|Notes on a structurational view of digital information in organizations|
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|Abstract||Introduction||The Structuration of Organizations||The Infomation Use Evironment|
Information as a Resource
Information has become an important resource in organizations and is once again moving into the center of research attention, especially as more of this information is rendered in digital form. When digital information is considered as an organizational resource, it is an undertheorized concept. In an effort to rethink this concept, this paper proposes a structurational framework for digital organizational information within which this type of information is treated as a resource in an organizational information use environment (IUE). One objective of this paper is to develop this framework in detail, clarifying a base from which the social implications of organizational digital information may be explored.
The structuration approach is used because it is "a highly useful framework for the analysis of organizations" (Mills and Murgatroyd (1991; 12). The structurational conception of digital organizational information as a resource is an important element of an organization's IUE, because of the way in which it can extend the power of those who control it (Rosenbaum, 1996b; Orlikowski, 1992). Taylor's (1991) concept of the IUE is used because it focuses on the organizational environment in "information terms." A second objective of this paper is to argue that the access to and control of digital information in organizations is a fundamental characteristic of the structuration of modern organiza given serious and sustained research attention.
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Information has become important in organizations and is once again moving to the center of research attention (Katzer and Fletcher, 1992; Choo, 1995, 1991), especially as more and more organizational information is rendered in digital form. However, when considered as a resource, digital organizational information is an undertheorized concept. In an effort to rethink this concept, a framework for digital organizational information is proposed which makes use of a structurational concept of the information use environment (IUE) (Rosenbaum, 1996b). The structuration approach seeks to "illuminate the concrete processes of social life" by focusing on "social practices ordered across time and space," (Giddens, 1984; 219, 1979); it is used because it is "a highly useful framework for the analysis of organizations" (Mills and Murgatroyd (1991; 12). It posits "communication as an essential element in the ongoing organizing process" and focuses on the "practical activities of human agents in particular historical, cultural, and institutional contexts" (Orlikowski and Yates, 1996; 541). Taylor's concept of the IUE is used because it focuses on this environment in "information terms," emphasizing the importance of "organizations, people, and problems in ways that are useful to the design of information systems and to the understanding of the interface between system and human user" (1991, 24; 1986, 15).
Beginning with a discussion of the structuration of organizations, the paper focuses on the importance of the IUE in this process. Of the various components that constitute the IUE one singled out for attention is the organizational resource, of which digital organizational information is an example. Having located digital organizational information within this framework, the argument is made that one significant social implication is that access to and control of this type of information is a fundamental characteristic of the structuration of organizations. Following Yates and Sumner (1997; 3) for the purposes of this paper, digital organizational information is defined as "any social and contextually complete semantic unit of communication - including text, video, audio, hypermedia, multimedia, and computer mediated communication - which is created, stored, and transmitted via digital media." Examples include, but are not limited to, email, web pages, spreadsheets, accounting records, newsletters, reports and databases.
This paper attempts to sketch the outlines of a theoretical framework for a structurational concept of digital organization. As such, it does not differentiate among the varieties of digital organizational information nor does it explore the technical problems of working with this type of information in organizations. While interesting topics, they are beyond the scope of this paper.
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II. The Structuration of Organizations
What is an organization from a structurational point of view?
An organization is composed of structure, seen here as rules and resources, sets of routinized social practices, and the people who interact regularly within its spatial and temporal boundaries. Giddens' conception of the duality of structure, wherein social structure is constituted by human interaction and simultaneously is the medium of this constitution, underlies the structuration of organizations (1984; 19). Members draw upon and use organizational rules and resources as they interact, simultaneously reproducing the structural conditions which make their interaction possible; organizational structure "shapes the actions taken by individuals in organizations" as they "reaffirm or modify [it] in an ongoing recursive interaction" (Yates and Orlikowski, 1992; 299-300). The structuration of organizations is an ongoing the process whereby members reproduce social practices across time and space, many times without significant change, while in other instances in radically different form (Macintosh and Scapens, 1990; 456).
