefacts, about
what would constitute an adequate analytical framework, equipped to address the
multiple interfaces between technological artefacts and society. Studies of particular
socially/temporally bounded locales, for example, the typical ‘ERP implementation’

case study or survey are, we contend, ill-equipped to get to grips with these complex
technologies which are instantiated at multiple sites (Clausen and Williams 1997;
Kallinikos 2004b). Koch (2007) suggests that we need better spatial metaphors for
addressing such objects. He draws attention to the evolution of perspectives, moving
away from single site studies to multi-locale studies, and has further advanced the
suggestion that we should analyse ERP as a ‘community’ (Koch 2005, 2007).1 These
suggestions are thoroughly congruent with the broader social learning perspective we
outlined in the previous chapter (Sørenson 1996; Williams et al. 2006). The task of
this chapter is to chart out an analytical framework for such an endeavour.

Existing studies of technology and work organisation have in general paid inadequate
attention to these kinds of debates (which is not to overlook outstanding exceptions to
this generalisation and the increasing strength of social science research in Business
Schools for example). There is a large amount of unreflexive research, including the
many ‘impact studies’, addressing the organisational consequences of particular
technologies, which pay little attention to questions of research design and theory.
Amongst academic research, disciplinary divides have served to separate those
studying technology supply from its adoption/use and technical from organisational

The success of the organisational case study as a research model within Business
Studies (as well as Information Systems and Technology Studies research) valuably
focuses attention on local negotiations and choices around the design or the
implementation and use of new technologies. Studies of technology and work have
benefited greatly from the growing influence of interactionist perspectives (inspired
for example by the exciting work of authors such as Lucy Suchman [1987]) and an
associated enthusiasm for local ethnographic studies, which has been very effective as
a research methodology in producing a rich local picture. However, this emphasis on
local processes and actors may be at the expense of paying less attention to more
generalised and long-term shaping processes.

Our work however seeks to explore how these local struggles are taking place within
broader circuits of knowledge and influence including economic and social structures
and material structures (and we suggest that a study of technology needs to engage

with technology as a materialised institutional form) which mobilise beliefs and
visions and provide various incentives, resources and penalties and which thus set the
parameters in which local actions are played out. We are also keen to explore how
local outcomes may react back on and transform the broader setting, through diffuse
and gradual processes of influence, which may not readily be detectable within short-
term local studies (Williams 1997).

Within the study of technology, the SST perspective has been marked by its insistence
on the need to pay attention:

i. to the specific material characteristics of technological artefacts and systems;


ii. to the influence of social structure and history which pattern innovation, and
which explain the patterns of uneven access to resources and sites of

These considerations inform our search for a research strategy that addresses the
multiple locations and different timeframes in which technologies operate. To this
end, we examine the utility of various conceptualisations of ‘arena’ (Fleck 1988b;
Jorgensen and Sørensen 1999), to explore the hybrid spaces in which different actor-
worlds interact, and of an ‘agora’ of technological and organisational change
(Kaniadakis 2006), which provides a framework for looking at the relationship
between different arenas and levels, and how local actions are set within broader
settings. The agora is conceived in a relational sense; it is a complex space captured
through the viewpoints that different actors (and analysts) make of this. Within this
framework, we may wish to focus upon local, immediate settings of action or more
widely dispersed institutionalised patterns. And this endeavour also suggests that we
need to provide a register of the multiple different historical timeframes at play: from
the immediate moment of action to the long term in which institutions emerge and

Before we turn to these questions, we shall first review the different kinds of research
that have been carried into technology and work organisation and in particular ERP.

We wish to explore how these characteristic modes of empirical study impinge upon
the framing of the research and on their findings.


Snapshot Studies
When a new technology comes to the fore, many of the first papers appearing are
from the trade press and practitioner journals. The concern is to demonstrate the
benefits of the technology and how these benefits may be successfully achieved. As a
result the focus is typically on what Botta-Genoulaz et al. (2005: 574) describe as
‘impact factors’. Moreover, impact studies are also often what might be called
‘snapshot studies’. This is research that typically describes the organisation before and
after the implementation of the particular innovation in question.2 There is a tacit
technological (or other) determinism embedded in the research design and
temporal/organisational framing of such enquiries, in which observed changes are
attributed to the effects (‘impacts’) of the technology, apparently disconnected, for
example, from the prior organisational setting which motivated and shaped the
innovation as well as the subsequent organisational processes through which the
outcomes were achieved.

Importantly, snapshot studies are often conducted a relatively short time after the
introduction of a new technology, arguably before the complete consequences of an
innovation can be reasonably assessed. This is problematic because as we have
already seen, it can take years before the full benefits and costs of major changes such
as ERP or Business Process Redesign materialise. As a result, researchers may be
forced to anticipate projected benefits/costs, and therefore run the risk of being unduly
influenced by the programmatic goals and visions of the promoters and suppliers of a
technology, as well as the hopes of the managers pushing these changes through
within their own organisations.

As discussed in Chapter Two, these kinds of studies are important in developing and
circulating ideas about an emerging technology. They thus contribute to the rhetorics
of technology supply and often also suffer from its shortcomings. They are however
influential in framing understandings – and many of these studies are geared towards

influence rather than analytical accuracy and distance. Even though they might
provide interesting information and insights, snapshot studies are typically only of
limited analytic value and the data and claims they contain need to be interpreted with

Implementation studies
We include under the heading of ‘implementation studies’ the large body of writings
concerned with the introduction of new technologies into organisational settings,
(whether from sub-disciplines within Business Studies, such as the Management of
Technology and Innovation, or from Technology Studies and the Computer Sciences).
This involves work with a stronger analytical grounding than the snapshot ‘impact
studies’ characterised above, which addresses how the technical and business
outcomes are closely related to (indeed generated in) the process of implementation
(Clark and Staunton 1989).

Implementation studies account for the bulk of research into new organisational
technologies such as ERP. There is a huge literature on ERP systems (for reviews see
for example Esteves and Pastor [2001]; and Al-Mashari [2003]). The ERP Research
Group (2006), for instance, has 600 articles in its on-line bibliography and the
overwhelming majority, over 95% of these, correspond to what may broadly be
described as ERP implementation studies (including also closely related topics such
as the management of ERP adoption, organisational outcomes and ‘critical success
factors’).3 Though most of the earlier papers were of the sort we have described as
impact studies, scholarly research tends to appear later (Grabot and Botta-Genoulaz
2005). This recent work has a stronger social scientific grounding and has been more
rigorous and offered more critical insights. We note the growth across a range of
disciplines (including for example Information Systems, Organisation Studies,
Management of Change etc.) of more sociological work informed by a processual
understanding of technical and organisational change and deploying qualitative, often
ethnographic, research methods, which yields a richer knowledge base, going beyond
the standard unitary managerial view of the organisation and addressing different
perspectives within the organisation and the particular processes which underlie these

Problems of the temporal and societal framing of implementation studies
While welcoming these studies we draw attention to potential forms of bias that arise
from the temporal and societal framing of implementation studies (Williams 1997).5
The severe limitations of impact studies and methodological shortcomings of snapshot
studies have already been outlined. Though many implementation studies may be
more grounded, they are still typically retrospective accounts and of short duration
compared to the extended timeframes involved in the complete adoption cycle
(involving the initiation, procurement, implementation, use and subsequent review)
for such kinds of radical technological and organisational change.

Retrospective studies suffer the risk that respondents will modify their responses with
hindsight and often align with a managerially sanctioned view. For example, as
McLaughlin et al. (1999: 104) observe, the selection of an information system will
typically be described by informants as having occurred in a ‘carefully managed’ and
‘rational’ manner. There are likely to be biases in empirical access, since user
organisations, let alone supplier firms, are not necessarily keen to promulgate
accounts of failure or allow researchers access to projects that are the subject of overt
conflict and controversy.

It is moreover necessarily difficult for external researchers to gain access to the

earliest stages of a project to address its inception, what Gerst (2006) calls the ‘pre-
project stage’. One obvious reason for this is that, in developing studies of the
adoption of a particular technology, the selection of firms for inclusion in the case-
study or survey is on the grounds of their having already taken at least the ‘in
principle’ decision to adopt. As Pozzebon & Pinsonneault (2005) point out, choices
by organisational actors at this stage configure the initial context of an
implementation project and can have important consequences for its conduct and

Researchers, limited by the practicalities of research funding and agreeing access, are
also liable to leave too soon as well as arriving too late. Implementation studies are
still often based on short- or medium-term access, with fieldwork covering a few
months or at most a year or two, and are therefore weak in terms of assessing longer-
term outcomes of innovation episodes for organisational users. This may be important

given the large body of research, dating back to Arrow’s (1962) analysis of ‘learning
by doing’, that stresses the significant post-implementation improvements in
productivity as organisation members discover and refine ways of using artefacts
more effectively. This process of trial and error learning and struggling is key to our
social learning perspective, which highlights crucial innofusion and domestication
processes. Recent studies of ERP implementation, and especially research concerned
to assess its outcomes, increasingly stress the need to look at this extended ‘post-
implementation’ phase (Berchet and Habchi 2005). Various analysts have further
divided this into the ‘shakedown phase’, and the ‘onward and upward phase’ as these
complex systems are coupled with organisational practices and as their further utility
for the organisation are discovered and exploited (Markus & Tanis 2000; Somers and
Nelson 2004; Robey et al. 2002).

Implementation studies that end too soon may thus underestimate the eventual
organisational consequences of an innovation. Indeed many critical researchers, keen
to highlight the gulf between promised benefits of an innovation and its outcomes,
may have unintentionally replaced the ‘Can Do’ rhetoric of technology supply with a
misleading ‘No Can Do’ scepticism about its ability to reshape organisational
contexts, emphasising the barriers to fulfilling their promise of delivering rapid
organisational transformation – barriers that are rooted in particular in the diversity of
local working practices (Williams 1997). In the short term, organisational structures
and practices appear to be more robust than the organisational templates embedded in
the machine (Webster 1990). However, there is a danger, and this is a very real danger
when extrapolating from individual implementation studies, of overlooking the
gradual alignment and harmonisation of organisational practices that may occur
around the organisational templates embedded in the technology (Williams 1997). For
example, Webster and Williams (1993) describe a case in which a 2nd implementation
of CAPM succeeded, after the first ‘failed’, aided by the informational and change
management practices that had been put in place in the course of the original

Various writers pursuing a deeper understanding of the organisational consequences

of technologies have sought a more intricate, dialectical understanding of the interplay
between organisational structures and artefacts (Orlikowski 2006). Thus Kallinikos

(2004a) sees ERP systems as embodying organisation templates and taken for granted
views of the firm and at the same time reinforcing the routinised view of
organisational activities, thus conditioning the behaviour of organisation members.
Benders et al. (2006) similarly suggest that standardised organisational technologies
like ERP, with their general models of organisational centralisation and standardised
business processes, encourage diverse organisations to align with their embedded
organisational models. They argue that this may constitute a new form – that they
term ‘technical isomorphism’ – of the isomorphic pressures asserted by neo-
institutional theory as causing organisations to become increasingly similar. We are
sceptical, however, of accounts such as the neo-institutionalist isomorphism thesis,
which simply emphasise stability or change. Our analysis seeks to explore the
intricate interplay between stabilising and dynamising factors, which often lead to
more uneven outcomes. Thus, changing managerial alliances and circumstances may
promote ‘drift’ over time as a result of misalignment between an ERP programme and
evolving organisational exigencies (Lee and Myers 2004; Nandhakumar et al. 2005).

Studies conducted from a technology-supply perspective tended to see the user

organisation as a blank slate, amenable to technology-induced transformation.
However, organisations are robust socio-technical systems, with their established
technical and managerial divisions of labour and assemblages of routines and working
practices, formed through their particular history and earlier phases of technical and
organisational change. We therefore need better tools to characterise organisations.
Clausen and Koch (1997), for instance, have analysed these under the heading the
Company Social Constitution (CSC), pointing out that particular episodes of
technological change are just small and localised moments in the evolution of the

Many other implementation studies demonstrate the reverse of this problem and have
tended to treat the software and its supplier as a something of a ‘black box’. This is
partly due to the framing of their research. Lacking access to sites of technology
development, studies of implementation had little opportunities to scrutinise the
development processes and history that had given rise to it.6 Any inference about
supplier behaviour made in these studies is thus primarily derived from observations
and perceptions within the user organisation. Implementation studies have been

mainly reticent about the world of technology design. Rather paradoxically, perhaps,
the software package vendor appears to have been made ‘other’, and, where
discussed, one-sided accounts, and on occasion negative stereotypes have often been
deployed to characterise the behaviour of vendors and of consultants. Drawing
perhaps on critical perceptions of supplier offerings and behaviour within the user
organisation, these accounts often convey a negative sense of the role and
contribution of external technology and knowledge providers that seems hard to
reconcile with the fact that it is the user organisation that hires the vendor.

Technology design/development studies

This brings us on to consider how to address technology supply. This is linked to our
concern to understand the material properties of organisational technologies. This
aspect has not received sufficient attention overall. Rather few studies have been
undertaken of the contexts in which organisational technologies have been developed
and have evolved. We can identify some practical reasons for this, which include the
difficulties in obtaining access to commercially sensitive sites of technology
development, and the fact that there are far fewer developer firms than users. No less
important may be disciplinary divisions: Organisation and Management Studies are
concerned with organisational process and outcomes and have therefore tended to
focus on the organisational user and black-box the supplier and their technology.

