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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hospitality and Hostility: The Work of Claudio Ciborra

I've just become acquainted with the work of the late Claudio Ciborra, thanks to a posting by my friend Adriano. Ciborra's research was in the social study of information and communication technology; Ciborra felt always that Information Technology must be understood as a social rather than scientific discipline. In Ciborra's approach, the user of a system -- the "actor" typically designated by a stick figure in standard system diagrams -- must be understood as a person and not a robot. IT must take into account his “moods, feelings, affectations and fundamental attunement with the situation.” Ciborra talks a lot about the users' hospitality and hostility toward technology, not as an extraneous annoyance the implementor needs to be aware of, but as a fundemental aspect of the IT context.

The anonymous IT director blogging at Today I Cried reminded me of this in several recent posts that chronicle a systems upgrade he's been in charge of. He has frequently devoted a blog to an email he's sent or a report he has drafted, reminding us that IT's communication with the community of users is as essential a part of any implementation as a new server or a software service pack.

Earlier in the summer I had this brought home to me again. The new IT director at one of our long-time clients had been eager to make some real improvements for his users. He called us in to meet with staff and discuss enhancements they wanted in the software. We then wrote these changes up and submitted them for his approval. Before we installed the upgrade, we walked through them all with him and a team of staff members he'd asked to be involved to verify that the new features worked as intended. Then we held a testing session where he and I verified that our enhancements and fixes really worked. Finally, he installed them on his production server.

Immediately, annoyed users complained to him that changes were being made without their knowledge for no reason, and that the enhancements were not at all what they wanted. For all his attempts to keep his staff involved, and our attempts to make sure we were on the same page with them, something had gone awry. Not that staff felt a new feature might need some tweaking - that's normal. But I was concerned that for all of his efforts to raise the level of staff involvement, the emotional tone was so poor. The moral for me: It's impossible to overestimate the level and quality of interaction between technologists and staff needed to keep users "hospitable" to the technology.
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additional reading:
wikipedia aricle on Cibbora.
review of his book "The Labyrinths of Information"


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