Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Now You See It and Now You Don’t: Consequences of Veiling Relational Work


This paper offers findings from a study of relationship formation in Information Technology (I.T.) outsourcing services and explores the conditions in which relational practices are veiled by the work designs, tools, business lingo, and even media representations of Information Technology outsourcing services. Veiling describes the way the language and focus of these elements have taken over and permeated organizations to levels where the aspects of relational work are obscured. As a result, relational skills are delegitimized, work is slowed down, conflict results from incorrect assumptions, and inefficient technology is tolerated. We identify intended and unintended consequences, on individuals and organizations, of relational veiling as a strategy that emerges in response to the everyday realities of the workplace.


Outsourcing service providers must deliver apparently seamless service to their clients while they concurrently navigate the complex conditions of their own organizations. As with a play-within-a-play, this work goes on primarily behind the scenes. The individuals and groups charged with shaping and delivering outsourcing services are thrust into work situations that bridge hierarchical boundaries, are geographically distributed, and pose high professional and monetary risks. Schedules are fully booked with face-to-face meetings, electronic correspondence, and telephone conference calls typically extending well beyond a traditional work day as people work together across multiple time zones. The standard routines of the business (eg: project management protocols, schedules, formalized meeting agendas, sales pipeline reviews, managing sales support software) contribute to a structure that gives shape to the turbulence of daily demands. These formalized work processes, protocols, and business controls are clearly visible in the rhythm of daily work. However it is the intangible work of business relationships that is the glue holding the seams of seamless service together.

This paper offers findings from a study of Information Technology (I.T.) outsourcing services and explores the conditions in which relational practices are veiled by the work designs, tools, business lingo, and even media representations of Information Technology outsourcing services. Veiling describes the way the language and focus of these elements have taken over and permeated organizations to levels where the business benefits of relational work are obscured. Specifically, this paper describes the intended and unintended consequences, on individuals and organizations, of relational veiling that emerges in response to the situational dynamics of the I.T. outsourcing services workplace. The term ‘veiling’ was assigned by our research team as an etic code to describe the situation where people “don’t say”. Instead they avoid conflict without resolving it, fail to clarify assumptions, vent issues and feelings in back channels to avoid difficult conversations, choose to interact indirectly via electronic media to avoid direct and potentially difficult contact, and persist in the use of technology tools that do not help accomplish work. We contend that the language of spread sheets and project management are privileged over relational work. As a result, the everyday realities of person-to-person and person-to-technology relations are obscured. The critical work of relationship is veiled by this dominant perspective and mirrored by a silence in the empirical literature.


The idea for this study initially grew out of varied consulting engagements with technology outsourcing service providers from 2001 through 2005. Executives would often say, “I don’t have to talk about this relationship stuff. I’m great at getting along with people.” Their focus was on managing the relationship rather than understanding the work that was required to create and nurture the relationship. Relationship work lands in the realm of “soft skills” and therefore did not seem worthy of the attention of “real” business; the intangibility seemed to make the topic uncomfortable. This was reminiscent of the disappearing of relational skills described by Fletcher (1999) in her study of female engineers: “The discourse suggests that there is a dynamic process involved in which relationship practice “gets disappeared” as work and gets constructed as something other than work” (Fletcher, 1999, p. 103). However, our observation is that relational work was not invisible in Outsourcing Services. Instead it appeared to shift in and out of preeminence depending on the proximity to contact with the external Client. The work of relationships was stressed and highlighted, greatly visible, when it came to the relationship with the external client. For example, significant annual corporate investments of both time and money were focused on managing the business relationships between the customer and the service provider and the business value of relationship was frequently spoken of in conversation as central to revenue growth and client satisfaction. In contrast, the ‘in house’ or intra-organizational relationships did not receive the same degree of attention despite broad recognition that internal breakdowns, quite distal from the Client interface, were visible and damaging to the overall Client relationship. We were intrigued by this contrast in attention to relationship and drawn to research it in more depth.

