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Empowerment or Control: views on introduction of IT on organisations

The introduction of information technology (IT) into organisations has brought about huge different interpretation of its effects on management-worker relationships. Among them, there are two opposite and polarized views: “IT is a source of empowerment in organizations” and “IT provides just another opportunity for managerial control. ” In my opinion, both of these two statements view the changes affected by IT as technology determinant. This debate masks rather than clarifies realities about the differing roles of IT. Computer related technology or any other technology is neutral (Bostrom and Heines, 1977).

Technology does not speak for itself but is interpreted by human beings. This paper will examine these two points related to the empowerment and control in the context of IT and present an implication of the uses of IT within organisations in relation to varying organisational goals and the corresponding management and worker roles. It will be shown how four different ways of categorising the use of IT within an organisation can be based on the level of worker empowerment provided by the IT and the amount of management control it is necessary to maintain.

In whatever way to interpret the IT in organisation, we shall be aware that the increasing transparency

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of knowledge brought by IT demands more flexible management in organisations. However, it depends on how to and who manage information resources effectively, which is another critical issue. Keywords: Information Technology (IT), Organisation, Empowerment, Power, Managerial Control, Change Introduction In this paper, the definition of IT is of the broadest possible nature.

It essentially refers to the convergence of electronics, computing, and telecommunications, which largely shares the definition given by Scott Morton, broadly sitting IT to consist of “computers of all types, both hardware and software; communications network, from those connecting two personal computers to the largest public and private networks; and the increasingly important integrations of computing and communications technologies… ” (Scott Morton in Sharpe, 1998).

The rapid evolution of information technology (IT) since 1980s and widespread application of Internet supporting by advanced ICT has created the fact that IT has emerged as a potential weapon for controlling and being empowered. In such a context, when viewing the introduction IT to organisation, many managers or academies will hold the different even opposite opinions. On one side, IT is treated as a source of empowerment; on the other side, IT is be criticised as a new alternative of managerial tool. From my point of view, IT cannot be simply interpreted in either way above.

This paper tries to give a brief examination on this issue from the aspects of the dual potentialities of IT, paradox of empowerment and relationship between empowerment and control. The rest part of this paper will be divided into four sections. In the first section, it will briefly review the dual potentialities of implementation IT into organisations. The paradox of empowerment gives evidence to my opinion in the followed section. The third section will discuss the relationship between empowerment and control, and finally it is concluded with some implication concerning the integration of IT and organisation.

Dual Potentialities of IT Information technology can be used to empower or to control individuals. It can enable people to work more flexibly, freely and independently (like in Silicon Valley start-ups) or it can be used to monitor, appraise and control people (like in some call centres). Walton (1989) suggested that a unique characteristic of IT is its ” dual potentialities” (or multiple potentialities) – the ability of a technology to produce one set of organisational effects or their opposites.

He then gave us an example to make further explanation that IT can either routinize work or it can widen the discretion of users; it can strengthen hierarchical control or facilitates self-management and learning by users (ibid: 2). Therefore, in an organisation, IT can be used to reinforce a strategy that relies upon employee compliance, or to promote an organisational context that elicits employee commitment, empowerment in other word. IT can be a powerful force to either end (ibid: 27).

It can reinforce a control, providing another opportunity foe managerial control, or facilitate a move towards empowerment, generating a source of employee’s commitment. The dual potentialities of IT significantly support my opinion that both of them, views on the introduction IT into an organisation, seem to fall into the polarization and simplify the relationship between IT and organisation. They clarify one of major standpoints with which the view about the implementation of IT into organisation must deal of its goal. Paradox of Empowerment

The paradox of empowerment itself, being given power or disguising control within the rhetoric of freedom and therefore putting more ‘humanistic’ face on manipulation (Jermier 1998), proves that the polarized view on the introduction of IT in organisations cannot hold the water. Definition and relationship with IT The core of critical examination of these two statements is how to define empowerment. Empowerment as an identifiable concept can be traced from social studies (Mullender and Ward 1991; Humphries 1996) about ten years ago and it was first introduced into the corporate world in the 1980s.

Since then, it quickly became a buzzword with great promise and defined variously from management and business perspective. Jenkins claimed that its central meaning is to enable people to do things that they would otherwise unable to do (1996:37). Clutterbuck defined it as the transfer of the power within organisations from top management to middle management and so on, all the way to front line employees (1994: 12). By extending the definition, empowerment is also said to have a various effects on the different industry and organization.

In manufacturing, for example, empowerment is characterized by its work design that is noted as being a radical break with Taylorism and Fordism (Berggren, 1994). At the same time, team autonomy and the decentralization of decision authority to the shop floor teams are shown as the central features (Shipper and Manz, 1992). The study of Malone (1997) provided the evidences that the introduction of IT was leading to decentralization and empowerment. Based on such importance of information for empowerment, the view is to declare IT as critical as a source of empowerment.

