Systems development concepts, issues and approaches and the relationship between technologies and their social context
Why are conventional approaches to systems design considered to be techno-centric?
This paper presents a thorough explanation of the various processes related to systems design and to the problems that face the conventional, or traditional, methods according to which computer systems, of all kinds, are designed. The paper will then explain why the traditional approaches of system design are considered to be techno-centric.
Before being able to answer the main question of this paper, we should define certain terms in order to clarify all the elements that will be discussed later on.
Simmers (2004, p.542-543), states that “a computer system is an electronic device that can be thought of as a complete information-processing center. It can calculate, store, sort, update, manipulate, sequence, organize, and process data. It also controls logic operations and can rapidly communicate in graphics, numbers, words, and sounds.”
Another definition is presented by Avgerou and Cornford (1998, p.1), as they state that information systems “refer to information and data handling activities in human organizations. Information handling in this sense is a purposeful activity sustained over time, and includes the activities of collecting information, storing it, directing it to appropriate places and people, and utilizing it in various tasks within the organization.”
The designer of the system attempts to identify a specific problem within a given environment of work, for example, and creates a set of processes that should be able to resolve that problem according to pre-determined instructions and requirements (Kelkar, 2004).
A system is supposed to handle a variety of issues related to an organisation and to enable the people whom are considered to be the individuals that deal with those issues to function properly, swiftly, more efficiently, and more accurately. This usually also involves the interaction (inter-connectivity) between all those working in a specific section.
The person (or group of people) that are supposed to design the desired system should study and analyse thoroughly the problem sphere, identifying the various elements and factors involved in it, proposing different system options, put them into test (preferably in real working environments), and finally selecting, with the help of the management of the organisation in question, the best solution.
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Computer systems designers, almost from the very beginning of this field, tended to work exclusively within their technical realm; meaning that they were identifying the problem and creating the solution that, evidently, was successful, but that was only operable and facilitated to themselves and to people of the same technical background. This created a reality which made it, somewhat, hard for average users, who are also supposed to be the end users of today’s computer systems, to deal, interact, let alone produce efficiently using those systems.
The main problem in this context, as explained by Doherty & King (2005, p.2), is that the designers do not, in most cases, follow most required steps in what concerns the analysis of the impact of utilising the computer solution on the organisation and in what concerns the interaction between the created system and the human factor of that organisation. According to Poulymenakou & Holmes, 1996 (in Doherty and King, 2005, p.2), “the adoption of techno-centric development approaches can be a very dangerous strategy, as it encourages developers to deliver and implement the information system, and only then, if at all, worry about adapting it to its organizational context.”
The conventional methodology, which depends solely on creating a computer system that is successful in resolving a given problem and that works from a technical (or computer programmable and configurable) point of view, is considered to be techno-centric because the most important factor in designing the system, which is the human factor, has not be taken into consideration fully by the designer (or the designers) during the implementation of their initial plan of work.
Many specialists and researchers keep on calling for a methodology of system design that focuses more on the social aspect of the created tool: “little progress has been made in the development of practical socio-technical methods and approaches that have succeeded in making the transition from research laboratory to widespread commercial usage” (Doherty & King, 2005, p.2).
Davidson and Chiasson (2004, p.6) state that the three main stages of information technology are the development, the implementation, and the assimilation. They stress on the fact that all the details that are related to the daily use of the technology may not be seen at the time of planning because the “attention is focused on overall business goals and implementation strategy.” This makes the period following the installation and the initial implementation highly important as all the social and human related factors must be adjusted and modified to suit the users and the organisation as a whole.
There are various examples of systems that were created according to the conventional, techno-centric, approach and that have failed at the time of implementation because the designers lacked the social-oriented element in their design Doherty and King (2005, p.2) mentioned several failed experiences of this kind; cases such as the London Ambulance System, the Taurus System, and the Benefits Payment Card System.
Other examples were presented by Davidson and Chiasson (2005, p.6-12) who reported that the electronic medical record systems (EMRS) that were used in two healthcare organisations were also a cause of concern, to a certain extent. The authors confirm that the original systems created for the health organisations needed to be socially modified through the implementation of TUM (Technology Use Mediation) during system development stages and throughout the period in which the systems were in use. “System configuration required changes to software infrastructure and code. Organizational size influenced the availability and the effectiveness of mediation resources.”
Another factor that is involved in the conventional approach is the total underestimation of previously existing systems which is also another characteristic of techno-centric methods of design and system development. Ignoring the ‘old’ systems leads the designer to create something that is totally new to the organisation, and this also excludes the effects, the advantages, and the usability of the previous system. The usability of the system and the ability of people within the organisation to work with it came as a result of a long period of system modifications (whether hardware or software) and of personal training and different processes of errors and corrections; which is what can be considered as the social-related side of system development. All those elements will be totally discarded by the designer during his/her development of the new system, which will result in the new system going through the same stages that the old system passed through, and this is another form of time-related and financially-related losses to the organisation.
