Research and Advances
Computing Applications Two decades of the language-action perspective

Action and Media in Interorganizational Interaction

Coordinating the role of IT with business processes.
  1. Introduction
  2. From Intraorganizational to Interorganizational Coordination
  3. An Instrument for Co-design of Business Interaction and Software
  4. IT as Media for Communicative Actions
  5. IT as Media in Business Interaction
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Author
  9. Figures

The language-action perspective (LAP) has contributed to several models of coordination of work. In the seminal work of Winograd and Flores [12] the conversation-for-action (cfa) scheme was introduced. This scheme describes, as a kind of generic construct, how two actors come to an agreement about what is to be done. There is someone who asks for the work and someone to perform the work. There are several approaches to business modeling following the cfa scheme. The two most famous approaches seem to be Action Workflow [9] and DEMO [1]; see the article by Dietz in this section for more on the DEMO methodology. The general idea is to get a business model of how people, through conversation, coordinate their work. Such a business model, focusing on coordination, should be seen as foundational for the development of supporting software. The LAP spirit is to consider software as a tool for coordination.

Action Workflow and DEMO are general business modeling methods based on LAP. They can be used for modeling coordination within one organization (intraorganizational coordination) and can also be used for modeling coordination between several organizations (interorganizational coordination). The models describe two general roles; a customer (who requests work to be done) and a performer (who offers, promises, and performs the requested work). The models describe the coordination as consisting of four generic phases; Figure 1 illustrates the Action Workflow loop.

Each phase of the Action Workflow loop consists of communicative actions and not only information transfer. Following the foundational idea of LAP, communication messages are both performative and informative. Performative means a certain communicative intent is expressed that includes the establishment of certain interpersonal relations between sender and receiver. A work request is not just a work description. To express a request means an introduction of certain social expectations between the two communicators. The sender wishes the receiver to perform something. Different communicative actions (in different phases of a conversation) mean establishment of different interpersonal relations and expectations. The informative part (often called propositional or referential) is what is talked about in the message, for example, actions performed or actions to be performed. Communication is through these performative and informative features the way to coordinate actions. LAP emphasizes coordination in business processes: such processes cannot be reduced to mere transformation of objects or information. In addition, LAP allows interaction between different actors in the business process to be visible.

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From Intraorganizational to Interorganizational Coordination

A third LAP-based approach to business modeling is BAT [3, 6], which stands for Business interAction and Transaction model. This approach is dedicated to interorganizational interaction. It will be used in the following as an example of a LAP-approach in order to show and clarify what a LAP-based framework for interorganizational coordination would imply. BAT is a generic model for describing business interaction between a customer and supplier (see Figure 2). It describes business interaction in terms of four phases of a business transaction: proposal phase, commitment phase, fulfillment phase, and assessment phase. In each phase there may be exchanges. In the proposal phase there may be exchange of proposals. There may be offers from the supplier and questions from the customer, bids, and counterbids. In the commitments phase the two business parties may come to an agreement. Orders and promises are exchanged. Through a delivery promise, the supplier makes a commitment for future delivery. The customer order is not just a request for a delivery. In a normal business it also means a commitment for future payment. In this phase the business parties may, through a negotiation, come to an agreement about a business deal. A business contract is established in this phase; either as a formal and written contract or as an informal one. In the third phase—the fulfillment phase—there will be an exchange of value. There is an exchange of products versus money. The supplier delivers a product (goods and/or services), and the customer usually pays for the delivery. In this phase the business parties fulfill their earlier commitments. The fourth phase is an assessment phase. Each business party assesses the business interaction. Did it reach expectations? If not, this may be expressed as a complaint. Not all discontents may be expressed. There exists the choice of voice versus exit. This means negative assessments may not be communicated. Positive assessments are not so often communicated, but sometimes there may be an expression of commendation.

BAT is a generic model of business interaction. It can be used in different settings, business-to-business (B2B) as well as business-to-consumer (B2C). It can also be used for different types products (goods or services; standardized or customized products). In the BAT model, business interaction is structured in four generic phases. This follows one core idea of Action Workflow and DEMO. The action character of what is done in each phase is emphasized. The passage of a business transaction continuously changes the business relations between the business parties. Interactions create obligations, authorizations, fulfillments of obligations and BAT helps to direct attention to these issues.

