Workers embrace IT that fosters coordination; reject IT that controls

September 24, 2003

Managers about to add new computer-based systems should be aware: a technology that fosters access and coordination will be embraced by workers while one that controls behavior to increase productivity will be rejected, say two Penn State researchers who studied how workers adopted IT tools such as software, cell phones and other Internet applications.

"We have this production view of the world in which new software will improve workers' efficiencies and effectiveness, but new technologies don't just speed things up," said Steve Sawyer, associate professor of information sciences and technology (IST). "They can change the nature of work which can affect whether workers adopt them."

Managers and decision makers who understand how people work and how systems work are more likely to introduce technologies that will be both embraced and used productively. But systems developed out of context, with little regard for workers' preferences and implemented without considering their functional effects, won't be used to capacity. In those cases, workers' resistance leads not to an increase in efficiencies, but rather to a decrease.

Sawyer and co-author Andrea Tapia, assistant professor of information sciences and technology (IST), based those conclusions on studies of three groups of workers: software developers; organizational information technologists or IT staff; and residential real estate agents. Their findings appear in "The Computerization of Work: A Social Informatics Prospective," in Computers and Society: Privacy, Ethics and the Internet, edited by Joey George and published by Prentiss Hall.

Computerization of work can create positive changes. Sawyer and Tapia argue that cell phone technology revamped residential real estate agents' work by cutting ties to central offices.

"Cell phones allowed real estate agents to coordinate better, to work out of their cars and home offices, to create 'talking houses'," Sawyer said. "Agents saw value and used cell phones in ways they weren't designed to be used."

But the researchers also discuss how computerization of work can sometimes go awry. They note that when computer-aided software engineering tools first hit the market, the target user - software developers - rejected them. The low adoption rate had nothing to do with the technology's functionality and everything to do with the tools' control of the design process.

Software developers viewed themselves as freewheeling individuals with idiosyncratic work practices. Those first CASE tools imposed a structured, lock-step model of software development that developers found distasteful, Sawyer said. Only after managers switched to tools with less embedded control did software developers embrace them.

Similarly, the introduction of enterprise-resource planning (ERP) systems in the late 1990s changed the work done by organizations' IT staff, or the programmers, database specialists and systems analysts who support an organization's computing infrastructures and applications.

Whereas once IT staff members developed and operated internally constructed systems, the computerization of their work through ERP systems changed organizational technologists' roles more to management.

"This has been a difficult adjustment for many because the new systems (ERP) were based on technologies that lay outside of the organizational technologist's skill set," Sawyer said. "Trained in mainframe and character-based technologies, IT staff now had to shift to client-serving computing. Instead of working independently, organizational technologists had to share tasks."
-end-


Penn State

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