The recursiveness of the structuration of organizations recalls Weick's (1969; 27) insight that the organizational "structure that determines what an organization does and how it appears is the same structure that is established by regular patterns of interlocked behaviors." This process typically occurs without the participants' awareness that the organizational rules and resources are the conditions which allow them to successfully participate in interaction. They also may not be aware that their actions and interactions may have unintended and far-reaching consequences beyond the setting in which they are interacting. Developing the implications of the insight that the outcomes and consequences of people's social interactions, both intended and unintended, "become stretched across wide spans of time and space" leads to a structurational conception of the organization (Giddens 1984; xxii).
When groups of people routinely interact, the outcomes of their actions, intentional and unintentional, have consequences for other groups who may be physically present, who may come to the same location at a later time, or who may be at a different place at the same or different time (Cohen, 1989; 140). The means of transmitting these consequences are largely linguistic and can involve the exchange of information in different forms through many different channels (Weick, 1995; 41). These other groups then interact, and their interactions are affected by what has been transmitted or communicated, further transforming the intended and unintended interactional outcomes they have received. The other groups' interactions then have outcomes which feed back to affect subsequent interactions of the original group in an ongoing cycle.
The transformations that occur as groups interact affect the content of the outcomes they have received and will produce; however, they typically do not affect the structural rules and resources that are unintentionally reproduced in subsequent interactions. In this sense, the reproduction of an organization's structure is highly institutionalized and ensures that the organization will extend across time and space. Different people may routinely participate in these interactions at different times and in different locations, and the properties and systems of the organized collectivity may change very little over time. When sets of social practices are created intentionally by groups in the organization and are used to coordinate routine interactions among remote groups, there is a "reflexive regulation of the conditions of system reproduction [which] looms large in the continuity of day-to-day practices," and organization persists over time and space (Giddens, 1984; 200). Because these coordinating and controlling procedures are highly routinized within the unit, they tend to penetrate more deeply into the routines of day-to-day organizational life, thereby more rigidly organizing the activities and interactions of organizational members.
Using a structurational approach, an organization is a "decision making unit" with flexible boundaries within which members make use of sets of rules and resources to coordinate other members' activities (Giddens, 1984; 203). The structuration of organization means that the organization is both an ongoing creation of the people who interact within its boundaries and the medium which makes their interactions possible. One critical component of this medium is the information use environment.
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III. The Information Use Environment
In structurational terms IUE is a component of organizational structure and is composed of the rules and resources that make possible the persistence of information-based social practices over time and across space (Rosenbaum, 1996a, 1996b, 1993) and the typical problems and problem resolutions that are found in the organizational setting (Taylor, 1991). This version of the IUE, explained in detail elsewhere  is defined as follows:
The IUE is dynamic, and changes in response to the appearance of new information and to people's actions and interactions within it. Insofar as the IUE organizes information behaviors, by influencing the flow of information and by providing criteria for determining the value of information, it is an element of structure, because it is organizing the routine social practices of people who act and interact within the IUE, especially their information producing, seeking, valuing, and use behaviors.
The IUE, then, is a product of situated information behaviors which has, when instantiated in routine social interaction, both constraining and enabling effects on organizational members. It allows for the reproduction of information behaviors across time and space because its elements are invoked by people as they engage in information behaviors. Thus, the IUE is implicated in the duality of structure, the reproduction of information behaviors, and the structuration of organizations, having "no existence independent of the knowledge that agents have about what they do in their day-to-day activity" (Giddens, 1984; 26).
Consequently, the IUE is implicated in the structuration of organizations. As people interact and engage in information behaviors, they intentionally and unintentionally draw upon and make use of the rules and resources of the IUE, simultaneously reproducing these elements as conditions which allow them to engage in information-based social practices. For example, valuing, as an information behavior, makes use of those rules of the IUE which set a range within which types of information are considered acceptable and valuable, or unacceptable and provide sets of criteria which can be invoked during the valuing of information. By drawing upon and using these rules, users transform them from virtual to actual existence, making possible the information behavior of valuing and reproducing the rules during the occasions of their use, ensuring their persistence over time. The transformation, use, and reproduction of the rules of the IUE are accomplished routinely in social interaction, typically as unintended consequences of action, which, according to Giddens (1984; 14), "form the unacknowledged conditions of further action."
