Technological factor is mainly underestimated in the literature on institutions and organizations. Although organizational studies and information technology are disciplines dedicated respectively to studying socio-political and technical aspects of organizing, cross-fertilization among such fields has remained quite limited. Only rarely the variable of technology has been interpreted as a crucial element for explaining institutional uniformity. From a more general point of view, changing technical factors have been considered “relatively unimportant sources of organizational change in a mature organizational field” (Yang, 2003, p. 433). Only after the spread of the information and communication technologies (ICTs), a good number of studies has started to consider the relationships among information technology and organizational structure (Guthrie, 1999). Neo-institutional analysis on the use of information technology was mostly directed at showing how the embeddedness of organizational actors “in cognitive, cultural, social, and institutional structures influences the design, perceptions, and uses of the Internet and related [information technology]” (Fountain, 2001, p. 88). Therefore, it can been argued that most of the literature on this field concerns the way in which technology represents a social construct, because it shows that any technological application is strongly influenced by social aspects, such as cognitive frames, political culture, local traditions and so forth. Yet, a few contributions have been dedicated until now to investigate how institutions change through the introduction of new technologies. Although technological innovation is said to be the source of variation in a given institutional context, as “new technology offers new possibilities for solving problems [and] new practices arise when innovative organizations take advantage of its novel benefits” (Leblebici, 1991, p. 335), little attention is focused on technological variables. Despite such disregard, in the following article some examples of the strategic use of information and communication technologies will be included, with specific reference to pressures exerted by ICTs for producing “institutional isomorphism.”
Institutional isomorphism represents a central issue in the neo-institutional approach. Such concepts refer to the way organizations in a population are forced to “resemble” other organizations that “face the same set of environmental conditions.” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 66). It deals in part with the organizational process of homogenization.
The main contributions on institutional isomorphism can be divided in two different fields of research, only rarely put together. The first one can be identified with the analysis of organization, which looks to pressures leading to conformity among organizational actors. The second one has found new areas of application after the process of globalization: it is the study of policy transfers, which aims at underlining the policy convergence in different political contexts. Both the approaches show many similarities in the discourse on institutional change and can be also associated for the lack of consideration for technological variables. How the adoption of a new technology may influence and being influenced by pre-existing institutional setting has represented a crucial and underestimated issue. Yet, after the spread of ICTs, the relevance of the strategic use of technology for producing institutional effects is becoming more evident.
The analysis of organizational isomorphism refers to a notable source of inspiration. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber (1905/1958) introduced the imagery of the iron cage to catch the process of bureaucratic homogenization in which the humanity was imprisoned. Organizations were deemed to a destiny of increased rationalization that would make them more similar to each other in structure, culture and outputs. The same image of imprisonment was used—and revised—by DiMaggio and Powell (1983) in their note studies on the mechanisms of institutional isomorphic change. As a constraining pressure which forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same sets of environmental conditions, the concept of isomorphism aims at explaining why there is homogeneity of forms and practices in a given organizational field.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Code: The digital architecture which regulates the cyberspace, the complex system of software and hardware instructions defining Internet rules
Interoperability: Ability of ICT systems and business processes to exchange data and enable the sharing of information and knowledge
Organizational Hybridity: (a) a process of hybridization based on the selective transplantation and adaptation of digital network repertoires previously considered typical of social movements (b) the emerging of new organizational forms that exist only in hybrid form and that could not function in the ways that they do without the Internet and the complex spatial and temporal interactions it facilitates.
European Administrative Convergence: The process for which administrations become more similar and close to a common European model
E-Government: The application of new information and communication technology for the restructuring of public administration and the renewal of the relationship between public institutions and citizen-users
ICTs: Acronym for information and communications technologies. It is a general term that describes any technology that helps to produce, manipulate, store, communicate, or disseminate information
Isomorphism: A constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units facing the same set of environmental conditions. It stimulates an evolutionary path from diversity to homogeneity, as the result of imitation among organizations or independent development under similar constraints
Standardization: The process of creating uniformity through established standards