The findings described in this paper are drawn from a grounded theory study of outsourcing relationship formation (Kreeger, 2007). During 2006-2007 we completed 25 in-depth, unstructured interviews with technology outsourcing services professionals from a Fortune 50 global technology organization. All of the participants were actively involved in newly signed outsourcing agreements that represented three different service sectors: industrial, manufacturing, and travel. There was extensive field work as our research team had open access to face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, team rooms, and documents (e.g., job descriptions, process documents, metrics, and measurement policies) related to the work of outsourcing service delivery.

We applied the analytic processes and tools of dimensional analysis (Bowers, 1988; Kools (1996), Schatzman, 1991; Schatzman & Strauss, 1973) and situational analysis (Clarke, 2005). Star (1991)describes this approach to constructivist grounded theory as an approach to study predominantly invisible social arenas. Veiling emerged as a significant dimension of the overall dimensional analysis.


The iconic image of the technology outsourcer is not about relational work. The media commercials of three major outsourcers, Accenture, EDS, and IBM, depict an interesting picture and support this claim.

EDS is a large outsourcing provider. In an EDS commercial called Manhattan (metroid48), a group of people are recruited off the street with the promise of $100.00 for 15 minutes of work. These people are the outsourcing team. One of them is in a chicken suit. The implication is that the work of outsourcing is being accomplished by a group of unskilled strangers. Perhaps EDS intends this as an observation about their competitors.

A recent television spot for IBM, another larger outsourcing service provider, opens with the view of a large factory. As the camera closes in on the factory, we see IBM-blue flowers streaming from the smokestack. “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” by the Kinks plays in the background. The flowers blow into an office building where people are working in cubicles. The people in the cubicles are lip-synching to the lyrics from the Kinks. Finally, against a long shot of Manhattan and the Empire State Building, we see the IBM logo (IBM, 2007). The blue flowers all look alike and the people are in cubicles lip-synching. What about them was not like everybody else? In an IBM television commercial, a group of people are standing together in a semi-circle. It appears that they might be in an airport. Their mobile devices all ring. They talk and text into their mobile devices. They exchange cryptic monosyllables. We think about face-to-face meetings where people mostly interacted with their machines.

Another large outsourcing provider, Accenture, has Tiger Woods as their brand endorser. Most of the commercials show him making impossible shots using skills that are compared to skills that Accenture can help companies build through outsourcing: “We know what it takes to be a Tiger” (David, 2006). Tiger Woods is presented as an icon of high performance. Tiger Woods is just one person and golf is a solo sport. Where is the relational work in this image? Absent. We learn from this Accenture message that great outsourcing providers are solo artists.

It is difficult to miss these iconic messages once you begin listening for them. They depict people acting alone or interacting with machines instead of each other. This area of media discourse and its relation to the way that relationship is veiled within organizations is, in and of itself, a fascinating topic for research. It became a part of this study as we discovered that the language and work of relationship was veiled in acronyms and project management processes. It was constituted by the stories people chose to share and the work we observed. These branding forces are a part of what keeps relational discourse silenced.


Veiling is a strategy that individuals and groups take as a result of particular aspects, or conditions, of the total work context. In this section of the paper we briefly describe three conditions that consistently linked to veiling as a strategy. These conditions include (1) Work designs (2) Business Metrics and Quotas, and (3) Technology Tools Understanding these conditions, and the organizational change levers that they represent, is an important part of the contextual story of relational work.

The participants in this study had a lot to say to our research team about relationships in outsourcing services. They had strong opinions about relationship value (positive), what worked and didn’t work in their work with people and technologies, what they’d change and how they’d improve it. In contrast, when the participants were together, on the phone or in person, they didn’t talk about these same observations and concerns. Instead, they discussed the problems with technical work and reviewed project management status. They seldom discussed successful or “on-target” work. The only time the word “relationship” was used was in context with the word client (e.g., “I am focused on the client relationship”)

Work Designs

The structures and processes of organizations are sites of focus and frequent change geared to optimize service and reduce costs. The matrixed structure of the overall organization, the duration of group participation, and the lack of face-to-face interactions were realities that inadvertently supported the veiling of relational work.

