When Innovation Stumbles: Applying Sauer's Failure Model to the Flemish Road Sign Database Project

When Innovation Stumbles: Applying Sauer's Failure Model to the Flemish Road Sign Database Project

Lies Van Cauter (KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium), Frank Bannister (Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland), Joep Crompvoets (KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium) and Monique Snoeck (KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium)
DOI: 10.4018/IJPADA.2016010101
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Abstract

Catalogues of failure factors and descriptive accounts of failures are relatively easy to find in the information systems (IS) literature as are studies of IS success or technology adoption. In contrast, in-depth studies of failure are rare. What is more, most of the research into IS failure and success uses a positivist approach - two widely cited examples of the latter being the Delone and McLean IS success model and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology. Given this, an interesting question is whether an interpretivist approach can uncover aspects and causes of failure that might not be visible when viewed through a positivist lens. This paper seeks to answer this question by examining a failed e-government system in Flanders (Belgium) using Sauer's Information Systems failure process model. The analysis suggests that this model, and more generally an interpretivist approach, can provide a richer and more insightful understanding of the causes and the process of failure.
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Introduction

The history of public information systems is littered with failures. Some of public sector information system (IS) failures have been quite spectacular (see Dwivedi et al, 2014; Gauld & Goldfinch, 2006; Sammon & Adam, 2007; Purao et al, 2012). Considerable research has gone into identifying ‘failure factors’ (see below). But while catalogues of failure factors and descriptive accounts of failures are relatively easy to find, in depth studies of failure are hard to find. The scholarly literature on IS failure is surprisingly thin.

There are several possible reasons for this. One is that people are often reluctant to discuss failure which makes it hard to research in depth. People do not wish to recall painful events; the urge is to move on and to forget (Dalcher, 2003; Goldfinch, 2007; Lyytinen & Robey, 1999). A second reason is that humans are all too good at creating false memories, especially about failure (Cannon & Edmondson, 2005; Goleman, 1985). There is also a natural tendency to try to shift blame to others and to judge what is perceived as other people’s errors differently from our own. We blame our errors on environmental factors: we blame other people’s errors on personal shortcomings. Psychologists refer to this as the fundamental attribution error (Heider, 1958). Some organizations, and particularly those in the public sector, suffer from a so-called ‘blame culture’ (Beynon-Davis, 1999; Ewusi-Mensah, 1997). So even where research is done, it can be challenging to distil out the true narrative of a course of events (Bannister, 2005; Bartis & Mitev 2008). A few scholars have studied specific failures (e.g. Bartis & Mitev, 2008; Beynon-Davis, 1999) and others have looked at IS failure as a generic problem (Dalcher, 2003; Dwivedi et al, 2013; Goldfinch, 2007; Lyytinen & Hirscheim, 1987). Notwithstanding such work, the amount of academic research into this area is modest and there is considerable scope for good, empirical research and better explanatory models of why failure occurs.

This paper seeks to make a contribution to addressing this shortfall by examining a failed e-government system in Flanders. In a previous publication, a number of the authors (Van Cauter et al., 2014) used the positivist lenses of the Delone and McLean (2003) IS success model and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT) (Venkatesh et al, 2003) to analyse this case. While this analysis provided some insights, the results were not entirely satisfactory. In this paper a different lens will be used, namely an interpretivist approach to the problem using Sauer’s failure model (1993).

The remainder of this paper is organised as follows. First there is a brief review of the e-government IS failure literature followed by a more detailed discussion of Sauer’s model of IS failure. There follows an outline of the research methodology. Next, the story of the Flemish Road Signs Database (RSD) is related and analysed using Sauer’s model as a framework. Finally some conclusions are presented.

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