Representations as factor of organisational change


Frédéric Ischy and Olivier Simioni (Switzerland)


Many current reflexions focus on the question of impact of information and communication technologies on our lives, and, in particular, on organisations. This starting point is interesting but it presents some problems to sociological analysis. Indeed, recent works in the field of the sociology of sciences and technology show total imbrication between human action and objects, artifacts, techniques which are integral parts of social structure (cf Bruno Latour). There are not technologies on one side and social agents ont the other side, the first determining the actions of the seconds. In fact, there is a complex, permanent interaction between both technology and social agents. In consequence, it’s necessary to take account of what one can call the representations, imaginary, utopias or ideologies as well as discourses linked to technological development to understand what technologies will do to us.

In this perspective, it is striking that the discourses accompanying the development of information and communication technologies – discourses telling us that we enter in an information society or information age – carry a vision of the society and individuals that joins the contemporary theories of management. Researches by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello (cf Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme) show that a new ” spirit of capitalism ” has been emerging for about thirty years. This new ” spirit ” contains ideas of network, decentralization, demassification, permanent change even if, in the model of the two authors, the development of technologies is not fully mentioned. One can thus build an ” idéal-typique ” (cf Max Weber) model which helps us to understand the shaping of organisations not only from a technical viewpoint but also with considerations regarding the history of ideas. The management topics (flexibility, permanent change, …) mentioned above are in fact the same as in information society discourses in which the presence of technologies is central.

One thus sees that two starting points are possible. One is centered on technologies, and the other on ideas, which draws us back to a caricatural opposition in the social sciences between materialism and culturalism. We don’t want to choose between the two, but we want to show the interest of examining the world of ideas and discourses : studying closely the real impact of technologies needs taking account of representations because it is certain that this impact is ambivalent and depends strongly on the application context.

As a result of an empirical research taking account of discussions with more than 60 Swiss scientists, managers or politicians as well as international official reports from organisations or governments, literature that one can qualify the ” erudite one “, and fictions, we notice a recurring model in the discourses which defend the idea of information society emergence. Admittedly, the speeches base is elementary and indicates that it exists a convergence between telecommunications and computers and that we live a time of very significant changes. However, beyond this simple basic report, one can locate a recurring model of social or business organisation which is based on the need of total mobility, flexibility and of decentralization made necessary by a process of permanent change. This model do not entirely join a market or an industrial logic but subtly combines them to give birth to a new ideological configuration making it possible to motivate the actors, to reassure them and justify the changes.

While speeches defending the idea that the information society will be beneficial for all are extremely numerous, it’s important to say that a certain number of discourses have a critical vision. This vision does not only concentrate, as one could believe it, on the question of inequalities or of control but also on a problem that seems significant to us, that of incertitude or instability.

Indeed, in a world in constant change, which requires a continual adaptation and a total flexibility, individuals can be confronted not only with economic resources problems but also with identitary and psychological problems. A whole branch of science fiction literature (the Cyberpunk trend ; cf William Gibson’s Neuromancer) is confronted with this problem. This is not a negligible element because one can think that the science fiction literature partly reveals the present fears and can thus reveal the type of resistances, legitimate or not, that can fight against changes. However, what is often shown is precisely a world in which individuals are malleable, their bodies being transformed as far to disappear in cyberspace.

Anthropology and philosophy has indeed showed how much the body is the support of identity. It is the body that put individuals in a territory, a history and in social relations. The disappearance of the body leads to a kind of exit of the world, where reality and illusion are indistinguishable. Science fiction literature plays here in the field of metaphors but more seriously it indicates us which are the fears of our contemporaries. To permanently transform the bodies is like to transform the individuals in such a way they must adapt continuously to the technological and organisational changes. Moreover, it is also to take the risk of derealisation and of major identitary disorders.

These concerns are not absurd fictional dreams and, according to us, deserve to be taken seriously. The work of Alain Ehrenberg (cf Le culte de la performance) shows that new representations of individuals appear in the world of sport, work or even vacation – flexibility, competition, performance, self fulfillment – which are linked, in very subtle ways, to this pathology of action that is depression. Thus, it’s not astonishing that the depression can be described as the disease of the beginning of present millenium in the sense it is the negative consequence of the new identities based on the obligation to act. All this shows again that it is definitely impossible to discuss the ” impacts ” of new technologies without studying the concomitant development of the imaginary revealed by sociological interviews, official reports or fiction.