The matrix organization – The study participants describe their organizational structure as a matrix. A matrixed organizational structure is one in which individuals and groups typically have accountability related to more than one department in the firm and are required to coordinate horizontally and vertically through the organization with limited to no formal authority. The matrix reporting structures were identified as a barrier to relational work.

“The strange thing about the matrix is that I am kind of the manager, but then [the people] have another people manager. And so, you know, you have the first couple of conversations; if it’s not working out, then I have to go talk to [another manager instead of the person]. I hate doing that. I think that we should all just be professional and kind of work it out. But you have to do it.“

The design of business targets and quotas was also a particularly challenging condition for relational work as each part of the organizational matrix establishes distinct business targets and quotas. We learned that these are typically established hierarchically above and away from the point of external Client contact although their attainment is linked to individual compensation, career growth, and job retention. Additionally, we learned that measurements and targets change frequently, often more than once each year, and are not the same across different delivery units in the organization. In some cases the targets pitted one part of the outsourcing organization against the other.

“I’m trying to build this relationship with this other team to try and improve all of this and, you know, our goals aren’t the same. My-, mine’s-, you know, their goal is just to sign-, get the deal signed and all that other stuff can happen later. And I’m saying, hey, I’m-, you’re causing me a lot of trouble on the backside by not getting this, here, put it in your plan. So I, I’m sure it conflicts with-, with their goals and, um, you know, that doesn’t help.”

People were not measured on their ability to facilitate, communicate, listen, or respond.

Group tenure – The Outsourcing service assignments vary in length depending on an individuals focus area. The earliest periods of outsourcing service delivery are cast with short-term and non-repeating work groups. Group members do not expect to be assigned with the same individuals again. The services professionals that expect to be short term and non-repeating are less focused on forming relationship.

“I did task management as a project manager and I didn’t care about the relationship. I’m like, dude, just get the job done and get out of here. I don’t have time because this is a short schedule.”

More senior executive members anticipate greater long term accountability to their Client and speak about their role in more relational terms.

“At a very high level, the company is holding me responsible for the customer relationship. So I’ve always taken the customer call- [that] says that they want one throat to choke. And my throat is the one that gets choked. So from the company standpoint, I would also say that I am the one throat to choke.”

Face-to-face interaction – The various groups that and individuals who participated in this study lived in different parts of the United States. The Service Teams that participated in the study all had a face-to-face meeting to kick off their work. This is a rarity as travel costs are often the first to be cut. Each ‘deal’ is responsible for staying within a total budget and the travel expenses associated with face-to-face meetings come out of a contract’s total budgeted expense amount rather than from any centralized pool of funds. Executive leaders will avoid even a small relative percentage of discretionary expense to save budget for unpredicted, but expected, technical and operational cost overages.

The participants were clear about the impact of some face-to-face interaction on the ability to build and maintain relationships.

“It would be so nice if [the Firm] actually went back to people showing up in the office, working as a team and running pieces of business because then you would know the people. You could see them, you could talk to them, you could be much more productive and coordinated. I would say that is the biggest obstacle I see in [the Firm] to relationships in general is that I sit in my house. I don’t even see people.”

In addition to increased productivity and team coordination, an initial face-to-face meeting was linked with improved flexibility and responsiveness.

“If you get along with someone when you meet face-to-face and you start talking to them, you kind of get to know each other on a more personal level. So then after we come home and we work [on the phone], we have a better idea how the other person thinks, what their perspective is and what approach we’re talking about. It’s easier to share and be open with issues.“

“It’s just different when you’ve met somebody in person to when you’ve meet them on the phone … my thought is always that it’s much more difficult to be an ass to somebody after they’ve met you.”


Technological holds a featured role in the work of Outsourcing Service groups and study participants joked that their most important relationship was with their laptop PC. We found the use of team rooms to veil the realities of project complexity and break down. We also observed how powerless participants were over the design, implementation, and requirements for technology use and how unhelpful tools were promulgated as a result of users veiling their perceptions of the tools.

Project Team Rooms – The uses of Project Team Rooms provide an example of a virtual location where relationships occurred and were played out, in some cases superseding any other locale.