Two main components of organizational IUE are the information-based rules and resources of the social and physical setting within which people work and make choices about the utility and value of organizational information at particular times and in particular places. The analysis of the rules of an IUE will not be undertaken here , however, the concept of resources, of which digital organizational information is an example, bears closer attention because of its importance in the structuration of organizations.
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IV. Digital Organization Information as a Resource
In an IUE, resources are facilities or bases of power to which an organizational member has access during social interaction. They are "structured properties of social systems, drawn upon and reproduced by knowledgeable agents in the course of interaction," thereby becoming "media though which power is exercised, as a routine element of the instantiation of conduct in [the] social reproduction" of the organization (Giddens, 1984; 15, 16). Two major types of resources include "allocative," involving command over objects, and "authoritative," involving command over people. Allocative resources involve control over material features of the environment, means of material production and reproduction, and the materials produced. Authoritative resources include control over the organization of social time and space, the arrangement of social relations and activities, and the organization of "life chances," or the opportunities people have for development and self-expression (Cohen, 1989; 159). There is a third type of resource which is "administrative ... having both allocative and authoritative aspects, and capable of significantly influencing the manner and form of control employed in organizations" (Orlikowski, 1991; 13). Digital organizational information is an example of an administrative resource.
The extent to which people have access to and familiarity with the range of resources in the organization within which they work will affect their abilities to achieve their desired outcomes in routine social interactions. This is because digital information resources in an organization are "human accomplishments," unlike the classic, objectified conception of "resource," and emphasize (Schultze and Borland, 1997; 41);
A reciprocal relationship between the information-as-object and the moment in which the individual becomes informed. This view focuses on the informating practices of individuals in [organizations] as they inform themselves and one another in an environment of informational objects ... An information object is thus not only an outcome but also a medium of informing practices, highlighting information's structurational nature.Giddens (1984; 200) points to the importance of information in the structuration of organizations, commenting that the "regulation of the conditions of system reproduction depends on the collation of information which can be controlled so as to influence the circumstances of social reproduction." The control over the flow, storage, and dissemination of digital information through the use of information systems is a routine characteristic of organizations which requires that "strategically placed actors seek reflexively to regulate the overall conditions of system reproduction either to keep things as they are or to change them" (Giddens, 1984; 28).
The storage of digital information is an important component of the IUE because "Information control ... depends on information storage of a kind distinct from that available in individual recollection" (Giddens, 1984; 200). Storage media are also considered resources and include "media of information representation, modes of information retrieval and recall, and, as with all power resources, modes of its dissemination" (Giddens, 1984; 261). The ability to store and access digital information is fundamental to the persistence of organizations because it allows organizational members to control the flow of information and the ongoing constitution and preservation of the organization's "memory" or history. In this sense, storage media are also resources "through which power is exercised, as a routine element of the instantiation of conduct in [the] social reproduction" of organizations (Giddens, 1984; 16).
Information technology is an example of a type of storage media that is an important component of the organizational IUE however, its status as a resource is more difficult concept to describe in structurational terms (Orlikowski and Robey, 1991). Although IT has material existence, it can still be considered a resource because it (Orlikowski, 1992; 405):
Is created and changed by human action, yet it is also used by humans to accomplish some action. This [is a] recursive notion of technology - ... the duality of technology... technology is interpretively flexible, hence ... the interaction of technology and organizations is a function of the different actors and socio-historical contexts implicated in its development and use.That is, IT is physically constructed by actors working in a given social context, and is socially constructed by actors though the different meanings they attach to it and the various features they emphasize and use. However, it is also the case that once developed and deployed, IT tends to become reified and institutionalized, losing its connection with those who constructed it or gave it meaning, and it then appears to be part of the objective, structural properties of the organization. In this sense, IT has a powerful influence on the information behaviors of those who routinely use it to produce, gather, manipulate, store, disseminate, and consume digital organizational information.
Since digital organizational information is a resource, like all resources, it is a medium through which power is instantiated in social interaction; ironically, as it is portrayed in the structuration approach, information is deeply implicated in social power. This social implication will be discussed below.
