The Information Society


Letter from the Guest Editors Sundeep Sahay and Chrisanthi Avgerou
18(2) 2002

Special Issue: Information and Communication Technologies in Developing Countries Liberalization and the Computer Industry: A Comparison of Four Developing Countries

Background and Motivation of this issue

In poor countries information and communication technologies (ICTs) are expected to play a key developmental role. Many see in these technologies potential for turning around uncompetitive industries and dysfunctional public administration, and for providing unprecedented opportunities for the information-intensive social services, such as health and education. Nevertheless, it is well known that such developmental benefits have been difficult to
achieve for a variety of complex reasons. There are two interrelated problems here. First, many organizations have difficulties in nurturing and cultivating complex technology projects over the long periods of time that are typically required. Second, the resulting ICT-based systems may have little impact on the organizational weakness they were intended to alleviate.

A series of theoretical explanations have been proposed to these problems, often accompanied by policy programs and professional 'good practice'. Difficulties to achieve successful technology innovation were first associated with the broader literature on 'technology transfer' which attempted to emphasize the gap between the assumptions inscribed in the technologies developed in the context of industrialized countries, and the prevailing way and state of
organizational life in the countries to which the technologies were being transferred. The academic discourse of the 1990's reinforced the argument on the significance of the association of information systems development with organizational change. While this argument on its own was not new, what was different was that IT innovation came to be systematically associated with organizational development. Donor agencies and international management consultancy started routinely linking computerization programs with organizational reform, such as BPR.

The prevailing attitude to follow 'best international practice' and the association of IT projects with organizational redesign adds new complexities to the technology transfer problem. Several authors have argued that information systems solutions from the 'developed' world, conveyed by professional norms, standardization 'imperatives', or the emulation of patterns seen elsewhere as successful, cannot be replicated in the developing world with the expectation that
similar results would also accrue. Local adaptations are necessary. The key motivation of this special issue is to examine “how can such adaptations be achieved in practice?” amidst the associated tensions between global solutions, technologies, and practices on one hand, and local requirements and institutional dynamics on the other.

This special issue is born from the International Federation of Information Processing Working Group 9.4 Meeting in Cape Town in May 2000. This working group on “socio-economic impacts of computers in developing countries” had its sixth meeting in Cape Town after earlier meetings in New Delhi, Nairobi, Havana, Cairo and Bangkok. The conference theme was “Information Flows, Work Practices and Local Improvisations” and reflected an attempt to shift
from the earlier focus 9.4 meetings had on “why are technology initiatives often failing in developing country contexts?” to “what can we do about it?” The focus was on improvisations, and how they can be fostered to enable information flows to be meaningfully and effectively integrated into everyday work practices of different kinds of organizations including public, private, non-governmental and international. This shift in focus was also reflective of a larger trend in the field that acknowledged that no longer was it productive to debate “are computers good or bad for developing countries?” but instead the need was to address the question of “how can the potential of ICTs be harnessed to address locally relevant problems?”

Another motivation for this special issue comes from the need to try and situate the domain of studies on ICTs and developing countries in the “mainstream” of information systems research. It is indeed a sad reflection of the state of research from the perspective of both the developing countries and the “mainstream” that is primarily North America, that both these domains have co-existed for many years apparently oblivious of each other. To make this point, if one picks up back issues for the last 5 years of journals like MIS Quarterly, Information Systems Research, Organization Science, Information Society, Journal of MIS etc, in all probability not even 5 articles could be got that deal explicitly with developing countries issues. This is indeed a shame when you consider that much more than half the world is living in so-called developing countries, and the potential and need for technology to solve pressing important problems like environment, health, education, infrastructure, is significant. The reason for this exclusion is of course not one-way. Most researchers working within the 9.4 field also tend to function as an isolated community doing pockets of research and writing for and presenting their research to each other in the safe haven of their Group meetings. In not directly engaging with the research published in the North American and European Journals, 9.4 researchers miss out on interesting ideas, and the opportunity to influence the “mainstream” with what they believe is meaningful.

The motivation for this special issue then is to attempt and span across these two rather isolated communities of research and see how they can support and benefit from each other. A special issue in an important journal like The Information Society Journal that has North American origins and a broad mandate of examining “is technology helping to create a better society in which we live?” can help to provide a platform for future debates and mutual learning. So, both
from the perspective of potential readership and the theme content, we believe the match between the selected articles of and the journal is strong. Another similar proposal to try and bridge these communities is through a joint conference of the 8.2 and 9.4 IFIP groups in Athens in 2003.

