From Systems to Services
From Systems to Services
The discipline Information Systems is about the use of information technology and, consequently, when that use changes so does the discipline. Radical changes in use bring radical changes in the discipline. From management control systems in the factories of industrial society to customer applications and services on the market in service society is such a radical change. The challenge brought to the discipline by this change has many dimensions. The discipline has to change its focus from systems to services, from factory to market, from administration to sales, from processes to situations, from improvement to innovation. In research practice, these changes are already well under way, but when it comes to theoretical discussions of the discipline and its fundamental concepts the process of change has been lagging behind. That discussion is still dominated by systems, organizations, management, processes and improvement when it ought to be focusing on applications, services, market, customer relations, sales, situations and innovation.
When computers began to be used as information technology in organizations in the early 1960s, one needed a concept to capture this use. The choice was obvious considering the intellectual climate of the time. The 1960s was a decade of operations research and systems engineering, and so people like Börje Langefors (1966) began to speak of information systems, management information systems, systems development, and so on.
Were we to choose a concept today, in the early 2000s, to characterize the use of information technology, system is not the first one we would come up with. In this time, when the market dominates our thinking, and everyone and everything is focusing on business opportunities and customers, systems make way for services, and we speak of information services, networked based services, mobile services, and so on. Is there really a conceptual change behind this change of terminology? How deep does it go? Is the difference between systems and services such that the discipline Information Systems now is, or ought to be, fundamentally different from what it was ten, twenty years ago. Does it need a new name?
1 Information Systems
Technology is one of the most forceful long-term social change agents. And yet, the social sciences have been slow in appreciating the role of technology in building, shaping and changing societies. Technology has been left to engineers to worry about, while the social sciences have been satisfied to describe and interpret, sometimes criticize, the effects of engineering, after the fact. Engineers have been given the power and responsibility to build and shape our societies, while the social sciences have not even played any role in engineering education, not to say in the development of technology itself. The social scientists have been happy to educate social practitioners of various sorts coming in to comfort human beings trapped in a technological landscape built and shaped by others.
The academic discipline Information Systems, responsible for educating systems developers and programmers, is an exception, bringing a social science and humanistic perspective to bear on the development, use and management of information technology. As such a technology use oriented discipline it has played an important role in contributing to an increasing interest in, and understanding of, the way technology shapes business, working life, everyday life, and society as a whole. It could have played an even greater role if it had managed to develop with the developing use of information technology. But instead it got more or less stuck in the 1960s and 1970s use of information technology for administrative data processing. It got stuck in information systems. There are at least three reasons for this.
The first reason is trivial, and we see it again and again when we study the history of information technology. People develop expertise in relation to one type of technology or one use of technology and once they have become experts they tend to stand in the way of change and development. IBM mainframe experts did not believe in minicomputers until Ken Olson with Digital managed to scare them into reaction. Minicomputer expert Ken Olson, who could not understand why anyone would want a computer in their home, had to sell his company to Compaq. Microsoft who came to dominate personal computing, hesitated to develop document management solutions, leaving the room open for Lotus, and failed to see the importance of Internet, giving Netscape an advantage. In the same way, information systems experts preferred to develop their expertise in information systems rather than learning about personal computing, interface design, email, or web solutions, unless these technologies could be subsumed under the information systems umbrella.
The second reason is more interesting. Information Systems is a discipline making the use of technology its subject matter. In its early search for identity it needed to distance itself from the technological disciplines, and even refused to admit its technology focus. Very quickly its proponents tried to make sure that it was not really information systems but information that was its subject matter, not information systems management but information management. The information technological solutions were certainly interesting, one argued, but more interesting were the information requirements they aimed to fulfill. Being a technology use discipline, Information Systems made sure not to be too technologically focused. It studied a phenomenon that had come to be supported by computer technology, rather than the actual varieties of technology use.
Focusing on information rather than on information technology, it was only natural for Information Systems as a discipline to disregard personal computing when it began to grow in the early 1980s. The use of information technology for word processing, calculation, playing games, and desk top publishing-and all the new dimensions introduced by this use-was of marginal interest to the discipline since, in the beginning at least, it did not seem to concern the information requirements of organizations. The whole issue of human-computer interaction was left to psychologists and computer scientists to deal with, while Information Systems remained happy with the more old fashioned technology associated with mainframe administrative computing.
But the most important reason is deeper and has to do with the Weltanschauung of the discipline when it was first developed in the 1960s, and particularly with systems thinking. Information systems is very much a 20th century industrial society discipline with a focus on production oriented factory organizations, with their processes, planning, and cybernetic control mechanisms. Indeed, with information systems those organizations finally got the means necessary to really become huge machines.