However, a number of writers have shared our concern about the need to look at the
historical development of these artefacts prior to their organisational implementation.
This is in relation to earlier systems like MRP II (Clausen and Koch 1999) and current
ERP systems (Kallinikos 2004a; Koch 2005, 2007). There has also been some
research into technology development processes, notably within a Technology Studies
perspective. These latter studies have, however, often been carried out in isolation
from technology implementation and use (MacKay et al. 2000). This fragmentation
and framing of enquiry has consequences. In particular those analysing design may
succumb to the temptation of seeking to infer the implications of particular design
choices for those using the artefact, as exemplified by Woolgar’s (1991a) much cited
idea that the designer ‘configures the user’. This kind of approach to analysing
technology design, with its rather simplistic presumptions about development

capabilities and how design choices will affect the user yields a bizarrely over-
politicised account of design (Stewart and Williams 2005). This temptation is
understandable perhaps. Social scientists want to develop an understanding of design
choices and their attendant social implications and outcomes but run into the problem,
when studying sites of design, that most of the work is ‘mundane’. Design choices
have a ‘taken for granted’ quality and not much seems to be happening in relation to
the user. In this context, every comment made by designers about the user and their
context is liable to be seized upon. However, an understanding of the everyday reality
of design and development work and the internal exigencies that exist within supplier
organisations is important – and it is one of the things our book has attempted to
investigate especially in Chapter Eight.

In terms of exploring the implications of design choices for organisational users, one
approach might be to look for internal technology controversies that have emerged, to
find sites where competing options are being contested and where choices and their
implications become highlighted. However, This, however, is perhaps more easily
done in historical research (Hard 1993). Another approach, and one that we have
followed in this study, is to focus upon the various interfaces between suppliers and
users which constitute key nexuses in which competing requirements are presented
and worked out. In our study, for instance, we focused on the ways in which an ERP
supplier utilised groups of users (Chapter Five) to help guide the evolution of its
packaged solution. Design – and the coupling between artefact design and its
implementation/use - is thus being worked out through a range of different networks
and intermediaries linking supplier and user. It is also being worked out over multiple
settings of organisational implementation (implementation cycles) and in aggregated
form over multiple product cycles. It is important to address these implementation-
design-implementation cycles. For example, as we have previously mentioned,
numerous ERP implementation studies have highlighted the problem of ‘fit’ between
the package and the various settings in which it is applied. However, upon
examination, this problem can be seen to be rooted not simply in the lack of fit
between ‘the technology’ and ‘the organisation’ but between the implementation sites
for which the technology was initially developed and the sites in which it is currently
being applied (Brady et al. 1992; Webster and Williams 1993; Soh and Sia 2004).

Need to attend to technology design and implementation in tandem
These observations underline our argument about the need to attend to technology
design and implementation in tandem. Yet there are almost no studies addressing
design and implementation together. Why is this? One reason, as well as the above-
mentioned disciplinary divisions between those studying organisational users and
software developers, is the very practical one that technology development is in most
instances not only socially but also temporally separated from implementation.
Moreover, the lag between design of a technology and its implementation typically
exceeds the duration of most social science research projects (Williams et al. 2005).7
Researchers, contemplating the trade-off between depth of fieldwork and the number
and range of fieldwork sites of technological innovation have tended to opt for one or
other setting. This trade-off is arguably made more difficult by the emphasis within
contemporary social science on ethnographic approaches. Though strong in capturing
the richness of local processes in real time, ethnographic methods are labour
intensive. Ethnographic researchers therefore have often therefore opted for simple
research designs – mostly involving single site studies or studies of a number of
closely-related settings.

In this study we sought to overcome these problems, going beyond the current fashion
in qualitative social science with deliberately naïve methodologies and utilising our
theoretical and substantive knowledge – in particular our theory of the biography of
packaged software - to sample a selected array of locales of technology design and
implementation. Our multi-site analysis thus addressed settings of technology
development and implementation/use and focused in particular on nexuses between
design and use and the interactions between them. It integrated the historical and
contemporary; and it addressed different locales in the design implementation cycle.
We further argue that researchers need to look at artefacts at different stages in their
biography. We thus observed packaged developments at early and late stages of this
cycle, studying both the birth and evolution of new artefacts, as these differ
significantly in terms of the relations between actors and the institutional structure –
in short, the mechanisms for mutual shaping of technology and society. Let us look at
these points in turn.

Addressing the social fabric
Let us recap our point of departure from mainstream constructivist approaches to the
analysis of technology and work. Early contributors to the self-styled ‘New Sociology
of Technology’ (Pinch and Bijker 1984) primarily addressed innovations and
innovators that established a new field of techno-scientific practice. As these were
often at the interstices of existing institutional structures, ANT and SCOT theorists
were able in their analyses to ‘foreground’ the actors directly involved. These often
focused particularly on ‘heroic’ technical specialists, who were conceived as ‘Sartrean
engineers’ (Latour 1987), apparently outside or able to operate free from constraint
from the social structure. They thereby relegated to the background, or ignored
entirely, the historical and institutional factors which underpinned these
developments. However, such actor-centred accounts yield unbalanced explanations.
Their shortcomings are particularly problematic when we try to use these frameworks
to analyse the development of workplace technologies and other instances of
incremental innovation within well-established institutional settings. Local actions are
sustained and constrained by an extensive network of technical, organisational and
social arrangements whereby some (material, institutional) elements are difficult for
local actors to change (Kallinikos 2004a; Koch 2005).

Clearly, we need a ‘contexted view’ (Morrison 2002) that can address the complex
social fabric and its history which pattern the activities of those involved locally.
Moreover, our explanatory frame needs to be one which avoids the simplifying logics
of particular disciplinary approaches or schools, and which can match the intricacy of
the settings and processes we are studying. We start by an observation that the
character of these applications is being fought for, and shaped, at a number of levels
ranging from local contestation around features of design or its organisational
implementation to the broad macro-level concept. The complex web of relationships
involved moreover changes over time; it is as Koch (2007) observes a ‘moving

Thus far, we have established the importance of sites of technology development and
its implementation and use in understanding innovation. This alerts us to the need to
address how individual actors (e.g. suppliers, potential users, intermediaries) and the

relationships between them are conditioned by their broader setting. How then shall
we conceptualise the broader setting?

Koch (ibid.) has criticised the existing explanatory frameworks of ERP studies as
being too simple. In an important series of articles, he maps out a broad framework:
local studies (e.g. implementation studies) will no longer suffice he argues; ERP is
both ‘local’ and ‘an institution’. However, he also expresses dissatisfaction with
dualistic analyses that counterpose local and institutional developments (2005). He
proposes, instead, that we should examine ERP as ‘a community’ (Koch 2003)
constituted by joint involvement in a technology. Koch (2007: 440) observes that in
future ERP studies need to ‘…go beyond the single space enterprise, as well as
moving away from implicit assumptions of stable states of the system’ and to adopt
instead a ‘multi-local’ analysis of technology. To this end Koch (ibid.) proposes as a
conceptual frame, a six-field matrix, encompassing short- and long-term, and Micro,
Meso and Macro elements, of which implementation is but one out of six aspects. We
find ourselves in complete agreement with Koch’s analytical project (and particularly
his call for more effective analytical templates addressing multiple locales and
histories). We hope in this work to contribute to this common goal in some way.

However, we have some reservations about the Macro-Meso-Micro distinction.

Though these are very convenient and communicative labels (and we will use them as
such) they run the risk of being mechanistically mis-construed as fixed and separate
levels when in fact they are interpenetrating (a point which Koch of course recognises
in his critique of the local-institutional dualism). Moreover, these need to be seen as
relational categories. In other words, what is seen as Macro and Meso is relative to the
sets of (‘local’) actors and issues under examination (Kaniadakis 2006). It is perhaps
more useful to develop a generic model of the social shaping of complex,
commodified organisational technologies such as ERP, rooted in empirical analyses,
that can provide a complex template for our analysis.

Developers, users and the developer-user nexus

The need to attend to the developer-user nexus is flagged by various approaches. It is
for example axiomatic to the Social Shaping of Technology (SST) perspective which

insists that the development of industrial IT applications is not just shaped by
strategies of designers/developers in the domain of technology supply but also, as
previously noted, the settings of implementation and use. Fleck’s innofusion concept
(Fleck 1988b, 1993; Fleck et al. 1990) flags the innovation processes taking place in
the so-called diffusion stage in the process and arenas of technology implementation,
and the possibility that these experiences may feedback into future technology supply.
It also highlights instances where this experience was not effectively utilised. The
social learning framework builds upon this important observation and proposes an
integrated picture of the development and implementation of technologies (Williams
et al. 2005). Like Evolutionary Economics, the Social Learning perspective draws
attention to the importance of the coupling between supply and use. However, unlike
the main tradition in Evolutionary Economics with its concern to assess the
differential overall efficiency of such coupling in particular national or sectoral
innovation systems, the Social Learning perspective seeks to explore the detailed
processes and mechanisms for this coupling and its consequences for innovation

The importance of paying attention to these coupling mechanisms comes immediately

to the fore when we examine COTS solutions. Here we find an extraordinarily
intricate web of formal and informal linkages between package vendor and
organisational users. Here our analysis takes us beyond the immediate inter-
organisational level of direct interaction between supplier and user. For example, our
concern to analyse procurement stimulates us to address the broader terrain of
suppliers of classes of products. New industrial technologies develop in parallel in a
multitude of user sites and through the activities of many vendors and associated
players (e.g. consultants). It is to this Meso-level, beyond the direct user-supplier
linkage that we now turn.

The fine structure of external experts, intermediaries and knowledge networks

We can track an array of relationships out from the organisations contemplating
COTS adoption. Here we note first the various avenues of information the user
organisation draws upon in deciding to resort to a packaged solution like ERP and in
selecting a particular vendor and providers of complementary products and services.
Finkelstein et al. (1996: 1) have drawn attention to the influence of advertisements,

supplier literature and demonstrations. They also point to the importance of observed
use of the packages in other settings (for example, demonstration sites where COTS
have been installed) and comparative studies provided by third parties (trade papers
etc.). As well as drawing information from knowledge and technology suppliers,
potential adopters seek more impartial information through informal links with similar
organisations. In addition, our study (Chapters Six and Seven) will highlight the
growing influence of industry analysts as providers of community information about
the provenance of particular vendors and their offerings.

Once a packaged solution is determined upon, a more tightly coupled set of

contractual relationships will be established by the adopting organisation with those
charged to deliver an ERP implementation, involving a wide range of actors. As well
as the vendor itself, there could be the suppliers of associated products (hardware and
bolt-ons) and various sorts of external knowledge providers. These include groups
such as consultants who offer expertise in ERP implementation and who, in turn,
might be assisted by external providers of other sorts of relevant expertise such as
systems integration or change management experts more generally.

The management fashion for outsourcing organisational functions increases the range
of external experts utilised, which may also include, for example, training providers.
This trend is reinforced in the case of ERP by the explosive growth of the market,
which outstripped the capacities of suppliers to provide this expertise, as well as the
exigencies of supply of generic solutions that motivated the deliberate decision by
suppliers such as SAP to focus on generic supply. These decisions are buttressed by
an array of firms, such as the suppliers of interoperable products, systems integrators,
implementers, trainers, change management experts, and so on (Sawyer 2001; Koch
2005, 2007). Koch points out that this differentiation is crucial to the value-
maximising strategy of the package suppliers, for:

ERP is (big) business and design of these systems occur under strategies of
mass customization, where the encoding of the generic user is a necessary tool
to reduce development costs and time to market (Koch 2005: 43-44).

We can also track these webs of knowledge and influence from the vendors as they
seek to manage and sustain their existing user base and expand their markets. It arises
in the course of their efforts to provide service and support to users and also to guide
the development of new products, and through linkages to existing customers. In this
latter respect this is often indirectly through knowledge arising from their services
(e.g. help-desk queries) and also more directly and explicitly through permanent
knowledge linkages (e.g. through user-clubs; marketing department discussions with
potential customers).

The increasing resort to outsourcing the supply of business solutions (and their supply
as packaged rather than bespoke solutions) and the increasing role of consultants in
the supply of knowledge services radically transforms the institutional terrain in
which changes in industrial technologies are adopted (though there may be some
similarities in the process of implementation [Brady et al. 1992; Fincham et al.
1994]). In particular, it changes the character of the conflicts of interest from a
primarily intra-organisational contest for political legitimacy and access to resources
to a primarily inter-organisational contest for contracts and streams of income and
services. As already noted, this also changes the character and role of internal
expertise and sets up complex alliances between organisational interests and external
economic interests (such that public and private organisations carefully regulate such
linkages) (Procter et al. 1996; Howcroft & Light 2006).

The selection of consultants and the role delegated to them, shaped by established
ways of working and reputation from previous projects, configures the arena in which
the project unfolds in ways that may give consultants more or less autonomy and
influence over the outcomes (Hislop 2002; Pozzebon & Pinsonneault 2005). We find
that change is taking place in a complex social setting, and one that is patterned by
pre-existing social relationships. Clausen and Koch (1999) similarly identified more
or less stable couplings between particular groups of user organisation and vendors,
which they have described as ‘segments’ of the ERP market.

The segment
Clausen and Koch (1999) explored how the shaping of ERP in the 1990s took place
across a structure comprising the CSC of the adopters, with their own internal

dynamics, and various ‘segments’ of IT suppliers and customers.8 They suggest that
knowledge flows within these segments were shaping the evolution of ERP. This
included implementation experiences, and the new demands and visions circulated
between suppliers and their customers. Drawing on theories of ‘organised capitalism’
(see Lundvall 1985), Clausen and Koch (1999) see the persistence of these segments
in terms of the benefits of these knowledge flows and a coalescence of similar views
about business improvement. Crucially, they argue that different segments, and the
different procurement strategies and associated forms of supplier-user coupling, offer
different opportunities for local influence over the design of the ERP system (see
Figure 3.1).


