MIS40640 – Critique on Studying IS in Organisations

How does organisational change happen? Does it need a charismatic leader with a vision to trigger it or are there other forces at play responsible for activating this change. Using exciting real-life case studies, the readings for the week draws attention to the characteristics, processes, and perspectives of organisational change involving IS implementations. The analysis of theories, patterns, reactions, the impact, and the assessment of organisational change in these readings illustrates the value of frameworks which can then be used to ‘illuminate’ the practices through with presence of I.C.T’s in organisations are enacted. But at the same time it is recognised in these readings that I.C.T and ‘the way people relate to it’ plays a significant part in triggering organisational change and during subsequent metamorphosis.

Coombs et al in their paper have taken cognizance of these two aspects of organisational change involving I.C.T. They highlight the inadequacy of the ‘objectivist’ or determinist tradition which identifies the technology as major because of its failure to recognise ‘how’ I.C.T is both mediated by and contributes to the social construction of the reality of organisations. At the same time they reject ‘subjectivist’ or voluntarist approach in which social reality is seen to have no independence outside the subjective meanings and interpretations of individual actor.

They have tried to balance these two extreme approaches and put forward their framework of ‘culture, control and competition’ which they suggest are interdependent dimensions of the social organisations of I.C.T.s. This theory is just a different interpretation of Foucault’s work in bridging the void between determinism and voluntarism. Taking the three concepts of culture, control and competition together Coombs analysis of organisational practices hinges on an appreciation of the inter-subjectivity of culturally embedded knowledge as a medium and outcome of control relationships and competitive strategies. Coombs et al agree with Foucault that power is embedded in all inter-subjective relations and that the underlying organisational change dynamics can be ‘explored through an appreciation of the interdependency of relations of power and the constitution of subjectivity’.

Culture in their framework is advocated as ‘root metaphor’ for organisational analysis and its importance in highlighted in understanding ‘how organisation is accomplished’. Instead of more populist approaches of treating culture as an organisational variable, Coombs et al focus more on the ‘meaning’ of informational and communication technologies and propose that any shift in the meanings attributed to their presence is mediated through organisational culture. Control again is not viewed in their theory as a mean of identifying and reducing organisational inefficiencies but rather a form of auto-regulation through which workers & managers are rendered subject to those mechanisms and strategies of power which confirms this individualised sense of themselves. Lastly competition is treated as cultural phenomenon and they argue that the cultural knowledge of the meaning and significance of competition as well as any related competitive failures determine the organisational practices. One another important notion that they put forward is that the relationship between power and subjectivity provides an important key to understanding the dynamics of competitiveness. Their analysis of application of L.T in NHS broadly revolves around these conceptual frameworks and they believe that culture, control and competition provide a fuller and mutually enriching illumination of the practices which comprise social & economic organisation. Though the framework advocated by Coombs et al helps explain the relevant organisational practices but the central question of ‘how’ the change in the practices is triggered remains unanswered. The primacy of individual actors in triggering the change is highlighted in the case studies but there is no conclusive framework explanation on the reasons of this phenomenon in their paper.

In the other reading Walsham’s (chapter 3 & 5) advocacy of context/process analysis for organisational change tries to put a different perspective on this issue. In his argument Walsham proposes that any meaningful research on organisational change should involve continuous interplay between ideas about ‘the context of change, the process of change and the content of change’. According to him any organisational change should be understood in the broader context of historical, organisational and economic circumstances from which they emerge. Also in this world view power, chance & opportunism are as influential in shaping outcomes as are design, negotiated agreements and master-plans.

This contextualist approach does have an advantage over Coombs framework in its clear and more holistic emphasis on multilevel contexts with interplay between these contexts & concomitant processes. The social context model within IT are explained using ‘web models’ in which social relations between participants, infrastructural support and organisational historical analysis all are supposed to play a role in developing and operating computer related technologies. The process model has been explained using the cultural & political metaphors of organisations and by using concept of subcultures with an analysis of the interactions at the boundaries between these subcultures.

The Printco case study provides an illustration of these three key concepts of web models, namely the social relations between participants, infrastructural support and historical analysis. The social relations were discussed on a political model where key actors discussed the development and use of MRP system in terms of increasing efficiency & productivity yet deployed it to increase their own control. The infrastructural support in terms of data processing resources is cornered by the vice president to exercise control. The historical analysis explains how each successive stage was conditioned by previous change whether its work prioritisation of support staff or the skill sets of computing staff.

Walsham further suggests that Gidden’s structuration theory can also be used as a theoretical approach to conceptualising the linkage between context and process in IT organisations. The argument is that computer based systems in contemporary organisations embody interpretative schemes, provide coordination and control facilities and encapsulates norms. They are thus deeply implicated in the modalities that link social action and structure and are drawn on in interaction thus reinforcing or changing social structures of signification, domination and legitimisation.

In the Sky building Society this context/process linkage has been used to explain the success of the first CEO Brown’s success in implementing change and the relative failure of the replacement CEO Taylor’s in carrying this change forward. The context/process model does provide a convincing organisational summary in this situation but can still be critiqued on certain points. It has been suggested that Brown’s strategic vision for change involving desirable norms of high profitability and growth was probably governed by his supposed views of the likely evolution of financial services sector in UK. But that is raising Brown’s profile to the stature of a prophet, in all likelihood chance did play a role in this choice and the organisational vision coincidently synched up with the overall direction the financial industry was moving towards. Another argument against this study is its soft advocacy for autocratic style of management that worked in this particular case but is likely to fail in most cases. In all probability there was no powerful voice in Sky to contradict Brown and he probably succeeded because there was no conflict with another strong individual or group, otherwise it might have caused the CEO’s downfall as was the case in Printco where D.P. manager was fired in somewhat similar circumstances by the strong steering group.

In conclusion it can be said that the key frameworks described in these readings whether it is Coombs ‘culture, control & competition’ framework or context/process model or structuration theory, all these only provide means of articulating the organisational change practices and that too only in retrospection. These frameworks come short in answering the key question of ‘how’ the change starts in the first place in an organisation. The real life case studies described in these readings all have a story where a strong leader is the key protagonist in triggering as well as in managing the organisational change. But none of the frameworks help explain this central role played by the individual actor in activating the change. There is a need for further framework elucidation to help situate this definite tipping point during the change process where an individual actor somehow is able to rein in the power equations running through the organisational veins and then motivate his co-workers in achieving some desirable & legitimate goals. The context/process framework by Walsham does seem to come close to defining this embryonic state where change is ready to be delivered in an organisation. But still the ripe conditions of social contexts, right infrastructural support & historical analysis are not enough, the final push for organisational change needs a strong & capable leader in right place at the right time.

Tarun Rattan

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