2 Factory Thinking
Factories and factory organizations dominate the 20th century industrialized societies. Factories are large production units employing many people and powerful machinery in complex repetitive processes. The size and complexity of factories and their processes make it both necessary and difficult to overview and control them. Systems thinking, in one variety or other, is the dominating philosophy in a society dominated by factories. Management and organization theory develop in response to the task of managing big factories. From the very beginning, computer technology fit very nicely into this philosophy and this task.
Already in the 1940s, inspired by the very first computers, Norbert Wiener introduced his discipline cybernetics, defining it as the study of “control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Computer technology, as Wiener saw it, made it possible to integrate and increase the complexity of control mechanisms while still retaining, or increasing, the flexibility of control. Cybernetics became the theory of how to use computers to control complex technological systems such as advanced weapon systems, airplanes, processing plants, and nuclear reactors.
In the 1950s, the cybernetic conception of computer technology, and systems thinking more generally, became pioneering ideas of how to use computers as information systems in organizations. Such information systems were conceived, more or less explicitly, as an exact parallel to the computer systems controlling complex technological systems. The use of computer technology as control mechanisms supported the idea of technology and organizations as systems. Whenever computer technology invaded a new area of reality it had the effect of strengthening the systems aspects of our perception of that reality. A house was really first seen as a system when we began to take seriously the possibility of turning it into an intelligent house. An organization was clearly seen to be a system once we began to develop its computerized information systems.
In the 1950s, factories grew in size and were becoming highly mechanized. More efforts had to be put into management. The factory organization was beginning to invade other areas of society, outside production, as a model for office work, education, healthcare and other public services. With information systems as cybernetic control systems it was possible to develop the factory organization, securing overview and control of ever larger, more complex operations. Focus was on developing the organization to become as efficient as possible, working on streamlining its productive processes, using information systems to gather and analyze data for detailed overview and control.
The factory organization was based on the idea of routines. Production processes were repeated again and again, and the task of management was to make the processes as efficient as possible. As management efforts increased and more people were engaged in office work, factory ideas were applied to management itself. Administrative development went hand in hand with production process development.
And yet, the whole idea of the factory remains focused on the central production process around which the factory is built. The central process is a largely mechanized, complex production process, involving very few people performing routine tasks servicing the machines. The important role left for people is to use control data to overview, manage, correct, change, and improve the production process. A factory would be nothing without its concrete production process, but work in such a factory is dominated by abstract administration.
This distinction between production and administration, between productive work and the administration of productive work, became an important source of conflict in many 20th century organizations. While engineers used computers as control systems to automate production, economists used computers as information systems to collect accounting data, striving for management control (Dahlbom et al., 2000).
The discipline Information Systems was defined by the use of computer technology for administration. It became a discipline developing theories and methods for the development, use, and evaluation of such information systems, and more generally about the use of administrative information in managing and increasing the efficiency of large organizations. Thus, when computers began to be used as personal tools for word processing, calculation, design, and desktop publishing, in the early 1980s, this use was largely irrelevant to the discipline. This was a use of computers in production-even if it was office production-rather than in administration. It was left to computer science and psychology to develop the field of human-computer interaction.
When personal computers were connected in networks to share resources and make possible extensive informal communication, this too happened outside the discipline of Information Systems. With electronic mail the idea of groupware, of computer support for cooperation was born, and with that use there developed something like a new discipline. When Computer Support for Cooperative Work, CSCW, was defined in the late 1980s, it was a radical alternative to Management Information Systems, MIS. While information systems were administrative computer support for management control, CSCW systems were computer support for autonomous teamwork. Information systems provided management support in a hierarchical factory organization. CSCW systems provided support for the actual work and collaboration in more worker controlled type of work organizations.
MIS and CSCW are examples of two different sorts of information systems, the difference between how you inform the management in a hierarchical organization and what you say to a team mate about how your work proceeds. In all professions, there is of course a lot of information that is collected, stored, and used as part of the actual work being done, including collaborative aspects of work as organized between workers. The personal computers of the 1980s, electronic mail, computer support for cooperative work, and Internet in the 1990s were mainly used to provide this sort of information. In a factory organization, there is another sort of information made up of accounting data produced and processed specifically for management reasons. To a large extent, such management information has to be specially compiled, while actual task information is what you use in your daily work and often contained in your work tools, in your work place and your team mates (Dahlbom et al., 2000).
