From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems

What follows is a long overdue summary of Ciborra (1992). I think it will have a lot of insight for how universities implement e-learning. The abstract for Ciborra (1992) is

When building a Strategic Information. System (SIS), it may not be economically sound for a firm to be an innovator through the strategic deployment of information technology. The decreasing costs of the technology and the power of imitation may quickly curtail any competitive advantage acquired through an SIS. On the other hand, the iron law of market competition prescribes that those who do not imitate superior solutions are driven out of business. This means that any successful SIS becomes a competitive necessity for every player in the industry. Tapping standard models of strategy analysis and data sources for industry analysis will lead to similar systems and enhance, rather than decrease, imitation. How then should “true” SISs be developed? In order to avoid easy imitation, they should should emerge from from the grass roots of the organization, out of end-user hacking, computing, and tinkering. In this way the innovative SIS is going to be highly entrenched with the specific culture of the firm. Top management needs to appreciate local fluctuations in practices as a repository of unique innovations and commit adequate resources to their development, even if they fly if the face of traditional approaches. Rather than of looking for standard models in the business strategy literature, SISs should be looked for in the theory and practice of organizational leaming and innovation, both incremental and radical.

My final thoughts

The connection with e-learning

Learning and teaching is the core business of a university. For the 20+ years I’ve worked in Australian Higher Education there has been calls for universities to become more distinct. It would then seem logical that the information systems used to support, enhance and transform (as if there are many that do that) learning and teaching (I’ll use e-learning systems in the following) should be seen as Strategic Information Systems.

Since the late 1990s the implementation of e-learning systems has been strongly influenced by the traditional approaches to strategic and operational management. The influence of the adoption of ERP systems are in no small way a major contributor to this. This recent article (HT: @katemfd) shows the lengths to which universities are going when the select an LMS (sadly for many e-learning == LMS).

I wonder how much of the process is seen as being for strategic advantage. Part, or perhaps all, of Ciborra’s argument for tinkering is on the basis of generating strategic advantage. The question remains whether universities see e-learning as a source of strategic advantage (anymore)? Perhaps they don’t see selection of the LMS as a strategic advantage, but given the lemming like rush toward “we have to have a MOOC” of many VCs it would seem that technology enhanced learning (apologies to @sthcrft) is still seen as a potential “disruptor”/strategic advantage

For me this approach embodies the rational analytic theme to strategy that Ciborra critiques. The tinkering approach is what is missing from university e-learning and its absence is (IMHO) the reason much of it is less than stellar.

Ciborra argues that strategic advantage comes from systems where development is treated as an innovation process. Where innovation is defined as creating new knowledge “about resources, goals, tasks, markets, products and processes” (p. 304). To me this is the same as saying to treat the development of these systems as a learning process. Perhaps more appropriately a constructionist learning process. Not only does such a process provide institutional strategic advantage, it should improve the quality of e-learning.

The current rhetoric/reality gap in e-learning arises from not only an absence, but active prevention and rooting out, of tinkering and bricolage. An absence of learning.

The deficit model problem

Underpinning Ciborra’s approach is that the existing skills and competencies within an organisation provide both the source and the constraint on innovation/learning.

A problem with university e-learning is the deficit model of most existing staff. i.e. most senior management, central L&T, central L&T and middle managers (e.g. ADL&T) have a deficit model of academic staff. They aren’t good enough. They don’t know enough. They have to complete a formal teaching qualification before they can be effective teachers. We have to nail down systems so they don’t do anything different.

Consequently, wxisting skills and competencies are only seen as a constraint on innovation/learning. They are never seen as a source.

Ironically, the same problem arises in the view of students held by the teaching academics that are disparaged by central L&T etc.

The difficulties

The very notion of something being “unanalyzable” would be very difficult for many involved in University management and information technology to accept. Let alone deciding to use it as a foundation for the design of systems.

Summary of the paper

Introduction

Traditional approaches for designing information systems are based on “a set of guidlines” about how best to use IT in a competitive environment and “a planning and implementation strategy” (p. 297).

However, the “wealth of ‘how to build an SIS’ recipes” during the 1990s failed to “yield a commensurate number of successful cases” at least not measured against the rise of systems in the 1980s. Reviewing the literature suggests a number of reasons, including

  • Theoretical literature emphasises rational assessment by top management as the means for strategy formulation ignoring alternative conceptions from innovation literature valuing learning more than thinking and experimentation as a means for revealing new directions.
  • Examining precedent-setting SISs suggests that serendipity, reinvention and other facts were important in their creation. These are missing from the rational approach.

