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4.1 Information Systems and the Milieu

In the information systems ambit, the main representations of the knowledge therein involved are the conceptual models capturing the core of the application domain (information and processes) and how they are reified within the technology. Two main situations are relevant in this context in relation to knowledge creation.

The first situation encompasses the case when conceptual models have to be integrated in consequence of the firm evolution: the typical example is the merging of two organizations; or in consequence of the need to make information system interoperate for sake of information exchange to support services or cross checking: the typical example is the case of the Public Administration whose information patrimony has usually grown in a not systematic—if not chaotic—way that however takes into account local cultures and needs. The answer to this kind of breakdowns is usually found in approaches that aim to construct a conceptual model that, in a way or another, unifies the source ones (Batini, Lenzerini, & Navathe, 1986): this unification forces structural changes in the involved models, which have of course semantic and pragmatic implications. An alternative approach, that is taken by the current development of the so called Linked Data (Heath & Bizier, 2011), is to add levels of structure on top of the ones to be integrated: this increases the complexity of the solutions (Freitas, Curry, Oliveira,

& O'Riain, 2012) and is likely to generate a sort of domino effect that involves the added layers. Despite their technical differences, these approaches are conceived trough technical tools (algorithms, heuristics) without considering the impact their application might have on the work practices of the target organizations. The breakdown generating the integration is not taken as an opportunity to compose the knowledge related to different work practices, to define changes as a compromise based on their reconciliation, to obtain a result that is more that the sum of the two parties in term of knowledge and learning. The value of a consistent and efficient result overcomes the cost of loosing part of the local knowledge and the related work practices. In other words, the attention is put on the uniformity of the abstraction instead of on the different contexts where the abstraction has to be interpreted. It is worth noticing that recently the academic research started a reflection on this issue in the framework of the most sophisticated approach to domain modelling, namely ontologies. Despite the rich semantics that they are able to express through concepts and relations among them, some authors start claiming that a deep interpretation of the constructions that make use of a given ontology requires a description of the context in which the ontology has been used and defined, also within the same application domain (Pike & Gahegan, 2009). This means that the straightforward translation of a conceptual model from a place to another in the milieu is risky as it fallaciously presupposes a common understanding at least of the very general concepts and relations. In addition, this means that a reflection on what can be considered as pragmatically “the same” is likely to be part of the negotiation of the work practices to get things done (i.e., it should become part of the shared repertoire).

The second source of breakdown arises when the conceptual modelling

incorporated in an information system does not fit the local needs: either because it is too rigid, to far away from what is needed in contingent or transient situations, or because the firm cannot afford the effort of its creation (typically, in the case of SMEs[1]). These two cases are generated in different circumstances: the first one as a sort of workaround to overcome the limits of the imposed technology; the second one as the response to the need to have an affordable technological support. However, the two cases share how the solutions to deal with the problem are created: their genesis reflects a bottom-up approach that is in the hands of the actual users of the information. Indeed, they create “their” applications that fit “their” needs, irrespective of any big system or of their limited technological skills. These applications have been “called shadow applications” because they are unrecognized as well as do the effort to construct them and the advantage they bring the organization effectiveness (Handel & Poltrock, 2011); these applications are built by using flexible tools that can be put to use, at least to some extent, by laymen in ICT.[2] What matters here is not whether these applications are efficient, well engineered or developed with sound methodologies: what matters here is the knowledge they testify, the learning process they trigger in the “bricoleurs” (Cabitza & Simone, 2015; Ciborra, 1992) constructing them: this knowledge concerns both the application domain and the technological issues that constitute the “infrastructure” (Pipek & Wulf, 2009) of the target milieu. This kind of knowledge and learning is almost disregarded by the official design practices although it could play a fundamental role in the design of applications that are likely to avoid the recurrent technological failures we mentioned above. The knowledge and learning of this kind are also disregarded by the management: either because it does not perceive their value or because the firms (specially the SMEs) usually don't reflect (and invest) on how to improve the management of their knowledge (re)sources.

  • [1] EU SMEs in 2012: at the crossroads Annual report on small and medium-sized enterprises in the EU, 2011/12
  • [2] This is what makes tools like spreadsheets killer applications within organizations. Moreover, this need triggered a research line called End User Development (EUD; Lieberman, Paterno` , & Wulf, 2006) that proposes different solutions for an effective user involvement in a true “socially embedded technologies” development (Cabitza & Simone, 2015)
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