The more routinized work becomes, the better organized in accordance with the ideals of factory production, the more important management information becomes. In a perfect factory, the production process is controlled by management information. But the less routinized work is, the more decisions have to be taken in actual work situations and the more important task information becomes.
Confusing these two sorts of information systems means confusing management with work, and this means confusing two very different roles played by computer technology. When you think of an organization as a system, there is a tendency to stress the structure of the organization at the expense of its content, administration rather than production, management at the expense of the actual work going on. Business modeling, information modeling, and conceptual modeling when performed as part of the analysis of an organization, as the initial stage in the design of a management information system, will tend to treat all the information processed in the organization as management information.
Factory organizations focus on production and the administration of production. The typical 21st century enterprise is not a factory in this sense. Production processes are now well known and relatively uninteresting. Administration of production is automated and mature. Production and its administration have been outsourced and focus in a globally competitive world is instead on customers and market. Sales, services, marketing and customer relationships have replaced production as the important activities of the firm. What consequences does this have for a discipline like Information Systems? Will we have management information systems for sales, services, marketing and customers?
Producing goods and providing services can be done manually with a maximum of labor and simple organization, or it can be done industrially with division of labor, complex organization and formal administration. Management information systems can be used to organize production as well as services. When the focus of enterprise shifts from production to services, a discipline like Information Systems will change its focus accordingly. This change does not have to be particularly dramatic. The difference between managing production information and managing sales, services and customer information is negligible. This is true to the extent that sales, services and customer relations have become routine processes, which can be organized like a factory. To the extent that this is not (yet) possible, if sales and services demand a more flexible and innovative hands-on approach, then management information is less interesting as control instrument and we will focus instead on computer support for the actual work tasks involved in dealing with customers. We will favor customer relationship support systems which give our sales force better possibilities to cooperate with our customers rather than customer relationship management systems which give management better possibilities to overview and control customer relationships. In order to work successfully with the right sort of customers we need a mixture of the two, of course.
3 Service Society
In the 1960s, sociologists like Daniel Bell (1999) began saying that we were leaving industrial society, moving into a postindustrial service society. Others pointed to the growing amount of information work, speaking about the information revolution. Something was obviously happening and looking back it is easy to see the role of computer technology in this “revolution.” Computers entered the factories of industrial society, automated work, emptying the factories of people. People instead found jobs in the services, in education, healthcare, childcare, media, marketing, hotels, restaurants, and lots of new kinds of services.
When computers helped automate factory work it also helped increase office work. People left the factories to go to the offices to work with information systems. Offices grew even more with a second wave of office technology: personal computers, laser printers, copying machines, and local networks. Office work consisted in the administration of both production and services. And office work meant a continuation of factory thinking. So, the first decades of service society did not mean the development so much of services and service work, as of administration and office work. And, Information Systems was the discipline developing methods and theories for this kind of work.
Information systems are systems for administration and the academic discipline supports and encourages administration and administrative work. In the same way as engineering in industrial society focused on the production of goods rather than on their consumption, Information Systems focuses on the administration of services rather than on their actual delivery. Instead of taking an interest in new sorts of services, or new ways of delivering services, Information Systems focuses on new ways of organizing the administration of already existing services.
In a service society focus is on services and their consumption rather than on goods and their production. If we look more broadly at the technologies dominating the growing service society of the 1960s and 70s, there are four obvious “service technologies”: television, computers, telephones, and automobiles. These technologies were used to advertise, negotiate, organize, request and deliver services. As service society developed, its focus moved from the offices of service organization to the market place and service delivery. Service technologies began to be integrated. We got car phones that became mobile phones, convergence of computers, telephones and media with Internet, and now mobile Internet is being developed, finally shifting the focus from offices to the market.
There are of course a variety of different services. In a society dominated by craft, work is more service-oriented than goods-oriented. The production of a tailor-made dress is more an example of providing someone a service – sewing a dress for someone – than of producing a dress. In service society, mass production will get more and more craftlike, with more and more ingredients of customization. The services of the old agricultural craft society were mainly manual services. Service society will be dominated by intellectual services. This is not the place to provide a taxonomy of services, but what information technology adds to services is cognitive and emotive content. Information technology is an intellectual and emotional tool to be used in cognition, administration and communication.
Services are provided to people, goods are mass-produced in factories. In the process of industrialization, the production of goods moves from people’s homes to factories with large machines and steam engines. When you produce goods in a service manner, a factory is not the place. You have to be close enough to the customers to be able to service them properly, and you don’t need steam engines.
