Re: Musings on technology and organizational learning

George L. Roth (groth@MIT.EDU)
Mon, 12 Dec 94 21:06:34

Robert Levi wrote:

> George,
> I would agree with everything you've written. I would like to distinguish
> technology further by speaking about it in terms of software and hardware.
> When it is examined in this way, technology becomes much more tangible and
> down-to-earth. My job responsibility includes maintaining networks of about
> 150 computers,supporting the people who use them, and wading through all the
> software, etc. that they need in order to 'informate' more effectively. What
> Capra was speaking about is something I have direct experience with, and
> that is that there is a lot of 'control' required on my part to keep
> everything running smoothly. In working with the technology on that level, I
> notice a fundamental difference between that and working with the people,
> who don't like to be controled.
> My comment simply is that as technology becomes more complex, it becomes
> harder and harder to control the complexity, leading to more and more
> breakdowns in the structures. Speaking about it this way, I do not see a
> difference between 'automate' and 'infomate'...the hardware still needs
> quite a bit of control to work effectively. Once that control is lost, users
> are much more wary of using the technology because they become afraid of
> doing something they can't fix.
> Is my meaning clear?

> =========================================


Your meaning is perhaps cleaerr when limited to technology of computers
that you are familar with. The argument regarding complexity of
technology is one which Charles Perrow has made very elegantly (Normal
Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies, Basic Books, 1984).

Although you propose distinguishing hardware and software, my comment was
at another level. Both hardware and software are inventions of man.
Anything that man constructs is developed from a particular perspective
and based on certain values. There is no such thing as "value-free"
technology (see Orlikowski, "The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the
Concept of Technology in Organizations" in Organization Science, Vol 3,
1992). This argument is one which philosophers as well have long made.

My favorite historian/philosopher on this subject is Michel Foucault and
his notion of Panopticon. His ideas are important to people that run IS
organizations and operations. Basically, he states that the technology
which is created to monitor and control others is eventually the
technology that ends up monitoring and controlling its creators. The
Panopticon was an architectural innovation of Jeremy Bentham (another
philosopher). Panopticon was a techical triumph for disciplinary society
that exploited productive potential of its subjects, it was said by
Foucault that it would eventually entrap its creators. I suppose that
this can be translated into a stern warning to IS directors regarding the
systems THEY create and how THEY implement and USE computer technology.

I suppose in some ways it is aligned with the point you were trying to
make, but it is NOT a complexity argument, rather a philosophical one.
(references for further reading are Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The
Birth of a Prison, Vintage Books, 1979 and Ron Harrison, Bentham,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983).

I don't see the distinction of hardware and software being that useful
because both can be so complex that the user doesn't understand them.
And, both have to have elements of control so that they work predictably
and reliably, however, that is very different than their implementation
and use, or predetermined destiny, in controlling people. Probably one
idea that relates more closely to what you are talking about is
SUPERSTITUOUS learning - which occurs when people attribute causality and
meaning to something they don't understand or have a theory about. (I know
some good references here too, but I'm afraid this is getting too

Where I see the overlap of our discussion with issues around learning
organizations is at the LEVEL of underlying philosophy. It is true that
the predominant philosophy in implementing computers is one of control and
monitoring, however, I would be more cautious in making the assessment
that this is the only possible philosophical orientation. Zuboff's work
was in DISTINGUISHING technical capabilities and philosophical
orientations that were needed to support the "intellective" components
that make up knowledge work.

An interesting side conversation would the dilemma that knowledge workers
are often using computers and information systems which are probably more
designed for control, production and predictability than for creativity
and learning.

Where I see the REAL PROBLEM in business today is that people whose
paradigm is in building information systems are becoming more involved in
organizational change efforts. The concern is that with all that we know
about information systems the history of their application has been filled
with rather dismal results, with the exception of a few, repeatedly
referenced success stories. Now, after that kind of success record the
reengineering movement seeks to let people, mostly with a history and
background in IS, redesign organizational processes. The issue that I have
seen is that those people often seek to design organizational processes so
that the computer can function more effectively, not the people using the
computer. People are ultimately more flexible than technology so they are
often the ones asked to make the adjustments. Do you wonder why Hammer
and Champy find that 70% of reengineering projects fail?

I hope that these comments hels in clarifying differences on the
philosophical concepts of informate and automate that I wrote about. It
is a crucial distinction for people responsible for implementing and
maintain computer systems, especially if there is an espoused philosophy
which accompanies the use of that technology in a organization that seeks
to become a learning organization.

Original message:

>My thoughts are that technology is "just" a tool which can be used in
>different ways by different tool users. In terms of information
>technology and its uses, I have found Zuboff's book, "In the Age of the
>Smart Machine" (1988) to be an excellent treatise on the topic. In
>particular, she distinguishes uses of information technology that automate
>(the 'control' paradigm) with uses that 'informate' (enabling new and
>different kinds of work practices through access to information).
>The philosophy underlying the work of building learning organizations is
>substantially different from that of planned, heirarchical, or
>authoritarian change efforts. The tools that are used to promote learning
>can be used in either change process, but its the philosophy and how that
>philosophy plays out in practice that makes the difference. Technology, I
>propose, is a vehicle that reflects and further its developers'
>approaches, intentions, and interests.

groth@MIT.EDU (George L. Roth)