Posted by: karisyd | July 6, 2011

E2.0 as Grassroots Tinkering

I have just re-read an interesting paper by one of Information Systems’ greatest, Claudio Ciborra, on Strategic Information Systems (SIS). While the paper is almost 20 years old its main idea turns out to be intriguing and is still very relevant today, in particular for Enterprise 2.0.

The paper criticises the common approach to strategising in information systems that postulates the use of models, best practice and top down agenda setting. We all would agree that this is how strategy making is taught in Universities and described in textbooks. It sounds like common sense.

But here is the catch. Using the same models, approaches and best practices asyour competitor will not give you a (lasting) advantage. So what is so strategic about.

Based on that observation Ciborra advocates for a tinkering instead of a thinking approach. The idea is compelling and very much reflected in the underlying ideas to Enterprise 2.0: In order to create unique systems these should emerge from the grass roots level on the organisation. Thereby they will be intimately entangled with the organisation’s culture and work practices. This will give the company two advantages at the same time. The likelihood is higher that the system fits the users’ needs (compared to top down design and roll-out) and it becomes impossible to imitate, since the system emerged from the unique, tacit structures of the organisation.

How is this relevant to Enterprise 2.0? Isn’t E2.0 based on standard technology? Yammer, Socialcast, Google+, what-have-you?

Yes, but as I have argued many times, E2.0 technologies are open and largely undefined.In order to be used productively they need to be experimented with and usage practices need to emerge bottom up. So, whereas the mere adoption of these systems does not give you any advantage per se, once these platforms have been adopted in unique ways, such usage practices are hard to imitate. And they will fit the users perfectly, because it is the users essentially who will define what exactly social networking and microblogging is in a particular organisation.

No two E2.0 projects are the same, they cannot be planned in the true sense of the word and their outcomes are unpredictable. But once they are working E2.0 platforms are powerful and can give their organisations an edge, as many successful examples show.

So Claudio Ciborra’s “From Thinking to Tinkering: The Grassroots of Strategic Information Systems” (in The Information Society 8: 297-309) is still (or even more) relevant today, as it was in 1992. Here are some of his ideas:

  • Cherish local knowledge and everyday experience
  • Value open experimentation, prototyping by end-users and design tinkering
  • Establish systematic serendipity, don’t aim for sequential execution in systems design
  • Strive on emergence, accept failure

Sounds still familiar, right?


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