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The Contribution of Critical IS Research


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A new information system is introduced to General Medical Practitioners' (GPs) practice to ease the administrative burden and to help them submit electronic claims. The system is developed and implemented by a central department after very limited consultations with the users. It turns out the main benefits accrue in the central IS department and there are very little benefits for the envisaged users. External suppliers follow the requirements analysis of the central department and optimize their own outcomes. The end users, the GPs in question, grow disillusioned with the system, and start to resist it. The system remains in place because of the power of the central purchasing authority but never delivers the promised benefits.

Does this story sound familiar? It may be because it has been published (case 3 in [4]). It may also be because it is very typical in many respects. There are the common ingredients of system failure: lack of communication, lack of user involvement, differing agendas, political power games, to name just a few. Many IT practitioners will be familiar with these factors. But the question remains: what can be done about such problems?

Here, we suggest that a suitable and novel way of addressing such organizational IT problems is the "critical approach." The word "critical" can have a variety of meanings when applied to IT. Software can be mission critical, which means "very important." Systems analysts are supposed to be critical thinkers, suggesting they should spot logical flaws in requirements or design. Users can be critical of systems, implying they do not approve of them. However, in academic texts, the term "critical" (as in "critical theory" or "critical social sciences") has taken on a more specific meaning. The critical approach to information systems has been known to researchers for quite a while and is generally acknowledged as an alternative to "positivism" or "interpretivism."

Despite growing attention to critical research in academic circles, there seems to be little corresponding activity among IT practitioners. We believe that IT/IS practice could benefit greatly from the critical approach. Here, we investigate why little practical activity is taking place in the area. We also demonstrate why critical research would be beneficial for IT professionals and consider how practitioners can benefit from critical ideas without falling into the dual trap of either trivializing the approach or becoming lost in its complexities.


Engaging with the critical approach "therefore" means that one must question the very values and assumptions that form the basis of one's activities. This is never easy; indeed for many of us it is next to impossible. It also requires us to take a step back from our day-to-day worries and to rethink our place in life. There is no guarantee this will be an enjoyable experience.


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Obstacles to the Critical Approach

One of the first problems anyone who wants to do critical research or practice in IS will encounter is that there is no generally accepted and unequivocal definition of the term [3]. However, there are some characteristics of most critical research that we assume to be uncontroversial. The arguably most important property of critical research is that it is based on a critical intention to make a difference. Critical research is never purely descriptive but wants to change social reality. This is based on a deep suspicion that the current state of the world is unjust and disadvantages many. Capitalism, while usually not discarded completely by critical authors, is nevertheless seen as dysfunctional in many respects and in need of revision and rethinking. A major aim resulting from the critical intention is to promote individual empowerment and emancipation [5, 8]. Due to the critical intention, critical research often centers on topics where the injustices of our current world are most visible and where critical research can make a difference. Such topics not only include the digital divide and gender issues, but also questions of organizational power or the relationship between employers and employees. This is one reason why the critical approach would be suitable for a situation like the one described in the opening remarks.

This very brief introduction will have indicated some of the reasons why many practitioners may initially be reluctant to engage with the critical approach. A central problem is that critical research is critical of the very social and economic system within which IT and related commercial activities are embedded. Engaging with the critical approach "therefore" means that one must question the very values and assumptions that form the basis of one's activities. This is never easy; indeed for many of us it is next to impossible. It also requires us to take a step back from our day-to-day worries and to rethink our place in life. There is no guarantee this will be an enjoyable experience. In addition, it can obviously run counter to organizational incentives and power structures, which are generally geared toward control and not emancipation.

Another problem is the perceived (and sometimes real) politics of critical research and its proponents. It is linked to the names of theoreticians such as the members of the "Frankfurt School" of social science (including Marcuse, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Adorno, Habermas, and others), and a number of French thinkers (including Foucault and Bourdieu to name just two). What these authors have in common is they have worked intensively with Karl Marx's writings. They are therefore perceived to be on the political left, which in management studies, and even more so in business practice, is often problematic.

A final problem with the "application" of critical thought to the practice of IT professionals is that it does not lend itself to clear and simple algorithms, methodologies, or realizations. There is no one way of critically engaging with the world. Critical thinking requires reflexivity, which means a willingness and ability to question oneself and one's own assumptions. Such reflexivity goes beyond a simple deliberation concerning the action in question. Reflexivity goes to the heart of the individual and requires them to question the basis of their beliefs. It requires self-analysis. This is threatening to many, while others dismiss it as "navel-gazing." It promises no economically useful outcomes but challenges the critical thinker every step along the way.

