The Labyrinths of Information – a book review
Once implemented, IT systems can evolve in ways that can be quite different from their original intent and design. One of the reasons for this is that enterprise systems are based on simplistic models that do not capture the complexities of real organisations. The gap between systems and reality is the subject of a fascinating book by Claudio Ciborra entitled, The Labyrinths of Information. Among other things, the book presents an alternative viewpoint on systems development, one that focuses on reasons for divergence between design and reality. It also discusses other aspects of system development that tend to be obscured by mainstream development methodologies and processes. This post is a summary and review of the book.
The standard treatment of systems development in corporate environments is based on the principles of scientific management. Yet, as Ciborra tells us,
…science-based, method-driven approaches can be misleading. Contrary to their promise, they are deceivingly abstract and removed from practice. Everyone can experience this when he or she moves from the models to the implementation phase. The words of caution and pleas for ‘change management’ interventions that usually accompany the sophisticated methods and polished models keep reminding us of such an implementation gap. However, they offer no valid clue on how to overcome it…
Just to be clear, Ciborra offers no definitive solutions either. However, he offers “clues on how to bridge the gap” by looking into some of the informal techniques and approaches that people “on the ground” – users, designers, developers or managers – use to work and cope with technology. He is not concerned with techniques or methodologies per se, but rather with how people deal with the messy day-to-day business of working with technology in organisations.
The book is organised as a collection of essays based on Ciborra’s research papers spanning a couple of decades – from the mid 1980s until a few years prior to his death in 2005. I discuss each of the chapters in order below, providing links to the original papers where I could find them.
The divergence between models and reality
Most of the tools and techniques used in systems evaluation, design and development are based on simplified models of organisational reality. However, organisations do not function according to organograms, data flow diagrams or entity-relationship models. Models used by systems professionals abstract away much of the messiness of real-life. The methods that come out of such simplifications cannot deal with the complexities of a real organisation. As Ciborra states, “…concern with method is one of the key aspects of our discipline and possibly the true origin of its crisis…”
Indeed, as any systems professional will attest to, unforeseen occurrences and situations inevitably encountered in real life are what cause the biggest headaches in the implementation and acceptance of systems. Those on the ground deal with such exceptions by creative but essentially ad-hoc approaches. Much of the book is a case-study based discussion of such improvised approaches to systems development.
Making (do) with what is at hand
Ciborra argues that successful systems are invariably imitated by competitors, so any competitive advantage offered by such systems is, at best, limited. A similar argument holds for standards and best practices – they promote uniformity rather than distinction. Given this, organisations should strive towards practices that cannot be copied. They should work towards inimitability.
In art, bricolage refers to a process of creating a work from whatever is at hand. Among other things it involves tinkering, improvising and generally making do with what is available. Ciborra argues that many textbook cases of strategic systems in fact evolved through bricolage, tinkering and serendipity, rather than plan. Some of the cases he discusses include Sabre Reservation System developed by American Airlines, and the development of Email (as part of the ARPANET project). Moreover, although the Sabre System afforded American Airlines a competitive advantage for a while, it soon became a part of the travel reservation infrastructure thereby becoming an operational necessity rather than an advantage. This is much the same point that Nicholas Carr made in his article, IT Doesn’t Matter.
The question that you may be asking at this point is: “All this is well and good, but does Ciborra have any solutions to offer?” Well, that’s the problem: Ciborra tells us that bricolage and improvisation ought to be encouraged, but offers little advice on how this can be done. For example, he tells us to “Value bricolage strategically”, “Design tinkering” and “Establish systematic serendipity” – sounds great in theory, but what does it really mean? It is platitudinous advice that is hard to action.
Nevertheless his main point is a good one: that managers should encourage informal, creative practices instead of clamping down on them. This advice has not generally been heeded. Indeed, corporate IS practices have gone the other wa, down the road of standardisation and best practices. Ciborra tells us in no uncertain terms that this is not a good thing.
The enframing effect of technology
This part is, in my opinion, the most difficult chapter in the book. It is based on a paper by Ciborra and Hanseth entitled, From tool to Gestell: Agendas for managing the information infrastructure. In German the term Gestell means shelf or rack. The philosopher Martin Heidegger used the term to describe the way in which technology frames the way we view (or “organise”) the world. Ciborra highlights the way in which existing infrastructure affects the success of businesses processes and practices. Ciborra emphasises that technology-based enterprise initiatives are doomed to fail unless they pay due attention to:
- Existing or installed infrastructure.
- Local needs and concerns.
Instead of attempting to oust old technology, system designers and implementers need to co-opt or cultivate the installed base (and the user community) if they are to succeed at all. In this sense installed infrastructure is an actor (like an individual) with its own interest and agenda. It provides a context for the way people think and also influences future development.
