This paper discusses the dynamics associated with the implementation and deployment of an information infrastructure designed to standardize work practices. The analysis is based on a case study conducted in a pharmaceutical R&D organization. The infrastructure in use, comprising a computerized system and surrounding organizational procedures, seems to support work practices not always as originally planned. The paper discusses the role played by local characteristics, contingencies, and practices in shaping a standardization protocol implemented to standardize work practices. Building on actor-network theory, the paper concludes that the standardization of work practices is the result of the dynamic interplay between technology and its users, rather than the consequence of a planned and well-defined design project.
The study of work practice standardization and other means of homogenizing the variety of work behaviours lies at the centre of a vast and multidisciplinary literature. Historically, the importance of standards and classification protocols as ways of making work procedures and practices uniform has been discussed from different perspectives. Bureaucracies have been described as organizations which rely on rules, norms and routines to reiterate behaviours when similar circumstances occur. Bureaucracies rely on standardized answers, classified and ordered to provide homogeneous paths of responses to similar events whenever they occur (Mintzberg, 1983), to reduce transaction costs and the complexity of an organization’s tasks (Ciborra, 1993; Moe, 1984).
The role of norms, rules and resources in a social setting, meanwhile, can be thought of as the set of standards (structure) that affects the process that shapes social order, and therefore organizational practices. Giddens (1984), for example, identifies social structures as being composed of rules and resources that facilitate and/or constrain interaction in social settings. Rules and resources provide the contextual constraints individuals draw upon when acting and interacting. These rules and resources are the categories through which social orders are constructed and reconstructed recursively. An organization’s action is therefore the result of structurational processes that are deeply affected by the norms and rules that constrain the organization’s action. Similarly, Avgerou (2000) discusses institutional theory, identifying the nature of institutions as taken-for-granted standardized sequences of activities, which establish and maintain the modus operandi of the organization. This path of action can create powerful myths (Avgerou, 2002), which act as the background upon which changes in organizational activities are constrained but also enabled.
These different perspectives show that, at a macro level, the key characteristics of standards and norms are their being the product of social institutions which produce but also reinforce them over time (Douglas, 1986).