An ethnography of documents, technology and organisational action

by | Nov 2, 2017 | Information Management, Intranets

Without doubt the most memorable of all the projects I have undertaken (not just the intranet projects) was an assessment of the intranet strategy of the International Monetary Fund in 2001. The scale of the project was indicated at an early stage when a 10cm thick file of briefing documents arrived at the hotel a few days before the Intranet Focus team walked into the IMF for the first time on a very sunny Monday morning. An hour after we arrived the next day two planes flew into the World Trade Center and another in to the Pentagon, just two miles south of the IMF. It was the day of 9/11. Despite the chaos of the week and a number of flights on almost empty planes across the Atlantic we delivered our report to schedule, and I think that the IMF were well pleased with our work.

Three features of this project stand out. The first was that we arrived having read Inside The IMF – An Ethnography of Documents, Technology and Organisational Action by Richard Harper, at that time on the staff of Xerox Park in Cambridge, UK. This book remains the only in-depth ethnographic study of information flows around an organisation. The subtitle is about a good a definition of information management as you could wish for, especially for the word ‘action’ at the end. The research was undertaken in 1996/1997 and a few things had changed, but overall this handbook on how the IMF worked was absolutely invaluable in gaining an overall perspective on the organisation.

The second feature was that the IMF had arranged for a very distinguished former economist, Vicente Galbis, to be a full-time member of the team. He seemed to know everyone in the IMF and was able to guide us towards potential interviewees, analysis the outcomes and ensure that we kept a focus on what the IMF was expecting from the project. In addition so high was his reputation in the IMF it reflected on the work we were doing and gave the team (Howard McQueen and Kiki Laxton worked with me)  and the project a status we could never have achieved without Vincente’s help. Both the book and Vincente helped us to understand how information flows and how IMF staffers used the information to make decisions. This is the only project I have undertaken in which the organisation has provided this full-time member of the project team with in-depth knowledge gained from over 30 years experience inside the organisation.

The third feature was the use of an IMF-wide web-based survey which was piloted with some care and designed to be completed in 5 minutes. Previous surveys typically had a 5% response level; we achieved 52%. One of the reasons for this seemed to be that we asked about whether staff were satisfied with the search application. No one had asked them about this before, and the answer was a very definite “No!”. Poor search quality in an intranet is not a recent problem.

Looking back on the project the combination of the ethnographic survey conduced by Richard Harper, the insights provided by Vincente and the IMF-wide survey were critical success factors. Research on this scale (the budget in 2001 was around $220k) is essential in ensuring not only that the problems and opportunities have been uncovered but that the actions proposed are realistic. As we followed the information as it moved from department to department we realised it was the journey that was important, not just how individuals undertook their work.

Martin White