Information Technology and Organizational Transformation: History, Rhetoric, and Practice


Edited by: JoAnne Yates & John Van Maanen

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright

    View Copyright Page


    This volume provides one of the first clear-headed assessments of information technology and organizational transformation. Its virtue is not so much in its recognition of the importance of the subject; speculation on this topic has been rampant for more than a decade. Rather, it is unusual, and unusually useful, because it avoids speculation in favor of conceptually coherent accounts grounded in empirical study of actual organizations. The chapters contained in this volume move beyond the superficial glorification of information technology as an extraordinary instrument of social change and straight to the heart of the mechanisms of change as they play out in everyday organizational life. In the process, they reaffirm that the real story of information technology in organizations is more about people than about technology. Taken together, they provide an important contribution to the intellectual foundations of one of the most interesting developments in decades.

    The volume grew out of a special issue of the journal Information Systems Research (ISR), a publication of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) that appeared in December 1996. This was ISRs first special issue, and it was important that the issue embody the insights and intellectual rigor for which the journal is known. JoAnne Yates and John Van Maanen served as guest editors and produced results beyond expectations. In keeping with the successful partnership between INFORMS and Sage Publications, the articles of this special issue, together with four additional papers, were accepted for production as a book. Harry Briggs at Sage provided essential early support for the book project.

    On behalf of ISR and INFORMS, I thank JoAnne, John, and Harry for their extraordinary efforts in producing this excellent volume. In addition, I acknowledge and thank the many individuals who submitted manuscripts for consideration and who helped to review these submissions. As always, the INFORMS publications staff, especially Kathye Long and Candi Gerzevitz, were of great assistance throughout the process.

    John L.King, University of Michigan, Former Editor-in-Chief, Information Systems Research


    As we enter a new century, the pace of change seems to quicken and the talk surrounding technology and work becomes—like most everything else—increasingly apocalyptic. Predictions of major organizational upheavals, from the small independent dairy farm to the gigantic multinational corporation, from the village constable's office to the nation-state itself, have been plentiful and dramatic. All organizations, it appears, must face the so-called information age head-on and prepare for a new world order. In this time and context, the topic of information technology (IT) and its connection to what is so grandly called organizational transformation is well worth scholarly attention and empirical study. Past treatments of this connection putting forth predictions of new organizational forms are troublesome because relatively few studies call out historical precedents, worry much about the way in which causal arrows fly, or suggest very carefully how organizations actually get from here to there.

    In putting together this volume, we are particularly interested in understanding how organizational transformations unfold over time, how they have occurred in the past, how they apparently are occurring today, and how interested groups draw on and refine a discourse centering on IT and organizational change. Social processes of both long and short duration are, therefore, our central concern, but these are subtle and varied and operate rather differently across time and space. Take, for example, the inflated claims currently circulating in many quarters about the Internet's power to create significant and lasting social relationships. On the surface, the World Wide Web appears to be a wonderful meeting place where like-minded souls are drawn together through on-line exchanges such that the relationships that develop electronically will broaden and deepen with time. For most of us, however, this seems hardly the case, for the Internet is not yet—and perhaps never will be—a particularly appealing, appropriate, trustworthy, and safe way in which to form close relationships. It might well be a great place to keep relationships going once they have formed, but establishing relationships on the Internet—especially good ones—is another, more problematic matter.

    To gain some purchase on the problems that interest us requires, first, some definitions. By information technology, we mean simply those mechanisms used to organize, store, manipulate, present, send, and retrieve information. In contemporary societies, IT almost automatically brings to mind things such as computers, video games, fax machines, zip drives, high-speed printers, copiers, voice mail, modems, cell phones, CAD/CAM equipment, satellite dishes, and digital recordings. This certainly is true of the historical moment, but we must keep in mind that this is just a moment. The full and generic meaning of the phrase would include ITs as varied as libraries and blackboards, as calculators and beads, as files and piles, as reading materials and writing tools. With the recording of history, the record itself becomes a “new and improved” IT. Although we seem to talk about it so much because we have so little of it left, memory also is an IT, as is printing, painting, or telling stories. All means of human communication are Its—the megaphone or telephone, the boom box or Walkman, the traffic light or Goodyear blimp. We also must keep in mind that the principal mode of human communication remains people speaking and listening to one another in face-to-face interaction. And this, too, may be seen as an IT.

