Teleological and ateleological processes

The following is an early section on the Process component of the Ps Framework and is intended as part of chapter 2 of my thesis. Still fairly rough, but somewhat cleaner than some of the thesis sections I’ve shared here.

Teleological and ateleological processes

Clegg (2002) suggests that one of the most pervasive debates in management has been between the “planning school” and the “learning school”. The planning/learning school continuum is mirrored in a range of literature describing different approaches to processes. Table 2.1 provides a summary of some of this literature. Table 2.1 and this thesis make use of the terminology introduced by Introna (1996) with respect to design processes: teleological and ateleological. This continuum covers the spectrum of different types of processes identified in the literature on and informing the practice of e-learning within universities.

Table 2.1 – Different authors and terms for the teleological/ateleological continuum
Author Teleological Ateleological
Mintzberg (1989) Deliberate strategy Emergent strategy
Brews and Hunt (1999)
Clegg (2002)
Planning school Learning school
Seely Brown and Hagel (2005) Push systems Pull systems
Kutz and Snowden (2007) Idealistic Naturalistic
Hutchins (1991) Supervisory reflection and intervention Local adjustment
Truex, Baskerville and Klein (1999) Traditional information systems design Emergent information systems design
March (1991) Exploitation Exploration
Boehm and Turner (2003) Plan-driven Agile

Introna (1996) identified eight attributes of a design process and uses them to distinguish between the two extremes: teleological (planning school) and ateleological (learning school). The eight attributes of a design processes are used by Introna (1996) to highlight the differences between the two extremes. This work is summarised in Table 2.2 and will be expanded in the following sections.

Table 2.2 – Attributes of teleological and ateleological design processes (adapted from Introna, 1996)
Attributes of the design process Teleological development Ateleological development
Ultimate purpose Goal/purpose Wholeness/harmony

Intermediate goals

Effectiveness/efficiency Equilibrium/homeostasis
Design focus Ends/result Means/process
Designers Explicit designer Member/part
Design scope Part Whole
Design process Creative problem solving Local adaptation, reflection and learning

Design problems

Complexity and conflict Time
Design management Centralized Decentralized
Design control Direct intervention in line with a master plan Indirect via rules and regulators

The information systems discipline has seen fairly widespread domination by teleological thinking and ateleological design taking on a subservient position (Introna 1996). A position reinforced by the labels used by Truex et al (Truex, Baskerville et al. 1999) where teleological design was described as traditional information systems design while ateleological design is labeled emergent information systems design. Introna (1996) suggests that most, if not all, of what happens within modern organizations is teleological. Teleological processes dominate the training and practice of information systems development (Baskerville, Travis et al. 1992). Many, if not most, universities follow, or at least profess to follow, a purpose driven approach – a teleological approach – to setting strategic directions (McConachie, Danaher et al. 2005).

There are risky extremes inherent in both approaches that must be avoided if organizations and systems are to be functional rather than dysfunctional (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). An extreme pre-occupation for either exploration or exploitation can trap organizations in unproductive states (March 1991). A purely deliberative strategy suggests no learning, while a purely emergent strategy suggests no control (Mintzberg 1994). A synthesis of the most productive elements of both teleological and ateleological approaches is crucial to addressing the plethora of issues competing for the attention of university decision-makers (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). The aim of this section is to offer a brief explanation of the two ends of the process continuum and the relevant weaknesses and strengths of the two extremes. The following section (Section 2.1.2) examines the literature around the processes used in universities and, in particular, for e-learning.


Baskerville, R., J. Travis, et al. (1992). Systems without method: the impact of new technologies on information systems development projects. The Impact of Computer Supported Technologies on Information Systems Development. K. E. Kendall. Amsterdam, North-Holland: 241-251.

Boehm, B. and R. Turner (2003). "Using risk to balance agile and plan-driven methods." Computer 36(6): 57-66.

Brews, P. and M. Hunt (1999). "Leanring to plan and planning to learn: Resolving the planning school/learning school debate." Strategic Management 20(10): 889-913.

Clegg, S. (2002). Management and organization paradoxes. Philadelphia, PA, John Benjamins Publishing.

Hutchins, E. (1991). "Organizing work by adaptation." Organization Science 2(1): 14-39.

Introna, L. (1996). "Notes on ateleological information systems development." Information Technology & People 9(4): 20-39.

Jones, D., J. Luck, et al. (2005). The teleological brake on ICTs in open and distance learning. Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’2005, Adelaide.

Kurtz, C. and D. Snowden (2007). Bramble Bushes in a Thicket: Narrative and the intangiables of learning networks. Strategic Networks: Learning to Compete. Gibbert, Michel, Durand and Thomas, Blackwell.

March, J. (1991). "Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning." Organization Science 2(1): 71-87.

McConachie, J., P. Danaher, et al. (2005) "Central Queensland University’s Course Management Systems: Accelerator or brake in engaging change?" International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning Volume,  DOI:

Mintzberg, H. (1994). The rise and fall of strategic planning: Reconceiving roles for planning, plans, planners. New York, Free Press.

Seely-Brown, J. and J. Hagel (2005) "From push to pull: The next frontier of innovation." The McKinsey Quarterly Volume,  DOI:

Truex, D., R. Baskerville, et al. (1999). "Growing systems in emergent organizations." Communications of the ACM 42(8): 117-123.

19 Replies to “Teleological and ateleological processes”

  1. David, interesting post, and interesting process. Regarding process, we are looking at learners who are working their problems in public (ideally in public communities). Some of our recent thinking can be found here:

    Don;t let the gradebook word turn you off, we started from conversations about grading students, but feedback would be a better term. I think we are looking for means to support learners in becoming more effective at ateleological processes.

    You might also be interested to look at the work of Christopher Alexander, ca 1980. He is an architect and coined the term “Pattern Language” to describe how indigenous peoples developed architecture that had common traits and was adapted to local conditions. I think you will recognize these as ateleological architects and patterns as tools that experts use to “chunk” their knowledge while working in these contexts.

    1. G’day Nils,

      Thanks for the pointer to your work. It sounds very interesting and I hope (within the constraints of completing the PhD) to follow up on what you’re doing. I think it could be very useful to me.

      The gradebook word didn’t turn me off. I read somewhere in the blogosphere recently that the only thing Blackboard has of use is the gradebook, and that’s of questionable value because of the design. I work within a university setting so marking, certification and accreditation and probably the key tasks and the ones which seem to have the least support amongst Web 2.0 tools. So interesting ways of implementing a gradebook, is very interesting.

      I’m aware of Alexander’s work. In fact, Introna (1996) uses Alexander as the extant example of an ateleological process. I’ve also done some work of my own with patterns back in 1999. However, I’ve begun to question the value of that sort of work.

      Essentially, I personally like the idea, however, I’m not sure how good a fit it is with the reality of the academics within the context which I work. Increasingly, I’m interested in things that work, rather than things which are theoretically interesting.


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