IMS5023 : Information Enterprise Management and Marketing
It is often said that 'no man is an island'. The phrase applies equally well to information enterprises. This week we look at the types of support that information enterprises obtain from their environment: support that helps them in both their strategic planning and the ongoing maintenance - or sustainability - of their operations. It is a theme that we have touched on before in various contexts, for example in Week 2 when we examined Virtual Communities, and in Week 10 when we looked at the Information Flows model. This week, we will examine it from the perspective of network analysis, looking at the types of information and resources that information enterprises need in order to thrive, and the types of networks and network connections that provide them.
To do this we will consider a number of examples of development projects, specifically those undertaken in rural and regional areas of developed and developing countries, and the factors that have contributed to their success or failure, but before week we need to introduce some relevant theory from three areas of research: information systems failure, the diffusion of innovation and network analysis.
Information systems failure
There is a rich literature on information systems failure, however, as the purpose here is to provide a lead in to the discussion of the importance of networks, we will consider only a couple of relevant introductory articles.
Keil et. al. (1998) identify the following list of risk factors which may contribute to system failure.
At first glance, all of these factors could be interpreted as being internal to an organisation, however, on closer examination many of them could be the result of environmental factors. For example, in (1) management may be unwilling to provide leadership if they do not fully understand the technology being implemented or the strategic reasons for doing so - possibly as a result of a lack of strategic advice, which small organisations in particular may need to source from external bodies. In (7) and (10), the project may be being implemented in an area where there is a lack of trained IT staff or a lack of staff capable of considering the professional assumptions and models built into the specific application, and in (9) the system being implemented may be totally new to the region, and staff may have no one other than the systems implementors to call on for assistance and/or advice.
Another approach is taken by Heeks (2002), who examined cases of IT failure in developing countries but whose work provides insights into the types of problems that could occur in a much wider range of information systems implementations. Heeks starts from the proposition that information systems are not 'black boxes' of neutral technology that can just be taken and employed anywhere as needed (for example, see the case of introducing library systems in Vietnam described below). Rather, he points out that they are based on designs which contain an "inscribed vision of the world" and that mismatches in the design and the actuality (the environment in which the system will be implemented) can be a major source of system failure. As with Keil et al, he identifies a number of areas where this design-actuality gap may occur:
As Heeks notes, this is particularly likely to occur in developing countries where systems are imported from Western countries and are implemented without
consideration being given to local conditions, but he believes that such problems are likely to be minimised if the system design allows for what he terms 'contingent improvisation' - the ability to change the design to adapt to local needs. This, however, is based on the local organisation being able to provide the skills and resources needed to adapt the system - or provide the necessary staff training and professional development - and this in turn is dependent on the overall environment in which that organisation is working.
Finally, a more positive (solution oriented) perspective is provided by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Evaluation Office who set out six generic challeges that have the potential to critically affect IT initiatives in Information Communications Technology for Development:
Diffusion of innovation and Network analysis
The research on the diffusion of innovation is dominated by Rogers (2003), who defines innovation as 'an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption'. That is, the idea, practice, or object need not be totally new - it just needs to be new to the person or organisation trying to adopt it. For example, a community organisation setting up a website in a regional area that has not previously had access to the Internet would be introducing a new innovation, even though there are already millions of websites - the fact that the organisation has not had any previous exposure to them would mean that as far as it is concerned, it is an innovation.
Rogers describes five attributes of innovations:
According to Rogers, the way in which these attributes are perceived by those who are the beneficiaries of the innovation determines both the speed of adaptation and the degree to which a specific innovation is adopted, modified or ignored.
Studies of the diffusion of innovation have been enriched by adding insights derived from network analysis which, as Wellman (1988) explains, is based on the relationships between units, rather than the categorisation of those units into predefined categories, and on interpreting their behaviour in terms of structural constraints on activity. For example, a survey undertaken by the Centre for Community Networking Research in 2002, The Community ICT Survey, found that small, country-based organisations were only half as likely to have a website, and be satisified with it, as their city-based counterparts. Network analysis, says that placing the emphasis on the location of these organisations is misleading, because that would suggest the main problem is being based in the country, when the main problem is that these organisations have problems because they cannot make the connections needed to provide them with information and support - a problem that can also occur in the city (even though it is less common there).
