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Explaining the Relationship Between Information Systems and Institutions

Guy M. Massamba



When the question regarding the interaction of information technology and institutions is raised, it is instantly dealt with from the standpoint of the effect technology has on institutions, searching in particular for answers about how technology is changing institutions. Although no less important, this approach neglects the institutional capabilities that determine the conditions under which technology is incorporated in institutions. Institutional capabilities comprise not only the structural facets or normative determinants, rules and regulations, but also the intents translated into perspectives and development objectives that institutions seek to achieve, as well as the behaviors of people embodying such intents and pursuits.


The implementation of information systems in organizations is not a random process without design and purpose. It reflects value judgments about what issues should be the object of management focus (Brancheau and Wetherbe, 1987). Information technology is part of a broad set of combined operational mechanisms and structures that make up information systems and include "people, hardware, software, communications networks, data resources, and policies and procedures," all of which are developed within the organization and are combined to ensure the organizational capacity to store, retrieve, transform, and disseminate information (Al-Mamary, Shamsuddin, and Aziati, 2014, p. 1280).


On the one hand, they are the product and result of institutional development, which implies that institutions define and determine the role information systems play. On the other hand, their insertion in institutional workings constitutes a response to the need for institutional capacity development, denoting expectations of increased organizational efficiency through a well-coordinated interaction of information systems with structures and behaviors. This complex construct cannot be fully delineated through reductive explanations with their reliance on instrumentalist perspectives grounding linear assessments on predictions of such phenomena as enhanced institutional productivity. The manner in which information systems, including all enclosed components such as information technology interact with institutions is an encompassing phenomenon to be fully captured as a multivariant development instigated by human, behavioral, institutional, structural, policy, managerial, technological, and cultural elements. The following presentation highlights various approaches to technological integration in institutions. 



Positivism puts observation at the center of analysis of social facts. Social phenomena are facts to be observed without biased interpretation or moral judgment. This notion highlights a fundamental difference between fact and value, whereby facts are objects of interest for science while value is from another order reflecting the way in which facts are interpreted or evaluated (Hasan, 2016). At the beginning of this doctrine initiated by Auguste Comte, the idea of science was to detach theoretical principles from biased assessments of facts or data. Its main contribution as descriptive analysis made its way into social sciences driving them to rely on methods of research that focus on surveys, experiments, and field studies.


If the separation of assessments of facts from data is upheld, what is the meaning of historical circumstances that justify technological development and the use of technology as solution to social and economic issues? The proposition of detaching data from theoretical assessment makes it difficult or problematic to develop a theory-practice congruence, which is a scientifically coherent task. Smith (2006) proposes a "critical realist ontology" looking into the foundations of scientific activity predicated on the existence of social real and concrete phenomena, with a view on the pragmatic interlocking of technology and human and institutional action. It is a way to support particular readings of history and social and economic development as contexts inasmuch as they are endowed with generative mechanisms of contextual integration of technology principles in structural and institutional developments.


It seems that the observation that relies on positivistic scientific detachment to analyze the integration of information systems in institutions may not provide solid arguments about the effects of such integration on institutions. From its standpoint it would be not relied upon to justify any institutional development taking place as a result of the relationship between technology and institutions. Institutional development is not a straightforward process whose outcomes may appear uncertain. As Smith notes, "something deeper and more complex is transpiring than a direct empirical conjunction of events between technology and intended outcomes" (p. 194).


This is another way of viewing the relationship between information systems and institutions. It stands mostly against explanations, leaning on the principle of causality, that have adopted a deterministic approach. These explanations promote the notion that technology is the main and only decisive factor causing social change. Intrepretivism, however, highlights subjectivity as it refers to human constructs of reality filled with subjective meanings and guided by symbols in which individuals and institutions find normative information. According to this perspective, the use of information systems cannot be exempt of human intentionality, that is, the purpose of ascribing meaning and cognitively ascertaining the value of events and actions supported by technology.


The context in which Information systems are embedded as means to solve social, political and economic problems does not escape the human quest that instigates interpretations of reality. With a post-modernist observation of the incorporation of ICT in development, Schech (2002) sought to broaden the debate by looking at the intersection of ICT, development, knowledge and power. She points to the limits of modernization and structuralist approaches to ICT by bringing the charge against their "static view of knowledge and power, and a failure to grasp the creative, productive potential of new ICTs in the hand of ordinary people" (page 20). In the whole, subjective meanings (Smith, 2006) and ICTs inform and sustain actions by which individuals and institutions embark on a process of constructing their social-political reality.