However, the role of IT in all this is questionable: the strengthening of social relations through collaboration seems more responsible for the ’empowerment” compared to the use of IT. On the other hand, with the introduction of IT, via the PC, employees have a whole range of tools and applications, notably those of communication. It seems to indicate that the information becomes more informative and the ownership of information becomes collective-both management and line employee have equal ownership to the information.

Paradox The paradox of empowerment is rooted from the different understanding of managers and employees in the organisation. For many managers or many researchers, they would define empowerment as “giving people the power to make decisions. ” It is critical to relocate the locus of decision-making in the process of empowerment, but it may commutate to another demonstration of the manager acting as director and controller. The manager still mandates the decisions people are allowed to make.

This definition of empowerment also misses the essential point that people already possess a great deal of power–power that resides in their knowledge, experience, and internal motivation. From the viewpoints of employees together with anybody who share the same opinions, they feel that empowerment means to be given free rein to do as they please and the freedom to make all the key decisions about their jobs. They neglect that empowerment also means sharing risks and responsibilities as the price for freedom to act, pride in their work, and ownership of their jobs.

True freedom of power is not attainable, so change initiators must explore the best way of redistributing it. Therefore, The concept of empowerment and power are both logically and practically linked. Given that power can never be eliminated (4th dimension1), however, empowerment may be viewed as an attempt to redistribute power or create a more equitable balance of power so organisational objective can be achieved and employee satisfaction can be increased simultaneously. (Graetz et al 2002)

Paradox in the context of IT Recently, more sophisticated approaches to the relationship between IT and empowerment showed that there is no single, unequivocal relationship between IT and empowerment, whether this relationship is approached at the level of structure or action or from a technologically deterministic perspective or not. IT was shown to support employees by providing information or promoting the delegation of decisions, while at the same time, IT can be used to control and monitor employees.

The findings of Psoinoa et al in 2000, which expressed in their survey of 450 UK manufacturing companies followed by a series of 20 in-depth interviews in 18 top UK manufacturing organizations, confirmed that empowerment is indeed pursued by many UK manufacturing organizations within their various efforts at improving their organization of work. However, while they viewed IT as an important enabling tool for empowerment offering many opportunities, but clearly noted that the role of IT in this is supportive rather than initiating; IT do not lead to employees becoming empowered.

Empowerment and Control Since the concept of empowerment and power are both logically and practically linked, it is will be vital to leave some space to power when the relationship between empowerment and control is discussed in the context of IT. This discussion is also going to clarify that the view on the IT’s introduction to the organisation shall not be simplified or even polarized. Moreover, power, the ability to get things done (Kanter, 1979), is important to this discussion because the access to information provided by the technology can influence shifting power relationships.

Power results from access to resources, information and support, thus power is augmented when a position provides the holder with discretion, recognition and relevance (ibid). Increasing applications of IT greatly change the balance of power between managers and workers within an organisation as it changes lines of access to resources, information and support. When workers have access to IT, they may be empowered through greater access to information and technical skills.

IT positions may also require higher levels of responsibility because, as IT systems integrate broad ranges of information covering various aspects of an organisation, “newly visible data becomes the responsibility of those who see it” (Zuboff, 1988). Coombs et. al. (1992) pointed out that the affects of IT on an organisation will depend on:1) the distribution of information– the flows of information and the corresponding patterns of control; and 2) the interpretation of information — how the sender and receiver shape the information, and the resulting consequences.

From this analysis, it is evident that 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. Management is the Process of guiding development, maintenance, and allocation of resources to attain organizational goals. Controlling is one of the primary managerial functions.

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). 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, to take advantage of IT, workers must be empowered to make process decisions. However, Wilson (1995) interprets the empowerment of workers through IT quite differently. In his view, IT is seen as an extension of the Bentham’s Panopticon2 and Taylorism. He 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.

These two interpretations demonstrate how that two statements on introduction IT into organisations are put in a simple construal. Burris summarises the dilemma as: One the one hand, some social scientists have found that recent social and technological changes have created a centralized, neo-Taylorist work organization, deskilling of the labor process, and reduced worker autonomy (Braverman 1974, Feldberg & Glenn 1987, Draft 1977, 1979, Noble 1977, 1984, Shaiken 1984, Zimbalist 1979).

Conversely, other social scientists have concluded that the transformation of production has promoted a postindustrial or postbureaucratic work organization characerized by decentralization and reduction in hierarchy, upskilling of work and a centrality of knowledge workers, and democratization and increased worker autonomy (Attewell 1992, Bell 1973, Block 1990, Clegg 1990, Hirschhorn 1984, Piore & Sable 1984) (Burris, 1998).

In order to clarify he relationship between control and empowerment, it will be analysed in a matrix (figure 1) based on levels of control and empowerment generated by IT. The four quadrants represent four uses of IT and the resulting organisational structure.

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