What is specific about the BAT model? Why are not the original LAP approaches (Action Workflow, DEMO) sufficient? The BAT model is an exchange model. In every phase there may be an exchange of actions between the business parties, not only actions going in one direction. The BAT model acknowledges that business interaction consists not only of communication, but also of an exchange of value. The third phase comprises physical delivery and payment. The BAT model is not a general coordination model. It acknowledges that interorganizational coordination and interaction between independent business parties will have partially another character than coordination within one single organization.

The exchange character of business interaction is emphasized in the BAT model. Such an emphasis on exchange also entails a symmetric view of customer and supplier. This view means that both business parties should be acknowledged as active business parties. All their relevant business actions should be taken into account. This does of course not entail that the power balance between the business parties is symmetric or that they perform the same type of actions.

This symmetric view on suppliers and customers may be a contrasted to the one-sighted view in many marketing models. In such models the supplier is considered the active party and the customer is a passive party that should be influenced through different means.

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An Instrument for Co-design of Business Interaction and Software

The BAT model is to be used for analysis and design of interorganizational interaction. BAT is a reference model for business interaction. This means it can be used as a template for investigating interaction between customers and suppliers. It also helps inquirers direct their attention toward important aspects, such as how proposals are made, how customers and suppliers come to agreements through negotiation and contracting, how agreements are fulfilled in delivery and payment processes, how both customers and suppliers get satisfied through a business transaction.

The BAT model can shape our understanding of complex business interaction. It can be used for several purposes. BAT is used as a conceptual instrument when evaluating existing business interaction. It guides the evaluators to focus different important aspects of the business interaction. Such an evaluation functions as a basis for redesign. The BAT framework has been used in several cases for modeling and designing different business interaction patterns. One example is that is has been used to identify hidden business opportunities when modeling and comparing different business processes of a supplier [8].

LAP and the BAT model are pragmatic frameworks in two respects. They both emphasize action, directing our attention toward the action character of coordination and organizational performance; what people do when engaging in business transactions. These frameworks not only direct our attention toward pragmatic features of business interaction, but should be used as pragmatic instruments to change coordination and business interaction. LAP and BAT are not just philosophical reflections about the world. They should be directly useful in creation and recreation of a business world.

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IT as Media for Communicative Actions

The BAT model should thus be a support mechanism for a co-design of business interaction and software. This means it should be an integrated design of business processes and supporting software. However, the description of the BAT model so far (see Figure 2) does not say anything about the use of information technology in the business interaction. How can IT shape the business interaction? The answer to this question will go through an exploration of the role of software in organizational coordination and action.

According to LAP, IT is an instrument for performance of communicative actions [4, 12]. IT makes people communicate and thereby coordinate their actions. Communicative actions can be expressed through IT, which means IT has expressive powers. An IT application has a capability for enabling certain communicative actions, for example placing orders. This also means, however, that actions are restricted and constrained. There are usually some predefined communicative actions that can be performed through a particular IT application. Something can be said through a piece of software, but not everything. IT applications enable and constrain communicative actions or to say it in another way: IT is a mediator of coordinative actions.

It is not only a matter of what actions can be performed through an IT application. The intended types of communicative actions must also be identifiable by the user. A customer interacting through a Web site must understand what actions are possible to perform. This is a matter of IT affordances—what the IT application affords to its users. The concept of affordance, originally developed in perception psychology [2], has been brought into computing [5, 10]. An affordance is an action possibility that is observable by its potential users. Affordances must include both executable and informative properties.

The BAT model acknowledges that business interaction consists not only of communication, but also of an exchange of value.

This is an action view on IT applications and it fits well into LAP. IT applications should not only be usable. They should be actable. IT applications should support the performance of communicative and informative actions [4]. The IT application, as a designed artifact, involves communication to its users. The user interface communicates action possibilities to the users. These action possibilities (affordances) of the user interface should be seen as metacommunicative actions from designers to users [5]. They are metacommunicative actions since they inform about possible communicative actions. The buttons on a Web site (such as “search,” “order,” “confirm”) are, as such, communicative actions from IT designers to users. These buttons communicate what business actions a potential user can perform. When the user clicks a button, a particular communicative business action is performed.

