This essay advancesthe view thatstructuresare not locatedin organizationsor in technology,but are enactedby users. It offers a fluid view of structure buildson and extendsearlierworkon that structuration. M. ScottPoole Abstract As both technologies and organizationsundergo dramatic are changes in form and function,organizational researchers and to increasingly turning conceptsof innovation, emergence, improvisation help explainthe new ways of organizing to and using technologyevident in practice.
With a similarintent,I proposean extensionto the structurational perspective techon nology thatdevelopsa practicelens to examinehow people,as they interact with a technologyin theirongoingpractices, enact structures which shapetheiremergentand situateduse of that technology. Viewing the use of technologyas a processof enof role actment enablesa deeperunderstanding the constitutive of social practicesin the ongoinguse and changeof technologies in the workplace. After developingthis lens, I offer an exampleof its use in research,and then suggest some implicationsfor the studyof technologyin organizations.
(Information Technology; Organization; Structuration Theory; WorkPractices) Technology-and its relationship to organizational structures, processes, and outcomes-has long been of interest to organizational researchers. Over the years, different research perspectives on technology have developed in parallel with research perspectives on organizations-for example, contingency theory (Woodward 1965, Galbraith 1977, Carter 1984, Daft and Lengel 1986), strategic choice models (Child 1972, Buchanan and Boddy 1983, Davis and Taylor 1986, Zuboff 1988), Marxist studies (Braverman 1974, Edwards 1979, Shaiken 1985, Perrolle 1986), symbolic interactionist approaches (Kling 1991, Prasad 1993), transaction-cost economics (Malone et al. 1987, Ciborra 1993); network analyses (Barley 1990, Burkhardtand Brass 1990, Rice and Aydin 1991), practice theories (Suchman 1987, Button 1993, Hutchins 1995, Orr 1996), and structurational models (Barley 1986, Orlikowski 1992, DeSanctis and Poole 1994). l Today, both technologies and organizations are undergoing dramatic changes in form and function, and new and unprecedentedforms and functions are becoming evident.
In response, organizational researchershave applied notions of innovation, learning, and improvisation to account for such dynamic and emerging patterns of organizing (Brown and Duguid 1991, Weick 1993, Hutchins 1991, Brown and Eisenhardt 1997, Hedberg et al. 1997, Barrett 1998, Hatch 1998, Lant 1999). Similarly, researchers of technology have also begun to use the notions of innovation, learning, and improvisation to understand the organizational implications of new technologies (Ciborra 1996, Cook and Brown 1999, Orlikowski 1996, Tushman et al. 1997). This paper continues the development of concepts that address the role of emergence and improvisation in technology and technology use, and in particular, seeks to extend the structurational perspective in this direction. The past decade has seen the development of a number of structurationalmodels of technology which have generated numerous insights into the role and influence of technologies in organizations (Barley 1986, Poole and DeSanctis 1990, 1992, Orlikowski and Robey 1991, Walsham and Han 1991, Orlikowski 1992, Walsham 1993, DeSanctis and Poole 1994). These models posit technology as embodying structures(built in by designers during technology development), which are then appropriated by users during their use of the technology.
Human action is a central aspect of these models, in particular,the actions associated with embedding structureswithin a technology during its development, and the actions associated with appropriatingthose structures during use of technology. A number of commentators have urged further theoretical development of a structurationalperspective on technology, suggesting that it may have considerable analytic advantages in explaining the consequences associated with the use of new and reconfigurableinformation technologies (Sproull and Goodman 1990, Weick 1990, Roberts and Grabowski 1995).
Because a structurational perspective is inherently dynamic and grounded in ongoing human action, it indeed has the potential to explain emergence and change in technologies and use. However, realizing this potential will require augmenting the current structurationalperspective on technology-specifically the notions of embodied structure and user appropriation. While these notions have been extremely valuable in explaining the various outcomes associated with the use of given technologies in different contexts, they are less able to account effectively for ongoing changes in both technologies and their use. This insufficiency is particularly acute in the context of internetworked and reconfigurable technology (such as groupware and the Web), the use of which is becoming increasingly prevalent in organizations today. In this paper, I extend the structurationalperspective on technology by proposing a practice-oriented understanding of the recursive interaction between people, technologies, and social action.
I believe such a practice orientation can better explain emergence and change in both technologies and their use. It does so by complementing the notion of embodied structure with that of emergent structure, and the notion of appropriationwith that of enactment. Embodied and Emergent Structures In their understanding of technologies, structurational models of technology have been strongly influenced by the intellectual tradition of social constructivism (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1985, Bijker et al. 1987, Woolgar 1991, Bijker and Law 1992).
Using rich case studies of technological invention and development, social constructivist research examines how interpretations, social interests, and disciplinary conflicts shape the production of a technology through shaping its cultural meanings and the social interactions among relevant social groups. This research also examines how the produced technology achieves “stabilization” through processes of negotiation, persuasion, and debate aimed at achieving rhetorical closure and community consensus.
Further work in this tradition focuses more specifically on how dominant interests are reflected in the form and functioning of the technology, a process referred to as “inscription” (Latour 1992). Akrich (1992, p. 208), for example, writes: Designers thus define actors with specific tastes, competences, motives, aspirations, political prejudices, and the rest, and they assume that morality, technology, science, and economy will evolve in particularways, A large part of the work of innovators is that of “inscribing” this vision of (or prediction about) the world in the technical content of the new object.
Drawing on the ideas of social shaping and inscription, structurationalmodels have posited that technology is developed through a social-political process which results in structures(rules and resources) being embedded within the technology. For example, Orlikowski (1992, p. 410) writes: [H]uman agents build into technology certain interpretive schemes (rules reflecting knowledge of the work being automated), certain facilities (resources to accomplish that work), and certain norms (rules that define the organizationally sanctioned way of executing that work).
Similarly, “adaptive structurationtheory” (DeSanctis and Poole 1994, Poole et al. 1998) focuses on the structures built into such technologies as group decision support systems. For example, DeSanctis and Poole (1994, p. 125) note: [S]tructures are found in institutions such as reporting hierarchies, organizational knowledge, and standard operating procedures. Designers incorporate some of these structuresinto the technology … Once complete, the technology presents an array of social structures for possible use in interpersonal interaction, including rules (e. g., voting procedures) and resources (e. g. , stored data, public display screens). The development of a structurationalperspective on technology has benefited considerably from social constructivist ideas, particularlyin the absence of any explicit treatment of technology in Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration. However, the adoption of social constructivist conceptions has also created some difficulties, primarily with respect to two propositions: that technologies become “stabilized” after development; and that they “embody” structures which (re)present various social rules and political interests.
The first proposition-that technologies become “stabilized’ ‘-neglects the empirical evidence that people can (and do) redefine and modify the meaning, properties, and applications of technology after development. As Woolgarand Grint(1991, p. 370) argue,the proposition of stabilization admits social construction only during development, and “[t]hereafter, technological determinism is allowed, on the basis that beyond the point of stabilization there is little disagreement about what the technology can do. ” Existing structurationalmodels of technology, because they posit flexibility in how structures are appropriated,avoid such strong technological determinism.