There are numerous reasons to support such integration as developing country contexts have a lot to offer and also require the engagement of the broader research community. The problem domains are rich and meaningful due to the diversity in contexts, situations, work cultures, and interest groups. For example, applying a geographic information system in India is not a straight case of an organizational implementation, but needs to take into consideration multiple agencies including international funding bodies like the World Bank, the influence of global agreements like the Rio Summit, and complex systems of bureaucracy that overlap with other political systems. The individual manager is not someone who can be studied in isolation in the work situation, since social structures relating to home, family, community, are often more inter-connected and overlap with the work domain than is the case in many developed contexts. While making such generalizations is always problematic, the basic point being emphasized is that the diversity, complexity and significance of the problem domain has the ingredients for interesting research questions, and the potential to challenge and stretch the boundaries of social theories used in information systems research including Structuration Theory, Actor-Network, and Network Society, and Contingency Theory. Engaging with these theories to understand problems in contexts that are very different from where the theories have been formulated, is useful to identify the limits to the concepts and how they can be expanded.

With the above objectives of elaborating the complexity of research problems and the variety of theoretical and empirical approaches used for its study, we initially “selected” eight papers from the Cape Town conference, and agreed with the authors that we, the guest editors, would work with them individually in a collaborative mode to take the papers towards publication. Unfortunately, we had attrition along the way, and this experience demonstrates the problems
researchers working in institutions in developing countries have with respect to accessing literature and a community of researchers, while dealing with the problem of getting the time to write whilst balancing different demands from the home, work and social fronts. Another major issue concerns language, and researchers not writing in English tend to be excluded from these broader “mainstream” networks of global research. Despite how hard we tried we could not
take to this completion stage two interesting papers from Brazil and Thailand. And a third author writing about Nigeria dropped out along the way for various personal and professional reasons. We were then left with five papers, and added a sixth paper by inviting Richard Heeks who has been extremely active and influential in the 9.4 community, but had not attended the Cape Town meeting. It is not a coincidence that none of the six papers that finally appear in this
issue come from authors independently based in institutions in developing countries. After a long and arduous process, which has spread over nearly three years since we sent out the call for papers for the Cape Town meeting, we have the pleasure to present the following six papers in the order in which they appear in the special issue:

  1. Practice-based design of information systems: notes from a hyper-developed world, Lucy A. Suchman, Lancaster University, UK.
  2. The struggle for district-based health information systems in South Africa, Jørn Braa, University of Oslo, Norway, and University of Western Cape, South Africa.
  3. Local Adaptations to global trends: A study of IT-based organizational change programme in a Nigerian bank, by Abioudun O. Bada, from the Manchester Metropolitan University. UK.
  4. Outsourcing as an improvisation: a case study in Latin America, by Leiser O. Silva, University of Alberta, Canada.
  5. Information Systems and developing countries: Failure, success and local improvisations, Richard Heeks, University of Manchester, UK.
  6. Balancing the local and global in infrastructural information systems, by Knut H Rolland and Eric Monteiro from the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Science and Technology University, both from Norway.

We now present an extended introduction of these papers.

Introducing the papers

Lucy Suchman's paper, which is an adaptation of her keynote speech at the conference, sets some conceptual landmarks for the study of questions regarding relationships of global and local in IS practice. Unusually and paradoxically for the focus of the research stream intended to highlight issues relevant to developing countries, this paper is anchored in the author's experience in an advanced research environment in the USA. By accounting for such a case,
Suchman demystifies the superiority assumed by global a-contextual knowledge, which is, nevertheless, based on the 'illusion that everything works smoothly somewhere else'. Also, she identifies the common need across locations for IS practice to focus on relations between ICT production and use actors.

Jørn Braa and Calle Hedberg abstract some lessons from a longitudinal project ongoing since 1994 starting with the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Amidst a context of fragmentation, non-existent infrastructure, and a health system focused on curative rather than preventive care, Jørn and Calle, who are also key actors in the project, describe a process that seeks to inscribe assumptions of bottom up and local control through the systems they design and implement. A key theoretical point concerns the role of standards and the process by which they are developed in complex settings. Standardization, the process by which an array of heterogeneous actors can be aligned, is far from given, and determined by the negotiations between actors and the alliances formed. Imposing universal standards in a constantly changing context is impossibility, and there are always going to be local universalities playing out in
hierarchy of standards. By elaborating on the role of standards through concepts of the ”hierarchy of standards” and ”multiple universalities,” Braa and Hedberg contribute to research in Science and Technology Studies, technology transfer and systems development. The methodological implication is in its emphasis on the long-term nature of systems development projects, especially in developing country contexts. Their work ongoing since 1994 has important lessons for international agencies who plan technology projects in a “lift and drop” mode over short time periods of sometimes even one or two years.

