The Human Side of Information Systems: Capitalizing on People as a Basis for OD and Holistic Change

The Human Side of Information Systems: Capitalizing on People as a Basis for OD and Holistic Change

Telmo Antonio Henriques (ISCTE-IUL, Portugal) and Henrique O'Neill (ISCTE-IUL, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8833-9.ch007


In this chapter the authors explore the relationship between Information Systems and Organization Development, highlighting the value that Holistic Change Interventions can introduce when applied to IS/IT areas, mobilizing Individuals, Groups and the whole Organization to promote Organizational Effectiveness. A “soft” approach to Organizational Change is proposed, focusing on main internal aspects which are determinant for Organizational Performance, including Organizational Culture and Values, Leadership, Work Teams, and Employee Engagement. The approach is illustrated by a successful “real-world” Transformational Change Program which has been developed, within an IT Unit of a major financial organization, following an Action Research paradigm. The intervention has integrated two main cycles – a first one covering the strategy determination and behavioral preparation for further action, and a second one devoted to a coordinated implementation of strategic actions which have emerged from the first cycle – where communication, engagement, action and improvement have been the most relevant attributes of the whole process. From a Research perspective this successful Change intervention has served to develop and test, within context, a Framework of Critical Success Factors for Holistic Change, which is described on its management implications, and covering distinct areas and dimensions. Also, the high potential of Action Research, to promote Holistic Change within real organizational settings, and, simultaneously, to address complex research issues, questions, objectives, and test hypothesis, is deeply illustrated within this chapter.
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The relationship between Information Systems and Organizational Change is, often, explored along the path’s direction from Information Systems to Organizational Change. This includes two main typical perspectives: (1) the integration of the organizational side of change as a non-negligible dimension within IS/IT Programs (strategic, preventive view); and (2) the appraisal of the impact of IS/IT changes over Organizational effectiveness (evaluative view).

However, the reverse direction – highlighting the value that Organizational Development and Change can introduce when applied to IS/IT areas, through People – is a rich research domain, not so often explored within this context.

In fact, Individuals, Groups, the Organization as a whole, and its interactions, form the basis of the traditional “People, Process & Technology” triangle, having a special impact over Organizational Effectiveness.

So, this reverse direction, promoting IT Organizational Development, should be considered, as a forward path towards the preparation of IS/IT People, in context, to face their responsibilities of serving the whole organization.

Also, within these technical areas, “hard” dimensions (product, process, risk, control and service) are, often, overemphasized by best practices’ (e.g., COBIT, ITIL, CMMI and PMBOK) adoption projects, minimizing the critical importance of the human factor as a base ingredient of any comprehensive approach to Organizational Effectiveness.

As a consequence of this restrict vision some important Organizational Development and Change aspects, including Organizational Culture and Values, Leadership, Work Teams and Employee Engagement, are relegated to a minor dimension.

The current chapter, based from a Strategic Management perspective on a Resources-based View (Hitt, Ireland, & Hoskinsson, 2009) and focusing on main internal aspects which are determinant for Organizational Performance (Burke & Litwin, 1992) highlights the relevance of key concepts, relationships, processes and critical success factors of organizational improvement.

It illustrates these aspects with a successful “real-world” Transformational Change Program which has been developed, within an IT Unit of a major financial organization, following an Action Research paradigm (Shani & Pasmore, 1982).

From a change perspective, the organizational intervention configures a 2nd order planned change, thus, transformational (Porras & Robertson, 1992), built at the level of a single entity, with development induction through a cycle of goal formulation, implementation, evaluation and modification of goals based on what was learned (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995) and materializes a double-loop (Argyris, 2002), generative (Senge, 2006), organizational learning and development process. These concepts (allowing us to typify the kind of envisaged change and the associated approach) will be further clarified by the literature review.

The intervention has integrated two main cycles:

  • 1.

    Strategy determination and behavioral preparation for further action, and

  • 2.

    Coordinated implementation of strategic actions, which have emerged from the first cycle.

The first cycle has targeted the enhancement of a Service Culture, the development of harmonized Leadership practices, and the promotion of Employee Engagement and Participation, through an integrated set of highly participative actions.

Communication, engagement, action and improvement were the most relevant attributes of the process.