However, their presumption that technologies embody specific stable structures is nevertheless problematic because it depicts technologies as static and settled artifacts with built-in arraysof fixed and determinate structuresthat are (always and readily) available to users. Such assumptions of technological stability, completeness, and predictability break down in the face of empirical research that shows people modifying technologies and their conceptions of technology long after design and development (Rice and Rogers 1980, von Hippel 1988, Ciborra and Lanzara 1991).
Such assumptions are also inappropriatein the context of the dynamically reconfigurable, user-programmable, and highly internetworked technologies being developed and used today. The second proposition-that technologies “embody” social structures-is problematic from a structurational perspective, because it situates structures within technological artifacts. This is a departurefrom Giddens’ (1984) view of structuresas having only a virtual existence, that is, as having “no reality except as they are instantiated in activity” (Whittington 1992, p. 696). Seeing structures as embodied in artifacts thus ascribes a material existence to structures which Giddens explicitly denies (1989, p. 256): … a position I want to avoid, in terms of which structure appears as something ‘outside’ or ‘external’ to human action.
In my usage, structure is what gives forn and shape to social life, but is not itself that form and shape-nor should ‘give’ be understood in an active sense here, because structure only exists in and through the activities of human agents implicated as rules and resources in the constitution of a particularrecurrentsocial practice. For example, consider the myriad software packages, network tools, and data files installed on countless desktop computers and corporate mainframes worldwide. Until such time as these are actually used in some ongoing human action-and thus become part of a process of structuring-they are, at best, potential structuringelements, and at worst, unexplored, forgotten, or rejected bits of program code and data cluttering up hard drives everywhere.
We are unaccustomed to conceiving of rules and resources as only existing “in and through the activities of human agents,” largely because of our conventional views of them as either external entities (e. g. , corporate policy, traffic regulations, land, factories, money) or internal schemas (e. g. , rules of thumb, expertise, judgment). From a structurationalperspective, however, external entities and internal schemas are only constituted as rules and resources when they are implicated in recurrentsocial action (pace Sewell 1992).
Our conventional view of rules and resources as external entities suffers from what Taylor (1993) refers to as an “objectivist reification,” while the view of rules and resources as internal schemas suffers from a “subjectivist reduction. ” Commenting on rules, Taylor (1993, pp. 57-58, emphasis added) writes: In its operation, the rule exists in the practice it “guides. ” . . . the practice not only fulfills the rules, but also gives it concrete shape in particular situations. In fact, what this reciprocity shows is that the “rule” lies essentially in the practice.
The rule is what is animating the practice at any given time, not some formulation behind it, inscribed in our thoughts or our brains or our genes or whatever. That is why the rule is, at any given time, what the practice has made it. Similarly, Giddens (1979, p. 65) writes that “rules and practices only exist in conjunction with one another. ” In the same way, resources too, are inextricably linked to practice. Giddens observes (1984, p. 33, emphasis added): Some forms of allocative resources (e. g. land, raw materials etc. ) might seem to have a real existence.
In the sense of having a “time-space” presence this is obviously the case. But their “materiality” does not affect the fact that such phenomena become resources … only when incorporated within processes of structuration. Structure is here understood as the set of rules and resources instantiatedin recurrentsocial practice. Elements of technology (such as voting procedures, stored data, and public display screens), once they have been built into a technology, are external to human action. As inscribed properties of a technology, they constitute neither rules nor resources, and thus cannot be seen to be structures.
It is only when such technological elements as voting procedures, stored data, and public display screens are routinely mobilized in use that we can say that they “structure” human action, and in this way they become While a technology can be seen to embody particular symbol and material properties, it does not embody structures because those are only instantiated in practice. When humans interact regularly with a technology, they engage with (some or all of) the material and symbol properties of the technology. Through such repeated interaction, certain of the technology’s properties become implicated in an ongoing process of structuration. The resulting recurrent social practice produces and reproduces a particular structure of technology use. Thus, structures of technology use are constituted recursively as humans regularly interact with certain properties of a technology and thus shape the set of rules and resources that serve to shape their interaction.
Seen through a practice lens, technology structuresare emergent, not embodied. A practice lens more easily accommodates people’ s situated use of dynamic technologies because it makes no assumptions about the stability, predictability, or relative completeness of the technologies. Instead, the focus is on what structuresemerge as people interactrecurrentlywith whatever properties of the technology are at hand, whether these were built in, added on, modified, or invented on the fly.
Appropriation and Enactment of Structures Existing structurational models of technology examine what people do with technologies in use, positing such use as an appropriationof the “structures” inscribed in the technologies. Such appropriationoccurs when “people actively select how technology structures are used” (DeSanctis and Poole 1994, p. 129). DeSanctis and Poole (1994, p. 130) distinguish between “faithful” and “unfaithful” appropriations of the technology structures, highlighting the degree to which use of technology corresponds to the structures embedded in the technology, and then relating such correspondence to expected outcomes.
Their analysis identifies different types of appropriation moves which preserve, substitute for, combine, enlarge, contrast, constrain, affirm, or negate the structures provided by the technology (1994, p. 135). While the notion of appropriationcaptures well the importance of human action in shaping the situated use of technology, it nevertheless frames such human agency in terms of interaction with the structuresembedded within technology. Thus, DeSanctis and Poole (1994, p. 133) recommend “appropriation analysis [which] tries to document exactly how technology structures are being invoked for use in a specific context” (DeSanctis and Poole 1994, p. 133), and Orlikowski and Robey (1991, p. 148), while not using the term “appropriation analysis,” suggest analyzing how the structureinscribed in information technology “shapes action by facilitating certain outcomes and constraining others. ” These views start with the structurespresumed to be embedded within technology, and then analyze how those structuresare used, misused, or not used by people in various contexts.
If, however, we focus on emergent ratherthan embodied structures (as I have suggested above), an alternative view of technology use becomes possible-a view which allows us to frame what users do with technologies not as appropriation but as enactment. 2 Thus, rather than starting with the technology and examining how actors appropriateits embodied structures, this view starts with human action and examines how it enacts emergent structures through recurrentinteraction with the technology at hand.
Focusing attention on how structures are constituted and reconstituted in recurrent social practices acknowledges that while users can and do use technologies as they were designed, they also can and do circumvent inscribed ways of using the technologies-either ignoring certain properties of the technology, working around them, or inventing new ones that may go beyond or even contradict designers’ expectations and inscriptions.
For example, many of us use such powerful software tools as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation graphics in our daily lives. In our regular use of these tools, most of us typically utilize, at best, 25 percent of these tools’ functionality, focusing on those elements we need to get our task done and ignoring the rest. Or consider the World Wide Web technology which was developed in 1989 as a hypertext networked system for sharing research in the European high-energy physics community.
No one, least of all its inventor (Berners-Lee 1996), anticipated the explosion of innovation and reinvention that has accompanied use of this technology since then and that continues to transform it into an extensive global infrastructurefor business, government, entertainment, and all manner of social, political, professional, and personal communities. Together, the notions of emergent structureand enactment afford a practice-based extension to existing structurationalmodels of technology. This practice lens posits humans as constituting structuresin their recurrentuse of technology.
Through their regularized engagement with a particular technology (and some or all of its inscribed properties) in particular ways in particular conditions, users repeatedly enact a set of rules and resources which structurestheir ongoing interactions with that technology. Users’ interaction with a technology is thus recursivein their recurrent practices, users shape the technology structurethat shapes their use. Technology structuresare thus not external or independent of human agency; they are not “out there,” embodied in technologies simply waiting to be appropriated.