Abiodum Bada demonstrates the global/local tensions with a case study of an effort to apply the business process reengineering (BPR) practice that captured the imagination of management professionals worldwide during the 1990s in a Nigerian bank. Bada draws critically from the institutionalist theory of organizations to form conceptual lenses for his case study. The hypothesis he forms and supports with his case analysis is that the spread of techniques such
as BPR in international management and IS practice does not imply worldwide homogenisation of organizational practice. The study of the experience of the Nigerian bank shows that the organization benefited from the implementation of a universal management intervention technique by adapting it to the local values and ways of doing things. Even though several aspects of local organizing action were dysfunctional from the a-contextually rational perspective conveyed by the global management technique, they were meaningful in the local context and had to be retained in the 're-engineering' of locally effective organizational practice.

Leiser Silva's paper is situated in the Ministry of Health in Guatemala, specifically the analysis of how the process of outsourcing of information systems for hospitals can be understood as an improvisation. Improvisations are unexpected institutionally rooted actions that evolve in response to situational exigencies. Leiser extends earlier work in this area through his insight that in developing country contexts, often improvisations are inspired by political factors, and that
people in power can shape the trajectory of improvisations in particular ways. Theoretically, the contribution of the paper is in analyzing the inter-relationship between improvisation and power. Power need not always be negative, but can often enable positive outcomes. Developing country environments tend to be politically volatile and unstable, as a result of which decisions around IT projects are often driven by reasons of expediency rather than rationality
considerations. Political power, which often overrides the bureaucracy in many situations, cannot be wished away with because it is integral to the context, and may not be “evil” as is often perceived. The challenge thus is to examine how can this power be harnessed effectively to support IT projects, especially through the concept of improvisation. The theoretical basis of the paper comes from John Law and Stuart Clegg, which have interesting and yet largely
untapped implications for the study of power in IS research.

The paper provides implications for the practice of outsourcing, different in context from the typical North American organization typically described in existing research, and set in a public sector setting of a developing country. The paper illustrates the concept of “selective outsourcing” where by the requirements analysis of the system is done in-house by teams from within the hospital. The requirement that these teams identify provides the basis for the
tender document to outsource the development to the external contractor. Through this approach, developed largely through a series of improvisations, the requirements developed are more sensitive to user needs, and there is a greater sense of commitment to the final system because of the participation of users in the analysis process.

In Richard Heeks' paper the global/local tension is addressed in an analysis of the high rate failure of IS projects in developing countries. Heeks discusses the meaning of IS innovation 'failure' and examines existing indications on widespread IS project failure in developing countries. Based on the position that a high proportion of information systems in developing countries 'can be categorized as failing either totally or partially', the paper proceeds to examine the causes of such failures and proposes a model that identifies the match, or mismatch, between IS practitioners' designs and local user 'actuality'. While the paper draws
from currently debated theories on failure, design, and organizational change, Heeks is clearly interested in ways of aiding the practitioner understand the causes of failure. Thus, his main effort in this paper is to translate theoretical ideas into a model that provides a link between theory and the world of practice.

Knut Rolland and Eric Monteiro's paper while not being set directly in a developing country context, formulates important theoretical and managerial implications of a universal and conceptual universal. While significant current literature refers to the “tensions of the global and local” as an important dynamic of globalization, fewer authors elaborate on the nature of these tensions and more importantly “what can we do about it?” These questions are addressed in
an ongoing longitudinal investigation of the implementation of information infrastructure in a large global maritime shipping organization with offices in more than 100 countries including many developing countries. The use of the terminology of information infrastructures is to primarily emphasize the large, complex and interconnected nature of contemporary systems today. Such a perspective should help to understand the interconnected nature of technology that while
being situated in local contexts of use spans out simultaneously across numerous global contexts. It is emphasized that the development and use of information infrastructures is much greater than just a technical endeavor, especially in systems that span multiple social, economical, institutional, political and strategic contexts. Technical perspective emphasizes universal solutions under the assumption that through the use of appropriate standards and protocols, the interplay between the local and global domains can be rationalized. While technical solutions are no doubt sufficient conditions to trying to find this balance, they are by
no means sufficient.

An opposing view to universal solutions is the “situated approach” where the local is celebrated, and sometimes rather dogmatically emphasizes the need to design independent and local situations. However, for various reasons, especially cost considerations as Knut and Eric point out, such a perspective is infeasible to work out in practice involving multiple inter-connected sites. The challenge then is how to try and find a “pragmatic balance” that shows sensitivity
to local contexts, and can yet draw upon the benefits of “economies of scale” and learning that universal approaches provide. Trying to address this challenge has important implications for the “transfer of technology” literature that tends to dichotomize developed and developing countries and treats ICTs as a black box that is taken from one context and “dropped into” another.

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