So there are empirical and theoretical grounds for a new kind of guidelines for SIS design.

Organisations should ask

  1. Does it pay to be innovative?
  2. Are SISs offering competitive advantage or are they competitive necessity?
  3. How can a firm implement systems that are not easily copied and thus generate returns?

In terms of e-learning this applies

the paradox of micro-economics: competition tends to force standardization of solutions and equalization of production and coordination costs among participants.

i.e. the pressures to standarise.

The argument is that an SIS must be based on new practical and conceptual foundations

  • Basing an SIS on something that can’t be analysed, like orgnisational culture will help avoid easy imitation. Leveraging the unique sources of practice and know-how of the firm and industry level can be th esource of sustained advantage.
  • SIS development should be closer to prototyping and engaging with end-users’ ingenuity than has been realised.

    The capability of integrating unique ideas and practical design solutions at the end-user level turns out to be important than the adoption of structured approaches to systems development or industry analysis (Schoen 1979; Ciborra and Lanzara, 1990)

Questionable advantage

During the 1980s a range of early adopters of strategic information systems (SISs) – think old style airline reservation systems – arose brought benefit to some organisations and bankruptcy to those that didn’t adopt. This arose to a range of frameworks for identifying SIS.

I’m guessing some of these contributed to the rise of ERP systems.

But the history of those cited success stories suggest that SIS only provide an ephemeral advantage before being copied. One study suggests 92% of systems followed industry wide trends. Only three were original.

I imagine the percentage in university e-learning would be significantly higher. i.e. you can’t get fired if you implement an LMS (or an eportfolio).

To avoid the imitation problem there are suggestions to figure out the lead time for competitors to copy. But that doesn’t avoid the problem. Especially given the rise of consultants and service to help overcome.

After all, if every university can throw millions of dollars at Accenture etc they’ll all end up with the same crappy systems.

Shifts in model of strategic thinking and competition

This is where the traditional approaches to strategy formulation get questioned.

i.e. “management should first engage in a purely cognitive process” that involves

  1. appraise the environment (e.g. SWOT analysis)
  2. identify success factors/distinctive competencies
  3. translate those into a range of competitive strategy alternatives
  4. select the optimal strategy
  5. plan it in sufficient details
  6. implement

At this stage I would add “fail to respond to how much the requirements have changed” and start over again as you employ new senior leadership

This model is seen in most SIS models.

Suggests that in reality actual strategy formulation involves incrementalism, muddling through, myopic and evolutionary decision making. “Structures tend to influence strategy formulation before they can be impacted by the new vision” (p. 300)

References Mintzberg (1990) to question this school of through 3 ways

  1. Assumes that the environment is highly predictable and events unfold in predicted sequences, when in fact implementation surprises happen. Resulting in the clash between inflexible plans and the need for revision.
  2. Assumes that the strategist is an objective decision maker not influenced by “frames of reference, cultural biases, or ingrained, routinized ways of action” (p. 301). Contrary to a raft of research.
  3. Strategy is seen as an intentional design process rather than as learning “the continuous acquisition of knowledge in various forms”. Quotes a range of folk to argue that strategy must be based on effective adaptation and learning involving both “incremental, trial-and-error learning, and radical second-order learning” (p. 301)

The models of competition implicit in SIS frameworks tend to rely on theories of business strategy from industrial organisation economics. i.e. returns are determined by industry structure. To generate advantage a firm must change the structural characteristics by “creating barriers to entry, product differentiation, links with suppliers” (p. 301).

There are alternative models

  • Chamberlin’s (1933) theory of monopolistic competition

    Firms are heterogeneous and compete on resource and asset differences – “technical know-how, reputation, ability for teamwork, organisational culture and skills, and other ‘invisible assets’ (Itami, 1987)” (p. 301)

    Differences enable high return strategies. You compete by cultivating unique strengths and capabilities and defending against imitation.

  • Schumpeter’s take based on innovation in product, market or technology

    Innovation arises from creative destruction, not strategic planning. The ability to guess, learn and luck appear to be the competitive factors.

Links these with Mintzberg’s critique of rational analytics approaches and identifies two themes in business strategy

  1. Rational analytic

    Formulate strategy in advance based on industry analysis. Plan and then implement. Gains advantage relative to firms in the same industry strucure.