    By organizational transformation, we mean a shift in the way that work is done within a chartered collective. This puts a focus on the work practices of organizational members, the social structures that support and lend shape to such practices, and the ideologies and meaning systems—managerial and otherwise—that more or less legitimate such arrangements. Transformations at any level should be noticeable over time but not necessarily sudden, turbulent, or dramatic. Changes in practice may or may not be associated with shifts in the administrative architecture of an organization (and vice versa). We are more concerned, however, with changes in practice—in the ways that things are done and who does them—than with changes in organizational form or structure per se, which so often leave the work routines of most members untouched. This is not to privilege practice but rather simply to recognize that organizations exist only to the extent that they are enacted by their members—by what their members say and do. The treatment of organizational change too often relies on highly generalized and abstract representations of work—its complexity, its uncertainty, its segmentation, its authority structure, and so on. These representations equate practice with the way in which it is organized, and considerable conceptual confusion is the result. By not having a reasonably decent grip on what it is that organizational members actually do when they are at work, studies of organizational transformation at the structural level tell us little and risk conflating managerial claims about organizational form with substantive change.

    What is needed empirically, we think, is a deepened sensitivity to the nature of work as it takes place on the ground and a far greater appreciation for history, context, and discourse than has typically been the case. Research of this sort is uncommon in both the application- and technique-oriented IT community and in the variable- and theory-focused organization studies community. Therefore, we have looked explicitly for studies of the past (distant and recent), studies of language use or rhetoric (official and unofficial), and studies of work communities and practices (established and emergent) to fill out this volume. Seven of the chapters presented here appeared initially as articles in a special issue (March 1996) of the journal Information Systems Research. Where appropriate, they have been revised to take account of subsequent events that shed new light on the particular research story told. We also have added four splendid new and previously unpublished studies to take advantage of the space a book provides as well as to more fully elaborate a theoretical and substantive category of our interest that we believe was underrepresented in the special issue—the rhetoric of IT and organizational transformation.

    Taken as a whole, these studies display a broad range of sharply focused qualitative methods. They cover levels of analysis that extend from the social, political, and economic contours of the United States at the dawn of the industrial revolution to the language used by members of a small, back-room clerical team perfecting securities for a large British bank during the early 1990s. Private firms, police agencies, political parties, county governments, university research laboratories, and more serve as organizational sites of potential and, in some cases, realized transformation (although hardly in a neat, linear, and foreseeable fashion). For some authors, the close comparative analysis of text, speech, and narrative serves as a principal analytic method. Other authors emphasize ethnographic descriptions that rest on a good deal of traditional participant observation. Methods that distance researchers from the details of work practices and the use (or non-use) of IT—surveys, laboratory experiments, formal interviews with top managers—are more or less absent in this volume.

    A common theme running across all the studies presented in this volume is gradualism. Contrary to the conventional (and expensive) wisdom of many futurists, technology gurus, and strategy consultants, organizational transformations—at least those tied to IT—seem not to be carefully orchestrated events, quick and sure leaps into a glorious future, or even terribly jarring disruptions of taken-for-granted practices. Change as depicted in the research that follows is slow, halting, incremental, and often ironic. Moreover, it is occurring all the time but in almost imperceptible ways. This suggests that the working men and women who make use of a new technology carve out time and space to experiment, to improvise, and to learn collectively what the technology means to them, to their work, and to their work community. In the end, they are unlikely to absorb or adopt the technology precisely as expected or intended by those who design, command, and otherwise direct the implementation of new ITs. It is in this sense that the authors of the chapters here treat technology as rather unpredictable and intractable. These are, of course, the very features that make its study so engaging and valuable.

    Three sets of studies follow. The first consists of studies that take an historical perspective on IT and organizational transformation. History not only points to the lessons we can learn from the past but also shows just how context and purpose make a difference in how a technology does or does not develop. Consider, for example, the production of text. The Chinese developed and used typesetting well before Guttenberg and the “invention” of the printing press in the West. Yet, print in China was for royal use, was confined mainly to matters of state, and was used primarily by mandarins of the ruling bureaucracy. Public literacy was nonexistent. In Europe, however, a market context existed such that commercial printing houses emerged and literacy grew. The two fed on each other, giving rise to a wide reading audience. History also teaches that the interweaving of technology and human use can be disturbing. Unintended consequences are common, if not inevitable, as apparently is the case with car phones that were to make our road trips more enjoyable, perhaps make them more productive, and allow us to feel secure in our vehicles. But we now know using car phones also increases the risk of traffic accidents (some say to the level of driving drunk). The point here is that the consequences of a particular IT are known only as routines of practical use emerge, and this takes time—sometimes a very long time.