Later work by Koch points to the influence of broader and longer term changes
affecting these ‘Meso’ structures, including the restructuring of the ERP supply sector
in the 2000 economic downturn which swept away some of the weaker and small
players. These segments are not stable. There have also been some realignments in the
constellations of players around ERP provision (generic solution providers, suppliers
of complementary products, implementers and other Value Added Resellers) in a
complex pattern which combines elements of stability as well as dynamism (Koch
2004, 2005).

Our earlier work on CAPM had highlighted the influence of similar Meso-level
features on the way these artefacts were shaped and promoted in part through
industrial and professional networks (notably in the UK by the British Production and
Inventory Control Society,9 a body strongly influenced by vendors and consultants as
well as industrial managers). CAPM was also influenced by more general (and
changing) models of best industrial practice (Williams and Webster 1993; see also
Swan and Newell 1995; Robertson et al. 1996; Hislop et al. 1997).

And today, as we already noted in Chapter One, there is a marked re-orientation of

ERP supply. This is motivated, on the one hand, by the fact that it has largely
saturated its original established markets in large manufacturing organisations and
now must find new customers or develop new functionality for existing customers,

and, on the other, by a desire to respond to criticisms that its offerings have lagged
behind the latest business concepts, in particular of value-networks. So we see ERP
being re-oriented towards new targets (public services and SMEs whose requirements
it has been criticised for neglecting), the development of new technology architectures
(in particular of the internet and web-services), and new functionality (CRM and
supply chain management) which brings it into competition with established players
in these niches. Its future is being debated and contested in this inter-organisational
space as much as through organisation level implementation.

Macro-level - Visions and Imaginaries

This final observation forces us to consider developments at a more Macro-level. This
is, first, in terms of the relationship between these changing conceptions of an
organisational technology and the circulation of broader views of industrial
improvement (which inform prescriptions of good/best practice). And, second, with
visions of how these may be fulfilled by emerging technologies.
Previous work has noted the correlation between technologies and business
programmes. For example, in the 1990s, the European Union invested heavily in
electronic trading as it matched their vision of an open international market (Williams
1997). Similarly, 1980s conceptions, such as integrated information systems, were the
technological correlate of the integrated, customer-focused finance organisations
(Fincham et al. 1994).

Swanson and Ramiller (1997) have highlighted the role of ‘organizing visions’ in
information systems innovation, encompassing interpretation, legitimation and
mobilisation, which help mobilise the material and intellectual resources needed for
innovation. Wang and Ramiller (2004: 12) analyse the evolution of attention (in what
they call an ‘innovation community of vendors, consultants, adopters’) from:

i. knowing-what: Interpretations that help to conceptualize the innovation;

ii. knowing-why: Rationales for adoption that help to justify the innovation;

iii. knowing-how: Implementation and utilization strategies and capabilities

that capacitate the innovation.

Whilst initially the focus of attention is on what the technology is, and why it should
be useful, later attention shifts to issues in its successful implementation and
exploitation by user organisations.

Judith Gregory has developed the concept of ‘incomplete utopian project’ to ‘describe
the phenomenon of envisioning as constructed, evoked, and employed within an
innovative intra- and inter-organizational effort, and to open up theorizing about
innovation, work practices, and technology’ (2000: 180). The word ‘utopian’ draws
our attention to the influence of ‘longstanding deeply shared desires simultaneously
characterized by their unrealizability and their devotees' tendencies to over-reach
reality in their pursuit’ (ibid: 194). Building upon this as well as a shared tradition in
activity theory, Hyysalo (2004, 2006) has developed the concept of ‘practice bound
imaginaries’ to refer to such visions which provide an intellectual resource that helps
frame, mobilise and pattern expectations around an array of players. Instead of
portraying visions as disembodied, the concept of Practice Bound Imaginaries
conveys the extent to which they are coupled with existing and achievable practices
and artefacts:

relatively integrated sets of visions, concepts, objects and relations that are
regarded as desirable, relevant and potentially realizable in and for a practice,
and as having cognitive and motivational power for organizing this practice.
(Hyysalo 2006: 602).

This bears directly upon our analysis of the evolution and biography of ERP (and for
example Koch’s [2003] analysis of ERP as a political programme for organising
change). A key part of the ‘heterogeneous assemblages’ (Koch 2005) of human and
material elements that constitute ERP is comprised by inter-subjective elements:
promises, visions of best practice and prescriptions for industrial improvement, and
criteria for assessing technologies alongside artefacts, techniques and practices. The
biographies perspective however helps us analyse how these communities operate
across the diverse set of social actors involved: suppliers and users, consultants,
industry analysts, policymakers and commentators (Koch 2007).

Macro-level – external developments
These final observations force us also to consider changes in wider terrains that shape
and are reshaped by these developments in the world of ERP. These include, for
example, at the broader level:

i. changing models of economic life in an increasingly globalised networked


ii. the structure of the information technology sector;

iii. the emergence of new technological models such as web-service architectures,

which could herald major changes in how the information infrastructure is
created through third party hosting etc.;

iv. the structure and recent restructuring of corporate knowledge services

involving the increasing influence of a small number of global management
and accountancy firms, and the convergence of information systems
integration and change management organisations upon high value-added
opportunities from deploying these in tandem (and the associated linkages and
mergers between these firms).

This brief review of developments around ERP brings us nearer to being able to
sketch out a schema for analysing these multi-local developments in more abstract


Arenas of technology development and implementation
How then can we conceptualise this complex space, linking together material
artefacts, practices and visions within an extended fabric of individuals, organisations
and inter-organisational structures and associations. As Koch (2007) argues, we need
better spatial metaphors for addressing this rich tapestry, which is characterised by
gaps in time and space (e.g. between developers and users, as well as by more or less
sharp differences of interest, expertise and commitment). We could theorise this as a

‘distributed innovation process’ (a concept recently advanced by innovation
economists) or as the operation of a ‘network’ (in the way Actor Network Theorists
might do). These however represent a very imprecise way to characterise what is in
fact a rather structured set of relationships. As others have noted (see Knorr-Cetina &
Bruegger 2001, 2002), the concept of network has come to be widely adopted but in a
remarkably loose as well as inconsistent manner.

We have been attracted by Jorgensen and Sørensen’s (1999) concept of ‘development

arena’. The value of the concept for us is that, seeking to provide tools for Actor-
Network Theory based explanation to deal with the broader interactions evident in
global technology developments, it conceives of the arena as a space, using the
analogy of a circus ring drawn in the sand, in which a number of more or less
conflicting actor-worlds collide. In addition, they flag the possibility of radical
reconfigurations of an arena through changing boundaries and realignment of players,
providing tools to explain destabilisation as well as alignment:

…a development arena is a visualizing spatial expression of processes of

competition and co-operation. It should convey the idea that several actor-
worlds are being construed within the same problem area. It depicts the idea
that several actor networks co-exist and interfere with each other within a
certain problem space. A development arena is our attempt to bring together
processes or entities that would otherwise seem to be dislocated. It can be seen
as the place where actors relating to a certain set of problems meet and
exchange ideas etc (ibid.: 417-8).

Fleck’s (1988a) innofusion framework had similarly flagged the arena of

implementation as a key site of innovation in industrial technologies. He has a rather
similar concept of the arena as an inter-organisational space comprising members of
supplier and user organisations, that constitutes a setting for practical learning and
struggling, in which different kinds of competence and knowledge are deployed (e.g.
the engineers’ knowledge of computer science techniques and artefacts and the
organisation members’ knowledge of their context and purposes). Indeed our initial
concept of the biography of an artefact was based on the idea of an artefact alternating

between moments of innovation in technology supply and implementation (see
Williams 1997).

This kind of formulation seems less adequare to us today as our attention has turned
to look in more detail at the myriad forms of direct and indirect relationships linking
supply and use and also shaping the overall character of offerings in a technological
field. It would be possible to scale up Jorgensen and Sørensen’s (1999) development
arena to include implementation, but this would be to overlook the asymmetries and
tensions between development and implementation. It is useful to examine moments
of design and development separately from implementation and domestication as we
see these moving not always in synchronisation but often exhibiting different
dynamics.10 Industrial and organisational technologies are characterised by a small
number of global supply side players, a larger array of complementary product
suppliers, and huge numbers of adopters.

Clarke and Casper (1996) have also deployed the concept of arena in their
interactionist analysis of medical and scientific developments, as part of an
endeavour, which parallels some of our concerns, to address power dynamics that
have been muted in ANT and SCOT analyses. They address the relative power of
actors by analysing outcomes: the consequences of the actions of social actors within
their particular sub-cultures/social worlds and a shared arena. Their approach

…centres on grasping and representing the perspectives and properties of all

the major actors (including collective social worlds and nonhuman actors) in a
particular arena of mutual concern or in which certain actors are implicated
(ibid. : 602).

How then can we characterise the complex spaces in which technologies like ERP
emerge and evolve? To characterise these as a single arena may be to underplay the
very different textures of the fabric of social relations (which for example range from
contractual linkages between firms to weak associations of opinion across dispersed
communities). We could alternatively describe the setting for development and
evolution of organisational technologies such as ERP in terms of a multiplicity of
overlapping arenas: these could be development arenas, implementation arenas and

specific Company Social Constitutions (for CSCs are surely arenas too). This
however might distract attention from the fact that many players will appear in
multiple arenas. Characterising these as separate spaces may not be helpful to our
current concern to develop multi-local theorisation of both the many kinds of
supplier-user relationships and of the overall development of a technological field.
Instead, we want to look at the various different kinds of relationships established
between broadly similar or at least strongly overlapping groups. We also need to be
able to analyse these at different levels of generality and timeframes.

The ‘agora of technology and organisational change’

Antonios Kaniadakis (2006) has introduced the concept of the ‘agora of technology
and organisational change’. He sees the agora as a meeting place and a market in
which all producers and consumers of organisational technologies potentially interact.
The agora, thus conceived, is diffuse and not clearly bounded. However various
particular bounded perspectives on the agora are drawn (by actors and analysts) for
different purposes (of action and analysis) depending upon their particular context and
purpose. In other words, actors construct particular viewpoints of the agora: they see
and engage with particular slices of the complex multi-local multi-actor space of the
agora and set boundaries depending on their purposes and relevancies. How the agora
is conceived depends upon the actor’s relationship with it. Thus, a user organisation
has very different view and orientation towards the agora than a technology vendor.

Viewpoints are active constructs; it is not simply a question of where you stand. It is
also a question of the purposes of players constructing it. The agora is also, and
perhaps primarily, an analyst’s construct. The researcher makes choices about which
tranches of this complex structure to sample and with what closeness of view.11 The
arenas we have discussed may be seen as particular viewpoints within the agora. The
agora has a structure (which we shall attempt to map empirically and conceptually).
Thus, Kaniadakis sees the agora as having Micro-Meso- and Macro-levels. However,
what appears as local and as broader context also depends crucially upon what is
being examined and how. For a study of interactions in a particular workgroup, global
technology developers may appear as established features of the macro-environment,
along with other legal and institutional structures, that are not amenable to influence
by the actors in the timeframes involved. In a study of these technology developers,

however, the market of (unknown, distant and thus impersonalised to them) potential
users may appear as an obdurate and immovable constraint. This is then a relational
(not a relativist) conception. The concept of agora would seem to meet Koch’s (2003)
call to go beyond a dualistic local-institutional conceptualisation and address ERP as
‘a community’. Moreover, it opens up opportunities to address the intricate structure
of this community and develop methodologies to capture this.

The concept of ‘viewpoint’ gives us a means to discuss the necessary choices in

research design when trying to address complex social phenomena. It provides a
means of steering between naïve undifferentiated approaches to approaching the
social setting and adopting a particular conception of social structure. It links with our
argument that research design needs instead to adopt a ‘variable geometry’.12 The
viewpoint concept flags that choices must be made in terms of sites of access and
tools for investigation, depending upon the phenomena being investigated, the kind of
access the researchers have secured and their analytical purposes. Effective research
design calls for thoughtful selection of sites and methods of investigation. The same
phenomena could, for example, be addressed through large-scale survey methods or
ethnography. Which is most appropriate depends on the research questions involved.

The dynamics of the agora

The agora may be a diffuse and plural array of players. However, it is not an open and
equal community – in the way in which we might conceive of scientific communities
operating under the Mertonian ideal, for example. Its internal structure comprises not
just peer-like communities of practice (a la Wenger 1998), but also communities of
(often conflicting) interest. It is characterised by asymmetries and entrenched
conflicts as well as alignments of interest. Criticisms have been advanced of the
failure of community of practice theory to develop an adequate analysis of power,
ideology and conflict, particularly in inter-organisational settings and despite its initial
recognition that these were potentially important (Fox 2000; Roberts 2006). Many of
the points made by Koch (2007), explaining why his analysis of ERP as a community
could not be in terms of a ‘community of practice’, are applicable here.

Moreover, the agora is not only comprised of diverse and heterogeneous elements, it
is also a disjointed space, perhaps better understood as an heterogeneous assembly of

physical and abstract spaces. For example, the agora of technology and organisational
change though viewed perhaps from particular national settings is closely coupled
with bodies and groups with international scope. However when we consider a
developing country like China, for instance, we find a space only partly integrated
with the Western agora for Enterprise systems and organisational technologies more
generally, with very different traditions amongst ‘user organisations’ and national
software suppliers despite the presence of some Western multinationals (Liang et al.
2004; Xue et al. 2005; Wang 2007b).