Chae and Poole (2005, p.19) pose an important question: “Is it possible for a large-scale information system to be developed ‘from scratch’?” Their explanation confirms that:
Accounts of system development and the systems development literature often focus primarily on the new system and tend to underemphasize the role of pre-existing systems… Few pay much attention to the role of pre-existing information systems in IS [Information Systems] development. To the extent the new system must integrate with pre-existing systems or use existing hardware and software… Existing systems have also been regarded as problems or barriers to the development of new IS and as disablers of IS-based organizational innovation and change… This approach, too, tends to treat pre-existing systems as objects, black boxes (e.g. Markus, 1983).
Those mentioned above are the most notable points when studying computer design in its conventional method, which is, as can be seen, techno-centric.
Even though conventional approaches of system design have been applied from the beginning of the age of Information Technology, they are still techno-centric. What designers should focus on are those system characteristics that are more operable by the individuals of an organisation; this includes the interface design, the language used within the various parts of the system (those related to both the software and the hardware) Another important point is the adaptability to the organisation that requested the system; the designers should understand fully that various factors that can lead the newly created system to be more social-oriented and to be what the organisation needs.
Techno-centric designs can work, but only in technical related fields and sections. Previous systems should be studied carefully before initiating the design plan for new ones; this will enable the designer to understand what characteristics worked previously, what structure are the employees and the managers used to work with, and which tools can be re-used within the new system.
Anderson and Vendelo (2004, p.27) explain the problem of techno-centric design by stating that “when introduced into a field, the technical system often needs to be changed to take into account the more holistic requirements that are present in the field, as users need to accommodate the technology in their daily routines.”
Anderson, K. V. and Vendelo, M. T. (2004) The Past and Future of Information Systems, Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.
Avgerou, C. and Cornford, T. (1998) Developing Information Systems: Concepts, Issues and Practice, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chae, B. and Scott, M. (2005) ‘The surface of emergence in systems development: agency, institutions, and large-scale information systems’, European Journal of Information Systems, 14, 19-36.
Davidson, E. and Chiasson, M. (2004) ‘Contextual influences on technology use mediation: a comparative analysis of electronic medical record systems’, European Journal of Information Systems, 14, 6-18.
Doherty, N. and King, M. (2005) ‘From technical to socio-technical change: tackling the human and organizational aspects of systems development projects’, European Journal of Information Systems, 14, 1-5.
Kelkar, S.A. (2004) Structured System Analysis and Design, New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India.
Simmers, L. (2004) Introduction to Health Science Technology, New York: Thomson Delmar Learning.
Are the work systems considered in week 2 readings based on an organisational or activity oriented perspective?
This paper explains the various modes in which organisations operate in order to achieve their business related objectives. This includes the organisational approach and the activity-related approach.
The paper also describes the work systems considered in the readings in order to identify according to which mode they operate, though the understanding of their structure and implementation of the various processes and procedures.
To be able to give a comprehensive response to the main question of this paper, we should understand the meaning of each term presented within it; and this will be of great help in the next parts of this paper.
As explained by Cope (2006, p.62), “a work system is a system of people and/or machines which perform a business process. An organisation is normally made up of many work systems. An information system supports and/or structures and/or controls and/or automates the work performed by other work systems”
Another source defines a work system by stating that it is “a complex network of means-ends relations. The basic many-to-many relationships in this network and its loose coupling is the basic source of the need for human intervention in order to remove ambiguity and to control the functional state” (Salvendy & Karwowski, 1994, p.69). This means that a work system includes every person and all items or tools that are functioning to perform a certain process required for the continuity, and profitability, of an organisation.
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ORGANSATIONAL vs. ACTIVITY-ORIENTED
As explained by Sachs (1995, p.36-37) there are two perspective methods of performing the various operations and processes of an entity, these are either organisational or activity-oriented. The organisational scheme can be determined and discovered through the evident use of different “sets of defined tasks and operations such as those described in methods and procedures, which fulfil a set of business functions” The activity–oriented method, on the other hand, “suggests that the range of activities, communication practices, relationships, and coordination it takes to accomplish business functions is complex and continually mediated by workers and managers alike.” As stated by the author, activity-oriented methods allow the employee or worker to improve, learn more, function better, and, ultimately, enhances the way in which the business as a whole functions. “An activity orientation draws on insights about work practice from several disciplines, including anthropology, history, and psychology, and in so doing provides a holistic approach to the analysis of work.”