One of the most influential works in network analysis was that of Granovetter (1973) whose work on the strength of weak ties, defined somewhat intuitively as a ‘weak' relationship between two people or organisations, emphasises the importance of social networks in the distribution of information and resources. By his argument, individuals with many weak ties are best placed to receive new information and/or resources, since some of the weak ties will be bridges to the broader community. He also found that the longer linked the network (that is, the more steps between two points trying to communicate), the less effective it is. Coleman (1988) built on this, stating that dense closed networks (those with multiple strong internal links) were important for the enforcement of social norms, obligations and expectations – and so provide for strong internal communities. But he further argued that closed networks – those with limited ties to external communities – have structural holes that cannot be closed and so may be denied access to, and control of, the information and resources necessary to facilitate their activities and in particular the diffusion of innovations.
Sociograms, an example of which is provided in the diagram below, are often used in analysing networks. In this diagram, the dots are nodes which could represent either people or organisations, and the lines between the dots represent connections between them. Mapping relationships in this way helps us to visualise the types of resources and information that individuals and organisations have access to. So, for example, this diagram could represent the people within two organisations, one on the left (A-H) and one on the right (I-R). In that case, it can be seen that the two organisations are connected via a single link B-I and that all meaningful communication would go through that link. As both B and I are centrally placed in their respective organisations, that is probably sufficient as long as they both act to pass on information and resources and as long as the link remains intact.
(Source: Social Networks: A Primer, James M. Cook, Department of Sociology
Of course, this is a very simple socigram. They can quickly become extremely complex, as in the one presented in Week 2.
So, in our area of interest - that is in order to understand the relationships and capabilities of an organisation attempting to implement an IT project - it is necessary to consider the relationships between all groups / individuals in its immediate environment, because those networks can facilitate:
Two examples of the importance of networks to IT development projects
One case study that illustrates this in practice can be found in "Building sustainable learing communities in Vietnam" by Johanson, Denison and Otis (2004) which describes a series of projects to implement automated library systems in regional Vietnamese university libraries. The paper describes how the first of these projects was on the verge of failing because the library system had been treated as a 'black box' that was donated to the university in question (see the discussion of this approach by Heeks above), but how subsequent projects had been more successful because they had been more careful to address the issues of the ongoing provision of strategic advice, the ongoing technical support, staff training and to assist with the sustainability of the systems. They did this by recognising that the networks providing such resources were too remote from the libraries attempting to implement the system (see the comments on long-linked networks above), and tried to correct it by promoting local technical support and by helping to develop a supportive professional infrastructure within the country (in Heeks' terms, the locals were provided with the ability to adapt).
The second example comes from an evaluation of the VEEM (Victorian e-Commerce Early Movers) Scheme, a project of Multimedia Victoria which was intended to
accelerate the take-up of e-Commerce practices, methodologies and technologies by local councils in regional Victoria. That report found that:
The main practical point of this discussion remains, however, that it is important for organisations to examine their resource and information needs, and the network structures that support them, to see whether they can achieve efficiencies by changing those networks.
Centre For Community Networking Research. (2003). The Monash Community Information and Technologies Index (CICT). School of Information
Management and Systems, Monash University, Clayton, Vic. http://www.ccnr.net/cict/
Coleman, J. (1998) Social Capital and the Creation of Human Capital. The American Journal of Sociology 94: S95-S120. (Available online through the Monash Library)
Granovetter, S. (1973) The Strength of Weak Ties. The American Journal of Sociology 78(6) 1360-1380. (Available online through the Monash Library)
Heeks, R. (2002) Information systems and developing countries: failure, success, and local improvisations. The Information Society. 18(2) 101-112. (Available online through the Monash Library)
Johanson, G., Denison, T. & Otis, N. "Building Sustainable Learning Communities in Vietnam." In CIRN Conference: Sustainability and Community Technology: What Does this Mean for Community Informatics? Monash Prato Colloqium. Sept 29-Oct 1, 2004. http://www.ciresearch.net/conferences/viewabstract.php?id=43&cf=4.
Keil, M., Cule. P., Lyytinen, K. and Schmidt, R. (1998) A framework for identifying software project risks. Communications of the ACM 41(11): 76-83 (Available online through the Monash Library)
Rogers, E. (2003). The Diffusion of Innovations. 5th ed. New York: The Free Press.
UNDP (2001) Information Communications Technology for Development. Essentials. No. 5. http://www.undp.org/eo/documents/essentials_5.PDF
Terziovski, M & Howell, A. (2001) e-Commerce Best Practice: a review of the Victorian e-Commerce Early Movers (VEEM) Scheme in Victorian Local Councils.
Report prepared for Multimedia Victoria, State and Regional Development. (Not available)