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Communications of the ACM

Technical Opinion: Roadblocks to Web Technology Adoption?


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Despite the hype associated with Web technology, it is becoming clear that adoption of this technology is not as smooth sailing, as many business organizations assumed it would be. Granted, there are thousands of corporate Web sites and many organizations have implemented or are in the process of implementing their own Intranets. However, as recent studies indicate, the average organization is still finding it difficult to address some of the basic issues related to Web technology adoption [2, 4, 5]. How can the Internet industry address some of these concerns?

Theory and practice inform us that the adoption of new technologies is dictated by factors such as perceived costs and benefits, complexity, compatibility with existing systems, ease of use, and so forth. A favorable mix of these factors leads to high organizational intention to adopt. This framework seemed to explain the adoption of many information technologies (for instance., EDI and spreadsheet).

However, the emergence of knowledge-intensive technologies, such as Web data warehousing, among others, calls for consideration of not only an organizations intention to do so, but also its ability to adopt. Each potential adopter needs to create the knowledge to mesh the technology with its own unique business context [1]. An organizations ability to adopt a technology may be defined in terms of its ability to do this. This was not an important consideration until recently, since for much of the older technologies such knowledge could easily be transferred from one firm (context) to another. However, this is not true for newer, knowledge-intensive technologies. For example, a successful data warehousing application cannot be developed by merely duplicating an application built elsewhere in a different context. Instead, an adopting unit has to creatively identify how data from multiple functional areas can be integrated, taking into consideration the decision-making processes, the information flows, and the unique structure of the organization. In short, an adopting unit may face knowledge barriers that may delay or otherwise impact the adoption process (even if its intention to adopt is high). The adoption of the Web technology is a case in point.

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Web Technology Adoption and Knowledge Barriers

Recent reports in the trade press clearly indicate the high desire (or intention) of most business organizations to join the Web technology bandwagon. There are three primary reasons for this: (1) the high popularity of the technology among potential customers,1 (2) the relatively low investment requirements, and (3) the purported benefits that can be derived.2 As such, adoption of this technology may be critically dependent on the ability of each organization to overcome the associated knowledge barriers.

In general, three levels of adoption of Web technology can be identified: (Level 1) information access, (Level 2) work collaboration, and (Level 3) core business transactions (see Figure 1). At the lowest level (Level 1), the technology is used as a tool for disseminating information about products, services, and organizational policies, and to channel feedback from such internal/external entities as employees and customers. At the next level, Web technology is used to facilitate real-time work collaboration and document flow between different entities within and without the organization. At the third and highest level, the technology is directly integrated with core business processes/transactions.

While we often hear about innovative Web-based applications being deployed in certain organizations, recent studies show that the large majority of the organizations (even Fortune 500 firms) are still using the Web primarily for information dissemination (Level 1 adoption)—the so-called electronic brochures and promotional sites [3, 5]. Indeed, organizations may find it relatively easy to adopt the technology at Level 1. However, adoption at higher levels calls for tighter integration of the technology with the business context and this may pose considerable knowledge barriers. The knowledge barriers associated with Web technology fall into three broad categories (Figure 2 indicates the key areas where knowledge barriers may exist).

Technology-related knowledge barrier. This relates to the lack of knowledge regarding the appropriate hardware and software infrastructure, technology features, security, and standards, vis-a-vis the organizations unique business context. Indeed, investments in specific Internet technologies need to be made after considering prior investments in related technologies, future integration plans, and the flexibility needed to adapt to changes in the underlying technologies. For example, several issues need to be understood and resolved before deciding the technical infrastructure for the companys Intranet—the bandwidth requirements of the potential applications, the technologies likely to be deployed on the Intranet, and the level of interoperability desired, and so forth. Technology-related knowledge barriers are intensified by the fact that much of the Web technologies are not yet mature, making the task of choosing from among alternative technological solutions a challenging one.

Project-related knowledge barrier. This includes lack of knowledge regarding resource requirements (both financial and human) for Web-based application development, development process/duration, project leadership, functional participation, and so forth. Some of the issues organizations are grappling with include: Who should lead corporate Web site projects (marketing, IS, or corporate communications)? Who should be responsible for corporate data published on the Web? How should the resources for Web-based projects be allocated? What changes should be made in the development methodology for Web-based applications? What should be the outsourcing strategy? Again, each of these issues needs to be addressed by the adopting unit after considering its unique organizational structure and culture.

