MIS40640 – Managing Technology & Change: Cultural & Political Perspectives – Understanding IS in organisations theoretical and philosophical underpinnings

Readings of the Week:

Orlikowski Iacona – The truth is not out there

Robey (ICIS 95) – Theories that explain contradiction

Questions & Comments:

Orlikowski Paper

Though enacted approach to IT claims to focus on human agency and its basic premise lies in the fundamentals of Structuration Theory, it  contradicts itself by having only unidirectional view of human actions. It assumes that digital economy is an on-going social product shaped by humans who are working to that end in a rational manner but real world is not that simple. If we look at the people responsible for shaping up the digital economy we only find the likes of Jobs, Ellison or Bejos who live on boundaries of eccentric realm. Their actions are all but rational and cannot be situated either in the enacted approach or for that matter in the wider circumference of even the Structuration theory. Can we conclude by these examples that enacted approach is over simplifying the digital economy by treating human actions & choices as rational but in reality eccentricity is the driver behind shaping up of digital economy.

Mister Orlikowski correctly states that in the past a lot of people did assume that the technology was one whole and uniform system. This has never been the case, but one some people had that visibility. I think the recent trend toward software as a service or indeed hardware as a service, has finally started to change that tend. You need extra computing power or storage space one week a month, then on any number of cloud based hosting providers you can set that up to happen as a planned expansion or indeed on demand as the systems needed, and it happens in seconds. Where 10 years ago that would take weeks in terms of purchase orders, orders at dell etc. The same is true for something like a CRM or ERP systems, to go someone like SalesForce.com, you get a login to a web page, and bingo your system is there. No programming team, DBA’s, farms of servers are needed if you are happy with the basic system.

Robey Paper

Of the four theories that Robey outlines as explanations on how contradiction can occur when it comes to the impact of IT on organisation change, from personal experience, I feel that ‘organisational culture’ is the theory that highlights contradiction best. The impact of the IT implemented is only as good as the people implementing it. In one of your papers that we studied in another subject, “Groupware and the social infrastructure of communication” (Kelly & Jones, 2001), we saw that the technology implemented was not used in the way it was designed, but could still be put to good use. Would this be classed as a contradiction in assessing the impact the technology was supposed to have? In the end, the success of the project from one location to another was down to the person/people implementing it.

I think Robey makes a huge assumption on a fundamental level in his paper. He seems to assume that enterprise IT solutions are good and fit for purpose the majority of the time. In page 58 he mentions an example where different interpretations of lotus notes existed within an organization. I once left a employment as they forced everyone to use Lotus notes. In my experience having been made use two different versions it was not well designed or made and was one of the least user friendly pieces of software I have encountered [at that time and in my opinion]. A lot of “enterprise” software I have used would fall into a similar bucket. If an organization tries to implement garbage which is not user friendly, what else will you get at the far side [regardless of your internal roll out plans and structures] but garbage?

Daniel Robey concludes organizational change as a process in which transformative actions must overcome persistent structures. Information technology can support the processes of either persistence or transformation, or both simultaneously. Orlikowski explains the structural perspective focuses on how human action is shaped by use of Information technology and structural organizational change is possible through human action. Is this a framework that we can recommend and can work for Organisational change and IT systems implementation today?

Minutes of the Class:

Culture & Political Perspective: Week 2 Summary

Initial class thoughts on readings:

You’ll need to read the papers 2 to 3 times to fully understand them. A lot of academic writing is poor, and it can be needlessly complicated in its vocabulary. There is an element of academic posturing, however Robey would not fit into this mould. Language shapes what we see in the world and how we think, it is important to find different kinds of words to the usual terminology to understand new concepts. This module will have different vocabulary from that we are used to. Robey is a good writer, it would be difficult to make the points he made in a shorter more concise way. We must gain familiarity with the language to grasp the concepts that this module will highlight. Engage with the reading in a sceptical way, but sometimes be prepared for the need to speak differently to understand dynamics that weren’t so noticeable at first.

Presentation: What is the digital economy?

History shows us you can’t predict where a technology or solution will go. The group agreed with the enacted view from this week’s readings. The drive for new versions, features, items, etc. will often lead to unintended consequences, a good example being the fact that mobile phone credit is being used as ‘currency’ in Africa. One presenter spoke of his own workplace example, where a project which worked in one site was an abject failure in another – when all documentation was handed over and plans were copy and pasted. The group made a good point that not all unintended consequences were a bad thing. By limiting unintended consequences, you might be limiting growth in the future, telecoms and the internet being primary examples. The group ended with the question, if actions were taken to control systems and technology to an oppressive degree, what would the outcome be?

The presenters did well to not sum up the papers and thus tell us what we already knew, but it is worth asking yourself – where do the readings leave you? Are you better off having read these papers? The group brought their own experience into the presentation, making it more interesting for the audience. We should all bring that in where possible, and not be afraid to show if there was disagreement in the group. Finally, we should show what questions we are still left with – what is still bothering you?

