Information, Technology, and the 'Cultural Stance'

If some new element -- for example, a computer information system (IS) -- is introduced into the organisation, the result of the incorporation of this element is by no means uniquely determined by the inherent properties of the element in itself; much more so, by the manner in which that element is assimilated into the organisational context. Specifically, the changes that occur in the organisation will principally be those occasioned by the perceptions that the work groups concerned have of the new element in itself, by their interpretations of the proposed relationship that the element will have with existing elements in the working unit -- for instance, with other members of the group -- and by the actions subsequently taken by those members, either individually or collectively, to accommodate the new element. The process of accommodation will, for example, be shaped by factors such as the following:

  • prior assumptions by members of the organisation (and in particular, of the work group concerned) with regard to what the relevant domain information and knowledge is, and how it is expressed
  • (possibly inexplicit) conventions for the interpretation of the data elements routinely processed by the group (i.e., a shared ontology and agreed mappings between data elements and entities, properties and processes in the 'real world')
  • assumptions and agreements regarding who, prior to the introduction of the system, owns and controls the relevant information and knowledge, where it comes from, and who has access to it
  • 'folkloric' assumptions with regard to what exactly an information system is, what it is capable of, and what consequences its introduction will have for the working practices of members of the organisation
  • the routinized day-to-day activities not only of the individual user herself but also of other members of the immediate work group who are affected in some way by those activities

We may see these factors as cultural issues, and interpret any organisational conflicts that may arise in consequence of the introduction of the technology as effects on the organisation of disruptions to the culture that has developed prior to the introduction of the technology.

Before looking at any of these factors in more detail, consider that there are at the very least three stances one can take towards computer information systems. In the first place, whatever else it is, an IS is (or, viewed more narrowly as software, is embodied in) hard technology, something with a shape, constituent parts, a price, a manufacturer, and a physical location in the office. We might call this the 'physical stance' (the same term is used by Dennett, 1978, with a somewhat different meaning, but I cannot think of a better alternative expression). Its use as technology, under this stance, presupposes the acquisition of a set of basic motor skills (insertion of disks, use of keyboard, hand-eye co-ordination in using the mouse to move the cursor, and so on) and a possibly more nebulous repertoire of basic attitudes (symbiotic relationship between operator and computer, computer as tool, computers increase personal efficiency, computers enhance clarity and consistency of data, and so on). Specifically physical characteristics of the machine (other than HCI issues such as high/low resolution, brightness, flicker, glare, colour, key sensitivity, optimum character founts, screen size) may foster more peripheral attitudes (e.g., computers are 'clever', computers don't make mistakes). Turkle (1984, p.13), for example, notes that:

The impact of the computer is constrained by its physical realities. One such reality is the machine's physical opacity. If you open a computer [...], you see no gears that turn, no levers that move, no tubes that glow. Most often, you see some wires and one black chip. [People] faced with wires and a chip [...] can find no simple physical explanation.

Computer information systems can engender rejection under this stance in users who are, for example, not proficient in the basic motor skills and attitudes.

Beyond the physical stance, we understand the computer information system in terms of its functionality -- as a device for the collection, storage, processing, transmission, distribution, retrieval or utilisation of information; that is, we assume something akin to what Dennett (1978) calls the 'design stance' towards it. Under this task-orientated stance, the user is guided by assumptions with regard to the information-/knowledge-processing capabilities of the system, in particular with regard to the relation of the user to the system (computer as partner, new ways of thinking about processes). And it is under, and with reference to, this task-orientated 'design stance' that most of the systems analysis and/or knowledge engineering activity takes place: the systems analyst or knowledge engineer characteristically shares with the prospective user(s) the view that the task to be accomplished or the problem to be solved is a specifically technical one, and that it is both possible and necessary to identify, isolate and describe only those domain entities that directly participate in the information-processing or problem-solving activity and only those processes that are directly involved in solving the technical problem.

Both the physical and the design stances to different degrees identify a physically and conceptually bounded system with certain intrinsic properties and behaviours. The manufacturer's literature telling you that it requires a hard-disk drive, System 7, and 2.5 MB of RAM, and the manual or user-guide telling you how to use it and what it does, pertain to these two stances.

There is a third stance one may take towards ISs -- one might call it the 'cultural stance' -- which shifts the perspective away from the image of the stand-alone, asocial tool, operating within clearly specified operational boundaries, and towards an image of the technology as nothing more than a functional 'cultural' component of a broader 'open system' that includes not only the user but also the work group of which the user is a part (Hutchison & Rosenberg, 1993). [] Or, in other words:

  1. the work group or organisation as a whole may, at this level of abstraction, be conceived as a 'cultural information system' in so far as the machine's symbols (words, numbers, graphs, pictures, ...) have meaning only in the context of the interests, practices and interpretive procedures of those who use the system or who use the information mediated by the system

  2. viewing the work group (or maximally the organisation) in toto as a distributed knowledge-based information processing system accepting inputs from and outputting to its environment, there is little sense in distinguishing that part of the information processing which is executed mechanically and that part which is executed by human beings (just as, if one is interested only in input and output solely as information, there is little sense in distinguishing between a human being calculating the sum of two numbers and a pocket calculator doing so).

Under this stance, it is unhelpful to think of even single-user systems as being within the sphere of responsibility and control of some specific individual user who may consider that she has proprietorial rights over the technology and more importantly, over the information that that technology generates. The computer information system will be viewed as a part of a more global cultural information system involving not only the direct user of the system but also the other collaborating agents in the organisation. Therefore, any analysis of the existing system (prior to the introduction of a new technological tool) will by necessity have to include those aspects of human information-processing behaviour that make the organisational member a part of a culturally saturated social structure. Computer information systems will effectively no longer be saying "I know everything within my world and my user is the sole owner of that knowledge". Instead, it will in its design reflect the organisation of the community which shares a body of knowledge required for information-processing activities.

[] It might be equally appropriate to call it the 'systems stance'. Gregory Bateson (1973:287-8), among others, has made a similar observation to our own with regard to cognitive aspects of computer systems, pointing out that the "computer is only an arc of a larger circuit which always includes a man and an environment from which information is received and upon which efferent messages from the computer have effect". It is the total system, rather than the computer alone, which may legitimately be said to show the characteristics one associates with an intelligent information-processing system.
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