Technology And Organization Research Paper

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The term ‘technology’ is in common everyday use. It may be popularly visualized in purely physical terms as ‘equipment,’ ‘apparatus,’ ‘pieces of hardware and software,’ and it may be defined by different commentators in different ways. Whatever the case may be, what are much more serious than definitional problems are the practical implications of the development, implementation, and control of technology by a few for the use of the many in an organization and in wider society. This research paper addresses the issue of technology and the relationship between technology and ‘organization.’

1. Organizing And Organization: An Overview

To initiate a discussion on the relationship between organization and technology it is important first to define what is meant by each of the two terms. First, what is meant by the term ‘organization’? Well, to organize something is to ‘systemize’ it for a certain desired end. ‘Organizing’ a group of people is a process that aims to give an orderly structure to that group with a view to achieving a goal or fulfilling an objective in mind. In such a process the group in question acquires, or is brought into, a state of being ‘organized.’ This definition is quite a broad one; it is meant to be so since an encompassing conceptualization of the term is required to grasp the range of possible positions and influences of technology in and on organizations.

From an organizational studies perspective, organizations are defined as social arrangements for the controled performance of collective goals (see Huczynski and Buchanan 1991). In a broad sense, therefore, examples of an organization may include an African tribe, Juventus Football Club, a consumer electronic goods manufacturer, the European Union, or the University of Harvard.

2. Defining Technology

Technology has received increased attention since the late twentieth century, because of the pace of technological advancement and the magnitude of its diffusion in society. Indeed, it is likely to impose itself as a pivotal organizational issue more forcefully than ever before, because of the pervasiveness of ‘new’ technology and its effects on organizing and on the structure and functioning of organizations as well as the behaviour of individuals and groups within them. Examples of new technologies include information technology, biotechnology, materials technology, space technology, and nuclear technology.

But what is technology? Well, again there is no single answer to this question, although to a layperson it is merely ‘equipment,’ ‘apparatus,’ or ‘pieces of hardware and software.’ Even amongst commentators in the field of organizational studies differences can be found as to how technology is defined. Regardless of the way it is defined, however, technology is an important factor in organizing and organizational life. A suitable working definition for the purpose of this research paper is that, in essence, technology is a man-made creation of a system that is supposed to work logically and consistently and is made operational to produce a desired accomplishment that is valued by its inventor or user. Such an accomplishment is often reproducible, through the system, to a given set of performance criteria or precision.

The creation of such a system involves translating some pure science knowledge into an input–conversion–output system format based on engineering principles and composed of elements which are functionally arranged or configured so as to yield a certain output as specified by the designer or user (see Clark et al. 1988). According to this definition, technology is defined not only in terms of its physical objects but also in terms of its methods of operation, use, or production and the technical know-how needed to apply them successfully. Human intervention in the operation of a system usually takes the form of monitoring the system’s conversion process and controling its output through a specific feedback mechanism.

3. Conceptualization And Meaning: From Neutral Rationality To Political Sensitivity

Conceptualization of technology merely in terms of ‘equipment,’ ‘apparatus,’ ‘pieces of hardware and software’ carries with it shades of pure rationality in mind. This conceptualization depicts technology as nothing more than a physical construction of a proven scientific idea or inference. The emphasis here is on technology as a manifestation of a purely logical effort which produces a neutral ‘object’ or ‘pattern of operation’ that helps mankind per se rationalize a given work task or improve the quality of a certain aspect of social or work life. This is often achieved by substituting human effort with machine effort, a phenomenon which began historically with physical effort (mechanization) and continues today with human coordination and intellectual efforts being replaced with inputs from ‘smart machines’ (computerization and automation). This takes place in an information age where information technology has become part of a global culture and knowledge-based artificial intelligence is likely to progress further. Thus far the notion of technology could be described as an objective description of an outer form of a disinterested, ‘inanimate’ object or mechanistic pattern of operation.

The above chosen system definition of technology, however, goes beyond this rather simplistic conceptualization as it takes on board the role of the designer or user in configuring a system which gives an output in accordance with the designer’s prespecified performance criteria. Therefore, the proposition that technology could be explained merely in terms of presumed neutral rationality grounded in a specific scientific logic appears suddenly to be in question as a credible explanation because of the interference of the subjectivities of those associated with its instrumentalization and operation in the real world.