Commodification of knowledge networks

The ERP community is a knowledge network. It is also, however, a locus of struggle
and conflict. Many parts of this segment of the agora are subject to commodification.
This imparts a complex dynamics to the agora. We have already discussed the
difficulties of trading in informational and non-material products. Thus in the case of
ERP, we find various commercial suppliers of knowledge based products (ERP
solutions, and complementary products) and services (ERP consultants and other
change management and integration specialists). In Chapter Six we will analyse in
detail the attendant difficulties in establishing the provenance of a provider and its
products, and of demonstrating the benefits of that solution to a particular user
organisation and of overcoming mis-fits. Not least, because ERP is a generic product,
a substantial investment must be made in implementing it within an organisation
before its outcomes - before actual and achievable fit - can be realistically assessed.
These difficulties in assessing the qualities of a product mean, on the one hand, that
the market is a rather inefficient discovery mechanism, but must be supplemented by
network or community types of relationships. On the other hand, outsourcing and
commodification radically change the incentives faced by players in commercial
relationships in the procurement of technology or (consultancy or integration) service,
with sharp and very obvious conflicts of interest between competitors but also
differences of interest and of commitment/world view between consumer and
producer. Once the procurement process has been concluded, the arms-length
externally-policed contractual relationships invoked by economists might be
presumed (hypothetically) to apply. However, in a context of necessarily ‘incomplete
contract’ issues, this strict contract relationship remains notional. Though the
existence of contracts changes the legal and governance character of previously

voluntary relationships, the exigencies of joint learning in implementation are
characterised by the erosion of boundaries and lines of responsibility. Here we may
infer a spectrum of market relationships between what we might provocatively term,
following Burns and Stalker (1961), mechanistic and organic relationships, between
those in which a more strict versus a more collaborative relationship prevails.

Thus, we see that in both phases of the market relationship, market forms are
supplemented by communitarian and network forms of relationship (Fincham et al.
1994; Adler 2001). This is one way in which the relationships of the agora are unlike
a community of practice or a scientific community but are shaped by the dynamics of

Another important way in which commodification shapes the agora is in the making
of markets through the alignment of expectations. Here the providers of knowledge-
based goods and services find themselves facing another paradoxical situation in
mobilising general expectations. On the one hand, they may be drawn to collaborate
with their competitors in building expectations that a particular technology/technique
represents the way forwards for business improvements. They have an incentive to
raise collective expectations about this class of offerings, to establish a market for
such offerings, and to promote its provenance amongst other possible ways forward as
a road for organisational improvement. Simultaneously they need find some way to
promote particular claims about their own offerings, to convey that their particular
product offers competitive advantage over its rivals. Thus, we find developers, on the
one hand, competing with other providers to build their own particular solutions, to
position themselves within their market niche, and build their share of the market, but,
on the other hand, also operating in tandem with their competitors to establish the
generic idea of utility of classes of artefact.13

This paradoxical situation: the simultaneous necessity of self-promotion and building

trust in the class of solutions places interesting constraints upon vendors and
consultants. In practice, they often find themselves operating in a complex
collaborative array with suppliers of competitive and complementary products and
services of the sort that have been characterised as co-opetition. As Swanson and
Ramiller (1997) point out, in discussing organisational visions, though some diversity

may lead to richness and robustness in innovation, too much diversity and
competition may lead to dispersal and loss of commitment.

James Stewart (1999) coined the term ‘poles of attraction’ to explore the ways in
which (ICT supplier) firms seek to mark out their plans and visions of future
technology in very clear ways: that is to mobilise the expectations of potential
customers and thereby build confidence in, and win commitments to, an emerging
technology, or, at times, to ward off competitors, to mobilise fear, uncertainty and
doubt and thus frustrate a competing technology. This concept highlights the
influence powerful players can achieve within the agora based on resources they are
able to mobilise.

That there are benefits in aligning expectations around new organisational

technologies is evinced by the way in which a series of technologies and change
management techniques have acquired solidity and momentum (often by identifying a
class of more or less disparate vendor offerings as a ‘technology’, of the sort
described by the succession of three letter acronyms such as CRM, ERP, MRP, and
BPR), only later to see that term ultimately replaced as supplier strategies and user
expectations migrate to the next new solution.

Power and conflicts within the agora

The agora refers to a linked array of locales in which economic and organisational
interests as well as meanings, are at play and are being played out. From our Social
Shaping perspective, we are particularly concerned with economic interests and
technological commitments. The agora is a site of conflict and struggle and of
negotiation and alignment. The kinds of activities that we note within the agora
include many of the processes that have been analysed effectively by ANT (e.g.
enrolment and alignment). However, ANT, with its roots in Machiavellian political
theory (see for example Latour [1988]), tends to portray these processes in markedly
voluntaristic ways that are perhaps more characteristic of struggles in a political
realm. However, the agora is a site of economic and political power - that is, of
political economy.

This is not the place to argue for a particular theory of power or of society – and our
biographies framework may be compatible with diverse approaches. However, in our
analysis, we are seeking to address the ways in which local struggles are taking place
within a broader institutional context - conceptualised in terms of circuits of
knowledge and reward: creating visions and providing resources which constrain and
enable local actions. We seek to draw insights from both semiotic and institutional
accounts of power, and are attracted by Clegg’s (1989: 186) analysis of power
relations within the organisation in terms of the operation of multiple ‘circuits of
power’ at different (micro-macro) levels. Clegg’s analysis focuses upon the inter-
group competition for resources and influence within an organisation, building upon a
tradition that could be traced back to Burns and Stalker (1961). The resort to
outsourcing of technology and knowledge-based products and services, coupled with
transformations in the organisation of external supply, change the character of the
actors’ interest-pursuing strategies. In the struggle for influence within the
organisation, it places greater salience upon inter-organisational as well as intra-
organisational relationships. Members of external suppliers equally must act on an
inter-organisational as well as intra-organisational terrain to sustain themselves as
‘points of passage’ for their customers (Law and Callon 1992) and in this way to
secure resources and commitments to their own project. There is thus a close interplay
between organisational political and commercial struggles and between economic and
organisational political power. For our purposes Clegg’s model needs to be adapted to
consider the inter-organisational (e.g. Meso) structures as well as the
organisational/occupational dimensions he focuses upon.

We seek to explore how local actions and outcomes depend upon a context of
knowledge and beliefs and which, in contrast to a narrowly semiotic interpretation of
power, provides material as well as intellectual resources which generate incentives
and penalties for local players and pattern the conduct and outcome of local actions,
by framing discussions. We are also seeking to explain the ways in which local
actions collectively react back onto and produce/reproduce social structures.

In this analysis we are anxious to avoid dichotomising action and structure or

reducing outcomes to the operation of one or the other – whether an actor-centred or
institutional account. Unlike ANT, we do not wish to do this by dissolving everything

into the homogenising framework of the language of actor-networks, compressing all
the different components into an actor-centred account and linked by ANT’s limited
repertoire of relationships (such as Callon’s [1986b] generic translation strategies).
Instead we wish to pay due attention to the complexity of operation of socio-technical
phenomena, differently constituted and observed at multiple levels of generality.

In terms of our analysis of the agora, the distinctions between Micro, Meso, and
Macro refer not to different things, insofar as they all are of the stuff of human socio-
technical action (a point made by ANT writers that we are happy to take on board).
Furthermore, in this relational framework, scales and perspectives of analysis can
shift: what appears as an external Macro constraint could figure as a Meso layer in
another analysis, as may be evinced by considering the example of the status of
corporate strategy in a study of the short-term behaviour of a work group or in a study
of the management of a major technology change programme. The distinction instead
relates to the very different practical experience from particular viewpoints of
immediate short-term and local actions and the more generalised aggregate outcomes
of those actions – embedded in norms, practices, habits, organisations and
technologies. This Micro-Macro scale then is in part a distinction based upon the level
of generalisation, whereby Macro analyses may address widely-adopted routinised
behaviours that constitute institutional constraints, as well as being a question
regarding their level of local malleability to local actors.14 Standardised technology
artefacts thus present themselves as part of the objective landscape for firms choosing
organisational technologies, though in a study of settings of technology design, their
embedded technological choices will be more accessible and malleable to members of
the vendor organisation.

The agora for technology and organisational change, analysed by Kaniadakis (2006),
is a site for the mobilisation of promise and expectation (and likewise a site for
counter-enrolments and mobilisation of uncertainty and doubt) at various different
levels of generality. This may, for example, range from particular organisational
implementations and supplier offerings, to classes of organisational technology, and
ICT capabilities more generally.

We thus see the agora as itself a product of a series of enrolment efforts and struggles,
which may be described from different perspectives and at various levels of
generality/pervasiveness and historical timeframes, ranging from immediate contexts
of local action to more generalised patterns of behaviour, sustained over longer-terms,
which in turn constitute economic, technological and institutional structures. These
broader ‘structures’ act to pattern innovation, providing resources and material
constraints to actors in terms of their choices regarding which options appear doable,
which factors can realistically be changed, and which are to be taken as part of the

This double-sided character of the agora, as both shaping and shaped by

sociotechnical processes, may usefully be approached through the concept of
negotiation, with its two distinct connotations. Firstly, this is negotiation as a meeting,
a place for alliance building, conflict and struggle with more or less obdurate or
amenable human and non-human elements; and secondly negotiation as a set of
manoeuvres needed to accommodate or by-pass those elements which are effectively
‘non-negotiable’. This second usage of negotiation, which is akin to the way we might
negotiate ourselves down a mountain pathway, is informed by the fact that some of
the things we encounter present themselves as more solid and permanent from the
view of particular local actors, including institutions and technologies, which in this
sense, are a kind of materialised institution, and have to be negotiated around.

This is not to say that these external factors directly imposed determinate constraints
on local actors. Instead, we note another form of negotiation, as a kind of bridging
between these spaces. For example, whereby key organisational players/systems re-
presented external factors within the organisation. Finally, though we have for
illustrative purposes discussed the case of elements seen as malleable or as fixed to
local actors, there is no necessary polarisation between these. Actors can exercise
choice about which ‘black-boxes’ to accept as fixed and which to open up –
depending, for example, on the relative costs and benefits of so doing. An
organisation could, in principle, choose to develop a bespoke solution rather than be
constrained by existing availability of packages but this would depend on the level of
resources they can deploy to such ends and whether such an investment would appear

Finally, we notice that the agora is a space where very different kinds of commitment
are being played out. There are, in particular, important differences in orientation to
the agora between suppliers and organisational users of technologies and other
knowledge-based products/services. Thus for a technology supplier or a consultant the
agora of technology and work organisation is the space where their commercial future
is worked out. In contrast, a user organisation will have a more contingent orientation
to the agora; they are keen to benefit from technologies but it is not normally part of
their perceived mission to carry forward their experience with implementing
technology as a resource for technology development.

Intermediaries as strategic players in the agora

The agora concept provides a space for analysing the various kinds of social
relationship beyond the immediate inter-organisational level of direct interaction
between supplier and user. To be useful, however, the detailed operation of the agora
needs to be filled out and explained. Our concern to analyse procurement stimulates
us to address the broader terrain of suppliers of classes of products and the ways in
which beliefs about the provenance of a technology are constructed across a
community of supplier and user organisations. Our final addition to the framework is
to examine the emergence of new kinds of intermediaries who are also market makers
and conveyors of community information. In Chapter One we reviewed research
findings regarding the powerful influence of the technology supply side over views or
what constitutes ERP. In Chapter Seven we will draw attention to the role of various
kinds of intermediaries, and in particular the growing importance of a relatively
distinctive class of intermediary, industry analysts.

Our Social Learning framework flags the importance of different kinds of

intermediary in innovation, in linking supply and consumption and the wide range of
roles they play (Howells 2006). However, industry analysts appear to occupy
particularly strategic sites in the agora. Our work will flag the importance of the
Gartner Group in two ways:

i. we will show how this actor acts as a repository and organiser of what we call
‘community knowledge’ about the implementation of particular products and
about the reputations of their suppliers’;

ii. we will see (as noted in Chapter One) how Gartner’s sectoral reviews
consolidate the existence of a domain of technological activity (in this sense of
constituting a technology like SAP’s R/3 as an instance of ERP), charting the
overall development of particular technologies and their future development
trajectory (Mabert et al 2001; Judd 2006).

The industry analysts seem thus to play a crucial role in configuring particular
development arenas and in mobilising consensus. It might appear that in some
instances it is they who hold the ropes and set the rules of game – defining the
boundaries of technology and the criteria by which particular vendors and their
offerings may be judged. However, it is also important, while addressing their
influence, to attend to the limits on how industry analysts proceed. Thus, we find that
they are not able to impose their views. Their ability to play their role (and sell their
services) depends on their being seen to operate in a close relation to practice,
reflected, as we shall see, in the strenuous attention they devote to legitimating their
position as impartial bearers of community knowledge in the face of criticisms of

We consider the existence and profile of industry analysts like Gartner to be

indicative of a broader development. Our review of the difficulties of the operation of
the market for complex technologies like ERP had pointed to the importance of
indirect indicators of the behaviour or suppliers and their products – in particular of
experience-based trust. However, this kind of trust is slow and expensive to acquire.
In looking at the mechanisms for selecting management consultants, Glückler and
Armbrüster (2003), as already noted, highlighted the value of networked reputation as
a more effective mechanism for overcoming the buyer’s uncertainty. The role of
industry analysts in IT procurement points to one mechanism for enhancing the
efficiency of networked reputation formation through the commodification and
canalisation of the circulation of community knowledge (and how this is subject to
particular forms of accountability). We may see this as a response to the deep
uncertainties surrounding the procurement of organisational technologies that seem to
be compounded by the growing pace and increasing organisational significance of
technological change.