Ratherthey are virtual,emerging from people’s repeated and situated interaction with particulartechnologies. These enacted structuresof technology use, which I term technologies-in-practice, are the sets of rules and resources that are (re)constituted in people’ s recurrentengagement with the technologies at hand. After developing this practice lens further,I provide an example of its application by drawing on some empirical studies of the use of a particular technology in different organizations. I end by discussing some of the research implications entailed by adopting a practice lens to study technology and its use in organizations. A Practice Lens for Studying Use of Technology Lave (1988) has argued for the value of focusing on “cognition in practice” rather than “cognition in the head. ” Similarly, the practice lens I am proposing here focuses on emergent technology structures enacted in practice rather than embodied structures fixed in technologies.
This practice lens furtherrecognizes that in both research and practice we often conflate two aspects of technology: the technology as artifact3 (the bundle of material and symbol properties packaged in some socially recognizable form, e. g. , hardware, software, techniques); and the use of technology, or what people actually do with the technological artifact in their recurrent,situated practices. Artifact and Use The distinction between the use of a technology and its artifactual character is an analytic, not an ontological one.
This distinction may be elaborated by considering a discussion offered by Lave (1988, pp. 150-151) in her study of arithmeticproblem-solving within supermarkets: The supermarket, for instance, is in some respects a public and durable entity. It is a physically, economically, politically, and socially organized space-in-time. In this aspect it may be called an “arena” within which activity takes place. . . . At the same time, for individual shoppers, the supermarket is a repeatedly experienced, personally ordered and edited version of the arena. In this aspect it may be termed a “setting” for activity.
Some aisles in the supermarket do not exist for a given shopper as part of her setting, while other aisles are rich in detailed possibilities. Lave’ s point may be similarly made for technologies, that is: technology is, on the one hand, an identifiable, relatively durable entity, a physically, economically, politically, and socially organized phenomenon in space-time. It has material and cultural properties that transcend the experience of individuals and particular settings. In this aspect, it is what we may call a technological artifact, which appears in our lives as a specific machine, technique, appliance, device, or gadget.
At the same time, use of the technology involves a repeatedly experienced, personally ordered and edited version of the technological artifact, being experienced differently by different individuals and differently by the same individuals depending on the time or circumstance. In this aspect it may be termed a technology-in-practice, to refer to the specific structure routinely enacted as we use the specific machine, technique, appliance, device, or gadget in recurrent ways in our everyday situated activities.
Some properties provided by the artifact do not exist for us as part of our technology-in-practice, while other properties are rich in detailed possibilities. While a technology5 can be seen to have been constructed with particular materials and inscribed with developers’ assumptions and knowledge about the world at a point in time (Noble 1984, Perrow 1983, Winner 1986, Thomas 1994), it is only when this technology is used in recurrent social practices that it can be said to structure users’ actions.
That is, it is only when repeatedly drawn on in use that technological propertiesbecome constituted by users as particularrules and resources that shape their action. For example, thousands of Americans annually use tax preparationsoftware to complete their tax returns. Knowledge of computers, the U. S. federal tax code, arithmetic, and the content and layout of various tax forms informed the design of this technology, as did the software programminglanguage and database structuresused to construct it.
When people routinely use the tax preparation software, they draw on its inscribed propertiesand embedded information content, their own experiences with technology, as well as their understanding of their rights and obligations as tax payers, to enact a set of tax reporting rules and resources with the software. 6 For example, interaction with the ” 1040 Form” enables the entry of particular kinds of information and facilitates the calculation of various totals, while also prohibiting the creation of alternative tax reporting representations (say a “999 Form”), or figuring the totals in a more “creative” way.
When users choose to use a technology, they are also choosing how to interact with that technology. Thus they may, deliberately or inadvertently, use it in ways not anticipated by the developers. For example, users may use the tax preparationsoftware to print out blank forms and then complete the tax return manually, or they may use the software incorrectly, or they may use it to learn about the current tax code, or to study the software’s interface design. Users may also choose not to use a technology even if it is available, as happens, for example, with tax preparationsoftware which is typically ignored for most of the year.
In this case, even though the technology exists (typically installed on users’ computer desktops), it is not implicated in any recurrent social practice, and thus no rules and resources (i. e. , no technology-in-practice) are enacted with the tax preparationtechnology, because it is not used. Of course, this scenario typically changes quite dramatically a few weeks before April 15, when users are motivated by the tax filing deadline to use their tax preparation software in a flurry of repeated activity and anxiety, and thereby enact a particulartechnology-in-practice. From the point of view of users, technologies come with a set of properties crafted by designers and developers. These technological properties may be examined to identify the typical or expected range of activities commonly associated with use of the technology. However, how these properties will actually be used in any instance is not inherent or predetermined; rather it depends on what people actually do with them in particularinstances.
And as numerous studies have shown, users can, and do, choose to use technologies in ways unanticipated by inventors and designers. Whether through error (misperception, lack of understanding, slippage) or intent (sabotage, inertia, innovation), users often ignore, alter, or work around the inscribed technological properties (Gasser 1986, Kraut et al. 1986, Mackay 1988, Grudin 1989, Bullen and Bennett 1991, Ciborra and Lanzara 1991, Button 1993, Clement 1993, Markus 1994, Suchman 1996). Furthermore,users often add to or modify the technological properties on hand (e. g. , installing new software, peripherals, or adding data, etc. ), thus, actively shaping or crafting the artifact to fit their particular requirements or interests. The identification of technological properties and common activities associated with our conventional understanding of a technological artifact,its inscriptions, or the intentions of its designers, cannot circumscribe the ways in which people may use it. 7 Use of technology is not a choice among a closed set of predefined possibilities, but a situated and recursive process of constitution, whichwhile it may often invoke intended activities or replicate familiar uses-may also and at any time ignore such conventional uses or invent new ones.
As Bazerman (1994, p. 88) reminds us: no matter how rigorous the typifications that guide the enactment at any single moment may be, the dynamics of the moment grant new meaning and life to the typifications, and we must look to the dynamics of the moment to understand what is happening. more likely to be associated with a wider range of uses than hard-wired machines. Similarly, the more a particular technological artifact is integrated into a larger system, network, or technological configuration, the narrower the range of alternative uses that may be crafted with it.
Thus, the use of a stand-alone personal computer in my home is likely to be more malleable than the use of a workstation by an air traffic controller. While it is expected that more and more of the artifacts deployed in future workplaces will be software-based, user-programmable, even user-configurable (and hence, their use may be more malleable), it is also likely that the increased complexity and internetworking accompanying the will requirethese artifacts growth in global infrastructures to be more standardized, interconnected, and interdependent (and hence, their use may be less malleable).
Use of technology is strongly influenced by users’ understandings of the properties and functionality of a technology, and these are strongly influenced by the images, descriptions, rhetorics, ideologies, and demonstrations presented by intermediaries such as vendors, journalists, consultants, champions, trainers,managers, and “power'” users (Orlikowski et al. 1995). As Woolgar (1996, p. 92) notes, such intermediaries “intervene in the interpretation (‘reading’) of the technology by the user through their comments on the product’s nature, capacity, use, and value.
