The contribution of critical IS research

Stahl, Bernd Carsten and Brooke, Carole (2008) The contribution of critical IS research. Communications of the ACM, 51 (3). pp. 51-55. ISSN 0001-0782

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Abstract

A new information system is introduced to General Medical Practitioners' (GPs) practice to ease the administrative burden and to help them submit electronic claims. The system is developed and implemented by a central department after very limited consultations with the users. It turns out that the main benefits accrue in the central IS department and that there are very little benefits for the envisaged users. External suppliers follow the requirements analysis of the central department and optimize their own outcomes. The end users, the GPs in question, grow disillusioned with the system, and start to resist it. The system remains in place because of the power of the central purchasing authority but never delivers the promised benefits. Does this story sound familiar? That may be because it has been published in the literature (case 3 in [4]). It may also be because it is very typical in many respects. There are the typical common ingredients of system failure: lack of communication, lack of user involvement, differing agendas, political power games, to name just a few. Many IT practitioners will have come across these. But the question is still open: what can be done about such problems?

In this paper we suggest that a suitable and novel way of addressing such organizational problems of IT is what has been called the "critical approach". The word "critical" can have a variety of different meanings when applied to IT. Software can be mission critical, which means very important. Systems analysts are supposed to be critical thinkers and this suggests they should spot logical flaws in requirements or design. Users can be critical of systems, implying that they do not approve of them. However, in academic texts, the term "critical" (as in "critical theory" or "critical social sciences") has taken on a more specific meaning. The critical approach to information systems has been known to researchers for quite a while and is generally acknowledged to be an alternative to either "positivism" or "interpretivism".

Despite a growing attention to critical research in academic circles, there seems to be little corresponding activity among IT practitioners. We believe that IT / IS practice could benefit greatly from the critical approach and will therefore use this paper to investigate why little practical activity is taking place in the area. In a second step we will then demonstrate why critical research would be beneficial for IT professionals. In a final section we will consider how practitioners can benefit from critical ideas without falling into the dual trap of either trivializing the approach or becoming lost in its complexities.

Item Type:Article
Additional Information:A new information system is introduced to General Medical Practitioners' (GPs) practice to ease the administrative burden and to help them submit electronic claims. The system is developed and implemented by a central department after very limited consultations with the users. It turns out that the main benefits accrue in the central IS department and that there are very little benefits for the envisaged users. External suppliers follow the requirements analysis of the central department and optimize their own outcomes. The end users, the GPs in question, grow disillusioned with the system, and start to resist it. The system remains in place because of the power of the central purchasing authority but never delivers the promised benefits. Does this story sound familiar? That may be because it has been published in the literature (case 3 in [4]). It may also be because it is very typical in many respects. There are the typical common ingredients of system failure: lack of communication, lack of user involvement, differing agendas, political power games, to name just a few. Many IT practitioners will have come across these. But the question is still open: what can be done about such problems? In this paper we suggest that a suitable and novel way of addressing such organizational problems of IT is what has been called the "critical approach". The word "critical" can have a variety of different meanings when applied to IT. Software can be mission critical, which means very important. Systems analysts are supposed to be critical thinkers and this suggests they should spot logical flaws in requirements or design. Users can be critical of systems, implying that they do not approve of them. However, in academic texts, the term "critical" (as in "critical theory" or "critical social sciences") has taken on a more specific meaning. The critical approach to information systems has been known to researchers for quite a while and is generally acknowledged to be an alternative to either "positivism" or "interpretivism". Despite a growing attention to critical research in academic circles, there seems to be little corresponding activity among IT practitioners. We believe that IT / IS practice could benefit greatly from the critical approach and will therefore use this paper to investigate why little practical activity is taking place in the area. In a second step we will then demonstrate why critical research would be beneficial for IT professionals. In a final section we will consider how practitioners can benefit from critical ideas without falling into the dual trap of either trivializing the approach or becoming lost in its complexities.
Keywords:management, information systems, critical research, information technology, critical theory, case studies
Subjects:G Mathematical and Computer Sciences > G500 Information Systems
N Business and Administrative studies > N100 Business studies
N Business and Administrative studies > N215 Organisational Development
N Business and Administrative studies > N200 Management studies
Divisions:College of Social Science > Lincoln Business School
ID Code:1867
Deposited By: Bev Jones
Deposited On:28 May 2009 11:36
Last Modified:13 Mar 2013 08:32

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