MIS40640 – Managing Technology & Change: Cultural & Political Perspectives – Managing IS implementation

Readings of the Week:

Brown – Managing understandings – niche marketing

Orlikowski & Hofman – Improvisational model


Managing the IS design & development process

Minutes of the Class:

Week 10’s lecture, as with other recent weeks was in three sections, a continuation of the discussion on Grey’s paper The Fetish of change, a presentation titled Managing IS Implementation and a discussion on this week’s readings; An Improvisational model for change management: the case of groupware technologies (Orlikowski and Hofman) and Managing Understandings: Politics, symbolism, Niche Marketing and the quest for legitimacy in IT Implementation.

In summary the conversation of the Grey paper focused on his issue with a prevailing view that Leadership and communication / consultation are the panacea for success in relation to implementation and change. He is critical of how leadership is viewed and enacted and the dominant heroic perception subscribed to by a considerable body of people. In the course of the conversation Séamas drew our attention to the writings of both Mintzberg and Brown to help us reflect on this topic and also commended a book ‘Facing the extreme’ by Tzvetan Todorov which studies heroism enacted in WW2 concentration camps and its relationship to how people stayed sane with a sense of hope in such an environment. Séamas highlighted two forms of “leadership” evident, the grand gestures of trying to escape/rebel which almost always ended in not only failure but severe repercussions and the small acts of kindness (for example stealing out after curfew to give someone in solitary a piece of bread which had been squirrelled away) and were extremely positive in terms of impact on moral for both those giving and receiving. These activities were considered heroic and something very important.

It was very clear from the conversation that it is not leadership per se that Grey takes issue with but rather he is reacting against the notion that any one person/leader has a magic wand which he /she uses to ensure the success and long term sustainability of an organisation. Comparison to Alex Ferguson tactics was also made – That he managed his team through a million tiny conversations. Grey is critical of what was described as the “Hollywood” notions of leadership, the grand stage perception of leadership, that there is somewhere a special cast of people who are leaders all of which is imbued with masculinity perceptions. There was also discussion as to how this perspective detracts from the “mundane”/routine things that a leader undertakes and are important to success which include mobilising action, listening to others and learning.

In bringing the conversation onto Mintzberg writings and the notion of what he describes as “the cult of leadership” and how it drags organisations down, Séamas listed three points which provided greater detail as to Greys concerns;

  1. The implicit assumption that change should come from the top.
  2. Vision is top down and that there is always a purity of heart in those at the top.
  3. The difficulty disentangling organisational goals from personal goals.

Mintzberg argues that leadership is management done well and expresses concern that this cult of leadership downgrades the profession as it has made managers administrators without decision making authority, capability or responsibility. He believes some are suffering from the illusion that one single person can turn an organisation around which we understand to be a relatively recent concept (popularised in the 70s alongside organisational culture). Seamus highlighted that deification is an important word to remember in this context and answered the question as to why people will accept such leadership styles- with the word anxiety. It suits people to have a heroic figure as it calms their anxiety by both providing a direction and alleviating their responsibility.

So what’s the alternative, Séamas commended Mintzberg’s view of leadership which emphasises engagement, committing to and investing in a solution rather than an abstract style of leadership. Leadership comes in many forms throughout each level of an organisation and rather than being something you are it is something you do – a practice.

The other perceived panacea discussed and raised by Grey was communication/consultation. The conclusion we drew from the discussion was that communication and consultation are always political and can be a very cynical process and in some cases merely a box ticking exercise. The example of education was cited to illustrate the point. Education is always political through the choice of material used and the perspective offered. In that way even this course itself can be seen as a political exercise. Teaching is a political act. Foucault’s power knowledge relationship is inter twined and cannot be separated. We discussed the importance of communication always being bidirectional – dialogue; it is as much about listening and being persuaded as it is persuading.

The lecture continued with class members commenting on how they found this week’s readings. Points were made about the contrast between the two approaches to change; Brown presenting the covert political approach and Orlikowski the user empowering agile approach. To conclude this discussion Séamas emphasised the importance of the dynamics and the complexity of introducing and implementing change. It did help to grasp a context when Séamas pointed out that both were published in different texts, Brown in a hard-core academic publication and Orlikowski in MIT Sloan which indicates that you can be critical consumers of this style of article.

A presentation followed on Managing IS implementation. The point was made that whilst Grey outs the cat among the pigeons as it were, people empathised with his position as it is something most have encountered in practice. It was suggested that the improvisational model proposed by Orlikowski required greater levels of control whilst niche marketing can be effective but needs to be legitimised to be successful. The presentation ended with a question as to whether Grey was right or do Brown and Orlikowski demonstrate that successful change management is possible. The view was that there was validity to each point of view. Niche marketing provides the possibilities for framing the message – a discourse of telling people what they want to know or what they need to know. The skill is in the deciding on the tools to use and the use of resources in the right way.

One class member considered this too simplistic but there was agreement that whilst you can’t predict change it does happen and is assisted by a communication culture.

Following the break attention turned to this week’s readings and we started with Brown. As Seamus mentioned the Author is the same Andrew Brown we came across in week 3 in relation to his definition of culture.

Whilst the focal topic of the conversation was niche marketing, its inevitability and the associated ethical debate the discussion was framed around three questions;

  1. Why did the sponsors and implementation team not “fess” up to the functionality that may have resulted in a negative perception of the system?
  2. When does the pragmatic approach become right?
  3. At what point does persuasion become manipulation?

The consensus was that there is no alternate to niche marketing and you will always be involved in situations where niche marketing is inevitable. Systems don’t come “uncooked” and systems can’t be described in a neutral way. As a manager/implementer your job is to make sense of the change and a key job of a manager is to be an active agent in shaping this sense making/understanding. In a nutshell, a manager is considered as sense maker. We must accept that we are always involved in politics and need to realise what the difference is between good politics and bad politics.

Séamas did highlight that the author was being ambivalent because some things are inevitable but does hint at issues associated with niche marketing as an approach. Reference was made to Walsham’s view of the manager as a moral agent and that politics is a crucial element of successful change. As a manager we should always question if and think about actions and activities to decide if this makes us moral. Sometimes managers hide behind the cloak of a rationalist decision to legitimatise actions. Through class conversation the reasons why companies can be afraid of giving the truth emerged as;

  1. Fear of political opportunism on the other side
  2. A belief that no one has time for “this”
  3. People’s brief – “the dice is loaded” from the start.

Grey has made the point that change management books focus on instrumental tactics and that business is fundamentally selfish. As managers the question remains how can /do we decide if our actions are moral/ ethical.

Séamas identifies two kinds of approach to ethics

  1. A very universalistic approach where there is a clear definition between right behaviour and wrong behaviour. In taking this approach one has no room for exceptions.
  2. A particularistic approach where a decision depends on the circumstances. This view has more shades and allows people justify their action by framing the circumstances.

The answer to the question as to when persuasion becomes manipulation and the entire area of ethics is very difficult and one way to make sense and orient oneself is through conversations with others. The various authors are drawing attention to the fact that ethical issues are often squeezed out because of rationalist decisions. The mass organisational move from promoting customer and employee values to those of shareholder raises further concerns. An important word in relation to these issues is patience – patience in terms of building confidence in new ways and talking to orientate and sensitise to a different perspective. There is an inescapable ethical dimension to everything! A key aspect as well is that ethics is some kind of a public discourse subject to the scrutiny of others. How we frame the system being sold is a moral and ethical matter. Transparency is sometimes mooted as a resolution to ethical decision making but this raises further questions regarding privacy.

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