” Because some of the claims made in these commentaries are quite persuasive, they tend to be believed without concrete evidence to support them. Kling, for example, has found that the powerful narrativesconstructed during attempts to advocate computerization often continue to shape users’ perceptions even “when computer systems are built, installed, and used in ways that differ significantly from early expectations” (1992, p. 352). Structuringof Technologies-in-Practice
Giddens (1979, 1984) proposed the notion of structure (or structuralproperties of social systems) as the set of enacted rules and resources that mediate social action through three dimensions or modalities: facilities, norms, and interpretive schemes. In social life, actors do not enact structuresin a vacuum. In their recurrentsocial practices, they draw on their (tacit and explicit) knowledge of their prior action and the situation at hand, the facilities available to them (e. g. , land, buildings, technology), and the norms that inform their ongoing practices, and in this way, apply such knowledge, facilities, and habits of the mind and body to “structure” their current action (see Figure 1). In doing so, they recursively instantiate and thus reconstitute the rules and resources that structure their social action. Because technology-in-practice is a kind of structure, Having recognized this, however, it is important to keep in mind that the recurrentuse of a technology is not infinitely malleable.
Saying that use is situated and not confined to predefined options does not mean that it is totally open to any and all possibilities. The physical properties of artifacts ensure that there are always boundary conditions on how we use them. Conceptual artifacts (such as techniques or methodologies expressed in language) are more likely to be associated with a wider range of uses than software-based artifacts, which, in turn, are the same recursive constitution applies here too .
When people use a technology, they draw on the properties comprising the technological artifact-those provided by its constituent materiality, those inscribed by the designers, and those added on by users through previous interactions (e. g. , specific data content, customized features, or expanded software/hardware accessories). People also draw on their skills, power, knowledge, assumptions, and expectations about the technology and its use, influenced typically by training, communication, and previous experiences (Orlikowski and Gash 1994).
These Figure 2 include the meanings and attachments-emotional and intellectual-that users associate with particulartechnologies and their uses, shaped by their experiences with various technologies and their participation in a range of social and political communities. 8 Users also draw on their knowledge of and experiences with the institutional contexts in which they live and work, and the social and cultural conventions associated with participatingin such contexts.
In this way, people’ s use of technology becomes structured by these experiences, knowledge, meanings, habits, power relations, norms, and the technological artifacts at hand. Such structuring enacts a specific set of rules and resources in practice that then serves to structure future use as people continue to interact with the technology in their recurrentpractices. Thus, over time, people constitute and reconstitute a structure of technology use, that is, they enact a distinctive technology-inpractice.
Human interaction with technologies is typically recurrent, so that even as users constitute a technology-inpractice through their present use of a technology, their actions are at the same time shaped by the previous technologies-in-practice they have enacted in the past. Ongoing enactment of a technology-in-practice reinforces it, so that it becomes regularized and routinized, an expedient and habitual response to repeated use of a technology within the daily exigencies of organizational life. That is, a technology-in-practice serves essentially as a “behavioral and interpretive template” (Barley 1988, p. 49) for people’s situated use of the technology. Continued habitual use of a technology will tend to reenact the same technology-in-practice, thus further reinforcing it over time so that it becomes taken for granted. For example, most of us who drive cars have developed a familiar pattern of interacting with automobiles on the roads-repeatedly enacting a particular and typically shared technology-in-practice that we now take for granted. While regular interactions with the same technology tend to reproduce the technology-in-practice being enacted, such reinforcement is not assured.
Consider the automobile example again. We happily take our (and our fellow drivers’) customary enactment of a routine technology-in-practice for granted-that is, until we travel abroad and encounter different artifacts (foreign automobile models, cars with drivers’ seats on different sides, road signs in foreign languages, different measuring units for indicating distance or gas (a. k. a. petrol) consumption), and different driving conventions and habits (including driving on the opposite side of the road). All of a sudden, the set of rules and resources we had so habitually enacted with our own automobiles on wellknown roads in familiar contexts is no longer effective, and we have think and act differently, thus enacting a somewhat different set of rules and resources to guide our interaction with different automobiles on different roads. On our returnhome, we will (hopefully) revert to enacting our previously effective technology-in-practice.
A community of users engaged in similar work practices typically enacts similar technologies-in-practice, where through common training sessions, shared socialization, comparable on-the-job experiences, and mutual coordination and storytelling, users come to engage with a technology in similar ways. Over time, throughrepeated reinforcement by the community of users, such technologies-in-practice may become reified and institutionalized, at which point they become treated as predetermined and firm prescriptions for social action, and as such, may impede change.
For example, in a study of process technologies, Tyre and Orlikowski (1994) found that initial patterns of using the technologies congealed quickly, becoming resistant to change despite ongoing operational problems in the use and performance of the technologies. This rapid establishment of relatively fixed technologies-in-practice was influenced by corporate pressure to improve productivity, unavailability of technical support staff, and users’ expectations of and preferences for stable and predictable technologies.
Because the enactment of a technology-in-practice is situated within a number of nested and overlapping social systems, people’s interactionwith technology will always enact other social structures along with the technologyin-practice, for example, a hierarchicalauthoritystructure within a large bureaucracy, a cooperative culture within a participative workgroup, the normative structure of a religious or professional community, or the dominant status of English as the primary language of the Internet.
Figure 2 shows that people’s situated and recurrent use of technology simultaneously enacts multiple structures along with a technology-in-practice. In this paper, I elaborate the notion of technologies-in-practice-the particular structures of technology use that users enact when engaging recurrently with a technology. Consequently, the other structures enacted at the same time will not be as central here. In any structurationalanalysis, one must foreground some structures and background others (Giddens, 1979).
My limited discussion of the other structures here should not be taken to mean that they are less importantor more fixed than technologies-in-practice. All structuresare virtual, and continually enacted through actors’ recurrent practices. However, in this discussion, I have chosen to focus on the particularstructuresof technology use which I have labeled technologies-in-practice. In their recurrentand situated action, actors thus draw on structures that have been previously enacted (both technologies-in-practice and other structures),and in such action reconstitute those structures.
Such reconstitution may be either deliberate, or, as is more usual, inadvertent. Also, it may occur in one of two forms: reinforcement, where actors enact essentially the same structureswith no noticeable changes; or transformation,where actors enact changed structures, where the changes may range from the modest to the substantial. Changes in Technologies-in-Practice Users always have the potential to change their habits of use, and in this way change the structures they enact in their recurrentpractices. As Cassell (1993, p. 13), writing about rules, puts it: Because agents draw on rules in the enactment of social practices, the capacity to modify the ‘rule’ that is drawn on in any action is an ever-present possibility. Men and women may, for example, transform the traditional ‘rules’ which have structured their past interaction by eschewing sexist norms. At each point of structuralreproduction there is also the potential for change. Technologies-in-practice can be and are changed as actors experience changes in awareness, knowledge, power, motivations, time, circumstances, and the technology.
They are changed through the same process that all social structures are changed-through human action. People may change their technologies-in-practice by deliberately modifying the properties of their technology and thus how they interactwith it. For example, people may download software “plug-ins” to improve the performance of their Web browser tools, or they may override the parameters of a new scheduling system to replicate the operation of a previous system (Saetnan 1991).