The need to address multiple historical timeframes
A corollary of our insistence upon the need to examine sociotechnical change at
multiple levels of generality, in terms of addressing immediate contexts of action and
broader contexts, is that we need to consider socio-technical processes temporally, in
terms of:

i. the unfolding of multiple histories; and also

ii. the different historical timeframes around which an object, event or activity
may need to be analysed.

Multiple histories and timeframes are intrinsic to our attempts to capture the evolution
of a new technology, addressing, for example, both its development and adoption. In
this way we seek to captures the complex set of developments taking place across a
variety of locales, encompassing both the ‘local’ context of immediate action and
interaction and its patterning by a broader context. This broader context is constituted
by the aggregate outcomes of previous actions which, in turn, provide a less-readily
negotiable set of factors that frame and pattern outcomes and which need to be
analysed over longer term timescales.

It is important to pay attention to the multiple dynamics and timeframes surrounding

innovation. We have noted that the dynamics of technology development and
appropriation may differ. For example in the case of ICTs, where development cycles
may have shortened to a year or two, appropriation cycles may be an order of
magnitude greater, with new consumer products taking decades to diffuse into
widespread use and having greater longevity (Williams et al. 2005) (though both
timeframes are becoming shorter). This longevity in appropriation and replacement
cycles is particularly marked in the case of organisational information infrastructures
such as ERP.

Particular episodes form part of multiple histories. Thus the implementation of a

technology constitutes a moment in the history of a particular Company Social
Constitution (Clausen and Koch 1999). It is also one of a number of sites of
implementation of a particular supplier offering, contributing through its innofusion

and appropriation to the further elaboration and wider adoption of that specific
artefact. And that specific story in turn forms part of the evolution of the class of
artefacts with which the supplier offering is associated. We have coined the concept
‘biography’ to refer to this history of relationships and sites implicated in the
evolution of a specific artefact and a class of artefacts. And the latter can, at a more
general level, be seen as a phase in the development of organisational technologies
more generally. In the latter three cases, the specific history is nested inside another
more long-term generalised set of relations. However, a technology implementation
can also be seen as the linking together of two specific histories that may not have
been previously conceptualised together: the Company Social Constitution of the
organisational adopter and the biography of a specific artefact.

In theorising the multiple tempos that we may need to address in analysing particular
episodes, we find considerable merit in the framework articulated by Hyysalo (2004).
He draws on Hutchins’ (1995) study of how quartermasters learn naval navigation in
a system of distributed action, which portrays the simultaneous unfolding of different

any moment in human conduct is simultaneously a part of the unfolding of a

task, the development of the individual doing it, the development of the work
community, and the development of the professional practice (Hyysalo 2004:

Hutchins' cube (Figure 3.2) represents these as different speeds of change within a
single moment of practice (rather than portraying these as separate levels).


Hyysalo introduces us to attempts within Activity Theory to characterise time-scales

for analysing social and technological development.15 His study of the development of
new health care technology highlights three key time-scales in the coupling of design
and use:

i. the prevailing ways of organizing design and use in industrial production.
Hyysalo refers here to features of the innovation system liable to be stable over
many decades: ‘pervasive and relatively slow changing ways in which design
and use are generally organized in industrialized countries’ (Hyysalo 2004: 13);

ii. the coupling of a technological field and a societal practice. Which he sees as
relatively stable institutions, potentially stable over years and decades, though
noting the possibility of changes in practices, in technologies and in the ways
these are coupled together; and

iii. the development of a particular innovation and the organizations and people
connected to it.

We can adapt this schema to our own analytical concerns. Hyysalo’s longest
timescale (i) prevailing ways of organizing design and use would perhaps correspond
in our study to the resort to packaged solutions for organisational technologies. Our
concept of biography would encompass his other shorter timescales: (ii) the
technological field which corresponds to the biography of a class of artefacts (e.g.
ERP systems in general); (iii) and the development of a particular innovation to
address the biography of a specific artefact (e.g. SAP’s R/3 system).

The comments we made earlier, in discussing viewpoints and research design, about
different ways of slicing through the complex social space represented by the agora,
depending upon our location/orientation to it and our concerns, also apply to the
historical framing and timescales of our research. Such choices about the temporal
framing of enquiry have important implications for what may be viewed. For
example, local studies of immediate settings of action inevitably draw attention to the
scope for discretion (such as ‘user work-arounds’) but provide a poor vantage point
for exploring longer-term processes of technology-organisational alignment (for
example around common business process templates within enterprise systems). This
may need to be captured by other modes of research (for example larger-scale surveys
or longitudinal studies).

Rather than invoke one modality of research, our approach seeks to retain awareness
of the multiple historical registers that surround a particular phenomena. The choices
we make regarding which timeframes and historical registers are to be centrally
addressed and parallels our earlier discussion of choices regarding the adoption of a
local or of a more global gaze. Whilst the agora concept provides tools for looking at
social space, the temporal distribution also needs attention.

We are minded here of the critique of constructivism made by Kallinikos (2004a: 12)
on the grounds that the ‘study of technology and its social impact cannot be exhausted
at the very interface upon which humans encounter technology. Essential strips of
reality are not observable…’.16 Kallinikos is highlighting issues of social structure, of
particular relevance when we consider technologies that typically come to us as the
result of a more or less elaborate (occupational, organisational, and industrial)
division of labour. If we are to address the material character of artefacts, many
elements are developed at a remove (socially and temporally) from their sites of
implementation and use and are not under the control of actors in user locales. This
observation can also usefully be applied to the existing institutional context that
provides resources and sets constraints for local action.

We are proposing a relational approach that brings to the foreground certain features
for detailed analysis – but within a broader historical register that also records other
levels of generality and tempi.17 Our work seeks to find ways of probing and
addressing these other levels/tempi through the adoption of a complex methodology.
We contrast this, inevitably messy, endeavour to other dominant social scientific
research approaches which recognise only a single register for analysis (whether of
immediate action or of broader structuring). We see this failing, for example, in
economic accounts which are founded upon conceptions of human behaviour that are
demonstrably flawed, and also in the ‘atomistic individualism’ which characterises
much recent work from a constructivist background which only recognises immediate
contexts of action. We contend that this yields an unhelpful reductionist account of
complex social processes.

Rather than propose a particular level of analysis, we emphasise the benefits of multi-
level analyses, which may have different depths and centres of focus depending on the

issue under analysis. The particular scope and framing of analysis selected depends
upon the matters under examination. For us the matter of research design and
epistemology should be driven by a critical reflection about which (spatial/temporal)
slices of complex techno-social fabric are brought into the centre of our analytic gaze
by particular modes of research and from what viewpoints.

We propose the concept of biography as an instance of a ‘variable research geometry’
that can be applied to diverse issues and in differing contexts, depending in particular
upon what issue(s) are being addressed and which entities are being tracked. The
biographical approach focuses upon social (or rather sociotechnical) processes
involved in innovation and how these are shaped by their context and history. Many
kinds of biography are thus possible. For example we could address the biography of
an organisation – indeed this is how we understand Clausen and Koch’s concept of
Company Social Constitution (Clausen and Williams 1997; Clausen and Koch 1999);
the biography of an occupation; or indeed the biography of a managerial innovation
such as BPR or TQM (see Mueller & Carter [2005]).

Our concern here is to understand the biography of an artefact which may be

conceived narrowly in terms of the development/implementation of a particular
innovation, or more broadly of a class of artefacts, or of a technological field and their
complex couplings with social institutions, actors and practices. This has been the
(often tacit) objective of a diverse array of Social Shaping of Technology studies.
These have deployed various research geometries in terms of the historical scale and
the level of generality of the phenomena under study. However, what is at stake here
is not only a matter of temporal and social framing – of zooming in and out, to use our
photographic analogy – but also involves important choices also in terms of the
methods and concepts deployed and the relationship of the study with existing
knowledge. Multiple methods may be required, knitting together different kinds of
evidence including historical studies, ethnographic research, qualitative studies of
local and broader development and the use of larger-scale research instruments and
quantitative data. These differing kinds of evidence have differing strengths and
contributions to mapping the dimensions of an issue. For example local qualitative
research may be provide better tools for drawing out intricacies and particularities of

social process and is particularly pertinent to exploratory research opening up new
understandings of a novel and emerging phenomena, whilst larger-scale research
provides a more effective base for addressing regularities and trends as well as for
testing hypothesis and models and confirming findings from exploratory qualitative
studies (MacKenzie 1988). It may be further adduced that combinations of different
kinds of evidence are liable to produce more robust and richer understandings.

Multiple theoretical orientations

As well as proposing a ‘variable geometry’ in relation to the temporal and
technical/societal framing of research, we argue for a certain level of critical
eclecticism in relation to broader worldview, and the theories and concepts that
inform it. Of course, theories and methods cannot simply be combined on a pick and
mix basis; they are underpinned by different and often incompatible presumptions and
tools. Though some have interpreted this truism as constituting a case for sectarian
theoretical purity, we suggest a different response. We argue instead that we can
interrogate differing analytical traditions in terms of their robustness and applicability
to the phenomena in question and their compatibility with other perspectives; we can
reason and make judgements about these questions.

Though informed by our close association with the Social Shaping of Technology and
Social Learning perspectives, particularly in our emphasis upon material and social
structural influences, the biographies approach is not ‘hard-wired’ to a specific
theoretical perspective. And many of the schools and analytical currents within STS
have common and convergent concerns (Williams and Edge 1996).

We contrast our analysis with the widespread espousal within current STS of what we
may call the ‘atomistic interactionism’ in many explanations of the world with roots
in social constructivism and phenomenology, which see the world as constructed and
reconstructed anew in sites of everyday action. A similar analytical consequence
arises from the rejection by ANT of explanation in terms of the operation of broader
social structures, accompanied by their rejection, as unwarranted generalisation, of
social scientific theories regarding the operation of these structures. Though
appealing, these exemplify what could be described as the ‘fairy cake theory of the

universe’. This theory was propounded in Douglas Adams’ (1979) now classic work
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy that

…since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every
other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the
whole of creation - every Galaxy, every sun, every planet, their orbits, their
composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece
of fairy cake.

In place of basing their choice of research setting and methodology upon social
science theory, these actor-centred accounts generally resort, as noted in Chapter
Two, to a ‘naturalistic’ (or perhaps empiricist) approach; seeing society constituted in
the observable actions and interactions they study. For example, ethnomethodological
research is founded on the view that the social order is constituted in social
interactions: it selects particular sites of interaction for study and presumes that the
relevant social relations will be present or represented there (Lynch 1993). Studies of
particular sites and settings of action, what we may call ‘flat ethnography’, encounter
the problem, that Kallinikos (2004a,b) also identified, that many issues regarding the
material character of artefacts are determined outside the setting of technology
adoption (including the availability of technologies as well as the institutional context
which provides resources and sets constraints for local action). Perhaps as a result,
ethnographic researchers frequently have the sense of not being in the right place or at
the right time (Law 1994; Magolda 2000). One temptation faced with this
incompleteness of vantage point is to elevate the importance of the particular settings
and interactions studied. This could be exemplified by workplace studies of
technology that present organisational information and communication processes,
including the appropriation of IT, as of paramount importance, and correspondingly
neglect technology design and other distal processes. We would instead propose an
alternative solution involving what we describe as ‘strategic ethnography’, addressing
multiple sites, selected according to the matter in hand based on our preliminary
knowledge thereof. Such an analytical move requires researchers to explicitly
recognise and make accountable the strategic choices involved when deciding upon
the location and boundaries of ethnographic work. It would in turn require reflection
upon the theoretical commitments and presumptions that inform these choices (rather

than pretend that it is possible to avoid such choices for example by empirical
sensitivity). Some strands of ethnographic research, particularly associated with
Ethnomethodology (see for instance the articles with Button [1993]), have difficulties
in acknowledging such an approach (which, we would argue, is however more in line
with the anthropological tradition).

ANT, with its nostrum of ‘following the actor’, does not limit itself to particular
settings, but accepts that research involves making strategic choices about which sites
and people should be tracked. It justifies these choices, however, in terms of empirical
outcomes; in this sense ANT claims to be able to see ‘where the action is’ (Latour
1987). However, ANT does not provide tools to guide those choices or make them
accountable. This claim to be able to resort to a naturalistic method leaves ANT open
to criticisms of empiricism (Russell 1986; Williams and Russell 1988). Moreover, a
multiplicity of accounts would be possible from different perspectives; any ANT
account of necessity involves choices about which actors and perspectives to
foreground (Sørensen and Levold 1992). Since ANT has rejected other theoretical
knowledge, these choices are made based on largely unacknowledged presumptions
(though see Law 1991) and common sense knowledge.

What is at issue here is a particular orientation to theory with which we differ. Across
the social sciences, we can find a spectrum of styles and approaches to theorisation,
between work that in its insistence upon particular theoretical and methodological
approaches becomes purist, and more eclectic approaches.

Analytical purism has attractions. It is easier to justify the particular methodology and
epistemology within a well-honed world-view. However, this strategy also brings
weaknesses and intellectual rigidities. In particular such purism typically involves a
process of simplification of the object of study (as we saw in for example in Chapter
Two, in the construction of disciplinary domains in which phenomena were conceived
in narrowly ‘economic’ or ‘technical’ terms). This has unhelpful consequences,
particularly where it leads to the exclusion from consideration of other forms of
knowledge, theoretical and methodological tools and empirical evidence. As a result,
it generates accounts of the world that do not match the complexity of issues under
examination. Of course, this kind of reductionist analytical strategy has been

extraordinarily successful, particularly in Science and Engineering. Within the social
sciences, perhaps only Economics and Psychology have succeeded in replicating the
reductionist disciplinary strategy of the natural sciences. Processes of disciplinary
specialisation within other social sciences have more generally involved the formation
of specialised schools of analysis rather than cohesive broader disciplines. The
formation of these specialised schools has facilitated rigorous development of
analytical concepts and instruments – but we would argue, at a cost of narrowing the
frame of enquiry. In particular, we note the tendency for a single level/frame of
analysis to predominate. This is perhaps most evident in relation to what is perhaps
the key social scientific debate – between explanations of the world in terms of action
and structure – where social sciences tend to coagulate into either action centred or
institutional centred accounts.

