Sunday, 20 April 2008

A Manifesto for Information Systems

I wrote this piece with a colleague Bernhard Straub nearly two decades ago – it is still just as relevant today, which only goes to show how little has changed in the intervening years. Quite depressing really.

Computer output carries a weight of meaning and authority that is derived from the dominating position of science and technology in the mind-set of Western society. The early successes of computer installations has generated and reinforced a platform of authority for information technology, and lays claim to scientific legitimacy, from which to justify further action. It is easy to be seduced into accepting an equivalence between the functionality of computerized models and the behaviour of ‘real problems’, where control over the model becomes control over the underlying problem. Knowledge is substituted with a mutual understanding, by way of an agreed explanatory framework - information technology - that assumes for itself the position of a superior interpretative power. What we can know about a problem situation is replaced by what we can explain within the limitations of information technology. The validity of decision-making shifts from objective knowledge to a numerical justification based on this self-propagating consensus authority.

Information technology is just another technological enterprise whereby man feels he can subjugate nature by mere will. The sheer power of optimistic rationality insists that progress (being in control of a better world) is achievable through rational (expressed as scientific and technological) thinking. In light of this dominant mind-set, it was inevitable that computer based information systems would be thrust as a panacea upon organizations, all with the highest motives. However, after the enormous success of IT over the past thirty years, as the idiotic ‘eighties give way to the no-nonsense ‘nineties, it is high time that we reconsider the trajectory of past, present and future developments.

Despite the growing number of computer system failures and the absurdity of confusing means with ends, form with content, functionality with solution, IT still whispers in our ears that computerization really is a competitive advantage, even in companies where IT is not a core-technology. What is more, we are haunted by images of competitors gaining a commercial lead by introducing IT. This undercurrent makes it easier to justify expenditure on IT schemes, when everybody else does, rather than to explain why we should not invest. But it is ideological blindness, and not the reality of advantage, that is bouncing us into these decisions. As a consequence, the portrayal of IT as a controllable tool goes unchallenged in a vicious circle of the blind leading the blind. A legacy of this technology is a rigid framework of ‘social engineering’, forcing organizations to accommodate the requirements of IT, and not the reverse. The mounting strain that this loads onto individual organizations necessitates a major rethink about the applicability of information technology. For IT is not a prescription, or even a proscription to action, but merely an interpretation of the commercial environment. Information is not a commodity, but a consequence of context.

Caution and skepticism are the healthiest perspectives to adopt, where neither the technology nor environment are in steady-state. Computer derived answers are inert; they do not reflect the nuances of ‘being there’, and the consequent differences between the model and the modelled. The promise of rationality and control that characterizes the optimism of computerization hides a darker aspect. Systems have more in common with organisms than mechanisms. To see computer based information systems as easily manageable tools, as suggested by the technological approach, is dangerously misguided. Computerization is a prisoner of societal consequences that cannot be controlled, no matter what the management regime. The task of IT-management is to cope with the manifestations and consequences of technological and organizational change.

Against this background of commercial uncertainty, business decisions will require a broad and solid understanding. This stance must be more than just a token tribute to philosophical problems and questions of meaning. It is not good enough to respond with an anti-intellectual ‘so-what?’ for this is a statement of complacency towards the questioning of cherished beliefs, hardly a stance that should be taken by a strategist in the face of uncertainty. Understanding must be disconnected from the prevalent authority. There is a crying need for a reassessment of the problems associated with the expansion of technological systems as integral parts of organizations. As new technology is confidently applied in ever more unstructured environments, the unsuitability of its instrumental rationalism brings about more frequent and increasingly disastrous consequences. The designers of grand schemes optimistically believe that, by mere intention, they can confine the consequences of using a computer installation to the achievement of a ‘wish list’ of their original goals. They fail to see that an evolving system is not the original installation, but what it has become, what it will become, and not what it was intended to be.

In response to this uncertainty, computerized bureaucratic systems are applied, increasingly rigid and inadequate structures leading to deadening conformity and repression. In their models, designers and bureaucrats can only see a tidiness that is a limited snapshot of fragments of ordered functionality and usability. Yet users know they are working in operational environments that are messy and vague, caused by the debris of detail in the unfolding history of a system and its environment. This debris holds the potential of disorder, and when reconstituted by a particular contextual significance and relevance, it can form an erratic and unpredictable nature. Rather than minimizing the risks and maximizing the opportunities nourished by this systemic behaviour, computer systems and methods that are built on narrow intentions and simple goals lead inevitably to counterproductiveness.

A new approach is needed, one that will deal with the consequence of technology, as embodied in the observed behaviour of organizations. This approach must balance the advantages against the limited applicability of computers, and be grounded in a theory based on experimentation and contingencies, and a sympathetic reaction to the disposition of the social and commercial environment. It must not be based, naively, on the belief that a description of the situation via models and structures will enable us to be ‘in control’. We can only control in the sense of formulating and precipitating actions or intentions, but this is not being in control of consequences. It is a delusion to assume that we are in control of IT, and to conclude by extension that organizations can be controlled accordingly. Even our vocabulary conspires in this self-deception. ‘Organizations’ are not totally organized, there is much that is disorganized and unorganized, even un-organizable. IT must be used to maintain flexibility and adjust tactical intention, so as to relate consequences to perceived strategic aims. Continuous experimental feedback within each organization is essential if we are to emphasize information and separate it from technology. We need this new attitude in order to overcome the cynical opportunism widespread in many stakeholders who are promoting ‘certainty through information technology’, preying as they do on the business world racked with doubt and uncertainty. They can no longer shift responsibility for tangible consequences onto a technology that ultimately cannot be culpable.

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