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IT as Media in Business Interaction

In what ways is IT a mediator in business interaction? What kinds of actions may be afforded and mediated through IT? The BAT model can help us discuss and analyze this. Different business actions (according to the different exchange phases) can be mediated through some IT application. Software applications are media through which business actions are performed.

One key LAP issue concerns who is responsible for the mediation of business actions. Consider the following trivial example: A commercial Web site makes it possible for customers to place their orders independent of time and place. The Web site is an enabler of order actions. However, the certain features of the Web site may also restrict the customer in expressing orders. The customer may desire ordered products to be delivered to different addresses and this may not be possible according to the Web site. It is important to acknowledge that IT both enables and constrains communicative actions. The one in power of the IT application will also have power over communication and the coordination process.

We can use the BAT model to investigate the IT mediation of the business interaction. It is important to raise questions like: Who is in charge of the mediating instrument? What purposes are inherent in the instruments? What actions are enabled? What constraints are put on actions?

In Figure 3, four different cases of IT-mediated business interaction have been depicted. We use the principles from the BAT model: two actors (customer and supplier) and four phases of exchange actions. E-business, especially in B2C settings, usually means a supplier sets up a Web site where customers can search for products and place orders. The supplier is the one who mediates the business actions, both supplier’s actions and customer actions. The Web site is the way, or at least one way, for the supplier to perform certain business actions. Giving offers and order receipts may be performed through the Web site. This is case a in Figure 3, where the supplier, through controlling the IT mediation, has great influence on the business interaction.

It is not common, but there are occasionally cases in which customers have a Web site or some other IT application that serves as a mediator for business interaction with its suppliers. There are situations in B2B or business-to-government (B2G) where such cases exist (case b in Figure 3). A powerful customer is the one who, through control of the IT mediator, has great influence on the way business interaction is performed.

In B2B settings, where a supplier and a customer have a dense relation with many business transactions, they will perhaps create a specific IT application together, through which they can interact (case c in Figure 3). This was often the case in traditional EDI, but can also be performed through Web technology. The IT mediation of business interaction will be arranged through a joint design and negotiation process between the two business parties. There will be a combined customer and supplier control. One of the parties can of course be more active in the design and implementation process.

In some situations, customers and suppliers interact through an electronic marketplace. A separate IT application, run by an independent third party, is used for interaction. In this case, (d in Figure 3), neither the customer nor the supplier will have control of the IT mediation [11].

In Figure 3, the IT media covers all four phases of the business interaction. This will not be the case for all types of transactions. Product delivery (in the fulfillment phase) will only be possible to be mediated if the product is in a digital format, otherwise there must be a physical distribution. Invoicing and payment will, however, often be performed through IT-mediated services. The BAT model can support an analysis of the coverage of IT media in the business interaction. Which actions, in what business phases, should be supported by which media? (See [7].) The positioning of the IT media, illustrated through the four cases in Figure 3, is thus critical. The BAT model gives support for this kind of analysis.

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The actions in coordination are emphasized in LAP, encouraging investigators to focus on intentions, expectations, and commitments in communication. This is crucial in designing software to support both intraorganizational and interorganizational coordination. LAP has contributed to several models for investigating, modeling, and designing organizational coordination. In order to be useful, such an approach should give guidance to a co-design of business interaction and its supportive software. The BAT model gives assistance in positioning the IT media in relation to business parties and in different business phases. The BAT model has been applied in many studies since the mid-1990s and has proven to be useful [8]. Existing business processes have been evaluated, while new ways and modes of interaction have been co-designed.

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F1 Figure 1. The Action Workflow loop [

F2 Figure 2. Business interaction, within a business transaction, between a customer and a supplier (the BAT model).

F3 Figure 3. The role of media in business interaction—four cases: a) supplier control; b) customer control; c) combined supplier and customer control; d) third-party control.

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