Even when a technology appears to have stabilized, with the discourse around its properties and functionality apparentlyhaving reached “closure” (Bijker 1995, Pinch and Bijker 1984), or some industry-wide “dominant design” (Tushman et al. 1997) has been established, the stability of the technology and its applications is only provisional. It is provisional because different elements continue to be developed, existing functions fail and are fixed, new materials are invented, new standardsare set, and users modify the artifact and/or its content for new and different uses.
Technologies are thus never fully stabilized or “complete,” even though we may choose to treatthem as fixed, black boxes for a period of time. By temporarily bracketing the dynamic nature of technology, we assign a “stabilized-for-now” status (Schryer 1993) to our technological artifacts. This is an analytic and practical convenience only, because technologies continue to evolve, are tinkeredwith (e. g. , by users, designers, regulators,and hackers), modified, improved, damaged, rebuilt, etc. Typically, such change is not predetermined or predictable, but implemented by people influenced by competitive, technological, political, cultural, and environmentalinfluences (e. g, feature wars with competitors, technological innovations, safety improvements, security violations, privacy legislation, climatic conditions, earthquakes,poor maintenance, etc. ). Users may also choose to enact different technologiesin-practice because they have become more knowledgeable about using their technology (through attending a training class or watching a colleague’s use) or because they have changed jobs and now need to use technology differently in their new work community (say, to share files with coworkers). People may adjust their
technologies-in-practice intentionally, as when users respond to new safety regulations by beginning to engage safety mechanisms during machine operation, or when they respond to the unreliability of computer networks by backing up their files at the end of every session or executing system maintenance utilities. Modifications to patterns of use may also result from inadvertent slippage or breakdown, when, either through inattention or error, users fall into a different form of use, such as forgetting to attach safety guards, or discontinuing use of a faulty or complicated element.
People may also change their technologies-in-practice by improvising, that is, generating situated innovations in response to unexpected opportunities or challenges, such as when a temporary machine workaroundbecomes the preferredpractice because it turns out to be more effective than the original practice (Tyre and Orlikowski 1994). As people enact modified technologies-in-practice they also change the facilities, norms, and interpretive schemes used in their use of the technology .
For example, through adding downloaded “plug-ins” to a personal computer, or customizing the parameters of a software application, or adding new data to the databases, the technological artifact is altered. At the same time, users’ knowledge of what technological properties are available to them may be updated or made obsolete, as with the meanings, expectations, associations, and conventions they attach to the technology and its use. For example, users of electronic mail within a community may evolve a set of communication norms about effective or sanctioned electronic mail use (Yates et al. 1999). Similarly, a company’s new policy for use of machine safety features is likely to alter people’s views and understandings of the appropriateways of using technology in that company. To the extent that people enact a multiplicity of structures (including other technologies-in-practice as well as other normative and authoritative structures) in their recurrent practices, they increase the likelihood that they will enact altered or alternative technologies-in-practice associated with their use of particulartechnologies.
That is, by enacting various interpenetrating(and perhapseven contradictory) structures, actors experience a range of rules and resources that may generate knowledge of different structures and awareness of the possibilities for structural change (Sewell 1992, Tenkasi and Boland 1993). For example, participation in professional or industry conferences often allows people to exchange ideas and stories about their work practices, including how they use technology in their everyday practices. Such awareness of alternative ways of using technology may motivate people to make changes in their technology and/or their use of it.
It may also prompt them to make changes in the other structures that they constitute in their work practices-for example, using electronic mail to enact a less hierarchical communication structure which bypasses conventional channels for interacting with senior executives. If this change is sustained over time and shared by other users within their community who similarly begin to use e-mail technology to bypass hierarchical communication channels, then a significant shift in organizational communication structuremay be possible.
The practice lens elaborated here recognizes that even as technologies-in-practice may become institutionalized over time, this is only a stabilization for now. Every engagement with a technology is temporally and contextually provisional, and thus there is, in every use, always the possibility of a different structure being enacted. In acknowledging this open-endedness, the practice lens augments existing structurationallenses that have tended to focus on a stable technology (with its fixed array of embodied structures) and the various situated ways in which it is appropriated.
The practice lens proposed here focuses on human agency and the open-ended set of emergent structures that may be enacted through recurrent use of a technology. Such a practice lens recognizes that emergence and impermanence are inherent in social structures-that while habitual, routinized, and institutionalized patterns of using a technology may be evident, these are always ongoing accomplishments, and thus there can be no single, invariant, or final technology-inpractice, just multiple, recurrent,and situated enactments.
Users have the option, at any moment and within existing conditions and materials, to “choose to do otherwise” (Giddens 1993) with the technology at hand. In such possibilities to do otherwise lies the potential for innovation, learning, and change.
Enacting Technologies-in-Practice: Empirical Examples
The use of a practice lens to study technology use in organizations focuses attention on what people actually do with particular technologies in their ongoing and situated activity. This can be illustratedwith some empirical examples,9 which highlight how a number of user groups enacted different technologies-in-practice with a particular kind of technology. The technologies-in-practice discussed for each of the three sites below should not be seen as exhaustively characterizing what people did with the technology in those sites.
These are just the technologies-in-practice I identified with the exposure I had to certain people at certain times and using particular research tools. Given the situated and emergent nature of technologies-in-practice, we can be sure that other technologies-in-practice were being enacted in these sites at the same time, and that, over time, the technologiesin-practice identified here will have evolved and changed, and new ones will have emerged.
Before turning to these examples, a brief description of the technological artifact I studied may be helpful. Background: The Notes Technology The technology considered here is the Notes software product, released to the market in 1989 by Lotus Development Corporation, and subsequently sold to thousands of companies worldwide. Notes represents a class of software programs known as “groupware,” which are designed to facilitate the working together of individuals by providing support for distributed electronic interaction over time.
This group-oriented type of computing is grounded in research that was started by computer and social scientists in the mid- 1980s, and which became known as “computer-supported cooperative work” (Greif 1988). As represented by its manufacturer,the Notes technology consists of software modules to support communication via electronic mail and shared discussion databases, as well as programming tools to build new applications within the Notes system (see Table 1).
Physically, Notes consists of both “clients” -the software installed on users’ personal computers, which mediates inthe teraction with the Notes system-and “servers”software installed on network computers which facilitates communication among the users and supportstheir access to shared databases maintained locally and remotely within the Notes system (DeJean and DeJean 1991, Chalstrom 1993). While there is some general “rhetorical closure” (Pinch and Bijker 1984) on the properties represented by the Notes product, such “closure” refers only to the
Notes technological artifact and its descriptions in training manuals, marketing ads, and press reports. The technologies-in-practice enacted with Notes, because they are constituted in use, cannot attain such closure. And as we will see below, multiple, different technologies-inpractice were enacted by different user groups-one by Iris developers, three within Alpha, and two by Zeta customer support staff.
Example of Enactment: CollaborativeTechnologyin-Practice Within Iris While the Notes technology is currently manufacturedby the Lotus Development Corporation (now owned by IBM), it was conceived and designed by Ray Ozzie, founder of Iris Associates. Ozzie traces his vision for Notes to the Plato system, a mainframe-basedcomputing environment at the University of Illinois in UrbanaChampaign. Ozzie used this system as a computer science student in the seventies, and observed “people who had no knowledge of computers using this tool to collaborate on projects.