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Advantages of Being Critical

Despite the serious obstacles to the critical approach, there are a number of advantages to it, which lead us to suggest that IT professionals should be aware of it and would benefit from using it. We distinguish between two groups of benefits: instrumental and intrinsic. The term "instrumental benefits" refers to such situations where the critical approach can lead to tangible organizational benefits, whereas "intrinsic benefits" are those where taking the critical approach can simply be described in more ideological terms as being "the right thing to do."

Instrumental benefits. The critical viewpoint is an inclusive one, which comprises individual, organizational, and social issues. It is not possible to distinguish between technical and organizational problems or between systems development and systems acceptance. On the one hand, this view thus adds complexity to the activities of IT professionals, while it enriches their understanding. This, in turn, will facilitate a new perspective on problematic issues and an enhanced understanding of them. Such a widened viewpoint is arguably desirable for IT professionals. It is part of conventional wisdom that IT professionals have a tendency to privilege the technical and disregard non-technical aspects of their activities. At the same time we know that the percentage of systems failures was, and is, large, and that in most cases the reason for failure is not technical [11]. Therefore, the main argument here is that the critical viewpoint allows the IT professional to develop a different perspective, which will help them improve practice.

Indeed, there are examples of how the use of critical thoughts can affect and improve the work of IT professionals. One of these is the application of the idea of emancipation. Emancipation can be understood as helping people achieve their potential and helping them to be free from alienation and suppression [10]. In practice, the emancipatory intention of the critical approach means that all individuals involved in the design, development, and use of a system or technology need to be able to express their viewpoints about it. While this can raise serious problems when implemented, it also points the way toward participatory methods of the design and use of technology. Participatory approaches have the instrumental advantage of maximizing the knowledge base of product development and thereby increasing the chance of success.

This line of thought can be extended into risk management. The majority of IT/IS risk management literature suggests the use of a generic list of project risks, which then must be mitigated by the project management [12]. This type of risk management covers general problems but it is incapable of being sensitive to the specific context of a given system. This is arguably the reason why the generic lists of risk factors compiled by different authors do not converge [9]. A participative approach as suggested by critical theory is capable of overcoming this problem. By incorporating the perceptions and knowledge of the majority of stakeholders, project risks are likely to be identified earlier and more thoroughly.

Finally, empowerment in its different forms can also become a business model for IT professionals. IT can be used to enable people to live more independent lives. A good illustration of such applications would be systems used to help disabled people to participate in activities of their choice [7], or e-democracy where IT supports citizens to act autonomously [6].

Intrinsic benefits should be clear enough to persuade IT professionals to at least consider the critical approach and weigh the problems of accessing it against the possible advantages. However, from the point of view of critical research, such instrumental reasoning sits somewhat uneasily with the general idea of critical research and practice. Using the critical approach to promote the goals of commercial organizations and maximize profit seems to run the danger of being self-contradictory.

There is nevertheless a good reason for using the critical approach, even when it does not promise instrumental benefits. Critical practice can be seen as the right thing to do. To understand this line of reasoning one needs to go back to the fundamental ideas of critical thought, with its aims to emancipate individuals from disempowering and alienating circumstances. While this is linked to skepticism of capitalism, it goes beyond considerations of the economic system. The wish to emancipate is based on the recognition that others are fundamentally equal in rights and obligations to us, that there should be equality between people and that everybody deserves the chance to fulfill their potential.

This idea is closely linked to ethical reasoning. It implies a vision of justice and is closely linked to a participatory and democratic form of governance. At this stage, it becomes clear that critical research is not automatically and inevitably anti-capitalist but only aims to address issues where capitalism becomes counterproductive. A critical approach can, thus, be seen as an expression of ethics and as a necessary critical voice where market mechanisms do not live up to their promises.

It is important to realize these fundamental thoughts because they allow IT professionals to interpret critical research as a possible expression of their ethical obligations. While there is sometimes a tendency for individuals working with technology to deny or downplay their social and ethical responsibility, this cannot be said for recognized IT professionals. For example, ACM expects members to adhere to its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which clearly states they must take their non-technical responsibilities seriously. They are also offered guidance by professional organizations on how to deal with such matters [2]. Critical thought requires engagement with serious moral and ethical issues and offers the IT professionals an avenue to discharge their responsibilities more fully.

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Applications of Critical Thought for IT Professionals

Having attempted to interest the reader in exploring and practicing the critical approach, the next question involves how this approach can be realized. The answer is likely to be somewhat disappointing to technically minded people used to applying algorithms and methodologies, which lead more or less predictably to a solution. There is no generally accepted methodology for being critical.