There is no doubt that information systems serve a purpose and are used to fulfill institutional functions. This view, as interpreted by Bowman et al. (2012, p. 2298) puts emphasis on "goals and motivations rather than specific channels." Motivations imply awareness of the need to use information systems and knowledge of their importance of institutions. Users of information systems are rational actors acting within an epistemic structure that comprises organizational patterns, institutional integration of technology, and informed users asserting interests in the use of technology. Functionalism explanation predicates an understanding of the relations between the many elements of a complex structure or system. Markus (2004, p. 51) states that "in the IS domain, functionalist explanation could be employed for the understanding of 'technological frames, IT appropriations, IS governance and/or control mechanisms, technologies-in-practice and so on."

The interaction of technology and social structures and individual and institutional behavior does not display an invariable manifestation. With the introduction of information technology in daily and common functions, institutional practices may have a variety of reactions depending on such variables as social organizations, cultural facts and political conditions. The causality argument sees in technology the power to induce reaction from institutions in an almost linear way. The deterministic postulation of a unilinear path does not go so deep as to discern the necessary adjustments encompassing organizational reactions, individual behavior and institutional practices. These adjustments, although taking place within institutional settings, are not the result of an automated process. They are the reflection of a purposeful project designed by individuals to enact technology in such a way as to make it useful and adapted to institutional development. This research direction emerges from Fountain's (2001) analysis in her influential work on the relationship between information technology and institutional change.


Fountain points out the confusion resulting from technological determinism, which implicitly credits technology with autonomy in its interactions with individual use and organizational practices. Fountain notes that the risk with technological determinism is that "by reifying technology and its effects, researchers push to the background of their inquiry both the scope for action available to individuals and the complex interplay between technology, embeddedness, and behavior" (page 84). Within this complexity lies the dynamic process whereby technology and institutions interact in a mutually impacting manner. There is evidence of the impact of technology on government (West, 2004), but in essence institutions and technology co-evolve (Luna-Reyes and Gil-Garcia 2013) in a context that they both transform and adjust while simultaneously impacting each other.


Institutions are not mere receptacles of information technology. Institutional mechanisms react to technological integration; they coevolve with technological patterns; they structure technological paths in accordance with their institutional development perspectives and objectives; and they have decision making processes that determine the way technology must be embedded in their functions. Fountain devotes particular attention to this interaction by conceptualizing it as technology enactment.


This framework has also been used by a number of scholars (Cordella and Iannacci, 2010), with some referring to Fountain's work (Grafton, 2003; Luna-Reyes and Gil-Garcia, 2013; Schellong, 2014). A normative tenet makes this interaction more consequential in that technology enters an organizational culture in which it acquires contextual character, meaning and value that are proper to the organization and social fabric. Such dynamic culture enables a use of technology that results in habituation and rituals serving to codify behavior and integrate members of the organization. Without deemphasizing the individual subjective interpretation of technological use, the concept evokes a notion put forward by socio-technical systems theorists who insist that the social and the technical systems are entwined.


Bowman, N. D., Westerman, D. K. & Claus, C. J. (2012). How demanding is social media: Understanding social media diets as a function of perceived costs and benefits – A rational actor perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 2298-2305.

Cordella, A. & Iannacci, F. (2010). Information systems in the public sector: The e-Government enactment framework. Journal of Strategic Information Systems 19 (2010) 52–66

Fountain, J. E. (2001). Building the Virtual State: Information Technology and Institutional Change. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Grafton, C. (2003). "Shadow Theories" in Fountain's Theory of Technology Enactment. Social Science Computer Review, 21(4), 411-416.

Leston-Bandeira, C. (2004). From Legislation to Legitimation: The Role of the Portuguese Parliament. London and New York: Routledge.

Luna-Reyes, L. F. & Gil-Garcia, J. R. (2013). Understanding the Co-Evolution of Institutions, Technology, and Organizations: The Enactment of the State Government Portal of Puebla. The Proceedings of the 14th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, 214-223.

Schech, S. (2002). Wired for Change: The Links Between ICTs and Development Discourses. Journal of International Development, 14, pages 13-23.

Schellong, A. (2006). Extending the Technology Enactment Framework. Program on Networked Governance. Harvard University, 1-9.>

Shahryarifar, S. (2016). A Defence on the Prominence of Rational Actor Model within Foreign Policy Analysis. Khazar Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 19(1), 22-29.

Smith, M. L. (2006). Overcoming Theory-practice Inconsistencies: Critical realism and Information Systems Research. Information and Organization 16, pages 191-211.

West, D. (2004). E-Government and the Transformation of Service Delivery and Citizen Attitudes. Public Administration Review, 64(1), 15-27.

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