” This left such a big impression on Ozzie that after working in the software industry for a number of years, he returnedto these early experiences: In the early eighties I was working in spreadsheets, but spreadsheets didn’t turn me on. So my mind turned to Plato and what I had experienced there-collaboration and communication. I wanted to start my own company to develop those things. With financing from the Lotus Development Corporation, Ozzie founded Iris Associates in 1984 and hired four former colleagues. The five Iris developers spent the next four years designing, building, and testing the Notes product.
The knowledge and techniques used to construct the Notes technology came from Ozzie’s Plato-inspired vision of collaborative computing and the various personal computing and networking environments the five developers had been exposed to over the years, such as client server architecture,graphic user interface, and public key cryptography. Additional influences on the construction of Notes were the ideals about work shared by the developers: As a group of individuals we share the same beliefs about how we’d like to see people work-the Iris values.
[And so], we implemented a very different software development methodology here that relies on distributed management, distributed security, and distributed development. Distribution is a value that pervades our philosophy. So technically and architecturally the product embraced distribution. As a result, the Notes technology has a highly distributed architecture which supports collaboration among a variety of distributed users.
In addition, it allows users to messaging to geographically dispersed community via e-mail Announcements and responses on widely distributed electronic bulletin boards Importing of newsfeeds from external services Electronic mail gateways to transfer Notes e-mail messages to other systems Creation and editing of documents that include multiple field types and formats with an emphasis on free-form textual information Importing of text, tables, spreadsheets, graphics, images, and sound from other programs Creation and management of databases of documents in a variety of views Search and retrieval of individual or groups of documents based on indexes or free text searches Direct manipulation of user interface Modification of default views and database templates Connection between various features: communication, text editing, and document management Periodic, scheduled duplication of designated databases across Notes servers in a network Support for stand-alone computers through dial-up into a Notes server Provision of password protection and ID verification to control access to databases Support for data encryption at level of e-mail messages, databases, documents, and particular fields Programming of unique database applications via Notes Application Programming Interface Computation of totals, averages, and other statistics on any field (from DeJean and DeJean 1991) customize their interface with the technology and provides them with the tools to develop their own applications within the Notes system.
Ozzie explained that the capability to “build” applications was extended to all users in conformance with the Iris philosophy of decentralized control: A design debate we had a lot was: Does every copy of Notes have the ability to design applications or do we have a “developer’s copy” and “user copies”? In practice, while it is a nightmare for the MIS person to have this [design] capability on every copy of Notes, it makes the product more exciting for the users because anyone can turn from a user to a developer overnight. We wanted individuals to have independence over their work. their participative culture and limited hierarchy, their energy and motivation to create a computer tool to support collaboration, as well as the properties of the emerging Notes technology that Iris developers were inscribing into the artifact. Their enactment of a collaborative technology-in-practice thus modified aspects of the technology itself (through the addition or improvement of various properties), strengthened the Iris developers’ belief in the value (both for themselves and more generally) of computer-supportedcollaboration, and reinforced their distributed and collegial work practices and norms (see Figure 3). Different technologies-in-practice with the Notes technology were enacted in other settings.
Example of Enactment: Three Technologies-inPractice Within Alpha Alpha (a pseudonym) is a large, multinational consulting firm with offices in hundreds of cities around the world, employing thousands of consultants who work on project engagements to deliver professional services to clients. While consultants work in engagement teams, their work relations and practices are strongly influenced by the “up or out” career structure which regulates progress of all consultants via four primary career milestones: junior consultant, senior consultant, manager, and partner. In the late eighties, a chief information officer (CIO) position was created with responsibility for Alpha’s global use of information technology. Having recently
As is common in many software development projects, the Iris developers used the technology they were building to support their own development activities, using its features of electronic mail, discussion databases, text entry, text edit, text search, and tool design to create and share repositories of software documentation and modules. So, the first technology-in-practice to be constituted with the Notes technology was the one enacted recurrently by members of the Iris development team. It was a structure of collaboration, which both shaped and was shaped by the ongoing Iris software development process. It was influenced by the Iris developers’ strong views about distributed control and individual empowerment, technology powerfultool is for collaboration extensivetechnical expertise evolvingunderstanding of the valueof Notes for collaborative
- design iC
- electronic mail
- discussion databases
- tools arebestdesigned colaboraive (readandwrite)
- database creation and customization
Developers use Notes extensively to collaborate on the design and development of the Notesproduct l: been exposed to Notes, the CIO was persuaded that it offered the functionality not only to provide corporatewide electronic mail support, but also to facilitate broad knowledge sharing. These properties, he believed, would address the considerable “reinvention of the wheel” which occurred when Alpha consultants in different offices worked on similar client problems without sharing ideas, approaches, or solutions, thus duplicating effort and not “leveraging the existing expertise and experience of the firm.
” The CIO purchased thousands of copies of Notes for Alpha’ s consultants, and orderedhis technology staff to install it (and the supporting infrastructure of hardware and networks) rapidly in all offices, so as to establish a critical mass of users as quickly as possible. I studied the use of Notes by both consultants and technologists. As the latter were the first to encounter Notes within Alpha, I will begin with their experiences of using Notes. Collective Problem-Solving Technology-in-Practice. Alpha’s technology group consisted of some 40 technology staff who reported to the CIO. The group was responsible for setting corporate technology standards and supporting the firm’s technological infrastructure.
Most of the group members had technical backgrounds, having worked as programmers and computer support staff for most of their careers. While providing support to the firm’s consultants, these technologists were not regarded as consultants. As a result, they were not required to bill their time to clients, and were not subject to the rigid timing and high risk associated with Alpha’s hierarchical consulting career path. In addition to implementing Notes throughoutthe firm, these technologists used the Notes technology extensively in their work. They used electronic mail for coordinating and scheduling their activities, and they maintained a variety of electronic discussions within Notes databases.
Most of the technologists frequently accessed and contributed to these discussion databases, exchanging information about technical problems, solutions, and new or upgraded products. Some had also created their own database designs, using the feature within Notes that allows customization of database templates. Not subject to the competitive culture, “up-or-out” career tension, and “billable hours” pressures faced by the consultants, and supported by the cooperative norms of technical support, the technologists used many of the properties of Notes to promote their collective technical work, and to cooperate with each other. They also modified the technology over time as they added data to the databases and created or customized databases.
In this recurrentpractice of technology use, technologists drew on their detailed knowledge of Notes and their technical support work practices and norms to interact with such properties of Notes as electronic mail, text entry and editing, discussion databases, and database design. This recurrentaction enacted a set of rules and resources which structuredtheir work in terms of cooperative troubleshooting and technical knowledge sharing, while modifying the technology itself (by adding content, creating new databases, and customizing templates). In turn, this technology-in-practice of collective problem-solving reaffirmed the value of cooperation within Alpha’s technology group and reinforced their established cooperative work practices and norms, further encouraging the technologists to keep using Notes to support their work of maintaining Alpha’ s technological infrastructure .
