Interview with Frauke Mörike, the first author of the paper “Inverted Hierarchies on the Shop Floor: The Organisational Layer of Workarounds for Collaboration in the Metal Industry” awarded the 2022 David B. Martin Best Paper Award during ECSCW 2022.
EUSSET: Frauke, your paper “Inverted Hierarchies on the Shop Floor: The Organisational Layer of Workarounds for Collaboration in the Metal Industry” was awarded the 2022 David B. Martin Best Paper Award during ECSCW 2022 – congratulations! Your paper builds upon an empirical, ethnographic study in a heavy metal company with a focus on workarounds, a topic that has attracted the interest of the CSCW community previously – and no doubt will continue to do so. Could you tell us a bit more about the background to this paper? Why did you focus on workarounds in your study?
Frauke: Before joining academia, I have worked for over a decade as an IT professional in the industry. Due to this background, my work is coined by a strong inclination towards praxis-related matters: I am fascinated by the often unnoticed, unarticulated, “unofficial” patterns of technology use – such as workarounds. In companies they are often running below the radar or viewed as something to get rid of. But I want to show their relevance for collaboration and am committed to use these insights for technology designs that are attuned to the lived working praxis of people.
EUSSET: How would you summarize the main points of the paper to someone new to your work?
Frauke: The most relevant insight is that the workarounds I observed counterbalanced a fundamental gap in the ERP system’s design relating to informal organizational culture. “Inverted hierarchies” is a theoretical concept by the anthropologist Loius Dumont and refers to the fact that the production workers of the company had far better insights into what was really going on at the shop floor when the products were manufactured than the administration and planning departments. In these moments the usual hierarchies were turned upside down: now the shop floor people had the information power. But the company’s ERP System did not cater for the production workers to provide feedback to the engineering and planning departments on the smaller and bigger issues they encountered during the production process. Consequently, they used (sometimes extreme) workarounds to enable their feedback to arrive at the intended recipients.
EUSSET: What would you say were the main challenges to conducting this kind of field studies? Any lessons learned that you might want to share?
Frauke: Ethnography is a highly powerful method of data collection, and especially in power-laden fields like the work domain we must take extra care to protect our information givers. As most of the production workers did not have a personal company email address, I worked closely together with the workers council representative to figure out the best ways to inform employees about the upcoming fieldwork and how they could flag that they don’t want to become part of any observations at all.
EUSSET: …and what are the positive experiences you have made in the field?
Frauke: Whether I’m researching at sleek corporate offices, large hospitals, or in a manufacturing hall: ethnographic research gives me the opportunity to accompany people of different job types at all levels of the hierarchy – and thus to ensure the voices of those are also heard that sometimes tend to be elided in system implementations – such as in this paper the production workers. This is a major motivation for me.
EUSSET: The paper makes an interesting theoretical contribution to CSCW and the award goes to research “that particularly contributes to the multidisciplinary understanding of society and/or work from a CSCW perspective”. What are your thoughts on multidiciplinarity in general and perhaps theory in multidiciplinarity research in particular?
Frauke: As a response to the increasingly diverse and intermingled contexts in which technologies are used, more and more studies include field-based and/or participatory qualitative methods, delivering a complex set of data. But complex data requires correspondingly complex theories to unleash its full potential of insights that can be gained from it. Especially theories from the humanities and social sciences have the potential to advance research findings from these sets of data; this is where I see a growing relevance for multidisciplinary research. And CSCW with its long-standing tradition not only in qualitative research but also in its interdisciplinary setup is in my opinion geared-up to play a leading role in this next step and can certainly serve as a role model for the broader HCI community.
EUSSET: Finally, is this a line of research that you will continue to pursue, or will you now shift to something completely different?
Frauke: I will continue to look at the “unofficial” patterns of technology use and workarounds will certainly remain a part of it. And I will undoubtedly continue to bring my expertise in anthropology with its rich theories into my research. My next concrete project, however, will be on Collaboration in Hybrid Work Settings.
The interview was conducted by Gerolf Nauwerck