There are, however, some general guidelines for being critical that IT professionals can follow. Arguably, the most important is to be reflective; that is, the professional must constantly question the assumptions and results of their actions. Being critical requires one to focus inward firstreferred to as reflexivity. This includes the attempt to realize what one is trying to do and why. In order to achieve this, one must take a step back from day-to-day life and the issues it brings. Part of this process is to question who the stakeholders are and who will be affected by one's action. It also means one must try to ascertain their viewpoints and incorporate these in one's decisions.

Being critical also requires the ability to interpret one's roles and activities in their social context. Technology and its intended uses are not value-neutral, but are based on many explicit and implicit value decisions [1]. These must be made as clear as possible and rendered open to potential revision. The critical approach does not offer simple answers but its main usefulness allows for asking novel questions. These questions allow the practitioner to develop a new understanding of problematic situations, which in turn is a prerequisite for creative solutions. Some of the questions that are typically asked by critical practitioners are collected in the accompanying table.

All these steps require effort, resources, and the courage to question oneself. It also requires a willingness to take others seriously, whatever their role in relation to the project. Potential stakeholders include the traditional commercial ones such as management, employees, customers, and suppliers, but they can also include local communities, relatives of employees, non-governmental organizations, among others. Such an approach can be very destabilizing because it forces us to face cultures, world views, and realities may not be compatible with our own. (See the sidebar "Creating a Space of Meaning: An Example of the Critical Approach" for a case study illustration of the guiding questions noted in the table).

The critical approach is not an easy option. It is difficult to access and difficult to realize. It requires engagement of the IT professional that goes beyond a narrowly defined understanding of technical responsibility. This is a significant challenge. However, it can also be highly rewarding because it offers new perspectives, can overcome limitations of traditional practice, and addresses ethical issues. We do not claim that being critical would easily have prevented or solved the problem of the GPs (or of the vignette included in the accompanying sidebar "Creating a Space of Meaning"). We do claim, however, that thinking about the questions noted here would help to clarify the nature of the problem and thus prepared the ground for an innovative solution. Furthermore, taking a critical stance will sensitize IT professionals to problems and issues on a wider scale and, thereby, help limit problems before and when they arise.

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References

1. Adam, A. Computer ethics in a different voice. Information and Organization 11 (2001), 235261.

2. Anderson, R.E., Johnson, D.G., Gotterbarn, D., and Perrolle, J. Using the new ACM code of ethics in decision making. Commun. ACM 36, 2 (Feb. 1993), 98106.

3. Brooke, C. What does it mean to be `critical' in IS research? J. Information Technology 17, 2 (2002), 4957.

4. Brooke, C. and Maguire, S. Systems development: A restrictive practice? Intern. J. Information Management 18, 3 (1998), 165180.

5. Cecez-Kecmanovic, D. Doing critical IS research: The question of methodology. Qualitative Research in IS: Issues and Trends. E. Trauth, Ed. Idea Group Publishing, Hershey, PA, 2001, 141162.

6. Heng, M.S.H. and de Moor, A. From Habermas's communicative theory to practice on the Internet. Information Systems J. 13 (2003), 331352.

7. Hine, M., Hill, M. Ruth, D., Carlson, B., Bank, D. and Troxell, J. Empowering persons with disabilities with decision-support technology. Commun. ACM 47, 9 (Sept. 2004), 8590.

8. Lyytinen, K. and Hirschheim, R. Information systems as rational discourse: An application of Habermas Theory of communicative action. Scandinavian Journal of Management 4, 1/2 (1988) 1930.

9. Keil, M., Tiwana, A., and Bush, A. Reconciling user and project manager perceptions of IT project risk: A Delphi study. Information Systems Journal 12, (2002), 103119.

10. Orlikowski, W.J. and Baroudi, J.J. Studying information technology in organizations: research approaches and assumptions. Information Systems Research 2, 1 (1991), 128.

11. Sauer, C. Why Information Systems Fail: A Case Study Approach. McGraw Hill, London, 1993.

12. Schmidt, R. et al. Identifying software project risks: An international Delphi study. J. Management Information Systems 17, 4 (2001), 536.

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Authors

Bernd Carsten Stahl (bstahl@dmu.ac.uk) is a reader in critical research in technology in the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility of De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.

Carole Brooke (cbrooke@lincoln.ac.uk) is a professor of organisational analysis at the Lincoln Business School, University of Lincoln, UK.

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1325555.1325566

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Tables

UT1Table. Guiding questions of the critical approach.

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1. Brooke, C. Information systems in use: A representational perspective. TAMARA 1, 3 (2001), 3952.


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