Just how politically sensitive technology is can be illustrated by explaining how significant it is to organizing and organizations. This is a turning point in conceptualizing technology as a serious organizational development involving actual and perceived impacts of a system’s output upon organizing and within organizations. In this sense, technology is capable of being socially divisive. That is, a system’s output can and does affect the status quo of any organization which accommodates it or comes to live under its influence. This will have implications for any long-established equilibrium in relationships, balances of power, and any sense of continuity within the organization. It may also have implications for the wider industrial sector or economy in which the organization operates and with which it interacts. Additionally, it may indeed have implications for the environment (e.g., pollution and health hazards in the case of a nuclear technology). Since differences of interpretation among individuals and groups will inevitably occur in the world of meaning, a system’s output will signify and symbolize different things to different people; it will be highly valued by some but not by others; seem useful to some as something that improves the quality of working life, for example, and harmful to others who see in it a threat or deterioration. In short, it is liable to being controversial and bringing about a sense of dispute as to why it has been acquired in the first place and, now that is has, how it should be managed and controlled to minimize its potential damage.

Furthermore, what makes technology a politically sensitive issue in organizational life is the fact that invariably technology is decided upon, adopted, designed, implemented, and changed by a minority of people in an organization (e.g., managers) on behalf of the majority of the organization’s members (e.g., employees) who have to live with the consequences of operating it as an integral part of their jobs. Nonusers are also likely be affected, in that their jobs will now require different coordination skills to keep them in harmony with a changed rhythm and workflow throughout the workplace, for example, where new production methods are introduced by management. A common concern for users and nonusers alike may be that the introduction of a new input–conversion– output system format into the workplace is going to disrupt stability and that they have to change their working methods in order to suit the operational requirements of a new and somehow threatening technology-dictated work system.

By the same token, technology, at a societal level, is often invented by a single individual (e.g., a scientist) or an elitist minority in society (e.g., a technology research centre or a team of top biochemists); it is commercialized, marketed, and diffused by another minority (e.g., entrepreneurs or manufacturing companies) who are driven by a different set of motives (e.g., profit-making); it is regulated and controlled centrally by yet another minority (e.g., a sovereign state’s legislature or a federal government). Yet, this technology is highly likely to be consumed by the vast majority in society. Even nonconsumers are likely to be affected by it in either a positive or negative way, or both. Because of this minority–majority situation, technology acquires necessarily social, economic, and political implications as well as rational, logical, and technical significances.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the politics of organizational change are increasingly accomplished through technologies in a digital age. Many of the most radical redesign projects for organizations have been in and through the use of digital technologies: from computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) to process re-engineering in manufacturing industry; from projects for ‘virtuality’ to extensive teleworking, organizations are being sold on projects of technical rationality as visions for the future. Yet so many of these projects appear to be stillborn: the technologies work but the organizational designs do not. Sometimes people sabotage the technologies; other times the technologies sabotage them. In a way, organizations are reduced to criteria of design from which most considerations of the politics of organizational change are absent. This is often the case even where the projects are explicitly political or require explicit politics to manage their changes. It is the politics of organizational change technologies that make the critical difference: how, and whether, they work.

4. The Relevance Of Technology To Managing And Management

It would be misleading to suggest that management should constitute an homogeneous team making rational decisions. Different levels and functions of management within an organization tend not to be a single social or political decision-making group sharing a single rationality; these will therefore tend to hold different perceptions of technological change and are likely to differ between themselves as to how it should be managed (see Pettigrew 1985). Yet it is clear from the discussion so far that an organization includes people who, because of their membership of a collective social group, interact with one another in certain ways to achieve goals which if they act alone they cannot accomplish. Since it is management’s responsibility to have work tasks carried out by employees, in the context of a business organization for example, it follows that the impact of technology is of central concern to managers per se, particularly those who are in charge of implementing projects involving the introduction of a new technology. Planning, control, implementation, and evaluation activities relating to such projects require decisions to be made, ranging from individual motivation through job design to the management of change and coordination of a newly designed work organization. Such decisions are made by managers occupying different positions within an organization’s management structure. Regardless of how successful or unsuccessful those decisions will come to be judged by others, it is management as an institution that is going to be judged in terms of its rationality and political sensitivity as well in terms of its dominant attitudes, values, and ideological persuasions.