The second cycle, covering a set of coordinated actions (setting new policies, structures and procedures, and targeting structural improvement) has addressed main areas of Employee Training and Development, Communication, Leadership Practices, IT Best Practices’ adoption, Process Improvement and Tools’ Implementation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Leadership: A set of processes of influence , within a group of individuals , in order to reach common goals ; being the influencer “the leader ” and the influenced “the followers ”. Several approaches exist: some centered on the influencer’s characteristics and behaviors; others, focused on the relationship , considering the tasks, the individuals, the group, the exchange interactions and the influence process. All have been successively applied to political, social and organizational contexts. Although some criticism (outdated or incomplete phenomena explanations) they still include valid and complementary aspects. As any model, they are simplified representations of reality, with a limited, set of variables and processes. Specific understanding of actors, context, process and goals is a necessary condition to recognize situations and improve effectiveness on the ground.

Organizational Culture: The basic pattern of shared beliefs , behaviors and assumptions , acquired over time by members of an organization, as a result of a common learning process , which endure organizational behavior. Interpreted as integrating several layers: some more visible (external manifestations, commonly denominated as artifacts ); some others invisible ( underlying assumptions ); mediated by espoused values . As a product of organizational history, it strongly contributes to identity. Often presented to new organizational members as “the way we do things around here” and referred as “our collective mental programming”.

Employee Engagement: A concept which can be seen from two different perspectives: as a result (an emotional commitment that an employee has to the organization and its goals) or, from an organizational process perspective (as a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organization and goals and motivated to contribute to organizational success). Being change an essential ingredient for sustaining organizational success, engagement and its associated constructs are determinant. Values, Norms, Beliefs, Attitudes, Behaviors, Organizational Identity and Identification, Participation, Communication, Empowerment, Affective Commitment and Psychological Sense of Community are major dimensions which must be worked in order to promote engagement, individual well-being and organizational effectiveness.

Transformational Change: A planned change process, targeting, in a systemic approach, organizational culture and climate, people, groups, strategies and processes; actively communicating, involving and engaging stakeholders; with primary focus on changing attitudes, beliefs and values, and a secondary concern for processes, structures and systems; promoting double-loop, generative, learning.

Values: A double concept, including Personal values as beliefs that guide individual behaviors, and Organizational values as norms transmitted to employees who guide decisions and behavior in the workplace. Its alignment plays a major role on organizational commitment . So, espoused (sanctioned by senior managers and located at the level of top management), attributed (those that members attribute to the organization and located at the collective level), shared (reflections of members’ personal values located at the level of individual members) and aspirational (members’ ideas of what ought to be the values and located at the level of individuals and groups) values should overlap . Values’ mismatch can be a good opportunity to promote participative transformational changes, through a values-based approach: identifying and solving existing gaps; promoting values’ congruence and assimilation ; thus (re)addressing the basis of culture.

Organizational Excellence: A comprehensive approach to Quality , integrating, into the traditional “ hard ” technical and management views of quality, all the necessary “ soft ” dimensions of organizational life: encompassing the traditional “product, process, customer and results” dimensions with an organizational development perspective. Mobilizing the organization; transforming the culture to respond to organizational excellence challenges; engaging people on self-assessment and implementation; promoting continuous improvement, organizational learning, innovation and stakeholders’ management, are main basis of modern Organizational Excellence Models targeting organizational effectiveness. They incorporate a set of congruent primary values, concepts, principles, areas, evaluation criteria and improvement logics.

Action Research: Simultaneously a Planned Change approach paradigm and a Research Method , which is about research in action , involving, simultaneously, two goals : solving an organizational problem and contributing to knowledge. The process is based on existing behavioral science knowledge, integrated with organizational knowledge; applied to solve real organizational problems; promoting organizational change and learning and generating new (internal and external) knowledge. As main characteristics , it is developed within natural settings, addressing specific issues, within a spirit of collaboration and co-inquiry, involving the researcher and organizational stakeholders, promoting organizational learning, systems’ improvement, and generating valid knowledge. It requires an ethical positioning , based on a deep understanding of values and norms regarding the cooperation between the researcher and organizational members; preserving special working principles on relationships, communication, participation and inclusion.

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