In contrast to this pattern of Notes use, the consultants I studied within Alpha engaged with Notes quite differently and enacted two distinct technologies-in-practice. Limited-Use Technology-in-Practice. The most common technology-in-practice I observed in the consulting group involved limited use of Notes, and was enacted by consultants at all levels of the firm. Such use of Notes was minimal, even perfunctory, and involved opening electronic mail folders a few times a week, rarely, if ever, sending a message, and only occasionally accessing a discussion database to examine activity in it. My data suggest that this technology-in-practice was enacted for at least three different reasons. First, some consultants had doubts about the value of Notes for their own and the firm’s performance.
Some of these consultants based their skepticism on the view that Notes primarily facilitated information transfer while technicalproblem-solving electronicmail is complexand is better discussiondatabases i (readand write) performed cooperatively, text entryand edit knowledgesharingand daiabase creation~d help-givingis expectedin and technica support databasecreaon custonmization Interpretive Schemes, e. g. , technologyis useful fo problemsolving detailedunderstandin of the utility of Notesfor technicalsupportwork i Technology staff use Notes frequently for technical problem solving and cooperation their work as Alpha consultants was to manage client relationships. Other consultants were skeptical about technologies in general and applied this same skepticism to Notes. A vivid illustration of such skepticism was provided by a manager who handed me a cartoon clipped from the morning’s newspaper, commenting: “You asked me what I thought of Notes.
Well, here’ s your answer” . The skepticism felt by these consultants was exacerbated by their limited knowledge of Notes’ functionality. The training sessions conducted about Notes dealt with the mechanics of using the software and were technical and abstract. The collaborative aspects of Notes were not highlighted and there was little illustration of how Notes could be used in Alpha’s consulting practice. Most consultants found the training condescending and unhelpful, and many had not referred to the Notes documentation which they had all been issued. These often lay, still shrink-wrapped,in the corners of offices or on the tops of bookshelves.
Thus, despite training and access to Notes, consultants remained skeptical and unmotivated to reprinted by permission of United Feature Syndicate, Inc. spend much time using the technology. I shadowed half a dozen managers and partners for a few days after they had received Notes training, and found that they accessed Notes for an average of two minutes a day-usually just to check if they had received any electronic mail.
In this recurrentpractice of technology use, consultants drew on their firm’s orientation to relationship management, their limited knowledge of Notes, their view of it as “simply a solution in search of a problem,” their prior experiences with and assumptions about computers as inappropriate or ineffective, and their perfunctory use of Notes’ electronic mail and discussion databaseproperties, to enact a set of minimal rules and resources which barely influenced their existing consulting work practices and did not alter the technology. In turn, this limited-use technology-in-practice, because it provided them with little value, strengthened the consultants’ assumptions and experiences of Notes as less than useful for their consulting work practices, and reinforced the firm’s orientation to relationship management. The second reason why consultants enacted a limiteduse technology-in-practice with Notes was rooted in their ongoing enactment of Alpha’s time-based billing structure. For all consultants except partners, there was an expectation that most if not all hours should be “chargeable,” that is, billed to clients and hence revenueproducing.
Consultants were held accountable for any “below the line” (nonchargeable) hours they incurred and most consultants studiously avoided having any. 10 One consultant noted: “Seniors and managers never have nonchargeable hours. It’s just not done. It doesn’t happen. ” Because many consultants did not see using Notes as an activity that could be billed to clients, they were unwilling to spend time learning or using it, as this would have required them to incur “nonchargeable hours” or to give up some of their personal time. In this recurrentpractice of technology use, consultants drew on their knowledge of Alpha’s institutional practices (in particular, the corporate norm against “nonchargeable” hours), their perception of Notes as not useful for client work, and their limited use of Notes’ electronic mail and discussion database properties, to enact a set of minimal rules and resources which had little influence on their existing consulting work practices or their technology. In turn, such a limited-use technologyin-practice, because it provided minimal value to the consultants, bolstered their assumptions about Notes as not valuable in client work, and as not worth the cost of either nonchargeable hours or their own personal time.
It also reinforced the legitimacy and importance of the firm’s time-based billing structure. The third reason consultants enacted a limited-use technology-in-practice with Notes arose from their fear that use of its collaborative properties would threaten their status within Alpha. The competitive culture at Alpha, strongly reinforced by the “up-or-out” career path, was seen by many consultants as encouraging the development of individually distinctive competence. As one manager put it: In Alpha we have a lot of problems getting people to share expertise and information. That is not in the culture. .. People hide information because it gives them an edge. In an environment where “knowledge is power,” many consultants believed that any sharing of expertise-particularly via the global and relatively anonymous network provided by Alpha’s Notes infrastructure-would hurt, not help, their chances of generating some unique expertise and consequently of securing the sought-after promotions. Thus, use of Notes was perceived by consultants to be counterculturaland incompatible with their individual advancement and success in the firm.
In this recurrentpractice of technology use, consultants drew on their understandingof Notes as a tool for broad distribution of expertise, their knowledge of Alpha’s culture as competitive and individualistic, and their perfunctory use of Notes’ electronic mail and discussion database properties to enact a set of minimal rules and resources which did little to alter their existing consulting work practices or their technology. In turn, such a limited-use technology-in-practice, because it offered no counterevidence to the consultants’ fears, further increased their reluctance to use Notes to share expertise, and reinforced their firm’s practice of rewarding individual effort and distinctive competence rather than cooperation and knowledge sharing.
While the limited-use technology-in-practice was predominant among the Alpha consultants I studied (see Figure 6), another technology-in-practice emphasizing individual productivity was also evident in the practices of a different set of consultants. Individual Productivity Technology-in-Practice. Another (smaller) set of consultants in Alpha did not view Notes as either irrelevantor threatening;instead, they saw it as an opportunity to enhance their own individual effectiveness by speeding up existing ways of doing things. Thus, a few managers and senior consultants began to use Notes regularly to perform activities previously conducted on paper or with other media.
For example, they began distributing memos via Notes ratherthan on paper, sending electronic rather than voice mail messages, and transferringfiles electronically to other offices ratherthan using the fax machine or express mail services. Some managers also used Notes to obtain electronic newsfeeds Norms, e. g. , Facilities, e. g. , cultivateclient relations eectronic mail , charge100 percentof discussiondatabases your time to clients (read-sc onl (read-only) develop distinctive Interpretive Schemes, e. g. , – skepticismtowards – poor understanding technologyin consulting of competenceto get ahead the utility of Notesfor consultingwork 0 knowledge is power Consultants use Notes minimally, sporadically, and perfunctorily from Reuters or to access Alpha publications, previously available on paper or from a centralized computer system in Alpha’s library. Applying a new technology to existing tasks is a common response to encountering unfamiliartechnologies, as Barley (1988, p. 50) notes, “[workers] often attempt to assimilate new technologies under previous patterns of practice and interpretation. ” Because these consultants’ use of Notes automated established practices and increased efficiency, it did not violate institutional norms, and thus did not undermine their professional standing within the firm. Indeed, these consultants believed their use of Notes would give them a competitive edge in the firm by enhancing their personal productivity.