Whatever the type of organization or management an external observer chooses to study, technology is relevant to organization because the latter is necessarily a source of the following:

(a) money and physical resources, including technology itself;

(b) meaning and purpose, including how different individuals and groups within an organization perceive technology in relation to these variables;

(c) order and stability, including how stabilizing or destabilizing it is in the context of a change project involving the introduction of a new technology;

(d) security and protection, including the consequences of change for security of employment and health and safety concerns;

(e) prestige and self-confidence, including possible improvement or degradation of job design and satisfaction following the utilization of a certain technology; and

(f ) power and control, including technology-related assignment of authority and shifts in the de facto balance of power due to empowerment caused by, for example, expert knowledge of a key technology. Therefore, management’s role in, and responsibilities for, technological change should be emphasized as a legitimate concern for an organization’s stakeholders who are not members of the governing institution of management, because of, among other things, the strategic, operational, and control choices available to managers in planning, design and implementation (see Buchanan 1983, Sorge et al. 1983, Child 1987).

5. The Technology–Organization Link: Empirical Studies And Theorization

The relationship between technology and organization could be perceived, explained, and theorized upon differently by different people and groups, depending on many factors as explained above. This is in harmony with a central assumption of this research paper, which recognizes the legitimacy of a multiplicity of views as to what constitutes this relationship.

Such multiplicity is reflected in the management literature, including major empirical studies theorizing upon the organization–technology relationship. Examples of these studies include Joan Woodward’s (1965) investigation of 100 firms in south east England, which used different unit and small batch, large batch and mass, and process production technologies. The main conclusion of this study was that technical complexity caused increases in the length of chain of command, in executives’ span of control, in the proportion of indirect to direct labor, and in the proportion of managers to the total employed workforce. The technology used to manufacture a product placed certain requirements on those who operated it, which, in turn, were reflected in the organizational structure. Woodward’s variable was further studied by Charles Perrow (1976) whose name is also associated with ‘technological determinism’ since he argued that specific aspects of job discretion, coordination, and group interdependence were determined by the type of technology used, much more so than by other variables such as leadership style or small group dynamics.

The Aston research program in Birmingham, England (e.g., Pugh and Hickson 1976, Pugh and Hinings 1976) contributed to organization theory by blending some of the research methods and assumptions of psychology with conceptions of organizations and their workings from sociology and economics. The empirical work undertaken by the Aston group aimed to link organizational structure and functioning, group composition, and interaction, as well as individual personality and behavior. It did so by researching organizational structures in terms of their degrees of ‘specialization,’ ‘standardization,’ ‘formalization,’ ‘centralization,’ and ‘configuration.’ According to the Aston studies, an organization’s size and its dependence upon other organizations were found to be much more significant variables than technology and ownership.

Other relevant empirical contributions to theory include that of Eric Trist and his colleagues, of London’s Tavistock Institute, who studied the effects of mechanization in coal mining (e.g., Trist and Bamforth 1951, Emery and Trist 1960). Their ‘sociotechnical perspective’ contributed considerably to the Quality of Working Life movement, particularly in the USA and Canada, where Fredrick Taylor’s (1947) ‘scientific management’ style dominated the industrial scene as many large organizations followed Henry Ford’s mass production model, which caused degradation in working conditions in the context of a capitalist economy.

Classical theorizing about organizational technology has produced a set of typologies for categorizing technology, which are often used to develop and empirically test contingency theories, including Woodward’s (1965) above mentioned work, giving rise to the notion of ‘technological imperative.’ Other important issues concerning social structure are associated with the position of technology in modernist organization theory, including task interdependence, uncertainty, complexity, and change in the environment of an organization. Linear models of technological innovation are increasingly being challenged, however, by posmodernist theorists and social constructionists (e.g., Clegg 1990, Gergen 1992, Pettigrew 1985) who emphasize the need for researching the contexts in which technologies are introduced.

6. Conclusion

In summary, this research paper has addressed questions pertaining to the management of technology adoption and organizational adaptation in organizations. It defined the terms organization and technology and discussed the relationship between them. One single point remains at issue: the desire for an ‘optimum fit’ between the two is a noble concern, but in practical situations involving many users and a few decision makers and, equally, in theoretical situations involving numerous typologies and competing interpretations, on whose terms?

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