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

Purpose – The purpose of this study is to introduce the Human Resources (HR) module of the SAP suite in the Italian branch of a leading multinational pharmaceutical company. This 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 enterprise resource planning (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 employees in the department. This research/intervention used interviews, focus groups and internal documents as sources of data. The authors conducted and analyzed 20 narrative interviews and 3 focus groups with middle managers, and they 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 et al., 2010 have called process efficiency rhetoric. But the ERP technology, most likely, will neither 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 clearer; 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 does not 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.