Anderson and Vendelo (2004, p.143-144) agree with Sachs and explain that the method according to which an organisation functions will affect a “number of fields – including management studies, business administration, information systems development, organizational behaviour, job design, human resource management, training, etc.” and in relation to systems design, the authors confirm that this growing significant view reconceptualises “the nature of work and organizational life, and the role of information technology support. It emphasizes work practices, and the way learning is accomplished within communities of practice.” They also state that organizational mode is still the major one in the organisations of today; as it is considered to be “grounded in scientific management ideas, focusing on training, tasks, procedures, workflow and teams” while the activity-oriented method concentrates on “learning, know-how, networks, conceptual understanding, work practices, judgement, and communities”.
The example reported by Sachs for what concerns the organisational perspective is the one of the Trouble Ticketing System (TTS) which is a huge database system that is based on organising work tasks and distributing them on workers. In this case, the tasks performed by workers are only those that are considered by the system, while the activity-oriented method depends on each worker to solve problems from start to end rather than perform single tasks. “The underlying design assumption in organizational thinking is that technology design should eliminate human error. This differs sharply from the underlying assumption in activity-oriented thinking, which is that technology design should enhance the human capability of finding problems and solving them. Organizational thinking assumes that people create human error. Activity-oriented thinking assumes that people solve problems.” (p.40).
In the case of United Parcel Service (UPS), as explained by laudon and Laudon (1995, p.17), we find that it is clearly working according to the organisational method. This is evident as all the structure of work is organised through the use of a centralised system that communicates to drivers the required destinations of various packages, and gathers the delivery information concerning each package and adds it to its main database which can be consulted by anyone through the use of any Internet connected device. Communications between the employees are reduced to the minimum as all work related information can be obtained from the system; this includes the delivery department, the customer service department, the shipment department and management. Even the requests of customers can be done directly through the system as all the required information is provided (shipping rates, shipment routes, times, etc).
But on the other hand, there is a side of UPS that can be considered activity-oriented; this can be found in what concerns the sales department and the marketing department; these two functions require a different approach and it is being followed. The focus, when it comes to these two sections of the work process, depends solely on the performance which is not measured through tasks, but through problem solving from start to end. Communication, training, and know-how are essential here. The duty of the departments in question is to identify problems, locate the causes, and come up with successful solution.
A clear case of the organisational approach is the one of the company called Electronic Banking System Inc. In this company, every single individual is responsible for a specific task, he/she is being monitored all the time, the production of each individual is checked continuously, conversations between employees/workers are not allowed if not related to task performance, and even looking out the window (which is considered to be nothing more than distraction from work) is not allowed (Horowitz, 1996, p.322). According to this system, any error is digitally monitored and immediately reported. As explained earlier, in a system such as this one, there is no space for improvement, and there is no need for problem solving skills; what each person should do is pre-set and no special talents or know-how qualities are required.
System design in organisational businesses and entities is, to a certain extent, fairly simple; as the tasks are well defined before the designer, the level of the various users’ rights and privileges is evident, and the processes to perform are directly requested by the organisation.
Development in the activity oriented environment is difficult as it is needed to separate the situational and the personal elements and the effects each one has on the other during the process of interaction. The designer should be able to identify the required processes and operations through the help of analytical tools (Peiro, 1995, p.284). This means that a social study in what concerns the various functions of the system should performed by the designer in advance in order to enable him/her to produce the required work system.
Another important factor for the designer is to be able to comprehend the various policies within the organisation in question in order to reach the desired system which complies with those rules and policies. It is also possible for the designer to offer a possibility of continuous communications, learning, and enhancement through the system even in businesses based on the organisational method.
Cope, C. (2006) Beneath the Surface, Santa Rosa, CA: Informing Science Press.
Salvendy, G. and Karwowski, W. (Ed.). (1994) Design of Work and Development of Personnel in Advanced Manufacturing, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Sachs, P. (1995) ‘Transforming Work: Collaboration, Learning, and Design’, Association for Computing Machinery. Communications of the ACM, 38, 9 36-44.
Anderson, K. V. and Vendelo, M. T. (2004) The Past and Future of Information Systems, Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.
Laudon, K. and Laudon, J. (2005). Management Information Systems: Managing the Digital Firm, 9th edn, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Horowitz, T. (1996) ‘Mr. Edens Profits from Watching His Workers’ Every Move’, in Kling, R. Computerization and Controversy, San Diego: Academic Press, pp.322-325.
Peiro, J.M. (1995) Work and Organizational Psychology: European Contributions of the Nineties, East Sussex, Erlbaum (UK) Taylor & Francis.
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