There have at the same time been movements against theoretical purism in the social
sciences that have led some to embrace thoroughgoing eclecticism. However, as the
rather disappointing achievements of ‘systems theory’ indicates, this strategy has been
demonstrably unsuccessful. Much of this work is marked by a loss of rigour in
relation to the development of concepts and tools (Hoos 1973; Keat and Urry 1975).
We therefore do not propose a retreat from theory. Understanding in social science
proceeds by advancing competing interpretations of a complex and interconnected
world. Theory is needed to provide critical insight. Atheoretical approaches
perennially threaten to become overwhelmed by diversity – lacking the theoretically-
informed tools to help the analyst impose order on unruly reality (put boundaries
around problems, sort out and rank diverse potential influences, select sites for
examination, and so on). In consequence, we would argue, they end up with
empiricist and descriptive accounts; and they are hard pressed to extrapolate or draw
general lessons for practice. A clear theoretical perspective seems to be a pre-requisite
for effective social scientific enquiry.

Our work, and our view of the Biography of Artefact perspective, is rooted in and
inspired by STS, most immediately social learning and social shaping analyses, but
also deeply influenced by writings from ANT. However, we differ with the latter’s
rejection of existing social scientific knowledge (despite the articulate defence of this
approach found recently in Latour [2005]). What we are not proposing is not just an

‘in-between’ position – balancing between eclecticism and theoretical purism - but
rather a different relationship to theory.

Our approach to understanding the Biography of Artefacts Framework addresses the

technology-society relationship at multiple levels and timeframes and also
acknowledges the multidimensional character of these phenomena and thus the
potential pertinence of analyses of these phenomena from different (technical,
economic etc.) analytical perspectives. The analysis of the biography of an artefact,
by acknowledging these multiple dimensions of the phenomenon under study, brings
the researcher into contact with other areas of (social and technical) knowledge that
are pertinent to the questions under examination. A multiplicity of theories and
methods may therefore be pertinent. Acknowledging this point does not, however,
answer the question of how to bring them together. As is clear from the above, there
are dangers in eclecticism.

What is at stake here is the question of how we relate to (heterogeneous) theory. This
is a question of whether social science theory is to be used as an analytical machine or
as a tool for understanding.18 Rather than admitting all knowledge claims as being of
equal validity, we retain our STS perspective as our core analytical commitment. At
the same time, we can hold a range of other findings as potentially pertinent forms of
background knowledge that can inform a particular study. Social science theory and
methods do not constitute some kind of analytical machine (you turn the handle and
out come facts).19 Instead, these bodies of knowledge provide potentially valuable
resources, sensitising and guiding the analyst. Rather than rejecting and ignoring other
forms of knowledge (as espoused for example by ANT and some related approaches),
or accepting that somehow ‘anything goes’, we can make some assessment of the
relevance, robustness and pertinence of these theories. We can critically examine the
presumptions underpinning these concepts and methods and the available evidential
base, in terms of their consistency/compatibility and their applicability in other
contexts or for other analytical purposes. For a particular analysis it is necessary to
develop an analytical framework that advances our own understanding and
acknowledges other areas of relevant knowledge. Rather than resort to a single-
purpose analytical schema, in the way propounded by ANT or Ethnomethodology, we

suggest that it is necessary to argue for the adequacy of the methods and concepts
deployed according to the issue and phenomena in hand.


In a moment we shall explore how our biographical perspective can be applied to
understand the history of ERP but before we do this we want to discuss some links
with other fields which also share our interest in investigating technology over longer
timeframes. This includes work on the social and cultural history of technology
consumption (e.g. Marvin 1988; Pantzar 1997) and by cultural and economic
anthropologists of technology (e.g. Appadurai 1988; Kopytoff 1988; Thomas 1991).
The latter have coined a parallel usage of the term biography of artefact – in a
discussion that we find informative but which differs from the aims of this book in
important respects. The most well known contribution to this strand is, perhaps,
Kopytoff (1988), who argues that an object cannot be properly understood at only one
point in time. Rather we should look across its whole life-history to analyse its
production, consumption and circulation. Just as we study the life course of people,
we should also do the same for technologies. In the same way the status of people
change over their life-time then so does the status of an artefact. Yet whilst Kopytoff
sets out these general aims for uncovering how objects ‘accumulate histories’ he is in
fact interested in objects for much more specific reasons; to explore how they mediate
social relations in particular settings and what they reveal to anthropologists about
those relations and places. He writes:

Biographies of things can make salient what might otherwise remain obscure.
For example, in situations of culture contact, they can show what
anthropologists have so often stressed: that what is significant about the
adoption of alien objects – as of alien ideas – is not the fact that they are
adopted, but the way they are culturally redefined and put to use. The
biography of a car in Africa would reveal enormous amounts of information
about the relationship of the seller to the buyer, the uses to which the car is
regularly put, the identity of its most frequent passengers and those who
borrow it, the frequency of borrowing, the garages to which it is taken and the
owner’s relation to the mechanics, the movement of the car from hand to hand
over the years, and in the end, when the car collapses, the final disposition of

its remains. All these details would reveal an entirely different biography from
that of a middle-class American or Navajo, or French peasant car’ (1988: 67).

As we see it, Kopytoff’s conception of the term biography is useful for the following
reasons. Firstly he is interested in how artefacts are transferred from one place to
another, and denotes how they are ‘alien objects’ when they arrive in their new
settings. Though he is also careful to point out that even though they are ‘alien’, the
object is not imposed on actors since it is typically adapted and redefined according to
the needs of each new place. This has obvious parallels with the STS and Social
Learning work reviewed previously. Secondly it focuses on how various communities
in domesticating these artefacts leave ‘traces’ in the sense that they shape the object in
some form (though he falls short of suggesting that the users of the artefact actually
contribute to the production of the object which is what we are suggesting with the
development of software packages). Thirdly that the current significance and meaning
of an object today is always related to the settings and communities to which it was
once connected. Finally that the same objects would have different biographies
depending on the range of settings through which they travel.

Whilst this form of analysis might be applied to the study of ERP systems – and we
have attempted an initial analysis using this framework (Pollock et al. 2003; Pollock
& Cornford 2004) - we think there are limitations with the term as it is currently
conceived within anthropology. Kopytoff’s focus is principally on the significance
and meaning of an artefact and how this changes through its career. It is the multiple
ways an object is viewed and understood by the different communities who consume
it that make up its biography (the more and varied these meanings the more ‘eventful’
the biography). By contrast, whilst we think ‘meaning’ is important in the context of
generic packages we also want to show how systems are not only symbolically but
also materially changed over time. A system like ERP, as we have already described,
is a heterogeneous assemblage where the various affordances built into the
technology are constantly developing and evolving. In addition, whilst reading
Kopytoff’s work, it seems that the biography of his artefact turns out to be the story of
a highly bounded object20. As he describes it the notion of the ‘artefact’ is the
circumscribed one common to anthropology and not the messier notion of artefact
found with STS. In this respect, echoing the point above, enterprise-wide solutions are

not material artefacts in Kopytoff’s narrow sense but can more usefully be thought as
a heterogeneous assemblage (Koch 2007). Thus, we intend the biography of an
artefact in this wider more encompassing sense.

Finally we are not wholly convinced the most useful way to study artefacts is solely at
the place where the user encounters them. Nor are we convinced that these encounters
tell us much about the wider contexts in which the objects are situated (which is
Kopytoff’s intention). As we have suggested local studies of adoption offer an
inadequate lens for exploring the longer term development of a complex
organisational technology like ERP. Contrary to what Kopytoff suggests,
extrapolating from the specific object to the wider context can only ever be done in
quite general ways. Rather than study the variety of ways in which the same object is
adopted by different groups of users (these ‘horizontal biographies’ if you like) we are
interested in the production of ‘nested biographies’. Local adaptations, improvisations
and work-arounds etc., should be seen as one moment in the biography of a specific
object, which go onto form part of the evolution of the class of artefact, which in turn
is part of the history of the resort to packaged solutions. Arguably, through moving
out from the specific user’s interactions with a specific object in this way, the
technology and society relationship is bridged in a more sophisticated way.

However there are other aspects to Kopytoff’s approach that we find more useful,
such as his discussion of ‘commodities’, for instance, where he gives particular
attention to the movement of an artefact between different economic states (see also
Appadurai 1988). It was the way in which an object could be ‘commoditised’,
‘decommoditised’ and even ‘recommoditised’ that Kopytoff found interesting. Indeed
it the movement of objects between different commodity states that constitutes the
biography of a technology (Dant 2001). He cites the example of one of the most
common and exchangeable of technologies, the mass-produced car and notes the
process by which some vehicles grow older they may develop into a ‘vintage’. In so
doing they become ‘unique’ and no longer a straightforwardly exchangeable
commodity (a process Kopytoff describes as ‘singularisation’):

In the homogenised world of commodities, an eventful biography of a thing

becomes the story of the various singularisations of it, of classifications and

reclassifications in an uncertain world of categories whose importance shifts
with every minor change in context… (ibid.: 90).

Now it is clear an object might acquire new meanings (or further develop its
biography) in other ways than through exchange (Dant 2001) but for Kopytoff, it is
the economic life of an object that has particular significance. This is what he intends
when he talks of things as having an ‘eventful biography’ in that artefacts are not
always commodities but can (and often do) move between different states (thus the
commodity phase is only one part of an object’s social life). Interestingly there is a
somewhat similar discussion by the economic anthropologist Thomas (1991) only he
reaches somewhat different conclusions. He is also interested in the process of
commodification but rather than simply signifying one more stage in an object’s
biography this is concerned with detaching an object from its history. For this reason
in his book Entangled Objects he describe commodification as a process of

Commodities are here understood as objects, persons, or elements of persons,

which are placed in a context in which they have exchange value and can be
alienated. The alienation of a thing is its dissociation from producers, former
users, or prior context (ibid.: 39).

His definition is interesting to us since it highlights the possibility that while

commodification/alienation can occur there are sometimes opposing forces present;
for some objects ‘disentangling’ can never fully occur. The notion of ‘entangled
object’ suggests that some artefacts are inextricably connected to their place of birth.
To exemplify this he contrasts those objects that have little difficulty in travelling -
i.e. those things that were specifically created for exchange - with those that have
become so entangled with previous owners that there is the impossibility of exchange.
There is, he writes, ‘[v]ery close association between people and some particular
objects…’ such that the object ‘may not be transmitted at all’ (ibid.: 72-3).

This strand of work is relevant because software packages as a class of technology

are, as we have already mentioned, not simply borne ‘commodities’ or as ‘generic’
products but only become so through various complex processes. One of which is that

software package vendors work to ensure that their systems are never too much like
the place(s) for which they were built and never too connected to specific people or
events. Their fear is that if the package becomes overly connected to, or identified
with, these places then it will weaken the potential/ability of their systems to move
beyond these places/settings. Thus, one of the things they do is to actively mange the
biography of their system, this is the history of relationships and sites implicated in
the evolution of a specific artefact, so that they avoid ending up with an ‘entangled


The starting point for this focus on biographies was the observation by Edinburgh
scholars past and present (Fleck et al. 1990; Fleck 1993; Webster and Williams 1993;
Pollock et al. 2003) that workplace technologies were often condensation of existing
work practices, coupled with a view of achievable change geared towards current
conceptions of best practice. In other words, information systems were not extrinsic
developments coming from outside the industry but at least in part were intrinsic
developments. This was obviously true in relation to the earliest phases of process
innovation that arose within the ‘user organisations’, for example, in the industrial
revolution (Rosenberg 1976) and in the earliest stages of the application of computing
(von Hippel 1994). However it continued even after a specialist supply-side had
emerged, which continued to be linked to the user inter-alia through the
implementation process. Building upon these debates, Brady et al. (1992) suggested
that packaged software artefacts had biographies. Williams (1997a) applied this
concept to analysing the evolution of CAPM describing its historical evolution from a
family of artefacts (MRP, MRPII etc.). And Pollock (Pollock & Cornford 2004) later
used a version of the same argument to study the transfer of ERP across other sectors.

In this early work, whilst the influence of the institutional setting was highlighted –
including the role of professional associations and of public policy in promoting ideas
of best practice (Webster and Williams 1993), our initial explication of the biography
framework did not include a comprehensive set of conceptual tools for analysing the
social fabric beyond the supplier-user nexus. And in this respect some valuable
further work elsewhere has been undertaken elsewhere, for example, by Swan et al.
(1999) who noted how national differences in the structure and operation of

professional associations had consequences for the uptake and manner of utilisation of
these technologies. Clausen and Koch (1999) likewise drew attention to the
fragmentation of the supply-user nexus into a number of distinct segments with
relatively stable linkages between suppliers and users within segments. However, the
challenge now is to theorise in more detail the structuring and operation of this
institutional setting.