In industrial society, focus is on producing and distributing goods. In service society focus is on services. There are all the traditional services of procuring, tailoring, body care, health care, education, financial services, transportation, and so on. In addition, products will become embedded in ever more complex services as focus shifts from owning objects to using them. And there will be a richer variety of digital services integrated with, sometimes complementing, sometimes replacing more material services.
When interest in owning goods gives way for an interest in consuming the services provided by those goods, then the social geography will change. Industrial society is organized around its factories of production. As that society has matured, the traditional, local neighborhood society has disappeared, and we are now buying our goods from factory outlets, getting our education in huge factory-like schools, and so on. Service society will mean a return to the small-scale service consumer society of old, but with a difference of course. The market places of traditional society will return. Service society is organized around its places of business and consumption. What kinds of places they will be we still have to wait and see. Will we be consuming our services in our homes or will we prefer to congregate in public places to do so?
It is too early to speak with confidence in response to these sorts of questions, but there is a line of reasoning that I find relatively convincing. Many factors contribute in making service society an extremely mobile society. Tourism is becoming one of the major pleasures of our rich societies, traveling is becoming an important part of education, and travels to visit friends and relatives are growing exponentially as we distribute our families and friends. In a connected world we stay in touch over great distances and we travel to keep our bonds alive. In a global market place, goods are distributed globally and work becomes more and more global. In a service and knowledge society to work is to meet and we have to be mobile to get to the meetings. In an innovative society with increasing competition, we network to stay ahead and networking means mobility. And in a service society we will have to be mobile to deliver a lot of services, and the more mobile we become the more mobile others have to be in order to service us, and so on in a spiraling motion of increasing mobility. So, the services of service society tend to be mobile. This goes for both human and digital services. Service society is a mobile society, a society of meeting places. After a brief interlude in farms and factories, we now return to the way we used to live when we first became human about a hundred thousand years ago. We become nomads again, in a society organized around meeting places, providing services like the watering holes of the savanna or the oases of the desert once did.
Against this idea that service society is a society of nomads, we can argue that this only holds for some of its members. In reality, we can argue, service society will be a divided society. The richer a society becomes, the more it can focus on experiences. We use goods to provide services to cause experiences. With technical development and increasing competence, our society turns into an experience society. But the difference is great between experiences as ingredients in an active life and a life that is just experiences. In a consumer society some of us will be producing and some of us will only be consuming. While some are traveling the world like nomads, others will be home watching television. This difference between an active, productive life and a passive, consumer life will divide the members of service society.
With more and more advanced and easy to use technology, we develop societies where we don’t have to worry about the practicalities of life. We can focus on more interesting aspects of life, on experiences or ends rather than on the means for reaching those ends. The irony of progress is that in this process we run the risk of creating a society of consumers rather than producers, a society in which many of us have nothing worthwile to do and thus find life more and more meaningless. The good life is a life of balance between production and consumption, between effort and rewards. It is a life of achievement, not just consumption. That balance may be different in different times and cultures, but it is difficult for us, in our culture, to believe that human beings can be happy without achievements. Maybe we are wrong.
Machine technology brought on the industrial revolution by mechanizing agriculture and moving the focus of economic activity to the factories for production. Computer technology brought on the service revolution by automating factory production and moving the focus of economic activity to administrative office work. Information technology is now automating administration and initiating a mobile revolution moving the focus of economic activity to mobile services in the market place.
In many parts of the world, East Asia is a good example, these changes go on at the same time, but in Europe and the US they come one after the other, making it natural to speak of a series of revolutions or major social changes. Thus, in the Scandinavian countries, for example, the industrial revolution began in the 1860s and went on well into the 1960s. The office revolution began in the 1960s and went on into the 1990s. The mobile revolution began in the 1990s and will go on for at least another decade or so.
4 Service Thinking
Information systems were something you developed or bought to serve as the infrastructure of your organization, the backbone of management control. In the telecom world, customers are provided with telephone services. First those are very simple and consist in simple telephony, an open line. Later, that open line will be taken for granted and it is the variety of things you can do with a telephone that attracts. With the convergence of computer and telecom technology the move towards services becomes stronger. Rather than using information technology to rebuild your organization, that technology will provide occasional services to be bought and consumed in a much more flexible way.
Information systems are based on the administrative idea of having overview, being in control, knowing what goes on. The idea is to build a storage where all the information needed is available, well organized and easy to find. Information services is the idea of being given the information needed at the time when you need it. It is the idea of having a servant who does all the hard work of collecting information, having overview, etc, so that you don’t have to worry about that. All you have to do is ask for and receive the services.