Readings discussion

The papers were about the relationship between information technology and social organisational change. Conventional ways of understanding IT are not good enough, so these papers try to expand on those concepts.

There are two dominant theories: Technological determinism and Strategic Choice.

Technological Determinism (aka technological imperative)

The key aspect of technological determinism is that it is a causal agent. It argues the notion that technology has a particular impact on an organisation or society. It argues that technology change is caused by specific features of the technology and if we believe this to be true the implications are that change by technology is inevitable, there is nothing we can do about it and we must merely adjust to it. As managers, we can can select one piece of technology that will change the organisation in the way we want, or we can slow down / speed up the process.

Technological determinism is still common practice and a dominant theory. It has flaws though. It doesn’t take into account the role of people in shaping certain types of IT and it doesn’t take into account where technology is embedded in organisations in very different ways. There is too much emphasis put on the role of technology with this theory that technology is the cause of change. People have choice, the same piece of technology can often result in radically different outcomes. The role of technology as a causal agent is often overplayed, there are other factors at stake.

Strategic choice (aka organisational imperative)

With this theory, the key shaper of change are the managers and designers of technology. Technology is a malleable resource that we can use to shape organisations in the way we want to shape them. The outcomes are not determined by the technology, but are more shaped by how that tech is managed. The good aspect to this theory is that people are brought in and seen as influencers. However, similar to technological determinism, it has its flaws.

It over-emphasises the control managers can have over the technological outcomes, when in fact, managers cannot control outcomes. It is almost impossible to make strong social predictions, social systems are complicated. Even skilled managers may be affected by outside factors, circumstances may conspire against them in their best laid plans. There is a conceit that if something is well managed, you’ll get the right outcomes, and the opposite of that, if something is mismanaged, you’ll get poor outcomes. This notion is prevalent in organisations, where failures are buried and success projects have many people claiming credit. One of the best sources of learning is learning from what went wrong.

Strategic choice is almost the opposite of technological – the technology can be shaped by smart managers. It doesn’t necessarily mean good management is not important, but their success is influenced by circumstance.

Enacted view

Orlikowski is advocating that we need a more sophisticated approach to understanding information technology’s impact on organisation, illustrating determinism versus voluntarism. Determinism is the notion that we are produced by the social setting we were brought up in (social structure). Voluntarism argues that it is not about the social context and that we have the free will to act in a certain way (Action). It could be seen in a left wing versus right wing context. For example, determinism argues crime is produced by social structure, and education could be used to reduce crime, whereas the right wing view would be to implement tough punishment as a deterrent to crime, as people have free will and choose to commit a crime or not.

Giddens (1984) tries to reconcile determinism and voluntarism with structuration theory. (Side note: determinism and voluntarism are mirror images of technological determinism and strategic choice, so structuration theory applies here too). Giddens argues we do have social structures and people do act in specific ways, however when people act, they draw on specific social structures to guide them. By acting we end up reinforcing the social structure. Social structure is maintained and preserved by collective actions. There is still an ability for someone to act differently and instead of getting kickback, they may change the social structure. For example, the Rosa Parks story, where her refusal to move from her seat in a segregated bus in the 1960’s became a catalyst for the civil rights movement in the USA. Circumstance plays a role though, Parks was in the right place at the right time. Others were thrown off buses around the same time and were not used as a catalyst. But when Mrs Parks was put off the bus, the social circumstances were right on many fronts, there was a perfect storm of many factors aligning, and if it wasn’t Rosa Parks, it likely would have been someone else.

Structure is not static, it can be vulnerable, the only reason it survives is through repeated action. Structure and action are two sides of the same coin. This is the enacted position.

Orlikowski has a key quote in her paper: “it is through our actions, both individual and collective, that outcomes associated with technological change emerge”. Technology is neither a dependent resource that is outside our control, nor is it a malleable resource controlled by us. It is dependent on how we enact the technology. Every action we take contributes to reproducing or challenging social structure. This is a more helpful way of think about technology. It is not the technology, it is not the designers, it is the enactors of the technology, ie. how it is used, that impacts us.

Conclusion: Orlikowski’s key points

● Technology is social: it is not neutral, it is political and discriminates every day. For example, huge percentage of everyday products are designed for right-handed people.

● Technology is dynamic: It should never be seen as closed or stable. People keep changing and adapting new ways to use technology.

● Technology is multiple: it introduces new vulnerabilities and fragilities. Lots of other factors and technology interacts with it [& them]. You need many interactive components to get tech to work, at the same time you cannot test or organise every single interconnected component.

● Technology must be used to have an effect: This seems obvious, but we must understand espoused technology (what tech is cool and coming down the line) versus technology-in-use (what we have right now). It worth replacing the word ‘technology’ with ‘technology-in-use’ in your readings.

● Technology is varied and embedded: It can be used in different ways by different groups. Technology-in-use produces through the particular embedding of technology

Technology is emergent and its use has unintended consequences.

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