    The second set of studies deals with the rhetoric of IT and organizational transformation. Rhetoric concerns persuasive communication and the uses to which various forms of talk and narrative are put. We are now, for example, caught up in a public rhetoric of progress through advanced computerization giving rise to a desire for the slickest machine, the fastest modem, and the latest update. Visions of the future that rest on notions of rapid technological progress usually try to be comforting and try to evoke a sense of social change in only the most cosmetic and unthreatening ways such that any signs of struggle—between, say, the rich and the poor—vanish. Bringing rhetoric to the study of IT is to reintroduce people and their aims, relationships and ideologies, into a vision of the future in danger of being swamped by gleaming machines, disembodied voices, user dreams, and corporate missions.

    Rhetoric bears on reality and surely helps to shape it, but the ways in which it does so rarely are transparent. Consider, for example, the much heralded “paperless office” that was to result from the progressive mechanization and computerization of the business world. Tools that once were thought to allow us to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of paper now have us consuming more paper than ever. There are, of course, a number of ways in which we can examine the rhetoric of IT and organizational transformation. We can examine the rhetoric of those who advocate, design, implement, manage, or otherwise push forward particular technologies. Of considerable importance here is learning what is omitted from such talk (intentionally or unintentionally). We also can examine the rhetoric of those on the receiving end—often a type of dialectic or “counter-rhetoric” stimulated and shaped by advocate claims—to learn of the sense they make of IT and how such sensemaking shapes to use. And, cutting across these fields of interest, we can examine the rhetoric of those who study and write about IT to learn of the ways in which they try to make their respective cases. Authors of the studies presented here take up each of these perspectives and, therefore, make visible the contested social terrain within which IT develops and is used.

    The third and final set of chapters concerns the practices that emerge when a new IT is made available to organizational members. Do practices change? How so? These are the questions that, in our view, are central to any serious consideration of organizational transformation. Looking to practice almost guarantees that contradictions, anomalies, and unexpected results will be obtained. E-mail systems are a good example in this regard. Such systems were promoted and institutionalized on the grounds that they provide a fast and efficient means of communication within an organization and across organizations. Many of us take such claims for granted. However, we now are discovering that e-mail also serves as an attractive invitation—an offer we cannot refuse—to send more messages than ever and, therefore, force recipients (and ourselves) to sort through dozens of useless missives to discover the few that are important. A concern for practice takes us to where work is done in organizations, to a consideration of how knowledge is distributed and how the exigencies of work and relations of production are structured in everyday interaction. This is where the action is in organizational life.

    Practice is, however, a collective attribute rather than an atomized trait. Practice is shaped in communities held together not by spirit or voluntarism but rather by interpersonal relations based on shared tasks and obligations. Learning on most jobs is a rich process of enculturation as newcomers become members of communities of practice. And as several generations of occupational and organizational ethnographers have documented, how work actually gets done sometimes is the best kept secret in an organization (and perhaps the society as well). Management initiatives—including especially the importation of particular ITs—often look quite odd when we learn how alien they are to the way in which work in an organization actually gets accomplished. To examine how work practices do or do not change when set against a new technology requires in situ fieldwork of a hard slogging sort that invariably results in an appreciation for the refined skills of those studied. Such study must not, of course, indulge a phenomenology of practice alone and banish the larger social, political, and economic processes that surround work such as the efforts of organizational members to protect their job boundaries or management efforts to bring these members to heel. As the authors of the studies of practice appearing in this section know well, the goal of ethnography is the close description of what the people studied do and, to the extent possible, the sense they make of these doings and the changing world around them. Corporate attempts to control workers (or vice versa) do not get lost or ignored by field-workers but rather get picked up by them as control attempts are played out on the ground in always situated ways.

    The chapters that follow are, therefore, segmented by three loosely defined analytic perspectives: history, rhetoric, and practice. There is, to be sure, more than a little overlap among the three, and we had a little difficulty in casting some chapters in one category rather than another. What is clear is that the writers located in one section are sensitive to the central concerns of those located in other sections. We did not plan the volume in this way, but we certainly are struck by it now. What is perhaps novel to this collection is, then, this authorial appreciation for the multidimensional and ambiguous character of organizational change as well as the numerous uses to which IT can be put. This breeds a good deal of caution. Predictions are few in this volume, and this is, in our minds, all to the good. The one apparent exception to this rule is that all of the studies presented here imply that the near future will not look too different from the recent past. None of the authors suggests that it is now time to write the elegy for our familiar, if sometimes cursed, organizational forms. Hierarchy, specialization, and rules and regulations are here for the close and probably distant future, just as are conflict and struggle. Finally, we must note with pride that no chapter in this volume announces “the one best way” in which to bring about an organizational transformation or aims, somewhat immodestly, to bring order, rationality, and efficiency to the disorder, irrationality, and general wastefulness of most change efforts. In the end, the scholar's skepticism, trained ears and eyes, eagerness to bring back new tales from the field, and willingness to forgo the pursuit of an ever elusive one and only true theory represent, for us, the most refreshing and useful characteristics of this collection.

