Embracing Technology and the Challenges of Complexity
Authors: A. Robbin
Publication Year: 2011
Journal: Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society
Categories: Digital Transformation
Advances in new digital platforms, innovative applications, and the convergence of computer, information, and communication technologies are transforming our everyday lives. ICTs have consequences for governance, community, work, information, knowledge, human communication, and well being, to name only a few. We live in a world where change is a constant, where interdependencies are multiple, heterogeneous, and increasingly fragile, and where uncertainty, ambiguity, incomplete information, and unanticipated consequences are the norm. The outcomes of our engagement with technology are complex and unpredictable. They defy simple conclusions because they are historical, temporal, situational, and embedded. Moreover, they are problematic and surprising: inconsistent, paradoxical, disorderly, contradictory, and contingent. In this talk I want to examine some of the empirical evidence about the complexity of our technological landscape and suggest ways to make sense of what is happening through theoretical frameworks drawn from different disciplinary traditions. Following Nobel Laureate in Economics Elinor Ostrom, our aim should be to “dissect and harness complexity rather than eliminate it” so that we can create responsive and resilient systems.
In her conference paper, Robbin describes several different research projects concerning the field of Information and CommunicationTechnologies, through which she criticizes the path research in this filed has taken. She argues that over the past few years too little progess has been made. There isn’t, she says, enough fundamental coherent research gathered to create the firm basis on which other fields of research rest. Though she is careful not to suggest previous research is obsolete, far from it, she argues that it is time to shift focus, to allow new and greater leaps to be made in broadening the knowledge base in ICT research. To accomplish this, a multidisciplenary research attitude is encouraged, in which researchers try not to let themselves be held back by a certain field, domain or type of research. Though not a journal paper, this work is still relevant and made with care and research. The author draws from exstensive self-knowledge, and from the works of several different research fields, combining those thoughts to argue for the main argument. The point made in this work, namely the gradual decline in groundbreaking new research in ICT over the past few years is supported by various sources. Robbin calls the research linear and unidirectional, where there is little research that does not ‘merely’ expand on existing work, instead of outgrowing it. After introducing her critical notion, Robbin goes on by describing recent multidisciplinary research that she thinks is the way forward for the ICT field. What she proposes is not to get stuck in a single way of thinking, but to take the best of multiple related fields and use as much of the existing knowledge from that field as can be relevantly applied to ICT. These theories can be used in conjunction with the Adaptive Cycle. Where the Adaptive Cycle is a high-level model, describing the phases organizations can go through, there is no real explanation of how organizations can measure, predict or prepare for the phases. The research projects described by Robbin each allow for a certain, or multiple, aspects off organizational interaction, both internally and externally, with social structures and IT alignment. These research fields could provide insights into the ways organizations can define their own position in the Adaptive Cycle, which heading they may inevitably are moving towards, and what actions they can take to either avoid it, minimize the impact or prepare a way to quickly move out of an unwanted phase.
What the paper does not do is come up with a definitive solution, rather the purpose of Robbin is to gain a broad sense of acknowledgement that the field of ICT research is at an impasse, and that there are definitive ways to move out of it, if researchers are willing to adapt to new and unorthodox ways to further their field. Researchers should not be afraid to ‘go beyond their own borders’, rather they should embrace a broader perspective in order to gain fundamental knowledge that may lead to a better understanding of the Adaptive Cycle, and ultimately to set guidelines for organizations to follow, through which they can adapt more easily into the new phases they must go to in order to prolong their existence. These views coincide with the views of Walker et al (2002), where they advocate the preparation and adaptation of organizations to new environments, rather than the ‘classical way’ of trying to avoid unwanted phases (like the crisis phase in the Adaptive Cycle), Walker et al promote organizational resilience to deal with each new phase in such a way as to guarantee an organizations survival.