Teleological design – definition and weaknesses

After a long pause due to holidays and work, here’s the next installment of the process component of the Ps Framework for chapter 2 of my thesis. A previous post gave a brief overview of teleological and ateleological processes. The purpose of this post is to go into more detail about teleological processes. A subsequent post will do the same for ateleological.

This is still a first draft, so comments and feedback are welcome.

The over reliance on teleological processes is one of my biggest criticisms of what passes for e-learning within universities. Too many of the “enterprise” e-learning folk aren’t even aware that ateleological approaches to design exist or that there are significant limitations to teleological design. Subsequently, this is one of my biggest problems with the people teaching management, project management, information systems and systems development at universities. They also don’t see the need nor value for ateleological approaches – in the appropriate contexts – and subsequently don’t inform their students of these approaches. This occurs even thought there is a significant amount of literature, including some fairly big names (e.g. Mintzberg) and movements (e.g. agile development).

Teleological design processes

Teleological design is based on the idea of modernism where human rationality and methods of inquiry can achieve their ultimate purpose of discovering and identifying universal truths (Baskerville, Travis et al. 1992). The definition of a teleological design process, it’s ultimate purpose, is to set and achieve objectives, to be purpose driven (Introna 1996). It is common sense to organize work in accordance with plans – which are used as instruments of design control – that are created by designers who, drawing on rationality and inquiry, have reflected on the work setting and manipulated representations of the work processes in order to determine new and efficient organisational structures (Hutchins 1991). The planning school see pre-planned events as the main triggers for organizational action and that success arises from environmental scanning, organizational assessment and the development of processes of high efficiency (Clegg 2002).

Once the ultimate purpose of a teleological design process has been defined the system conforms to the behaviour required to achieve the stated purpose (Introna 1996). Truex et al (2000) identify a shared assumption about teleological design processes involving a three-stage rational sequence: “(1) determine goals, (2) determine steps and events that lead to these, (3) follow the steps and generate the events”. Any action not seen to contribute to achievement of the stated purpose is seen as inefficient and not effective and must be avoided. The intermediate goal is to maintain effectiveness and efficiency in the achievement of the ultimate purpose. The focus of teleological design becomes how to achieve the stated ends, how to reduce the distance between the current state and the established purpose (Jones and Muldoon 2007). The design focus is on achieving the ends of the ultimate purpose. The focus of exploitation is on such things as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection, implementation, and execution (March 1991). As a system becomes increasingly teleological the set of possible alternative actions becomes progressively less (Introna 1996).

The complexity of large-scale projects is addressed through logical decomposition, the recursive reduction of the large and complex problem into smaller and more manageable problems that can be solved independently (Truex, Baskerville et al. 2000). The design scope is reduced to a part of the overall problem and the use of a design process focused on developing creative solutions to that partial problem. This design process takes an idealistic approach that privileges expert knowledge held by explicit designers who perform analysis and interpretation and where diagnosis is separate from and precedes implementation (Kurtz and Snowden 2007). Design is the responsibility of a small group – the explicit designers and the centralized design management – selected for their understanding, seniority and the ability to apply rational analysis to the problem and move close to the stated goal (Jones and Muldoon 2007).

Introna (1996) identifies the design problems faced by teleological design processes as complexity and conflict. Complexity arises from attempting to achieve a high-level purpose that encompasses and difficult problem that requires large-scale design processes that must employ logical decomposition. It assumes that the explicit designers can understand the complexity of the system; identify the needs and ultimate purpose; and how to achieve the stated purpose. Whenever an explicit goal is selected there is an implicit or explicit assumption that other possible goals are less appropriate (Introna 1996). Given the complexity of the design problems there are almost certainly alternate possible goals. The principle requirement of teleological design to have a single ultimate purpose and the existence of a number of alternate goals leads to conflict which must be dealt with in order to achieve the ultimate purpose.

Weaknesses of teleological design

Introna (1996) identifies three requirements that must be logical met in order to do teleological design:

  1. The system’s behaviour must be relatively stable and predictable.
  2. The designers must be able to manipulate the system’s behaviour directly.
  3. The designers must be able to determine accurately the goals or criteria for success.