When organizations and administration grew the assistants of more craftlike offices turned into administrators, demanding information from professionals rather than supporting them with services in their work. The change from systems to services will reverse this development, administrators becoming assistants again. Information systems are systems for administrators. Information services are for professionals, managers, and consumers. When focus is shifting from administration to customer relationships, from office to market, when administration is more and more automated or outsourced, the company will focus on services rather than on systems.
We can think of the transition from information systems to information services as moving from one area of computer support to another, comparable to moving from production planning to electronic commerce. Or, we can think of it as moving on, bringing along and building on previous work. In the former case information services is a radical break with information systems; in the latter case they are add-ons to information systems. When you have administrative control you can use it to provide services to management, sales, marketing, and so on. All you have to do is make the old information systems user oriented and user friendly enough to really provide services over the network. But this is more easily said than done. What was once built for administrative control is not easily turned into a package of user oriented services. Indeed, the difference is greater than one may first think. The difference between systems thinking and service thinking is a fundamental difference in thinking.
Systems thinking (Checkland, 1981) is dominated by a focus on organization, structure, processes and administration. Service thinking is instead focusing on individuals, actions, results and support. Systems thinking begins with overview and demarcation and proceeds to analyze and define internal operations. Service thinking is open ended, networking, market oriented.
Information systems are technology support for bureaucratic, factory organizations. Information services are technology support for individuals acting on a market. Information systems are specified and developed in a complex process involving users, and the systems continue to rely on their users for their identity and maintenance. Information services are made available on the consumer market to be bought or discarded. The individuals using the services are not engaged in developing them; they don’t own them and they have no responsibility for them.
The so-called Scandinavian approach (Ehn, 1988, Ranerup, 1996) to information systems has been very much concerned with user participation, with working closely with the users giving to them the power and responsibility for developing their own systems. With service thinking this changes. The users of systems turn into consumers of services and they cannot be bothered with concern for the development and functioning of their information technology support. This change is natural. When a technology matures, users no longer have to worry about the functioning of the technology. Mature technologies tend to disappear from our view. Lighting a room used to be a lot of work. Now it lights up automatically as you enter. The service of light comes with the apartment. You take it for granted as you take the floor for granted.
Information systems play an important role in the bureaucratic organizations so typical of industrial society. Those organizations will not disappear in the 21st century, but their sales and service functions will become more dominant and information technology support will be viewed from their perspective rather than from the perspective of administration and management control. It is this difference in perspective that takes us from systems to services. Sales and services have to be organized, of course, so there will be need for systems, but the focus in sales and services is on developing relations, meeting new customer demands, finding new customers, making new deals, and such activities, often performed on the fly in mobile meetings, demand service support more than system support.
Industrial production is a process and the competence you need for efficient production is process competence, how to organize routines. You need information systems for planning, control and quality assurance. Administration too, can be viewed as a process, organized in the same way as production, with workflow and document management. But sales is different. Even if we can use some of the competence and methods of industrial production in organizing sales and services, our approach has to be fundamentally different. Sales involves human interaction with conflicting interests and therefore it is difficult to control. Sales is not a process that you can control but a complex of situated actions relying on flexible interpretation of changing situations. Sales is more like a boxing match than a cooperative work effort. Sales is creative, and like other creative work it does not fare so well in factories. If production relies on methods and formalized knowledge, then sales depends on interpretation and experience.
Service society will focus on creativity and innovation. Outsourcing production and administration, more and more companies will turn from routines to innovation. With knowledge work, customer relations, marketing, sales and services in focus, companies will try to escape the factory organization with its authoritarian leadership and bureaucratic routines in favor of more informal and flexible ways of organizing. If production is rule governed, rational, and planned, then services is situated action. You need information systems to control your production systems, but you need information services to support you in providing services.
Management information systems are control systems. You can think of them as representations, models of the organization, or you can think of them as ways of organizing, of constructing organizations (Floyd et al., 1992). In any case, the organization is itself a system and the information system is a model or a framework for this organization. Information services are services supporting individuals in their various activities, be it business, education, play, or whatever. Information services will help organizing those activities, but such organizing will be temporary and changing, bringing together people and activities for a while, in the kind of cocktail-party like networking going on in the market.
5 Service Innovation
Jan Carlzon (1987) attained more than local fame as head of the Scandinavian Airline Systems in the early 1980s when he argued that the service personell actually dealing with customers also should have the authority of handling customer complaints: If the back office managers have to be consulted by desk personell dealing with customers, those managers are in the wrong place – they ought to be at the desk servicing the customers. He wanted to change his airline from a production organization built around its complex internal processes to a service organization focusing its customers.