This is what we will attempt to do now in the case of the emergence of ERP as a field
of technology where we will reinterpret its history through the lens of our biographies

Understanding the evolution of technological fields: the history of ERP

We have already suggested that the concept of biography could be applied to analyse
(in Hyysalo’s [2004] terms): the development of a particular innovation (and the
organizations and people connected with it), and the coupling of a technological field
and a societal practice. In relation to the former, this may encompass the evolution of
a particular supplier offering as well as particular episodes of its design,
implementation and use. In relation to the latter, the biography concept can be applied
to explore the operation of relatively stable institutions over a period of years and
decades in the emergence and evolution of particular technological fields. We can
explore this in relation to packaged organisational software – which became known as
ERP. Koch (2007: 428) reminds us that ‘ERP “systems” need to be understood as
heterogeneous networks, assemblages of human and material elements’. The concept
of biographies lets us explore the historical emergence and evolution of this
heterogeneous assemblage.

We briefly reviewed in Chapter One the extended biography of ERP which can be
traced back to early 1960s stock control systems in vehicle and aerospace production.
ERP, like many other popular technologies, has a remarkably well rehearsed history;
characterised by a clear succession of predecessors with their own acronyms (though
there is less agreement about the distinctions between these stages).21 We found a
process of incremental development of the artefact and conceptions of its business
application, punctuated by more radical changes, with discontinuities often loosely
associated with changes in terminology. We will discuss the role of a technology

name in more detail below. These labels refer not to specific homogeneous artefacts
but to a more or less heterogeneous collection of artefacts (software, management
techniques) which link a community (or rather several overlapping communities) of
suppliers, intermediaries and adopters.

It is instructive to focus on these discontinuities – and changes in designation. They

do not reflect simple ‘technical changes’, though they are often associated with
changes in the underlying technical architecture. They are also associated with
changes in overarching paradigms for business improvement. Perhaps the key
periodic driver of a change in name arises when suppliers decide to port new
developments to different technical architectures – and need to sell them to their
customers. Perhaps the key event in the evolution of ERP from its predecessor, MRP
II, was the 1992 launch by SAP of its R/3 product based upon client–server
architecture. The current debate about the future of ERP (and the idea of extended
ERP or ERP II) revolves around novel technology architectures based around the
internet and web-service architectures, though also accompanied by a shift in views
about the search for competitiveness from the enterprise to the value-network.
Software suppliers and management consultants (and latterly, commentators and
business analysts, as coordinators of community expectation) appear to exercise
particular influence over these changing prescriptions. A combination of factors thus
appears to be at play in these shifts. We shall explore the operation of these factors in
more detail by revisiting the historical development of ERP and its predecessors.

The origins of Materials Requirements Planning (MRP): techniques,

technologies, communities
Robertson et al. (2002) and Jacobs and Weston (2007) have analysed the origins of
MRP in a small group of US industrial practitioners and academics with a background
in operation research techniques and interested in applying these in manufacturing
organisations through computer-based systems. These accounts highlight the coming
together in 1966 of three individuals - George Plossl, Joe Orlicky and Ollie Wight22 -
who collaborated in developing the conception of Materials Requirements Planning
(MRP), and later became widely known as ‘MRP gurus’. Initially their emphasis was
on the application of production planning techniques within firms rather than software
– the systems depended upon computers but were developed in-house or provided as

bespoke systems, building upon existing stock control systems developed in the
manufacturing of complex assemblages in vehicles and aerospace. This informal
community (primarily of management specialists, connected to or employed by firms
adopting MRP techniques) had links with IBM which invested in the development of
solutions resulting in 1972 in a successful packaged solution. This was the
Communications Oriented Production Information and Control System (COPICS)
designed to run on their new IBM Model 360 series mainframe computers. Specialist
knowledge was codified, for example, through COPICS handbooks and commodified
not just in artefacts but also more saliently in consultancy. The shift to packaged
solutions was less marked in this period however than the movement towards the
education and professionalisation of managers and consultants (Mabey 2007), subject
to some certification and quality control procedures. Ollie Wight, for example, set up
a network of ‘Class A’ companies and consultants applying his concepts.23

Whilst the early stages of these innovations were characterised by opportunistic

encounters, later developments were pursued in a more organised manner (Robertson
et al. 2002). The three MRP gurus became the core of a broader network and in
particular promoted their ideas through the American Production and Inventory
Control Society (APICS) through what they described as an ‘MRP Crusade’ (Clark
and Newell 1993; Robertson et al. 2002; Jacobs & Weston 2007).24 In that decade
today’s major ERP providers were established including SAP (1972), JD Edwards and
Oracle (1977), The Baan Corporation (1978) (Jacobs & Weston 2007) and a host of
other providers which no longer exist today. APICS strengthened itself, building its
membership significantly through the MRP campaign – and we see the development
of the technology and of its supporting institutions proceeding hand in hand
(Robertson et al. 2002; Jacobs & Weston 2007). This is linked with a concerted effort
of education and professionalisation of production management, through the
production of textbooks and courses (Mabey 2007).

It is instructive to note that, in the first phase of MRP, the main institutional
repositories were practitioners: user organisations, management professions and
professional associations. A market was also being built for knowledge-based
products. We also note a familiar pattern as with other innovations: the establishment
of a division of expert labour and the partial convergence of knowledge in specialised

supply. During the 1970s, we see the increasing influence of management consultants
and of technology suppliers (and by the 1990s educationalists, suppliers and
consultants made up over 40% of APICS members [Clark and Newell 1993]). The
MRP crusade seems to have been successful. By the early 1970s only 150 US
companies were using MRP techniques, a figure which rose to 750 by the mid 1970s
(Robertson et al. 2002), and which by the 1990s had risen to over 60,000 (Mabey

From MRP Materials Requirements Planning to MRP II Manufacturing

Resource Planning
SAP launched its highly successful R2 software in 1978 (Jacobs and Weston 2007).
New systems emerged that could run on cheaper minicomputers such as the IBM
System 38 that were affordable by smaller firms. In the early 1980s, the progressive
extension of the functionality of Material Requirements Planning systems inspired a
search for a new name. Jacobs and Weston (ibid.: 360) describe how:

Ollie Wight began calling these new systems ‘Business Requirements

Planning’ only to find that this name had already been registered as a
trademark. So he referred to them as ‘MRP II’ systems, which by the late
1980s, was ‘translated’ as ‘Manufacturing Resource Planning’ to distinguish
this new capability from the original, simpler, system.

An alternative account suggests that Wight was happy to stick to the MRP acronym
with which he was closely associated.25 However MRP and MRPII are not wholly
distinct: at ‘the heart of any MRP II system was the fundamental MRP logic, now
typically re-written in modern code’ (ibid.: 360)26, and there was often ambiguity in
discussions as to what was being referred to (MRP or MRP II?).

Computer-Aided Production Management: the vision that was not sustained

In the late 1980s, we find a new terminology being introduced in the UK of
Computer-Aided Production Management (CAPM), kicked off by a report published
by the Institute of Production Engineers (Cork 1985). The ACME Directorate, the
Science and Engineering Research Council’s Application of Computers in
Manufacturing and Engineering Directorate subsequently launched an Initiative in

CAPM Research (Waterlow and Monniot 1987). In this period, MRPII systems were
being strongly promoted (for example by BPICS, set up as the British subsidiary of
APICS and strongly influenced by vendors) and were being implemented in medium-
sized UK firms, with mixed results. In this context, we see attention directed towards
overcoming some of the shortfalls of existing technology. Chief amongst these were
the complexity and inflexibility of MRPII systems which made them difficult to
implement successfully, particularly for smaller firms which were very different in
their production environment and management systems from those in which MRP had
emerged. There was also a debate about the appropriateness of these tools as vehicles
for pursuing the current vogue for flexible Japanese-style Just-In-Time systems (Clark
and Newell 1993; Webster and Williams 1993; Swan et al. 1999). Though MRP
systems were designed to operate in stable and predictable batch manufacturing
environments, there was an attempt to offer these as vehicles for Just-In-Time even
though these were based on very different principles and approaches.27

The availability of research funds and other support attracted a range of suppliers of
MRP and MRP II and related systems, which were motivated to rebrand their diverse
offerings as CAPM. The CAPM terminology acquired a certain stability in academic
writings particularly in the UK and in some associated research centres; but did not
catch hold in the USA and was not sustained.28 In 1990-1 when our investigation of
CAPM was concluded, there was no clear sense of the future of MRP.29 As suggested
at the outset of the book, the keynote paper for a high-level European Workshop on
the future of MRP (Wijngaard 1990) noted three competing scenarios: the evolution
of MRP offerings by current large suppliers; partnerships of MRP suppliers and users;
and the emergence of Factory Management Systems offered by systems integrators
rather than today’s generic MRP suppliers. The workshop emphasised reducing
software complexity for the user (not necessarily for the designer) through context
specific systems.30 Though there was no clear vision in 1990 of where MRP was
going, in the aftermath of SAP’s launch of R3 only two years later, we find the
sudden and all-encompassing resort to the alternative terminology of Enterprise
Resource Planning developed by Davenport and industrial analyst Gartner (Lopes

From Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP II) to Enterprise Resource
Planning (ERP)
The factors underpinning the shift in terminology from MRPII to ERP seem rather
amorphous. On the one hand, there was the widely expressed dissatisfaction with
earlier MRPII systems regarding the shortcomings identified in discussions of CAPM
(Maskell 1993). On the other, early ERP systems were not distinct from MRPII.
Gartner’s key paper that coined the term ERP and proclaimed it as the new paradigm
was entitled: ‘ERP: a vision of the next-generation MRPII’ (Wylie 1990).31
Definitions of ERP, despite the ambiguities we reviewed in Chapter One (Klaus et al.
2000), generally emphasise the addition of accounting and Human Resource
Management functions onto the core MRPII systems (see for example Chung and
Snyder [2000]). However, these were already a feature of MRPII systems in existence
and being implemented in the early 1990s (Kampf 2001). These extensions did
however take these systems beyond the manufacturing process; and the
Manufacturing Resource Planning terminology no longer seemed appropriate.32
Perhaps the one clear technical feature is the adoption of client server architecture
offering cost and implementation flexibility advantages (Lopes 1992; Knutton 1994),
coupled with a high level of integration between modules whereby a transaction on
one module would be accessible to all the system modules, achieved through an
integrated database.33

After Gartner coined the term ERP, other players (most notably vendors and
consultants) began to flesh out what ERP was and how it worked, followed by adopter
accounts of the organisational benefits of its adoption (Wang and Ramiller 2007). The
theme of integration and process orientation seems to have been very attractive to
corporate managers, which appeared to dovetail with ideas about good industrial
practice in the context of the prior espousal of Business Process Redesign, together
with a view that packaged solutions represented the way to achieve these goals
(Deloitte and Touche 1997).34 Wang’s (2007b) analysis of the (mainly
trade/practitioner) press points to the explosive growth in discussion of ERP in 1997-9
coinciding with a corresponding reduction in papers on BPR. He concludes that the
ERP community has benefited from recruiting members and attracting attention from

related innovation communities hitherto looking towards BPR and MRP (see Figure


De facto what seems to be driving the shifting terminology and the new paradigm is
the success of SAP’s newly launched R/3 system (launched in Europe in 1992 and in
USA in 1995) which, along with other similar offerings, establish themselves as a
standard (Lopes 1992; Davenport 1996; Pairat and Jungthirapanich 2005). Existing
MRPII users were early adopters of these new packages, and SAP in particular
became widely adopted by global organisations. Added to this, organisations such as
APICS promoted ERP (Berchet and Habchi 2005). However, in contrast to the
previous stages in the growth of the MRP (the so called ‘MRP crusade’), the
institutional basis for promoting ERP had already been put into place. As we saw in
Chapter One, a range of factors reinforced the adoption of ERP, leading to the
explosive growth in uptake, which was initially within manufacturing, but was
progressively extended to other areas as versions of these offerings were created for
process industries and various service sectors.

From Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to Extended Enterprise Resource

Planning (ERPII)
While the shift from MRP II to ERP appeared seamless, its further development has
been subject to much debate. We already noted how a number of inter-locking factors
have underpinned calls for radical repositioning:

i. technology push: in the form of radical new technical concepts; in particular of

web-service architectures, and software as a service, and component-based
architectures (Kumar and van Hillegersberg 2000; Markus et al. 2000);

ii. market pull: the saturation of its core markets provoked a search for additional
markets (notably in smaller firms for whom ERP had been to expensive and
cumbersome) and for new value opportunities in linking ERP with related
technologies concerned with decision support, customer relationship
management, and supply chain support; and

iii. new business concepts: notably the imputed shift from an enterprise to a value
chain perspective (Moller 2006).

Industry analyst Gartner declared ERP dead in late 2000 and proposed a wholly
different vision under the label of extended ERP or ERPII. The changes involved are
summarised below in Table 3.1.


Gartner’s death sentence has been shown to be premature. Rather than the radical re-
orientation of ERP proposed by industry analysts under the label Extended ERP, we
find an incremental development described elsewhere as ‘ERP 1.5’ (Judd 2006). This
involves the adding on of functions rather than Gartner’s vision of a wholesale shift
towards componentisation and a value-chain focus (Light et al. 2000; Jakovljevic
2001; Pairat and Jungthirapanich 2005).

Looking at this brief review of ERP and its predecessors we note a constant pattern of
incremental development, progressively extending the scope of integration,
accompanied by more radical re-presentations of the technology. Though each of
these transitions has been subject to historical contingencies we can see some overall
homologies in these innovation processes. We note the discontinuities occasioned by
a coincidence of changes in Business Prescriptions and in technology supply
strategies (in relation to both the development of specific application elements
product and in the overall Technology Architectures of the product). We find an
interesting pattern of linkages between classes of technology/their nomenclature and
managerial prescriptions of best practice and broader visions of business
improvement. We can observe stable linkages for example between ERP and the idea
of process improvement. We can also find instances in which looser, more
opportunistic and ephemeral couplings are made (between JIT and CAPM or between
ERP and e-business). Finally, we note the longer-term intertwining of more general
conceptions of technology and organisation; above all regarding the evolving
concepts on the one hand of information integration and on the other of process
integration. Thus we found the linking of the idea of the flexible customer-oriented

firm and CAPM and broader visions of Computer Integrated Manufacture (Webster
and Williams 1993) and again today linking ERP systems and BPR.