Stable and predictable. The chances of finding modern organizations that classify themselves as stable is increasingly questionable and it is possible to identify three sources of instability: the context in which an organisation exists; the nature of the organisation itself; and the projects the organisation undertakes. A continually changing context makes a large investment in up front analysis – a standard and required component of teleological design – a poor investment as requirements change before the end of the analysis stage (Truex, Baskerville et al. 1999). If the context of the problem to be solved is neither stable nor predictable, then which of the many ultimate goals of a design process is most appropriate will change in line with the changes in the context (Jones and Muldoon 2007). A high level of turbulence in the environment makes planning insufficient (Clegg 2002). How can you make sensible policy or strategy in a non-deterministic, evolutionary and highly complex world (Carlsson 2002)? Traditional teleological design processes within information systems development lead to stable systems drag, a situation where the information system actually inhibits the organisation’s ability to adapt (Truex, Baskerville et al. 1999).

Organizations themselves are emerging in a fluid process of internal change and environmental adaptation, any process that does not similarly emerge and change will slowly become irrelevant to the needs of its clients (Truex, Baskerville et al. 2000). Organizations that focus too much on exploitation are likely to be trapped in “suboptimal stable equilibria” (March 1991). Operating in a dynamic context requires organisational structures that adjust and become far more responsive to change (Mintzberg 1989). Organisations in the present era are no longer stable, instead they are continuously adapting to shifting environments and in a state of constantly seeking stability while never achieving it (Truex, Baskerville et al. 1999).

A basic deficiency in project management theory is the little distinction between the project type and its strategic and managerial problems (Shenhar and Dvir 1996). While there are several suggested project classification frameworks most textbooks focus on a universal set of functions and activities considered common to all projects (Dvir, Lipovetsky et al. 1998). Projects that involve innovation, discovery or radical change have outcomes that are unclear at the beginning or will likely involve high levels of uncertainty due to change (Kenny 2002). A key purpose of such roject is to learn, to explore, and add substance and meaning to the broad outline of the organisation’s strategy (Kenny 2002). A teleological design process is a convergent process that is predictable and consequently controllable, however, it does not have the ability to evolve as it is not able to learn (Introna 1996).

Manipulation of the system’s behaviour. Teleological design methodologies either disregard, severely downplay, or only superficially address the social reality of information systems, people and organizations (Introna 1996). Such top-down planning often falters at the operational level because implementation generates a range of messy human factors (Haywood 2002). Planners of change are typically unaware of the situations faced by implementers, rarely provide any means to identify and confront situation constraints and introduce changes without attempting to understand the values, ideas and experiences of the implementers (Fullan 1991). Social systems cannot be “designed” in the same way as technical systems, at best they can be indirectly influenced (Introna 1996). Technology development and diffusion needs cooperation, however, it takes place in a competitive and conflictual atmosphere where different social groups – each with their own interpretation of the technology and the problem to be solved – are inevitably involved and seek to shape outcomes (Allen 2000). Information systems development has the complex problem of double involvement: the creation and recreation of the information system by the user/designer and the creation and recreation of the user/designer by the system (Introna 1996).

Accurately determine goals. The uncertain and confused arena of social behaviour and autonomous human action make predetermination impossible (Truex, Baskerville et al. 2000). Innovation is undetermined and there is no single “best solution” (Allen 2000). The double involvement of individuals and institutions – individuals create and at the same time are created by it – makes human behaviour unpredictable, uncontrollable and discontinuous (Introna 1996). The ability to determine goals assumes the existence of a certain level of predicability and order within the world, however, as circumstances become more complex, these simplifications can fail and there is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect (Snowden and Boone 2007).

As well as situations where Introna’s (1996) three requirements for teleological design are not present, teleological design suffers from a number of limitations including the loss of the whole. The focus on the reductionist decomposition results in an imaginary process of isolating components that does not reflect the rich interdependencies of organisational reality (Truex, Baskerville et al. 2000). Decomposition contributes to the tendency of a teleological design process to lose sight of the whole as each decomposed entity focuses on its much smaller design scope and prevent conversations that cross organizational barriers (Jones and Muldoon 2007).


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