The success of industrial production depends on both its products and its production processes (and on a lot of other factors as well of course). Industrialization meant innovations in both products and processes. But when industrial production matured, radical innovation gave way for everyday improvement. Innovation is very much a question of creativity, while improvement is a matter of routines. Innovation is a difficult subject to teach, while improvement is what school teachers know best.
The products and processes of early 20th century pioneering industrial companies were often developed by engineers with little or no formal education. Today’s engineers have attendend engineering schools. What they have studied, however, is mainly mathematics and natural science, learning general and theoretical skills, the principles of existing technology, rather than skills needed in innovative product and process development.
Business schools, management schools and business administration, is where 20th century managers learn their trade. And what they learn is organizing and improving the processes of a modern company. In the late 20th century, companies have become dependent on information technology in their processes. The discipline Information Systems responds to these needs by developing theories and methods of how to use information technology to rationalize and improve processes like management, administration, production, customer relations and knowledge management.
In the early 21st century, companies become more and more dependent on information technology in their customer offerings. At the same time there is a shift in those offerings from products to services. And so it is that the discipline Information Systems begins to change its orientation from process improvement to product, or service, innovation. There were early instances of this orientation in what was called, in the 1980s, Strategic Information Systems, but of course this aspect was never absent, when information systems were introduced-serving as they typically did both administration and customers with information.
When our economy moves from being supply focused to having to focus demand, then companies change from organization orientation to market orientation, and our business schools will have to change their focus from process improvement to service innovation. Companies will spend less resources on office buildings, personell management, management information systems, and more on customer meeting places, customer relationships, customer services. Rather than creating large organizations which begin to live their own lives with internal power struggles and careers, personell development programs and benefits, companies will focus on sales and develop a market culture in which the only success is market success, and rewards only given by customers.
The market culture will play down the role of internal organizing in favor of customer relationships and market orientation. But market orientation does not mean less cooperation but more. The formal coordination of the product organization gradually gives way for more informal networking on the market. Boundaries between organizations are blurred and interactions multiply. But companies will not disappear and there will of course remain the task of improving company processes. It is only that doing so will become a much more flexible, open-ended, local and distributed task involving multiple services rather than global systems.
Market success will depend on providing good services, but in a competitive society this does not only mean constant improvement, but also innovation. Organizations will have to become innovative. Improving processes will mean improving creativity rather than strengthening routines. Or, perhaps it means identifying and installing those routines that are the very prerequisites for creativity? Here lies a new agenda for our discipline and, more generally, for business schools and technical universities. But whatever it means, it means empowering individuals, focusing customer offerings, supporting networking, rather than process control, adminstrative routines, and more complex score cards (Lindgren & Stenmark, forthcoming).
The challenge today for the discipline Information Systems is at least fourfold: from systems to services, from factory to market, from processes to situations, from improvement to innovation. This last challenge is perhaps the most radical. If improvement means doing better what you already do, then innovation means doing something different. To improve on things you have to know them – thus the rationale for science. But what is the role of science in innovation? Science has a role in invention, of course, but it is less systematic. Who knows what it is you know that will play a role in your creative thinking? The good metaphor, the lucky observation, the lateral thinking, the playful bricolage will all have to be taken seriously.
6 The New Informatics
The information technology use of the 1990s has changed the focus of research and education in Information Systems. Focus has shifted from information systems to electronic mail, the world-wide web, and mobile telephony. Administrative systems have become mature, freeing personnel from administrative office work, making it possible to direct their efforts away from internal office organization and cooperation to customers and market.
When the focus shifts from information systems to information services, there is need for a new, more application oriented discipline, developing innovative services for the nomads of information society. In countries, like the US, where Information Systems is a discipline in business schools, this new discipline has no natural home. But in Scandinavia, where Information Systems often is a discipline with both technical and business school elements, we have seen a gradual shift within this discipline. In Sweden, for example, this has meant a change in name from “information systems” to “informatics” and a change in research orientation towards doing ethnographic studies of information technology use, developing prototypes and applications, exemplifying new sorts of services, typically available on mobile terminals (Dahlbom, 1997, Dahlbom & Ljungberg, 1999, Fagrell, 2000, Dahlberg, 2002).
In the new informatics, we combine ethnographic, future oriented studies with application development, building on the knowledge gained about the particular habits and needs of people we study. We do everything from quick and dirty ethnography to more extensive studies providing a background for action oriented natural experiments. In Information Systems we used to do activity analysis, now we do ethnography, and the difference may not seem that great, as long as we focus on the task at hand, to develop a system or a service. But activity analysis was done with an aim to define and optimize a system. When we do service oriented ethnography we are only too well aware of studying something in constant flux. Our ethnographic studies result in new services changing the very conditions we have been studying, leading to new ethnographic observations, new services, and so on, in never ending spirals of change.