  2. Tinkering (my use of the phrase)

    Strategy difficult to plan before the fact. Advantage arises from exploiting unique characteristics of the firm and unleashing its innovating capabilities

Reconsidering the empirical evidence

Turns to an examination of four well-known SIS based on the two themes and other considerations from above. This examination these “cases emphasize the discrepancy between ideal plans for an SIS and the realities of implementation” (p. 302). i.e.

The system was not developed according to a company-
by one of the business units. The system was not developed according to company-wide strategic plan; rather, it was the outcome of an evolutionary, piecemeal process that included the ingenious tactical use of systems already available.

i.e. bricolage and even more revaling

the conventional MIS unit was responsible not only for initial neglect of the new strategic applications within McKesson, but also, subsequently, for the slow pace of company-wide learning about McKesson’s new information systems

Another system “was supposed to address an internal inefficiency” (p. 303) not some grand strategic goal.

And further

The most frequently cited SIS successes of the 1980s, then, tell the same story. successes of the 1980s, then, tell the same story. Innovative SISs are not fully designed top-down or introduced in one shot; rather, they are tried out through prototyping and tinkering. In contrast, strategy formulation and design take place in pre-existing cognitive frames and organizational contexts that usually prevent designers and sponsors from seeing and exploiting the potential for innovation. (p. 303)

New foundations for SIS design

SIS development must be treated as an innovation process. The skills/competencies in an organisation is both a source and a constraint on innovation. The aim is to create knowledge.

New knowledge can be created in two non-exclusive ways

  1. Tinkering.

    Rely on local information and routine behaviour. Learning by doing, incremental decision making and muddling through).

    Accessing more diverse and distant information, when an adequate level of competence is not present, would instead lead to errors and further divergence from optimal performance (Heiner, 1983) (p. 304)

    People close to the operational level have to be able to tinker to solve new problems. “local cues from a situation are trusted and exploited in a somewhat unreflective way, aiming at ad hoc solutions by heuristics rather than high theory”

    The value of this approach is to keep development of an SIS close to the competencies of the organisation and ongoing fluctuations.

  2. Radical learning

    “entails restructuring the cognitive and organisational backgrounds that give meaning to the practices, routines and skills at hand” (p. 304). It requires more than analysis and requirements specifications. Aims at restructuring the context of both business policy and systems development”. Requires “intervening in situations and designing-in-action”.

    The change in context allows new ways of looking at the capabilities and devising new strategies. The sheer difference becomes difficult to imitate.

SIS planning by oxymorons

Time to translate those theoretical observations into practical guidelines.

Argues that the way to develop an SIS is to proceed by oxymoroon. Fusing “opposites in practice and being exposed to the mismatches that bound to occur” (p. 305). Defines 7

  • 4 to bolster incremental learning
    1. Value bricolage strategically
    2. Design tinkering

      This is important

      Activities, settings, and systems have to be arranged so that invention and prototyping by end-users can flourish, together with open experimentation (p. 305)

      Set up the organisation to favour local innovation. e.g. ad hoc project teams. ethnographic studies.

    3. Establish systematic serendipity

      Open experimentation results in largely incomplete designs, the constant intermingling of implementation and refinement, concurrent or simultaneous conception and execution – NOT sequential

      An ideal context for serendipity to merge and lead to unexpected solutions.

    4. Thrive on gradual breakthroughs.

      In a fluctuating environment the ideas that arise are likely to include those that don’t align with established organisational routines. The raw material for innovation. “management should appreciate and learn about such emerging practices”

  • Radical learning and innovation
    1. Practice unskilled learning

      Radically innovative approaches may be seen as incompetent when judged by old routines and norms. Management should value this behaviour as an attempt to unlearn old ways of thinking and doing. It’s where new perspectives arise.

    2. Strive for failure

      Going for excellence suggests doing better what you already do which generates routinized and efficient systems. The competency trap. Creative reflection over failures and suggest ways to novel ideas and designs. Also the recognition of discontinuities and flex points.

    3. Achieve collaborative inimitability

      Don’t be afraid to collaborate with competitors. Expose the org to new cultures and ideas.

These seven oxymorons can represent a new “systematic” approach for the establishment of an organizational environment where new information—and thus new systems can be generated. Precisely because they are paradoxical, they can unfreeze existing routines, cognitive frames and behaviors; they favor learning over monitoring and innovation. (p. 306)

References

Ciborra, C. (1992). From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems. The Information Society, 8(4), 297–309.

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