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As organizations begin to shift more of their information flow from paper-based to digital information, there has been a corresponding shift in the way in which this information is viewed. Paper-based information has been assumed to have qualities of fixity and stability that have allowed organizations to conduct their activities while amassing vast archives of documents and other artifacts of this information. They "generally bear implicit cues about their provenance -- who generated them, how trustworthy that source is, and what social meaning should therefore be ascribed to the information" (Brown, Lynn, and Sprague, 1996; 5). In contrast, digital organizational information is much more ambiguous. It is malleable and mutable, and the information technologies which are used in their creation and dissemination only increase these qualities, leading to the questioning of the assumption that documents will hold their form and content over time and across space. Digital organizational information is the ongoing production of members' information behaviors and "components of a new social space ... enabling new forms of social interaction" within an "ambiguous social context" (Brown, Lynn, and Sprague, 1996; 5). This paper has sketched out some notes on a structurational view of digital information in organizations in an attempt to begin to account for the social implications of this type of information in theoretical terms.
In a structurational view of the organization, the IUE is a component of organizational structure that makes possible the persistence of organizational information behaviors over time and across space and is the product of these behaviors. The IUE is composed of the information based rules and resources of the organizational setting. It is an essential element of structure and a product of situated information behaviors which has, when instantiated in routine social interaction, both constraining and enabling effects on the people who interact within it and make choices about the utility and value of information at particular times. The IUE allows for the reproduction of information behaviors across time and space as its elements are invoked by people when they engage in information behaviors. Thus, the IUE becomes an essential part of the recursiveness of the duality of structure, the reproduction of information behaviors, the constitution of the user, and the structuration of organizations. Consistent with the structurational conception of structure, the IUE "has no existence independent of the knowledge that agents have about what they do in their day-to-day activity" (Giddens, 1984; 26).
Through their use of the rules and resources of the IUE, organizational members organize their information behaviors; through control of the resources of the IUE, they can exercise power in the organization. The range of potential resources includes digital and other information as well as the range of storage and dissemination media which are used to collect, hold, manipulate, and access it; however, both information and its associated storage media have dual natures, as virtual resources which contain potential uses, meaning, and value, and as artifacts and equipment having material existence and actual uses. One increasingly important but as yet little-researched means by which power is exercised involves the control of digital organizational information.
What is the role of this resource in an organization?
In an IUE, digital organizational information is an administrative resource and a medium (Giddens, 1984; 16) "through which power is exercised, as a routine element of the instantiation" of action and interaction in an organizational setting." It both enables and constrains the information behaviors of the people who use it; those who control it can exercise power over other people and resources. The control of digital organizational information is a fundamental characteristic of the structuration of organizations, because the "regulation of the conditions of system reproduction depends on the collation of information which can be controlled so as to influence the circumstances of social reproduction" (Giddens 1984; 200). It is a very important element of an organizational IUE, because of the way in which it can extend the power of those who control it; it also is essential to the persistence of the organization over time and space. Digital organizational information, when it is invoked and used in routine organizational information behaviors, allow those who control it to exercise a considerable amount of power over the information behaviors of other members.
The control of digital organizational information involves the intentional exercise of power, a concept which also involves a duality. Power is the transformative capacity of the individual to intervene in a course of events, and it is also "relational [;] power within social systems can thus be treated as involving reproduced relations of autonomy and dependence in social interaction" (1979; 93). Within an organization, resources which are drawn upon when power is instantiated in interaction are distributed asymmetrically. This implies that people in organizations have differential access to the means by which power can be exercised in organizations and used to coordinate and control the activities of others. Typically, members in particular organizational positions exercise "administrative power," allowing them to coordinate and control the "timing and spacing of human activities" (Cohen, 1989; 158), increasingly through the control of digital organizational information.
The structurational conception of digital organizational information as a resource raises a number of intriguing questions which center on the social implications of this type of information which can spur empirical research, several of which are listed below:
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1. This concept has been worked out in considerable detail in Rosenbaum, H. (1996a, 1996b, 1993)
2 Research conducted by Rosenbaum (1996a) among managers in a public sector organization yielded an extensive set of rules that played an important role in shaping the managers' information behaviors. These findings provided an empirical basis for an extended argument about the importance of rules in an IUE and will be reported in forthcoming research reports.
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