In this recurrent practice of technology use, consultants drew on their knowledge of Alpha’ s culture, their moderate knowledge of some of the functionality of Notes, and engaged specific properties of Notes (electronic mail, newsfeeds, databases, and file transfer) to enact a set of rules and resources which increased their work productivity and incrementally modified the technology (via customizations to the desktop and content added to databases). In turn, such a technology-in-practice of individual productivity, because it provided demonstrable improvements in efficiency, supported these consultants’ view of Notes as an effective tool for personal productivity gains, while reinforcing the individualistic and efficiency orientation of the firm (see Figure 7).
Members of Alpha from the consulting and technology support communities thus used the Notes technology to enact three different technologies-in-practice.
- Electronicmail – develop distinctive competenceto get ahead
- discussiondatabases – knowledgeis power
- (readand write) – professionals are newsfeeds efficientin theirwork file transfer Interpretive Schemes, e. g. , technologycan speed up some existingtasks of specificunderstanding the utility of Notesfor automatingsome tasks Consultants use Notes regularly to improve their personal efficiency of another user community-this one within the Zeta organization-used Notes in still different ways.
Example of Enactment: Two Technologies-inPractice Within Zeta Zeta (a pseudonym) is a Top 50 U. S. software company, producing and selling a range of powerful marketing analysis products.
In 1994, Zeta earned $100 million in revenues and employed about 1000 employees in its Midwest headquarters and regional sales offices around the world. My colleagues and I examined the implementation and use of Notes in Zeta’s customer support department (CSD). Customer support at Zeta involved providing technical consultation via telephone to clients, client service representatives in the field, and other Zeta employees. The technical consultation provided by customer support specialists was a complex activity, typically involving several hours or even days of research including searches of reference material, attempts to replicate the problem, and review of program source code. The CSD employed fifty specialists, and was headed by a director and two managers.
In early 1992, the CSD purchasedNotes and developed a customized application within it, the Incident Tracking Support System (ITSS), to help keep track of customer calls. The acquisition of Notes was motivated by a realization that the existing call tracking system was inefficient and poorly used, and the anticipation of increased calls due to a growing client base and an expanding product range. Following a successful pilot in the latter half of 1992, the CSD deployed Notes and ITSS throughout the department. We studied the use of Notes in the CSD from 1992 to 1994 and found that over time the support specialists enacted two distinct, but complementary, technologies-in-practice with Notes. Process-Support Technology-in-Practice.
Specialists’ initial use of Notes enacted a technology-in-practice of process support. Such a recurrentpractice of technology use involved two primary activities: work documentation and information search. In documenting their work process, specialists used the online input and text-editing properties of Notes to enter every customer call they received as an incident in the ITSS database, to maintain a complete trace for each incident as they worked on it, and to record the final problem resolution when they closed the incident. The work documentation generated by specialists began to accumulate in the ITSS database, growing from about 4,000 entries in December 1992 to 35,000 in December 1994.
This information became increasingly valuable as specialists started to search the database to try to find existing solutions for new problems. By December 1994, specialists reported being able to resolve up to 50 percent of new incidents simply by using the Notes search function to probe the ITSS database. Searching ITSS was seen by the specialists to be helpful not just because prior entries revealed potentially reusable problem resolutions, but also because they provided a detailed trace of the work process followed to resolve different types of incidents. The specialists’ engagement with Notes for their support work utilized many of its properties-electronic text entry and editing, as well as database searching and document management.
As technical support specialists, the CSD members were knowledgeable about technology in general, as well as Notes in particular. This latter knowledge was acquired through a series of official training sessions (referred to as “Notes jam sessions”) which included intensive hands-on use of Notes during which specialists simulated their production work in the Notes environment, taking “fake calls” from colleagues and then documenting these in the ITSS database. Specialists’ use of Notes to record and reuse problem resolution knowledge was in direct contrast to the action of many of the Alpha consultants, who had felt inhibited by their competitive culture to create and share knowledge within Notes.
In comparison, Zeta specialists reported that the CSD’s cooperative culture and its team orientation encouraged such behavior: I don’t care who grabs credit for my work.. This support department does well because we’re a team, not because we’re all individuals. Specialists’ ongoing enactment of a process-support technology-in-practice was further reinforced by managerial action which redefined the evaluation criteria used to assess specialists’ performance.
Managers modified these criteria to include use of Notes for entry and documentation of customer calls, and rewarded specialists for creating high quality process documentation and for reusing existing solutions in the database. In this recurrentpractice of technology use, specialists drew on their knowledge of the CSD’s norms of cooperation and collegiality, its team incentive structure and expectations of effective client service, their familiarity and experience with computer technology in general, their detailed technical knowledge of Notes, and used the text entry, editing, searching, and documentation properties of Notes to enact a set of rules and resources which provided electronic process supportto their technical support work.
They also modified aspects of their technology through such use by generating document templates and adding content to the database. In turn, this processsupport technology-in-practice, because it provided immediate and tangible benefits to the CSD specialists served to amplify their view that using Notes facilitated customer support work, and reinforced their cooperative and team oriented department structure (see Figure 8). Many of these support specialists also enacted another pattern of using Notes. Improvisation Technology-in-Practice. A subsequent technology-in-practice enacted by the CSD specialists involved their use of Notes to respond artfully to unanticipated problems and unexpected opportunities that arose in their work. Such improvisational action went beyond the process-support technology-in-practice, and typically generated workarounds or new processes for conducting technical support work. For example, one such process concerned the expectation, set by the CSD managers and provided for in the design of ITSS, that specialists would directly enter calls into the ITSS database as they received them, so as to produce an up-to-the-minute trace of all incoming calls. However, many specialists found the process of entering calls into ITSS while on the phone too difficult, and so they developed a workaroundby writing down call details on paper, and then entering these into the ITSS database just after the phone call finished.
Specialists’ rationale for this practice was grounded in their concerns about typing skills and the importance of fully understandingtheir customers’ technical problems before entering them into the ITSS database. Further improvisational use of Notes arose when specialists began to use it to collaborate on incidents. Before the implementation of Notes, specialists helped each other only when asked to do so. Specialists tended to work on their own incidents in private until they felt stuck, at which point they would approach a colleague-either by phone or face-to-face-and solicit help. In this interaction with colleagues, they would also learn new skills and knowledge. As specialists used Notes for process support, they gained access to the entire ITSS database, which included all calls, past and present, worked on by members of the CSD.
Specialists got into the habit of browsing through each others’ calls, and using these to engage in an ad hoc learning process: If it is quiet I will check on my fellow colleagues to see what kind of calls they get, so I might learn something from them. There were two consequences of such browsing. One was that specialists realized the potential for using the ITSS databaseto trainnewly-hired specialists. Thus, a few senior specialists extracted sample problems from the ITSS database and created a “training database” within Notes which new hires worked with to learn the process of problem resolution.
Their interaction with this training database was then monitored by a designated mentor, and in this way new recruits received guidance and practice in the techniques of online technical support work. The second consequence of browsing the database was that specialists got to see still-open calls where they might have some expertise to help. This created an opportunity for specialists to offer each other proactive help, in contrast to the reactive mode which had operated previously. Rather than waiting to be approached to give assistance on specific incidents, specialists now took the initiative as they browsed the ITSS database to offer unsolicited help on calls where they believed they had some particular knowledge: Sometimes, if I see something that’s open on somebody’s calls which I’ve seen before, I may put a note in the incident and say “Hey, I think I’ve seen this before, this might be this and this.