“The Project Team Room is the main repository. We tell the team that if it’s not in there, it doesn’t exist. All right? So if you don’t have an issue in there, don’t call me up and tell me you have an issue unless I can go in there and see it. So we make sure they put issues in there if they want help resolving those. ”

Team rooms create virtual locations where members of outsourcing sales and delivery teams go to understand the progress of their work. It is from inside Team Room spaces that they report and signal to one another that something is going wrong. Projects are assigned to red (at risk or troubled), yellow (under watch), or green (on track) status. In contrast, there are no status dimensions that represent the relational health or functioning of the group; a project can be at green status in the midst of tremendous conflict and crisis. In this way, the Project Team Room becomes a space where relational conditions are veiled.

Roll-out and utility

Outsourcing Service account teams are mandated by the broader organization to use certain technology tools regardless of their perceived utility by team members. Participants reported having to use multiple tools for the same purpose because such use was required by different parts of the matrix organization. In this example a study participant voices frustration technology.

“[You should call it] disabled by technology, I think the ability to route stuff and add approvers and everything, in some ways really complicates things. It’s tough doing things here. It really is. And simple things … it shouldn’t require the complexity that they have.

Veiling is manifested in this example when the individual and group persisted in the use of the disabling technology without giving visibility to their concerns.


The unintended consequences of relational veiling can have negative impact on service delivery. When veiling is opaque, individuals and groups may appear to take actions counter to effective business practices and natural courtesy. The unintended consequences of these actions are service breakdowns, losses in productivity, and visible ‘seams’ in the service performance that erode client confidence and satisfaction. In other instances, when veiling is more diaphanous, there is a mis-match between what people say about relationship value and how they do their work. Service professionals describe that “relationship is everything,” while the everyday realities of person-to-person and person-to-technology relations are concealed by a focus on project management language and technology.

One executive told us: “My job is to make it smooth”. Work appears smoother behind the veils of various thicknesses that work their way into the toolkit of service delivery. In that sense, veiling is an adaptive response to the work context that leads to an intended result. Veiling strategies are taken for self preservation and for protection of individual and group.

So where should we go from here? What advice can we give Outsourcing Services professionals? Unfortunately and not very pragmatically, the answers that we propose are likely to require both time and financial investment.

First, we recommend that organizations take a close look at the work design and process burdens that they are placing on their people. The conditions of the work place form barriers both to people’s efforts to work with other people as well with people’s efforts to work with technology. Second, we recommend an increased intentionality to new technology roll-out. Innovation and transformation is a major element in technology services. However, incautious implementation ultimately damages the overall service experience. Lastly, we recommend consistent financial investment in some face-to-face interaction for outsourcing service groups. We calculated that the cost of an initial face-to-face meeting was seldom more than 1% of the project budget.

There is certainly a rich opportunity for more research for those of us in business ethnography. This study only begins to scratch the surface of a major gap in the empirical literature (Kreeger, 2007). We are uniquely positioned to watch for the work that relationships do and to recommend changes in practice and technology that have the potential to both add to our scientific understanding of a predominately invisible phenomenon as well as to make recommendations with business impact.


Given the challenging conditions described in this paper, and the overall turbulence of the I.T. services environment, it is no wonder that individuals consciously or unconsciously take on veiling strategies. We stress the critical point that relational work is not veiled simply because people lack some form of interpersonal skills or desire to get along with others. Instead, relational work is veiled within the dominating conditions of the workplace. It is also not our intention to vilify the importance of enabling technology and business controls. Instead, we are suggesting that these have been over executed at the loss of other important dimensions of work.

Lisa Kreegeris a member of the Service Practices group of IBM’s Almaden Services Research. Lisa’s research focuses on interorganizational relationships and relational work in complex service systems. Since joining IBM Research she has led or participated in projects focused on relationship formation among IT service providers, and collaboration practices among globally distributed teams. She holds a PhD from Antioch University and an MBA from Seattle University.

Elizabeth Holloway teaches at Antioch University in the graduate Leadership and Change Program. Her current writing is in the areas of mentoring and coaching as relevant to creating communities of practice in corporate environments. In addition, she is investigating the systemic effects of “toxic” behaviors within organizational cultures and the role of coaching in these situations.


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