Ateleological processes – definition and weaknesses

The following post offers a description of ateleological processes and their weaknesses. It’s a version 1 draft from the process components of the Ps Framework for chapter 2 of my thesis. A previous post gave a brief overview of teleological and ateleological processes and another described teleological processes and their weaknesses.

Ateleological design processes

By contrast, an ateleological design process’s ultimate purpose is not to achieve some objectively developed goal requiring radical transformation, it is instead to maintain the wholeness and harmony of the system. This is a different type of purpose; the goal is unachievable, which implies that design and development are inextricably linked in an on-going enterprise (Introna 1996). The intermediate goals of ateleological design are to maintain equilibrium and homeostasis of the local organisation. The design focus is not on a specific end but on the means by which the organisation can harness small-scale change to continually respond to local needs (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). Change does happen but it is small-scale change that contributes to and enhances the current understanding of the organisation rather than radical change that may interrupt and cause disconnections (Introna 1996).

Consequently, the designers within ateleological design processes are the members of the organisation who draw on their local knowledge to identify changes that are meaningful to their context (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). Similarly, naturalistic approaches accept the inherent unpredictability of current and future complexities, and thus de-privilege the idea of expert designers in favour of enabling emergent meaning at the ground level (Kurtz and Snowden 2007). Design control is via rules or regulators that ensure retention of the wholeness and harmony of the system, that each change is meaningful to participants and reflects actual human events (Introna 1996).

The ateleological design process is built around a process of reflection, learning and local adaptation that places emphasis on analysis and diagnosis being intertwined with practice (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). The resulting small chances lead to incremental improvements that can lead to organisational excellence through the accumulated effect of many minor improvements non-synchronously effected by many people (Baskerville, Travis et al. 1992). The major design problem with such an approach is the considerably greater amount of time than a teleological process to implement a specific change. However, since design management within an ateleological approach is decentralised the outcomes are typically more locally attuned, responsive and flexible.

Weaknesses of ateleological design

In the absence of a set goal, ateleological processes have no way of knowing whether they are progressing and can be seen as inefficient because they expend resources discovering what needs to be done (Introna 1996). While this is exactly what is needed in some contexts, in other contexts where Introna’s (1996) requirements for teleological design apply, the nature of ateleological design would increase the time necessary to progress. Systems that engage pre-dominantly in exploration (ateleological) and too little in exploitation (teleological) exhibit too many undeveloped new ideas and too little distinctive competence (March 1991). An extreme ateleological approach might lead to organisational anarchy, with no overarching plan for bringing together localised energies and initiatives (Jones, Luck et al. 2005).

Much, if not most, of organisational theory and practice includes a fundamental assumption that there exists a certain level of predictability and order (Snowden and Boone 2007). That is an assumption of a context where Introna’s three requirements for teleological design may be fulfilled. Consequently most of the training, knowledge and accepted practice in organizations is around teleological design. The information systems development field, in terms of both training and practice, is dominated by design processes of a teleological nature (Baskerville, Travis et al. 1992). Consequently, while there are contexts where ateleological approaches are more appropriate and new technology and new development methodologies enable adopted of ateleological design process, finding staff, and even more so management, who understand this approach, is difficult (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). Without this level of understanding and the associated “top-down” support from managers, individuals and groups committed to an ateleological approach will be driven underground or else spend their time justifying themselves, rather than doing the necessary work (Jones, Luck et al. 2005).


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.

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.

Snowden, D. and M. Boone (2007). "A leader’s framework for decision making." Harvard Business Review 85(11): 68-76.