  • About the Editors

    JoAnne Yates is Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research, which includes both historical and contemporary studies, focuses on understanding how the use of communication and information within firms shapes and is shaped over time by its changing organizational, managerial, and technological contexts. Her Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (1989, 1993) looks at the evolution of communication systems in firms historically. She also collaborates with Wanda Orlikowski, of Sloan's Information Technology group, on studies of electronic communication in contemporary organizations. This work has been published in outlets such as the Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, and Organization Science. She currently is chair of the Organizational Communication and Information Systems division of the Academy of Management and serves on editorial boards of several journals.

    John Van Maanen is Erwin Schell Professor of Organization Studies in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been a visiting professor at Yale University, the University of Surrey (United Kingdom), and INSEAD (France). He has published a number of books and articles in the general area of occupational and organizational sociology. Cultural descriptions figure prominently in his studies of the work worlds of patrol officers on city streets in the United States, police detectives and their guv'nors in London, and (most recently) park operatives at Disneyland. He is the author and editor of numerous books including Organizational Careers (1977), Policing: A View From the Street (with Peter Manning) (1978), and Tales of the Field (1988). His most recent work is Qualitative Studies of Organizations (Sage, 1998).

    About the Contributors

    Charles Bazerman is Professor and Chair of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is interested in the social dynamics of writing, rhetorical theory, and the rhetoric of knowledge production and use. His most recent book is The Languages of Edison's Light (2000). Previous books include Constructing Experience, Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science, The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines, and Involved: Writing for College, Writing for Your Self Coedited volumes include Textual Dynamics of the Professions, Landmark Essays in Writing Across the Curriculum, and a special issue of Mind, Culture, Activity on “The Activity of Writing, the Writing of Activity.” Current projects include a rhetorical theory of literate action and an investigation of environmental information.

    Martin Campbell-Kelly is Reader in Computer Science at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, where he specializes in computer history and human-computer interaction. His publications include ICL: A Business and Technical History (the official history of Britain's principal computer manufacturer) and the Collected Works of Charles Babbage. He recently completed a one-year Simon Senior Research Fellowship at the University of Manchester, where he conducted a study of Victorian data processing techniques.

    Jonathan Coopersmith is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. The present chapter is part of a larger history of the fax machine from its origins during the 1840s to the present. His first book was The Electrification of Russia, 1880–1926 (1992).

    Suzanne Iacono is Program Director for Computation and Social Systems (Information and Intelligent Systems Division, Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering Directorate) of the National Science Foundation. She received her Ph.D. in management information systems from the University of Arizona and received her M.A. and B.A. in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Previously, she held a faculty position at Boston University and was a visiting scholar in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is an associate editor for The Information Society and the MIS Quarterly and conducts research on social informatics and electronic communication.

    John L. King is Dean and Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the development of high-level requirements for information systems design and implementation in strongly institutionalized production sectors. The goal of this work is to improve the design of information technologies, for both organizational and institutional usability, through better articulating the processes of requirements analysis, specification, and prototype creation. His work also informs policy and strategy development at the firm, sectoral, and institutional levels. He served as editor-in-chief of the journal Information Systems Research from 1993 to 1998 and served as Marvin Bower Fellow and as a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School in 1990. From 1980 to 1999, he was a professor of information and computer science and management at the University of California, Irvine, where he received his B.A. in philosophy and Ph.D. in administration.

    Rob Kling is Professor of Information Science and Information Systems in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University, where he also directs the Center for Social Informatics. He is editor-in-chief of The Information Society. and recently wrote and edited the second edition of Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices. His research focuses on topics within social informatics such as the roles of digital libraries and electronic publishing in altering professional communication, social aspects of high-speed networking, and technology-based social movements.

    Peter K. Manning is Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. He received his Ph.D. from Duke University. He has published several books on policing and is the author of the forthcoming A Communicational Theory of Policing as well as several articles on policing and technology. His current research involves a dramaturgical analysis of private security and loyalty, a book on aspects of postmodern ethnography (with Betsy Cullum-Swan), and fieldwork on crime-mapping in a large urban police department.