The timelines for the Evolution of ERP points to something like a 10 year cycle: a
periodicity which (doubtless not coincidentally) broadly approximates to the
replacement cycle for corporate information infrastructures (see Figure 3.4).


As well as these cyclical processes, there is also a clear progression in the process of
building a technology and associated organisational and institutional framework. At
the outset, the new institutions of information technology and business improvement
were rudimentary and inchoate. The early accounts emphasise improvisation and
chance encounter. As time progresses, we find the gradual laying down and
elaboration of technical frameworks in terms, for example, of the sedimentation of
component technologies and their incorporation into solutions. The first stock-control
and MRP systems were written from scratch (to work on whatever mainframes were
used by the firm concerned). Later we see the recycling of code. In other words,
porting functionality from the particular technical and organisational context in which
it arose to other areas.35

Importantly, over the decades, the institutional frameworks for promoting enterprise
system become better established (evidenced by the shifting terminology of a crusade
(1972) to a movement (2005)). We suggest that the weave of the ‘socio-technical
fabric’ changes over this period from a loose and open weave to a denser and more
intricate pattern. Finally, we can reflect upon changes in the processes of assessment
of technologies in the course of procurement. Thus, in the 1990s, consultancy
organisations were beginning to collate information about supplier offerings, whilst
by the twenty first century we find a much more elaborate system of consultancy and
advice, and the emergence of specialist industry analysts making available community
experience on a more commodified basis, and providing the basis for more formalised
and systematised assessment of particular vendors and their offerings.

What’s in a name?
This analysis has pointed to technological continuities between ‘different
technologies’ or to, be more precise, different terminologies applied to a class of
broadly similar artefacts. What is at stake in these classifications and
reclassifications? The name applied to a technology is far from trivial. It proposes
boundaries that link a class of often quite various artefacts whilst differentiating them
from others. As we shall see, the designation of a technology field reduces uncertainty
for adopters and for developers:

i. it allows adopters to develop a generic case for particular innovation pathways

(based upon an analysis of the potential performativity of that class of
technology for certain types of organisational challenge), and, once this is
accepted, paves the way for a comparative analysis of the relative advantages
of particular offerings for their specific organisation;

ii. the designation of a technology draws boundaries around a set of artefacts and
their suppliers, and thereby creates a space in which some ranking may be
possible; and

iii. it allows developers to assess their offerings, their promotion, and

enhancement in relation to the features of broadly comparable products and
their likely future development trajectories. In addition, we see a clustering of
offerings that may serve to reinforce expectations about what functionality
should be included and where the technology will go in future.

1 There has been a certain theoretical convergence of view between a number of analysis – despite competing terminologies –
around the study of a range of supply-side players and users, consultants and others involved in ERP, conceived as a community
(Koch 2007), as a movement (Grabot and Botta-Genoulaz 2005), or innovation community (Swanson and Ramiller 1997).
2 Here we discuss technological changes such as ERP adoption though the observation could equally be applied to studies of the
introduction of a new management technique – for example BPR.
3 Al-Mashari (2003) has produced a taxonomy of the topics addressed in the ERP implementation literature.
4 See for example the Journal of Strategic Information Systems that recently published a special issue on Understanding the
Contextual Influences on enterprise systems in 2005.
5 Many of these shortcomings are relevant to other research into technology and work organisation.

6 Moreover, the process of technology development is a key interest for researchers from Technology Studies, but not
necessarily for those from Business Schools addressing technology implementation and change management.
7 As a result, almost the only exceptions to this generalisation about the absence of studies addressing design and use in tandem
are cases in which design was organised within the context of the user organisation (e.g. Mackay et al. [2000]; Williams et al.
8 This included the ‘IBM segment’ (which was often in partnership with local developers), the ‘SAP segment’, the ‘PC segment’
(a vendor named ‘Damgaard’), and the ‘self development segment’.
9 BPICS, the British Production and Inventory Control Society, emerged in 1975, having been a subsidiary of the American
Production and Inventory Control Society since 1963, established with support from the American management consultants
Arthur Anderson (Clark 1990). In 1996 it became the Institute of Operations Management http://www.iomnet.org.uk. Whilst
APICS was comprised primarily of practicing production managers, these constitute only half BPICS membership – the
remainder comprising consultants and suppliers who exercise considerable influence over its activities (ibid.).
10 These difficulties in applying Jorgensen & Sorensen’s (1999) development arena concept to organisational technologies
highlight differences between industrial ICT applications and consumer electronics (the sector in which they conducted their
study). In case of established organisational technologies like ERP, we find close coupling between suppliers and their users (and
innovation is a joint process). Workplace technologies have relatively local audiences concerned with industrial improvement.
By contrast, in the development of consumer ICT platforms, commodification involves a more separate development phase,
which, especially for network technologies, may involve prior collaboration between suppliers and complementary product
providers in standardisation (Williams et al. 2005).
11 Effective research design requires the researcher to consider these trade-offs in focus (for example between breadth versus
depth of field) and clever ways to manage these trade-offs effectively.
12 Our use of this idea of research geometry does not imply that we can apply simple triangulation (in the sense of trigonometry
or a physicist tracking an object in space); to the contrary, our choices about (the multiple) points of access to a phenomenon
shape what we may observe. In addressing variability of viewpoint, we rather make explicit the need for complex triangulation
that is aware of the ‘parallax effects’ that may result from particular points of insertion to a phenomenon.
13 Similar points have been made in relation to the selling other non-material goods – viz the change management techniques of
Business Process Redesign (Williams 2000). Similarly, Benders and van Veen (2001: 283) in their discussion of the uptake of
Business Process Redesign note ‘the importance of considering the process in which management ideas gain “good currency”
within the system of knowledge supply’. Their work for example mentions the importance of an idea having wide interpretive
flexibility. That is, that it can invoke meaning to diverse players, as well as establishing a standardised terminology.
14 And, as already noted, different tools (concepts, methodologies) may be needed to address these different (macro-meso-micro
etc.) levels.
15 Hyysalo (2004) draws on Braudel’s (1995) study about the speeds of change in Mediterranean history, to identify longer time
frames that may be at play beyond that of immediate action: these are the long-term change of societies and mentalities, and the
much slower periodicity of geographical change.
16 It might be argued that perhaps the object of Kallinikos’s (2004) critique might be more precisely characterised as ‘atomistic
interactionism’ rather than the more ambiguous term of constructivism, which has been applied in many different ways.
17 Goffman (1974) addresses these issues from his action-centred framework through the concept of frame analysis. He
distinguishes a number of concentric frames, conceived as different layers or laminations that frame a ‘strip of reality’. The frame
is thus moveable – and is conceived by Gamson (1975) as analogous to the zoom lens on a camera – an analogy that we find very
useful with its potential implications of breadth of field and depth of focus. We wish to raise two questions: first, about how
adequate the tools are for examining the framing process; and, second, if these tools are weakly developed, what are the risks of
overemphasising the immediate local construction over the broader and longer-term structuring.
18 Though we note with regret that the ‘toolbox’ metaphor has often been used as a device for eclecticism – as if it were possible
to simply combine tools on a pick and mix basis without interrogating their presumptions. To the extent that we are arguing for
some degree of eclecticism, rather than thoroughgoing eclecticism, where ‘anything goes’, we are proposing a critical eclecticism
which interrogates the different evidential bases and presumptions of theories and tools.
19 We note here that the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, in its critique of the positivist model of science, tends to invoke, as
the interpretation that needs to be refuted, this kind of mechanistic model of the scientific process: an account of scientific

method that provides epistemological guarantees. To our mind, this misconstrues the scientific project. This kind of absolutist
search for truth, as Bloor (1999) points out, is a feature of theological propositions rather than scientific truths. If the alternative
is theological absolutism of course, we must argue for relativism. However, we argue the need not to abandon the search for truth
behind radical relativism but pursue more complex understandings of truth (see Restivo and Croissant 2007).
20 Thanks to Sampsa Hyysalo for bringing this point to our attention.
21 The potted histories of the evolution of ERP all agree on the succession of technologies: MRP, MRPII, CAPM (for UK and
associated scholars), and finally ERP. They also agree about the core functionalities that have been accumulated. Intriguingly,
however, they differ in their account of with which technology these particular functionalities were associated. Compare, for
example, Chung and Snyder (2000), Robertson et al. (2002), Kuldeep and van Hillegersberg (2000) and Jacobs & Weston
22 Joe Orlicky and Ollie Wight worked for IBM – though Wight later set up his own management consultancy (Wight 1977).
23 Chris Turner, Managing Director, Class A Limited, interviewed by Juliet Webster 6 July 1990 under ESRC PICT study of
Organisational Shaping of Integrated Automation.
24 IBM sponsored the production and distribution of a series of videos made by Plossl, Orlicky and Wight to explain the concept
of MRP that were made available to APICS members and their companies (Robertson et al. 2002: 14).
25 MRPII ‘It’s a kind of umbrella title isn’t it. I mean it’s almost a recognition that we’ve got all of these different tools out there
and we need to put them all in a tool bag…Although it was called Manufacturing Resource Planning, it wasn’t just for
manufacturing… I don’t think it’s bad in terms of wanting to get over a common message; the problem is that they’ve all got a
different idea of what it means. We’ve never got really worried about that…I personally wish it had a different name. We’ve
often said amongst the group it should have been called something different…Even if you just called it Business Resource
Planning (you know ‘manufacturing’ is the wrong word). It all started from this fact that it was called Material Requirements
Planning and Ollie [Wight] basically established that as a trade name and he wasn’t going to let that go and resource planning
was very good; manufacturing happened to be the only word that fitted. So that’s how it came about’, Chris Turner, Managing
Director, Class A Limited, interviewed by Juliet Webster 6 July 1990.
26 The development from MRP to MRPII was associated not only with the addition of extra-functions, including especially the
adoption of ‘closed-loop systems’ driven by changes in production progress, but also with changes in the underlying IT
infrastructure (notably the shift from mainframe to minicomputers). Indeed hardware and operating system features predominate
in discussion of differences between different offerings in this period (Juliet Webster interview with Anderson).
27 For example in 1991, a nationwide series of BPICS seminars was organised on MPS, MRP & JIT Today, claiming that ‘The
benefits of good forecasting integrated to master scheduling, in turn driving Material Requirements Planning is a pre-requisite to
a good production control. It is also a vital ingredient for a successful “Just-In-Time” implementation’ (BPICS 1991).
28 The lack of longer-term impact of this effort to promote and enhance CAPM highlights some of the difficulties surrounding
attempts by public policymakers to intervene in dynamic processes of technology development – that the target of intervention
may be by-passed by broader developments in the field (Williams and Webster 1993).
29 For example the Association Francaise de Gestion Industriel held a conference (Paris 21 November 1990) entitled ‘Three
Approaches to Production’ involving a debate between the main proponents of three competing approaches to manufacturing
improvement: Georg Plossl (‘father of MRP’ with Oliver Wight), Jamashim the exponent of JIT and Eli Goldratt whose Theory
of Constraints proposed an alternative approach to MRP/MRPII based on eliminating bottlenecks. The emphasis was on
competing models of business organisation rather than technology artefacts (Webster 1993).
30 The Association of Logistics Management in Holland and Eindhoven University of Technology, European Workshop on the
future of MRP (The Hague, 21 – 3 November 1990). Different scenarios for the development of MRP were sketched out in a
background paper by Wijngaard, ‘Beyond MRP – MRP and the Future of Standard Software for Production Planning and
Control’. The UK Department of Trade and Industry, influenced by these views, subsequently launched the Manufacturing and
Planning Initiative to promote cooperation between suppliers and users in developing applications.
31 The roots of ERP in the earlier discourse of MRP/CAPM as a vehicle towards Computer Integrated Manufacturing are
revealed by the observation that the Gartner Group’s April 1990 internal report espousing ERP as a ‘vision of the next-generation
MRP II’ (Wylie 1990) came under the generic heading ‘Computer integrated manufacturing’, a concept that has almost entirely
disappeared from later management or technology discourse (Mendham 2003).

32 Discussions about CAPM had flagged the shortcomings of the existing terminology of Manufacturing Resource Planning
(MRP II), Chris Turner notes: ‘even if you just called it Business Resource Planning. You know, manufacturing is the wrong
word’. Chris Turner, Managing Director, Class A Limited, interviewed by Juliet Webster 6 July 1990. Given that this particular
term was not available, the substitution of Enterprise for Business is perhaps unsurprising.
33 In 1990, Georg Plossl outlined a vision of the future of MRP II as ‘not MRPIII’ but ‘distributed processing…networks of
computers working…from the same basic file of data… Better networks of information within the organisation and therefore
smoother flow of data’ (Plossl 1990).
34 In the same way that MRPII/CAPM were promoted as a vehicle for Just-In-Time, despite their contradictory principles
underpinning, we see ERP being proposed as a necessary back-end for e-business (Norris et al. 2000) (though this attempt to
couple the two evaporates when the dot-com bubble bursts).
35 Though it should be noted that even as late as 1990, MRPII and CAPM systems available in the UK were typically linked to,
if not provided by, particular minicomputer or mainframe suppliers.