So far, the new informatics has been very much a practice-oriented discipline. What theorizing there has been, has continued to lean on sociological theorizing with actor-network theory (Hanseth, 1996), activity theory and structuration theory (Henfridsson, 1999) as favorites. This is all good and well. It is only natural for a discipline such as informatics, bridging technology and social science, to import social science theories. But there is an important task that remains, and that is the task of exporting a technology grounded understanding of society to the rest of the social sciences.
Information systems has contributed to our understanding of industrial society by developing and explaining the role of computer technology in managing the production processes in factory organizations. The new informatics can contribute to a theory of postmodern, service society, by developing and explaining the role of information technology in providing and managing services which make up the form of life in postindustrial society. Such a theory would be very different from the systems theories of industrial society, analyzing the nature and dimensions of mobility, the forces acting in a global, media society characterized by epidemic consumption and parasitic enterprise. (We give examples of this sort of theorizing in Ciborra et al., 2000, and Braa et. al., 2000. See also Ciborra, 2002.)
When modern sociology was first developed, it was a theory of the industrial revolution and the industrial society growing out of that revolution. Like the political ideologies developed in the 19th century, sociology has too long remained a theory of that society. Now that information technology is taking us out of industrial society we need a theory of the information technology revolution and a theory of information society. And that theory has to realize that computers are not machines, that information technology is not for production but for services-for administration, control, communication, transaction, cooperation, education, negotiation, entertainment, experience, and so on.
We need to rethink sociology, and it is tempting to do so using the classical theorists as models and points of departure. Marx is, of course, outstanding in his acute identification of technology as the major social force. New technologies need new ways of organizing work. Major technical changes will force major social changes. The increasing use of information technology has changed a society dominated by factory organizations into a market-oriented service society. Marx built his theory on an analysis of modern industrial society, describing technology as a productive force and organizations as relations of production. When we apply that theory to other sorts of societies – traditional, service, experience – the terminology does not work so well. But the theory is more general than its production-oriented terminology may indicate: it is really a theory of what people do and the tools and organizing that make it possible.
Industrial society is focused on the efficient production of goods. Living in that society we extend our ideas and values to other societies. But traditional farming was not production of goods, but reproduction of life. Ideas and values of that society concerned how to make a living, how to reproduce the world as it was. In service society, the production of goods will be taken for granted and focus will instead be on the services delivered in the market place. Differences between these three economies – reproduction, production and services – are deep-going.
Technical development has taken us from the farms, to the factories, to the offices, to the market. We have become richer. Entertainment, experience, media is soon our major industry here in the western world. Our world is becoming a play ground for a leisure class when compared to the rest of the world. It needs its servants of course, but immigrants fulfill that role and they stream into Europe to clean, cook, nurse, and drive taxis. They will play a major role in service society, but our economy will focus on the services provided not by human servants but by digital machines in a world of services.
7 A World of Services
Thanks to technical evolution in the 20th century, our societies now have a fantastic capacity for well organized production. In most branches we produce more that we can consume. This ought to mean that we could work less, but in reality it means the opposite. The better we become at producing, the tougher the competition, and the harder we have to work to sell our products. In a market economy, companies will have to focus more and more of their attention on sales and services. Companies are forced further and further out on the market to protect old customers and hunt for new ones. When products flood the market, services will have to be invented to add customer value to the products. Industrial societies become service societies.
Service society will be dominated by big cities, with market places making up the global market. That global market will be partly electronic, of course, but as long as physical meetings are superior for human interaction, for providing services and doing business, the global market place will be physical as well. In the big meeting places of the big cities, the great mass of important meetings will take place. There we will find an abundance of services: finance, media, culture, sports, entertainment, research, health, politics, power and influence.
The difference between the industrial world, with its complex, high-technological infrastructure and abundance of goods, and the long lost world of craft and agriculture is of course enormous. There is no reason to believe that the difference between the incumbent world of services and the industrial world we are now leaving behind will be smaller. A sparsely populated farm land with stationary population and self-subsistence gave way for a complex, technology-dominated production and transportation system with people at the junctions. That society is now pushed in the background when the world changes into a human-centered, urban, mobile, meeting place, service society.
