Work transformation following the implementation of an ERP system: an activity-theoretical perspective

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Purpose Our case study concerns the introduction of the Human Resources module of the SAP suite in the Italian branch of a leading multinational pharmaceutical company. Our study can be re-conducted within the interpretive tradition of information technology studies focusing on the attempt to understand and describe how software users in the HR department interpreted the ERP technology, how they changed their work practices, and the changes that occurred in organizational discourses and meanings alongside the process. Design/methodology/approach The case study/intervention took start with the impulse of the Italian HR department manager, who was struck by the way that the ERP system technology implementation was affecting work life of the the employees in the department. Our research/intervention used interviews, focus groups, and internal documents as sources of data. We conducted and analyzed 20 narrative interviews and 3 focus groups with middle managers, and we analyzed about 120 pages of internal memos. Findings The implementation of ERP systems is almost invariably accompanied by great expectations of increased process rationalization, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, and upper managers’ discourses make large use of what Engeström and colleagues have called process efficiency rhetoric (Engeström et al, 2010). But the ERP technology, most likely, will not revolutionize management, nor will it become a “complete calculation machine” that runs an entire work organization (Quattrone and Hopper, 2005, p. 731). Originality/value The implementation of the ERP system has caused conflicts and disturbances, aggravating contradictions that already existed between activity systems and introducing new types of contradictions. Pre-existent contradictions become more clear; there is a stronger interconnection between activity systems. The individual agents could experiment an expansion in their activities if only they will initiate a movement of expansive learning and if they are not prevented from doing so by coercive control. The natural expansion of the subjects’ scope of activity and horizons of possibilities could be sustained by the ERP technology if it is not used as a tool for domination, and if the upper management doesn’t try and separate what cannot in actuality be separated: the actors’ capabilities of improvised learning, which makes the institution of a new mode of the activity possible, and their capacity to assume collective control of the meaning and direction of the transformation of the activity. ERPs are technologies that can naturally bring transformations in the activity system and networks where they are introduced, but in some cases they can easily and in a non reflective manner be intended as tools for oppression by the upper management.
Lingua originaleEnglish
pagine (da-a)N/A-N/A
RivistaJournal of Workplace Learning
Stato di pubblicazionePubblicato - 2016


  • ERP system
  • activity system


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