Application-related knowledge barrier. This relates to the lack of knowledge regarding the specific business objectives that will be served by the Web-based application, the value of the various technology features for the adopting unit, the key business assumptions required to be made for deploying the technology, the potential for integrating the application with existing IT applications, and the impact of the Web application on current organizational structure and systems. Indeed, the critical knowledge barrier seems to be that of providing a business focus for Web technology deployment and defining the contribution the application will make to the business. Further, although the key impact of the Web technology is likely to be on easy and transparent information flow within the organization, most adopting units have yet to devise organization-wide policies on data ownership and information sharing. While such policies can only be devised after taking into consideration the culture and history of the organization, the need to make them explicit is often forgotten in the haste to deploy new and sophisticated technologies.

As may be evident, the first two types of knowledge barriers, technology-related and project-related, are relatively easy to overcome compared to the application-related knowledge barrier. Further, as the arrows in Figure 2 indicate, some of the knowledge barriers may be relevant only at Level 2 or Level 3, while some barriers increase in intensity as a firm moves from Level 1 adoption to Level 3 adoption. For example, security concerns while relevant even at Level 1, become more critical at Level 3 as the nature of the information shared and the associated risks change. Similarly, integration of the Web technology with business processes (Level 3 adoption) may force an organization to significantly modify its internal structure and systems, although such changes may not be warranted at Level 1 or even at Level 2 adoption.

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Addressing the Knowledge Barriers

It has been empirically established that knowledge barriers could significantly delay adoption of Web technology [4]. We believe that technology vendors and external consultants both have a crucial role to play in helping organizations address the knowledge barriers associated with Web technology adoption.


Internet technology is an example of an innovation that need not involve significant investments by the adopter but still may pose significant knowledge barriers.


In the past, most of the technological innovations that posed knowledge barriers to adopting units involved large complex products and huge investments (for example, manufacturing resources planning, or MRPII) that justified the technology vendor to work hand-in-hand with the adopting unit to overcome such barriers. However, Internet technology is an example of an innovation that need not involve significant investments by the adopter (and hence may not justify direct vendor involvement), but still may pose significant knowledge barriers. In such situations, the success of the product is dependent on how quickly the technology vendor can establish or train external consultants capable of providing a range of services to lower the knowledge barriers of adopting firms. For example, the huge success of the Novels LAN operating system in the late 1980s is partially attributable to the large number of Novel-certified third-party agencies who guided the LAN technology adoption process of many organizations.

Another approach would be for the technology vendors who suspect that there are knowledge barriers related to their new products to forge alliances with large consulting agencies (sharing product information with them even before the launch) who can match the vendors product introduction with complementary services that lower potential knowledge barriers.

External consultants need to realize that resolving knowledge barriers is not just a matter of transferring some information about the technology to the adopting unit. It requires a much deeper involvement to understand each unique business situation and to wed the technology to that context. In practical terms, the external agent has to act as intermediary in the process of creating the knowledge required for adopting Web technology. Two factors portend the important role of such knowledge intermediaries in Web technology adoption: (1) the rapid and continuous changes in the underlying technologies that create new knowledge barriers, and (2) the lack of key Web-based development skills in the internal information systems departments of the adopting units.

On the other hand, adopting units need to find out how they can integrate the external consultants advice with their adoption process to effectively overcome the knowledge barriers. Adopting organizations need to decide at what stage to bring in external consultants and to which areas the consultants can contribute.

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References

1. Attewell, P. Technology diffusion and organizational learning: The case of business computing. Org. Sci. 3, 1 (1992), 1-17.

2. Kirter, O. Security issues delay Internet use in health care. Communications News 34, 5 (May 1997).

3. Liu, C., Arnett, K.P., Capella, L.M., and Beatty, R.C. Web sites of the Fortune 500 companies: Facing customers through home pages. Info. Manag. 31 (1997), 335-345.

4. Vasudevan, S. and Wang, Y. Technology adoption in the presence of knowledge barriers: The case of the World Wide Web. In Proceedings of the 17th International Conference on Information Systems, Dec. 1996.

5. Weston, R. On the fast track to payback. PC Week Fast-Track 500 Survey, Dec. 1997.

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Authors

Satish Nambisan (satish@comp.nus.edu.sg) is an assistant professor in the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore.

Yu-Ming Wang (Yu-Ming_Wang@baruch.cuny.edu) is an assistant professor at Baruch College, CUNY, New York.

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Footnotes

1 By the latest count, approximately 87 million adults are connected to the Internet in the U.S. alone (NUA Internet Survey, www.nua.ie, Sept. 1998).

2 Studies conducted by the International Data Corporation (www.idc.com) in U.S. (in 1996) and in Europe (in 1997) showed the return on investment (ROI) of intranet projects in the range of 1,000%.

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Figures

F1Figure 1. Web technology Adoption levels

F2Figure 2. Potential knowledge barriers in Web Technology adoption

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©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0100  $5.00

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