The notion of Gestell thus reminds us of how existing technology influences and limits the way we think. To get around this, Ciborra suggests that we should:
- Be aware of technology and standards, but not be captive to them.
- Think imaginatively, but pay attention to the installed base (existing platforms and users).
- Remember that top down technology initiatives rarely succeed.
The drifting of information infrastructure
Ciborra uses Donald Schoen’s metaphor of the high ground and the swamp to highlight the gap between theory and practice of information systems (see this paper by Schoen, for a discussion of the metaphor). The high ground is the executive management view,where methodologies and management theories hold sway, while the swamp is the coalface where messy, day-to-day reality of organisational work unfolds. In the swamp of day-to-day work, people tend to use available technology in any way possible to solve real (and messy) problems. So, although a particular technology may have an espoused or intended aim, it may well be used in ways that are completely unforeseen by its designers.
The central point of this essay is that the full implications of a technology are often realised only after it has been implemented and used for a while. In Ciborra’s words, technology drifts – that is, it is put to uses that cannot be foreseen. Moreover, it may be never be used in ways that were intended by the designer. Although Ciborra lists several cases that demonstrate this point, in my opinion, his blanket claim that technology drifts is a bit over the top. Sure, in some cases, technologies may be used in unforeseen ways, but by and large they are used in ways that are intended and planned.
The organisation as a host
Reactions to a new technology in an organisation are generally mixed – some people may view the technology with some trepidation (because of the changes to their work routines, for instance) while others may welcome it (because of promised efficiencies, say). In metaphorical terms, the new technology is a “guest,” whose “desires” and “intentions” aren’t fully known. Seen in this light of this metaphor, the notion of hospitality makes sense: as Ciborra puts it, the organisation hosts the technology.
To be sure, the idea of hospitality applying to objects such as information systems will probably cause a few raised eyebrows. However it isn’t as “out there” as it sounds. Consider, for example, the following implications of the metaphor
- Interaction between the host and guest can change both parties.
- If the technology is perceived as unfriendly, it will be rejected (or even ejected!).
- System development and operations methodologies are akin to cultural rituals (it is how we “deal with” the guest).
- Technologies, like guests, stay for a while but not forever.
Ciborra’s intent in this and most of the other essays is to make us ponder over the way we design, develop and run systems, and possibly view what we do in a different light.
The organisation as a platform
In this essay Ciborra looks at the way in which successful technology organisations adapt and adjust to rapidly changing environments. It is based on his paper entitled, The Platform Organization: Recombining Strategies, Structures and Surprises, Using a case-study, he makes the point that the only way organisations can respond to rapidly evolving technology markets is to be open to recombining available resources in flexible ways: it is impossible to start from scratch; one has work with what is at hand, using it in creative ways.
Another point he makes is that the organisation of an organisation (hierarchy and structure) at any particular time is less important than how it gets there, where it’s headed and what are the obstacles in the way. To quote from the book:
…analysing and evaluating the platform organisation at a fixed point in time is of little use: it may look like a matrix, or a functional hierarchy, and one may wonder how well its particular form fits the market for that period and what its level of efficiency really is. What should be appreciated, instead, is the whole sequence of forms adopted over time, and the speed and friction in shifting from one to the other.
However, the identification of such a trajectory can be misleading – despite after-the-fact rationalisations, management in such situations is often based on improvised actions rather than carefully laid plans. Although this may not always be so, I suspect it is more common than managers would care to admit.
Improvisation and mood
By now the reader would have noted that Ciborra’s focus is squarely on the unexpected occurrences in day-to-day organisational work. So it will come as no surprise that the last essay in the book deals with improvisation.
Ciborra argues that most studies on improvisation have a cognitive focus – that is, they deal with how people respond to emerging situations by “quick thinking.” In his opinion, such studies ignore the human aspect of improvised actions, the emotions and moods evoked by situations that call for improvisation. These, he suggests, can be the difference between improvised actions and panic.
As he puts it, people are not cognitive robots – their moods will determine whether they respond to a situation with indifference or interest and engagement. This human dimension of improvisation, though elusive, is the key to understanding improvisation (and indeed, any creative / innovative action)
He also discusses the relationship between improvisation and time – something I have discussed at length in an earlier post, so I’ll say no more about it here.
A methodological postscript
In a postscript to the book, Ciborra discusses his research philosophy – the thread that links the essays in the book.. His basic contention is that methodologies and organisational models are based on after-the-fact rationalisations of real phenomena. More often than not such methods and models are idealisations that omit the messiness of real life organisations. They are abstractions, not reality. As such they can guide us, but we should be ever open to the surprises that real life may afford us.
The essential message that Ciborra conveys is a straightforward one – that the real world is a messy place and that the simplistic models on which systems are based cannot deal with this messiness in full. Despite our best efforts there will always be stuff that “leaks out” of our plans and models. Ciborra’s book celebrates this messiness and reminds us that people matter more than systems or processes.