Thus it is apparent that whether, and how, IT changes the power structure within an organisation will depend on the information, knowledge and skills that it brings to management and workers. As Coombs et. al. (1992) point out, the affects of IT on an organisation will depend on: – The distribution of information: the flows of information and the corresponding patterns of control; and – The interpretation of information: how the sender and receiver shape the information, and the resulting consequences.
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From this analysis, it is evident that the type of technology in place, and the extent to which workers have access, can have an important bearing on how IT affects intra-firm relationships. Furthermore, those who have control over information architecture can determine what information is available to whom, for what purposes, and under what set of guiding principals. Thus, management can maintain control over the level of empowerment that workers gain though access to information mediated by IT.
Depending on how much the workers are empowered, management may choose to exert its authority through delegation or through command. Imagine a task that must be carried out. A manger can either delegate responsibility to the worker for the realisation of the task; or the manager can tell the worker exactly how to perform a set of ordered jobs which will achieve the realisation of the task. In the first case, the worker takes control; in the second case, the manager maintains control.
When workers are empowered by IT, managers will likely delegate authority so that the worker can implement IT in the most effective way. Furthermore, empowered workers are not likely to respond well to directives; they will likely respond more positively to requests or delegation of responsibility. When workers are not empowered by IT, they are more likely to be instructed how to perform a task.
Theories of IT’s Impact on Organisations and Intra-Firm Relationships IT is used by organisations to enhance control over processes of production and distribution in the face of competitive pressures and to identify and reduce inefficiencies within the organisation. The desire of organisations to achieve these goals was theorised by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Under Taylorism, “the first goal of management became the acquisition of and the abstraction of the workers’ knowledge, so that the managers themselves could develop a rational system of operation and control” (referenced in Wilson, 1995). Taylorism underlies the system of management typical of the industrial and post-industrial eras.
Many authors see the introduction of IT as ushering in a management style that is qualitatively different from Taylorism. Insofar as IT requires that workers apply intellective effort to their tasks (Zuboff, 1988), control of information by management, and the desire for obedience in general, can constitute a constraint on realising the gains of IT. As Zuboff explains, in reference to her 1988 case study of an IT implementation:
… technology alone would not provide an enduring competitive edge, as it would become widely available and quickly equalize competition within the marketplace. If the full power of the data interface were to be exploited, then the organization would need people at each level who could analyze and respond to the data most relevant to their functional responsibilities. This implied a new vision of the organization and a strategy of technological deployment that gave pre-eminence to the informating capacities of the technology… (Zuboff, 1988)
According to this interpretation, obedience to management has the effect of limiting the type of innovative behaviour that would make use of the expanded possibilities presented by IT, and the type of problem solving skills that would deal with the new questions that come with broadened parameters. Thus, to take advantage of IT, workers must be empowered to make process decisions. This emplies that workers also take on greater responsibility.
Management also takes on a new role in such an environment. As the workers take on the role of decision-makers, management does not tell workers what to do. Rather management takes sets broad agendas that influence the decisions that workers make, setting guidelines for interpretation, and encouraging the learning, internal commitment and motivation necessary to meet the demands of higher responsibility levels.
Wilson (1995), however, interprets the empowerment of workers through IT quite differently. In this view, IT is seen as an extension of the Bentham’s Panopticon and Taylorism. In his view, the Panopticon (a circular architectural structure designed for prisons; the supervisor would be placed in a central tower with a view or all prisoners such that they would be under constant surveillance) is a forerunner to Taylorism in that it is an apparatus of discipline and control. In Wilson’s view, leadership techniques that accompany IT “present management with the task and duty of determining how employees should think and feel about what they produce” (Wilson, 1995).
Thus, “in the networked organization, the behaviour of empowered individuals is regulated not through overt repression but through a set of standards and values associated with normality, which are deployed by a network of ostensibly beneficial and scientific forms of knowledge” (Wilson, 1995). Wilson sees the autonomy and access to information resulting from IT which might empower workers as mediated by forms of management influence which control and disempower workers. The surveillance of the panopticon is placed within each individual employee through systems of team work and co-worker surveillance and through the system of influence of the manager.