People, organizations, and technology: Stupid technology makes organizations stupid


Pedro Z. Caldeira and Manuela Faia-Correia (Lisbon)


Many collapses in work setting design involving technology is due to a contributing number of factors: by limiting the consideration of system stakeholders to just the software developer and the customer; scarcity of management time to understand the dynamics between the various stakeholders involved; industrial relations systems and cultures that create institutional and attitudinal obstacles to change in that direction; the entrenchment of a traditional engineering mentality amongst engineers and information staff, supported by the education system; and the frequent failure to understand or address the relative balance of costs and benefits of such systems in different contexts. This leads to design work settings that have surprising negative effects because the needs of relevant system stakeholders were not considered. Other times stakeholders are inadequately identified and thus the scope of the project is compromised.

We should not limit our consideration of stakeholders to those who are financing the project or politically influential (Gotterbarn, 2001). Any typical organizational or technology change has a large number of different stakeholders: people who develop it, maintain it, run the business using it, use it as operators, sell it, families of the users, social institutions which may be radically altered by the introduction of the technology, natural environment, social communities, employees of the development organization and the development organization itself, etc.

Stakeholders are groups as well as individuals and, in general, it includes all those who have expectations of gain from the organization’s successful operation (Donaldson & Preston, 1995). For all those people, the relative weights of various quality attributes may be dramatically different. A well-known and publicized example of conflicting prioritisation of two stakeholder groups is the conflict between developers/programmers and end users concerning usability versus ease of construction. Compromising between priority scales of various stakeholders, or between security and cost aspects, is an important ethical issue (Bereza-Jarocinski, 2001).

In the present paper, we will start by revisiting socio-technical system theory and its more recent developments and complement it with stakeholder theory. We will then build a framework for analysing the dynamics that take place in the design and implementation of information and communication technologies.

It is our contention, that by bringing in stakeholder theory into system design and implementation we can provide the actual context and the forces that are at stake when changes are implemented. In this context, change is adjusting organizational structure, culture and technology to the `demands’ of a limited socio-technical system, but also by configuring the different needs and intentions of the various stakeholders involved to fit a much broader context than socio-technical system tend to assume.

A traditional approach to technology doesn’t take into account all relevant variables of the socio-technical system (Humans and machines working together toward a commum goal). As a result work systems are underoptimized – regarding not only productivity but also self-realization feelings or criteria as stress, satisfaction, and occupational health and safety (Hendrick, 1995).

The Human side of technology is not a priority in the technology-centered design processes, as designers just want to minimize human error and add some phisical confort. Technology-centered design processes are not worried with motivational aspects of work, characteristics of the work force or other variables related with the design of work or organizational systems.

Socio-technical systems theory (STS) is a widely recognized and used work design strategy. STS is grounded in general systems theory (Von Bertalanffy, 1950). Joint optimisation of the social and technical components of the work environment is considered more desirable than simple optimisation of either system at the expenses of the other (Emery & Trist, 1969). STS ostensibly recognizes the importance of social forces in work organizations. This recognition frequently creates a shift from individual to group-or team- methods of performance. This shift is based on the view that a group can more effective allocate its resources to address work conditions of variances than can employees working independently. The focus of STS is thus frequently on empowering work teams to exercise increased influence over their work activities (Lawler, 1986). Positive variance within the work system is viewed favourably as a sign that teams are adapting to their unique environment conditions. Particularly advanced applications of STS allow groups of employees to make strategic decisions and alter not only the way work is accomplished but also the type of work that is carried out (Manz, 1992; Weisboard, 1987). This provides traditional line workers with the ability to initiate and enact organizational change by observing, interpreting, and reacting to environmental change (Weick, 1979). Such empowerment not only improves employee quality of work life, but also facilitates organizational flexibility.

A basic principle of socio-technical systems design is that the optimal efficiency of Men-machines systems is reached only when exists a joint optimization of the human and the material subsystems. Human-centered design processes are the answer to the problem.

This paper analyze and discuss several case-studies about under and misuse of technology on Portuguese organizations.