Once you have understood what farming with simple tools is like, it is not so difficult to imagine a farming society. When you have seen what industrial production demands, then factory society no longer seems so strange. Similarly, to see what service society will be like, we have to understand what services are, how and where they are delivered, and how they are supported by information technology. Once we have identified some important dimensions of services-observing, for example, that services are typically (a) always available, online, (b) interactive, intelligent, and (c) cooperative-we can go on to outline the structure and organization of service society. Such imaginative social construction based on technology use resembles what archeologists do when they reconstruct ancient societies. To direct your archeological efforts into the future, to do “archeology of the future” is not really different (Dahlbom et al. 2002).
People used to have servants, and we are all familiar, at least from movies, with the technology by which servants are stand-by, available on call, in the kitchen or wherever. The master pulls a string or rings a bell and the servant comes running. Or, when seated, the servants hover in the background, like waiters in a good restaurant today. The wealthier you were the more services you could have online in this way, ready to be performed on your beck and call. Industrial society changes all this with its service production factories, to which you have to go, and wait in line, even after having made an appointment. We used to make an appointment to see the king. In industrial society, we make appointments to see the servants. In the 20th century we had to make appointments to see hair dressers, wart removers, and the most lowly civil servant. Service society will make most of us more like the masters of feudal society. Service society will give us online services again, always available servants.
Digital services will of course be available everywhere, and certainly in our homes-whatever they will be like. Such services will be like the light and sound of a modern house, they will be there when you want them, and like the personal servants of old they will even anticipate our wishes. There will be an abundance of digital services entertaining, educating, advising, and informing us. And there will be services keeping us in touch with friends and relatives, turning space itself into a social medium. The digital services of tomorrow will be like light and sound, dimensions, fluids or properties of space, always available and intelligently interactive like good servants. And yet, digital services will not necessarily dominate service society. When production and administration is automated, services will be all that is left for people to do. And there will of course be a demand for human services, for personal care, entertainment, teaching, coaching, counselling.
Human services are typically cooperative. In industrial society, services degenerate into expert industrial treatment on the one hand, and self-service on the other. There is less and less in between, less and less of services involving human cooperation. This will change in service society. Material and digital services will mainly be of the self-service type, as when you prepare your food in the microwave oven, shave or brush your teeth, pay your bills or listen to music. But the human services will become more and more cooperative as we become better informed, more empowered as customers. And human services will become more and more attractive and in demand. Doctors will lose their expert status and will discuss with us, in the presence of more experienced patients, the therapies available, and teachers will step down from their lecterns, when healthcare and education become cooperative services rather than industrial production processes.
In service society, to work is to meet, and with increasing competition the number of meetings increase. And so we congregate in the big meeting places of bigger and bigger cities. A society dominated by meetings will be dominated by its meeting places, like the desert nomad societies of the middle East. The meeting places are oases in a surrounding desert, where we move quickly from one oasis to the next. We can say something about what they will be like, at least to begin with, simply by looking at the meeting places of today: airports, conference hotels, shopping malls, gallerias, world trade centers. Such meeting places will provide easy access to digital, material and human services. Moving between them we need access to digital services, but only as it were to keep us occupied going from one meeting to the next. The more the meeting places grow, the more they will dominate service society.
Industrial society is built on a foundation of heavy production and transportation, and life in that society is shaped by foundational thinking. In service society we will get used to a life without foundations, to a society getting its strength from networking rather than from its infrastructure. In industrial society, wealth is generated by long term, large investments in infrastructure and complex machine capital. Service society is a more lightweight, flexible and quickly changing society. As we move into that society our values change. We become consumers and our ethic becomes more secular, according to which life is here and now (carpe diem). We could paraphrase Max Weber and show how “secular ethics and the spirit of consumerism” defines a life style of opportunism and fast deals, of cocktail-parties and tourism, of taking chances and getting instant gratification.
Cities will continue to grow in service society and the tempo of life will increase. Anonymous factory work will disappear in favor of more personal, cooperative services. Service society is a market society in which personal meetings replace the anonymous mass consumption of industrial society. But it will be a mobile society, a superficial society, with many social contacts but few lasting relationships. Life in service society has lost the stability it had on the farm and in the factory. Social relations turn into casual affairs, organizations become flexible organizing. People become nomads-both physically and socially-surfing on top of the world rather than being cogs in a sociotechnical machine. Rather than fulfilling one’s destiny or pursuing a career, postmodern beings are always ready for opportunity to knock. As described so well by Asplund (1991, 1992), postmodern life will be ruled by coincidences, unexpected opportunities, accidents and auditions. The postmodern world of services is a cocktail-party world. Life is a cocktail-party.
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