Mobile ICTs in Government Field Operations: A Socio-Technical Innovation Project

Mobile ICTs in Government Field Operations: A Socio-Technical Innovation Project

Hans J. Scholl (University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/ijegr.2014040105


The authors investigated the unfolding of an innovation project in field operations of City government, which introduced mobile information and communication technologies (ICTs) for field crews. The implementation of mobile technology had to overcome several serious socio-technical challenges, the lessons learned from which were instrumental for the project's ultimate success. The authors collected data using a seven-layer framework and interpreted the rich data from multiple field cases from a structurationist perspective. The authors found this approach, which is referred to as situated action analysis, particularly useful for elucidating the observed feedbacks between human action/interaction (human agency), the shaping of the information technology (IT) artifact, and the organizational structure within their socio-technical context.
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Like private firms, governments of the 21st century systematically pursue productivity gains, process streamlining, logistics optimization, and improved asset management. For example, as an early adopter, the City of Seattle experimented with mobile technology in its various guises beginning in the late 1990s. The City’s public utilities (Seattle Public Utilities/SPU) embarked on a mobile pilot project in its field operations in 2003 with the intention of exploring the innovation potential of the most recent mobile and wireless technologies. We were motivated to study the effects of this particular innovation project in public-sector field operations, since those had not been systematically studied before, and the benefits of mobile technology use in public utilities field operations were not clear. We were particularly interested in understanding the role and effectiveness of the IT1 artifact in these organizational and social transformation processes. In this project, we were able to document huge productivity gains in field operations and improved asset and resource management as intended outcomes; however, we also witnessed undesired side effects in the transition and transformation, which were neither foreseen nor expected.

For studying the project in its various dimensions, we used the analytical framework known as Cognitive Work Analysis (CWA) (Fidel & Pejtersen, 2002; Rasmussen, 1986; Rasmussen, Pejtersen, & Goodstein, 1994; Rasmussen, Pejtersen, & Schmidt, 1990; Vicente, 1999), which has successfully been used in information system evaluation before (Fidel & Pejtersen, 2004). The framework is geared towards delayering the rich context of a work domain under study by systematically observing and describing in detail what human actors in a specific domain do, what information they might need when they have to make decisions, and why they might act and decide as they do. CWA uses seven analytical layers for delayering organizational complexity. For understanding the organizational and socio-technical processes, we assessed and interpreted the rich data from a structurationist perspective (Giddens, 1984). In particular, we were interested in the analysis of the structuring processes as the system of interaction and the duality of structure, that is, the generative rules and resources (Bryant & Jary, 1991), at SPU’s field operations upon introduction of mobile systems for crews and crew chiefs. As we found in the process, the layered approach was of great utility in the structuration-oriented analysis.

This paper describes the mobile innovation project at SPU across multiple field cases. It has two aims:

  • 1.

    Document the challenges and opportunities of a major innovation project in the field operations of City government and the shaping/structuring of the social system in this process.

  • 2.

    Discuss the role of the IT artifact in this project as a central part of both the structure and the interaction between contextually situated and knowledgeable human agents and structure from a structurationist perspective.

With this contribution we add to the strand of empirical information systems (IS) research from a structurationist perspective intending to narrow the gap between structurationist concepts and empirical data (Silva, 2007).

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