Anthropology and System Design
Jim McGee builds a thread on anthropological analyisis from Ernie the Attorney:
...Ernie is on to a nice meme here. Another term to throw into the mix is "ethnography." While usually associated with doing anthropology in the field, it's also become a legitimate research tool in organizational settings. I find an anthropological approach particularly useful in the realm of technology for a couple of reasons. First, technology is too dynamic for a lot of other research approaches. Along a similar line, organizational research is not a place where you get to do controlled experiments. It's either impractical or unethical (sometimes both). That leaves you with observational techniques of one sort or another. One advantage of ethnographic/anthropological approaches is that they explicitly recognize that the anthropologist/observer is part of the system.
Another reason that I prefer anthorpological approaches is that technology and knowledge management issues lie in a space that Gerry Weinberg describes as "organized complexity." The following diagram comes from his excellent Introduction to General Systems Thinking:
In that environment you need tools that are robust more than you need tools that are precise. You tolerate fuzziness in the answers in exchange for getting answers that are directionally correct in a manageable amount of time.
One consequence of doing anthropology is that you have to develop some sense for who the observer is. You're not doing experimental work that can be replicated. You're doing a certain kind of storytelling that depends on observational skills and narrative skills. Unlike a fiction writer, you aren't using stories for the abiilty to make stuff up out of whole cloth (I suppose fiction writers don't really do that either). You are using narrative as a tool to reveal gaps in the logic, to discover what's missing in the logic of the story that will point you toward new things to look for. [McGee's Musings]