of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 3

February/March 2000

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Getting Beyond the Simple Assumptions of Organizational Impact

by Eric H. Johnson

I come to library and information science from a programming and computer science background. I became interested in online information systems while working on experimental hypertext applications before the World Wide Web seemed to make everything else irrelevant. My current work involves building distributed applications that show how clients running on desktop computers
can share the load with servers during information retrieval, while at the same time making better use of network bandwidth.

In this article, I focus on one central issue related to social informatics that as a techie who produces running code for networked information systems I find especially troubling: what are the real consequences of networked information systems for end users in the workplace? One aspect that still confounds me is how to reconcile the basic premise of social informatics - that it is critical to gain knowledge of the social practices and values of intended users - with the basic work of system developers. How, if at all, can programmers practice and apply social informatics?

When programmers profess concern for the end user, they invoke the mantra of usability. However, usability comes second to whether the intended user would want to perform the tasks required by the software in the first place and whether such tasks serve the interest of the user. I know from personal experience that if you want something out of a database badly enough, it doesn't matter how much effort it takes to get it; you'll still get it somehow, even if the experience causes you undue pain. Your willingness to do so comes from your personal interest in getting the information. On the other hand, if you have no interest in what a database contains, or worse, using it will cause you to work harder than you have to, you won't use it, even if the application has a beautifully designed and very easy-to-use interface.

User interface design seems to be closest to social informatics issues because it influences the part of the software that is in direct contact with the user, but this turns out to be only a superficial relationship. The design of the entire application influences usability and indicates the state of awareness of the designers regarding the social and organizational issues relevant to its use. The introduction of software into an organization changes it irrevocably, but not in ways explainable by a naive impact view, where the researcher asks how has the introduction of software changed the organization? Social change happens as an epiphenomenon of countless decisions made by countless individuals, and the adaptation of information technologies produces differential consequences along the organizational hierarchy. Often - as recognized by advocates of participatory design approaches to information system development - the implementation of networked information systems serves the interests of socioeconomic elites but not the working class.

As the work practice studies of researchers like Lucy Suchman and colleagues have demonstrated, when workers in an organization encounter a new software application, they bring their own interpretations to how they use it and how it represents the work of others. They do not receive such changes passively, even though they may still work within the bounds of organizational rules, keep to their job descriptions and perform satisfactory work as judged by their supervisors. Their response to new software in the workplace, as with any other kind of technology, may range from acceptance to rejection, the latter oftentimes accompanied by various forms of subterfuge, including outright sabotage.

What troubles me the most about the work in social informatics is the extent to which it may fall prey to the tacit acceptance of the mantras of efficiency, connectivity and productivity. Rob Kling (in "What is Social Informatics and Why Does it Matter?" - his very readable explanation of the origin and goals of social informatics) identifies the productivity paradox as a pervasive and serious problem: despite massive investment in computer technology and networks, corporate productivity has not appreciatively increased. Kling notes that social informatics can help address this problem by offering social explanations - that go beyond simplistic technological determinism - for the absence of expected productivity benefits.

But social informatics also provides a mandate to go beyond productivity, to examine more deeply macro and micro social consequences in organizations. An important research question is how the pursuit of productivity gains through the implementation of networked information systems can result in devaluation of smaller-scale, independent, less efficient enterprises, which may actually serve their communities better than their large-scale, globalized and extremely efficient counterparts.

In contrast to published research reports whose main concern seems to be finding ways to rectify the perceived problem of unrealized productivity gains, various underground magazines, and now Websites as well, publish narratives written by workers. In them they tell in plain, unvarnished and unexpurgated language of their daily torments as end users in the workplace and how badly their bosses and supervisors treat them. Other themes include the ineffectual and insincere, if not cynically misleading, efforts by corporations to improve working conditions with new computer systems, which often as not makes them even worse than before. This underground literature recommends various computer "fixes" - examples range from setting up the desktop display so that all colors are black to the insertion of obscenities as autocorrect words in word processors - as distinctly practical means of direct action.

Such narratives provide real world evidence of how intensely disenfranchised office workers can feel and show how the consequences of networked information system use can fall outside boundaries of productivity gains. Insights gained from the informal review of workers' experiences as they are expressed in the kinds of informal documents cited above suggest that changes to software design can do little to rectify the gulf between those at opposite ends of the corporate hierarchy, because their differences are fundamentally social and economic. As the computer becomes yet another tool for owners and executives to use to manage their corporations and therefore control their employees, they also become yet another means by which disenfranchised workers can vent their frustration and anger.

By donning the hats of both the Luddite and devil's advocate, I have tried to convey my view that one vibrant area of inquiry for social informatics concerns issues of what constitutes equitable and sustainable communities. What is really important to the users of tools, whether they be computers or any other thing, is not that they be easy to use so much as that they allow their users to control them in ways that suit their own purposes. Greater efficiency and productivity do not necessarily best serve workplace needs.

Small scale, non-networked, comparatively inefficient and somewhat redundant systems can benefit people more than systems built according to the mantras of efficiency, connectivity and productivity now being taken to the nth degree by the Internet and the economic forces that drive its growth. As a programmer, I am still unsure how increased awareness of the real micro and macro consequences of the implementation of networked systems within the workplace context can inform my work.

Each project has circumstances and social relationships unique to it, and these can change during the course of implementing the project in ways both related and unrelated to the changes in software. Social informatics therefore provides not so much a method as it does a perspective, which combined with the political points made above, can provide the basis for critical assessment of information systems. But the political perspective is crucial as to whether the outcome benefits those who must use such systems in their daily work or those who own them.

Eric H. Johnson is a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and
Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He can be
reached by e-mail at
ejohnson@uiuc.edu.


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@ 2000, American Society for Information Science