Ethnographic Study:

How Technology is Changing Work

A unique approach to ethnography was used to conduct a comprehensive study on the impact of technology, particularly the Internet, on work and the work environment.   This process known as Rapid Ethnography is a targeted approach that accrues much of  the benefit of field observation within limited time constraints. 

The research process:

The core team of four researchers undertook a study of companies that are  using technology, particularly the Internet, in creative ways to operate critical pieces of their business.  We visited thirty two companies in the US, Brazil, Turkey, Slovenia, the UK, Hong Kong and Japan.  These companies were operating in a variety of industries and were intentionally a mix of sizes.  We documented the data we collected on these visits in several ways; debrief questions, mind maps, causal loop diagrams, floor plans, annotated photos, quotes and short descriptions of the key business drivers.  We created internal web sites to store and communicate this material on in order to gain first hand experience with the tools.  The use of the Intranet also allowed us to share information quickly among the team members who are based in three states (when not in the air) and with associates in the various countries who became part of the extended team. 


Summary of key findings: 

The demand for electronic information is insatiable.  Efforts to meet the demand by companies investing in information technology to improve the access only reinforces the demand for more.  This happens for many reasons.  Some of them are:

·         As people become familiar with and dependent on the convenience and the new capabilities, they demand more.

·         As companies, driven by customer demand and competitive response, supply more products and services on-line, the amount of information available and the possibilities for data manipulation expands exponentially, further driving demand.

·         As electronic transactions become less expensive than alternative methods, companies provide incentives to customers to use these services either by providing incentives or levying penalties.  For example, a Swiss bank recently started charging $7.00 per check to encourage the use of debit cards.

·         Lack of network security, poor infrastructure and cumbersome interface devices are often cited as forces inhibiting the use of Internet.  As more people demand access and companies respond with increased investments, these inhibitors will be addressed and the market potential released.

·         Government can be an inhibitor or an enabler.  As more government employees and politicians become users and understand the potential, more will become enabling forces.

·         Religious and other special interest groups are key drivers, embracing the technology in order to promote their philosophies and spread their beliefs.

·         There are many indirect drivers.  Inflation, for example, drives the use of the technology in two distinct ways.  Cultures like Brazil in which people respond to inflation by carefully managing their money, creates a need for very sophisticated and flexible systems to driving the banking and investment industries.  Where people respond to inflation by spending while their money buys more, such as Turkey, the percentage of people with networked PC’s rises.

·         As more people become technically proficient and as the penetration of PC’s into the home and office continues, demand rises.


While all industries will be impacted by these changes, the industries that seem to be the most immediately affected are banking, finance, telecommunications, publishing, media, retail, wholesale, government and public sector.  Increasingly, participants in these industries see themselves as being in the “Information Delivery” business.  When this happens, many of the traditional boundaries that separate industries begin to blur and disappear.  For example:

1.   Publishers are becoming on-line service concentrators and service providers. By doing this they are leveraging their control multiple media sources, using one to promote another.

2.   Banks are going into retail (such as Barclay Square) to create a demand for financial services and are increasingly investing in on-line service providers.

3.   Retail/wholesalers are finding a natural extension of their products in financial services, first in support of their customers and employees and then making the services more generally available.

4.   Engineering firms have seen a transition in their businesses from civil to environmental and, now, to web consulting services in order to keep in touch with clients between projects, to expand the types of services offered and to build new client relationships.


Business models are shifting. Here are some examples:

1.   Products and services are more often offered for free at launch with the intent of building a market and then charging a fee.         

2.   On-line services are often begun by a single individual with a vision as a sort of  skunkworks, with low visibility, low budget, and generally poor acceptance within the organization.  However, many of these same efforts become a major portion of the businesses revenue stream.  Some are spun off as wholly owned subsidiaries, allowing them to expand their client base.

3.   Small companies can look and act big!   Advantages of scale are greatly reduced as a well designed web site competes head-to-head with industry leaders.  Often the small company will find sub-contracting partners over the Internet to fill orders that are beyond their normal capacity.  Most interaction with customers, contractors and suppliers is completed with no face to face contact.

4.   Many larger companies are using Intranets for Internal communication with remote sites and with subsidiaries.  Barrier to communication are substantially reduced and these companies feel much more comfortable operating from multiple sites, forming new strategic alliances and acquiring subsidiaries.

5.   There is a strong sense that there are no rules for operating in cyberspace. We frequently heard people say that they were making it up as they went along.   There is a concern that governments will attempt to impose controls that will stifle the creativity.

6.   Among small companies, there is a sense of freedom and control, of being liberated from the corporation.  Along with that there is a fear of becoming big, traditional and cumbersome, recreating that which they fled.


In both large and small companies, across industries and geographies there is a shared sense of spirituality, revolution (similar to the impact of the Guttenberg Press) and passion.  Universally, the people we talked with had  a desire to make a difference.  When asked “what do you want to be remembered for?”, one young publisher replied, without a moment’s hesitation “like Elvis”.   When asked for clarification, he explained “what Elvis  was to Rock & Roll, I want to be to on-line services.  I want to be remembered for starting the on-line revolution.”

Back to