    Wanda J. Orlikowski is the Eaton Peabody Chair of Communication Sciences and an Associate Professor of Information Technologies in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on technology and organizational change, with particular emphasis on the relationships between information technologies and organizing structures, work practices, culture, communication, and social cognition. She received her Ph.D. in information systems from New York University and has published in journals such as Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Information Systems Research, MIS Quarterly, and Organization Science.

    Brian T. Pentland is Associate Professor in the Department of Accounting at Michigan State University. Previously, he was a member of the faculties in the Anderson Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and in the School of Business Administration at the University of Michigan. His primary area of interest is in the relationship between work and technology, although he also has been developing techniques for business process modeling and the sequential analysis of qualitative data. His publications have appeared in Administrative Science Quarterly; Organization Science; Accounting, Organizations, and Society; Technology Studies; and Accounting, Management, and Information Technologies. He currently serves on the editorial boards of Administrative Science Quarterly; Accounting, Management, and Information Technologies; and Information, Technology, and People. He holds degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (S.B., 1981, mechanical engineering) and the Sloan School of Management at MIT (Ph.D., 1991, organization studies).

    Daniel Robey is John B. Zellars Professor of Computer Information Systems at Georgia State University. He teaches courses on qualitative research methods in information systems and information technology and organizational transformation. He received his doctorate in administrative science from Kent State University in 1973. He is editor-in-chief of Information and Organization, is senior editor of MIS Quarterly, and serves on the editorial boards of Organization Science, the Canadian Journal of Administrative Science, and the John Wiley series on Information Systems. He is the author of three books and numerous journal articles. His current research includes empirical xaminations of the effects of a wide range of technologies on organizational structure and patterns of work. It also includes the development of theoretical approaches to explaining the development and consequences of information technology in organizations.

    Karen Ruhleder is Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research is in the ethnography of information systems and the analysis of infrastructures to support distributed collaborative work. She has published in the information systems and sociology of science literature. A current project analyzes patterns of learning and collaboration around groupware (with Brigitte Jordan). She also is a member of the Illinois Research Group on Classification.

    Sundeep Sahay is affiliated with the University of Oslo, Norway. Previously, he was a lecturer in the Information Technology Institute at the University of Salford, United Kingdom, where he lectured in the area of information technology and society. Before that, he worked on a three-year research project at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, with Geoff Walsham studying the implementation and use of geographical information systems in India and Malaysia. He received his Ph.D. in information systems from Florida International University in 1993.

    Susan Leigh Star is Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. She received her Ph.D. in sociology of science and medicine from the University of California, San Francisco. Previously, she was a professor of information science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She also has taught at the University of California, Irvine; Keele University, England; and several universities in Scandinavia as a guest professor. Much of her research has been on the social implications and design of large-scale technology, especially information technology. Among her publications are The Cultures of Computing (1995), Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific Certainty (1989), and Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (with Geoffrey Bowker) (1999). She is volume editor for Science and Technology for the forthcoming Women's Studies International Encyclopedia (edited by Cheris Kramarae and Dale Spender). Her current research concerns ethical and methodological practices in on-line research with human participants.

    S. Lynne Taylor is Assistant Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo, Canada. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan, an M.A. in history from the London School of Economics, and a B.A. in business administration from the University of Western Ontario, Canada. She researches the social history of World War II and its immediate aftermath. Recent work has focused on black markets and the post-World War II refugee crisis.

    John R. Weeks is Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, France. He specializes in issues of organizational culture and ethnography and is particularly interested in lay ethnography, the process by which organizational members come to reflect consciously about their own culture. His most recent work is a field study of the causes and consequences of the “unpopular culture” in a large British bank, where everyone from the chief executive officer to the most junior clerk agrees that a radical change of culture is necessary and desirable, yet they also agree that such change is practically impossible. He holds a Ph.D. in management from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M. Phil, in management from Oxford University, United Kingdom.

    Susan J. Winter is Assistant Professor in the College of Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 1992, her M. A. from Claremont Graduate University in 1989, and her B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982. She previously served on the faculties of Florida Atlantic University; the University of Waterloo, Canada; and the University of Victoria, Canada. She has more than 15 years of international managerial and consulting experience. Recent research interests include the impact of technology on the organization of work and the symbolic aspects of information technology (particularly as related to the Internet and to entrepreneurial ventures). She has published in journals such as Information Systems Research, Information & Management, Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research, and the Journal of Vocational Behavior. She has presented her work at the International Conference on Information Systems and at the Academy of Management. She also has contributed chapters to scholarly books.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website