Editor's note: While I presented a research methods course with Dewald in 1999 or so, he gave me the article and asked me to make it available to our students. I marked it up, added some links to definitions of difficult terms and put it on the University of Pretoria experimental server. That server has since been discontinued. So, as a tribute to Dewald as well as a service to his past students - and to all others who may find it useful, I revive it here. I have seen it cited as
- Johannes Cronje
Implications for Teaching of a Process-Based Research Framework for Information Systems
A new, process-based research framework for research in Information Systems is discussed in which the fundamental social nature of Information Systems is taken into account. From a pedagogical point of view, the implications are far-reaching, not only in terms of the new approach to research which should be absorbed by graduate students, but, more importantly, in terms of the changed assumptions with which the student, as system developer, will have to make sense about the nature of human organisations, the nature of the design task, and what will be expected of them. The process-based research framework makes it possible to teach students these fundamentally new assumptions and roles. The paper discusses the integration of the research approach into the curriculum for Information Systems - not simply to replace existing and successful research approaches, but to augment and enrich the students perspectives of the world they should try to understand and serve.
It is generally accepted that information systems should facilitate communication and should contribute towards a meaningful work life for the employees of the organisations. Furthermore, the possible detrimental consequences of introductions of information technology, which go little beyond mere automation exercises for "increased productivity", should be understood in order to prevent further dehumanisation of our society.
It is clear from the above brief outline that progress in IS research can only be made if the fundamental social nature of IS is accepted. If the nature of information systems is fundamentally social then the spectrum of research philosophies in contemporary social science must be taken into account. The particular research paradigm followed should permeate the teaching of IS - one cannot teach information systems without implicitly making assumptions about the nature of information systems, and, therefore, about the way research should be done.
The paper is organised as follows: in the following section an overview is given of a new, process-based research framework we have developed (Du Plooy et al,l993), which is based on the work of Burrell & Morgan (1979). Next, the implications for teaching and the integration of the research approach into the IS curriculum are discussed. The paper concludes with an evaluation of the pedagogical benefits to be gained from this approach.
Information systems is an inter-disciplinary field of scholarly inquiry, where information, information systems and the integration thereof with the organisations. is studied in order to benefit the total system (technology, people, organisations. and society).
Thus, the fundamental question underlying all of the discipline, is to balance the need to contribute, through information systems, to the achievement of the mission of the organisation with the moral responsibility to develop and implement socially acceptable information systems.
In the above definition information is seen as the understanding arrived at through the hermeneutic dialogue between the recipient of data and the provider thereof (Introna, 1992). This implies that the technological system can only structure data to enable and facilitate the hermeneutic dialogue. Using technology to process data and, as is generally accepted, provide the user with information, is only the first step in the process leading to information as understanding.
Tayloristic work designs, focusing on the individuals task productivity while underestimating the importance of the social context. This often leads to inappropriate application designs, difficulty of use, and outright failure of many systems.
From the above it can be concluded that whatever research approach is followed, that approach should heed the fact that information systems are developed by people for people. Thus, information systems supports and facilitates human and social processes through technology, while preserving the balance referred to in the description of the fundamental question underlying the discipline. The converse, and widely-held view, namely that information systems consist of technology supported by humans and human processes, is simply not valid.
Moreover, the research approach must be able to cope with the complexity brought about by the interdisciplinary nature of the information systems problem domain. This will always be a matter of complex, unquantifiable trade-offs between the needs of technologists, individuals, organisations and society.
Progress in information systems research can only be made if the fundamental social nature of information systems is accepted. The next step, therefore, is to review the spectrum of research philosophies in contemporary social science. The work of Burrell & Morgan (1979) will be used in the following section for that purpose, where we quote freely from their seminal work.
Social scientists are faced with a basic ontologicaI question: whether the reality to be investigated is external to the individual - imposing itself on individual consciousness from without - or the product of individual consciousness; whether reality is of an objective nature, or the product of individual cognition; whether reality is a given out there in the world, or the product of ones mind.
The ontological debate is referred to as the nominalist-realist debate. The nominalist argues that there is no real invariant structure outside the individual. The individual creates structures by naming, labelling or defining concepts. These structures are continually recreated as the individual experiences, and tries to make sense out of, the unstructuredness confronting him/her. The realist, on the other hand, sees the real world as separate and independent of the individual consciousness. These invariant structures exist and are waiting to be discovered. The social world that needs to be studied has a reality of its own and seen ontologically, existed prior to the consciousness of any individual human being.
(b) The epistemological nature of social science
Associated with the ontological issue are the assumptions about the grounds of knowledge - about how one might begin to understand the world and communicate this as knowledge to fellow human beings. These assumptions entail ideas, for example, about what forms of knowledge can be obtained, and how one can determine what is to be regarded as true and what is to be regarded as false. Indeed, this dichotomy of true and false itself pre-supposes a certain epistemological stance. It is predicated upon a view of the nature of knowledge itself: whether, for example, it is possible to identify and communicate the nature of knowledge as being hard, real and capable of being transmitted in tangible form, or whether knowledge is of a softer, more subjective, spiritual or even transcendental kind, based on experience and insight of a unique and essentially personal nature.
The positivist standpoint is that one can objectify the phenomena under investigation. Thus, one can separate the object (of study) and the subject (doing the investigation). The object must now be to identify the causal relationships and regularities so as to determine the laws that govern the reality. The discovery of the laws would enable the scientist to manipulate the reality in line with some purpose. The anti-positivist denies any objective reality and is essentially relativistic in claiming that any social reality can only be studied from the point of view of the individuals directly involved. The positivist studies the social reality from an objective point. The anti-positivist completely rejects the notion of objective knowledge of any kind.
(c) The human condition
Conceptually separate from the ontological and epistemological issues, is a third set of assumptions concerning human nature and, in particular, the relationship between human beings and their environment. The deterministic view regards human beings and their experiences as products of the environment; one in which humans are conditioned by their external circumstances. In contrast, the voluntarist view attributes to human beings a much more creative role; where man is regarded as the creator of his environment.
The assumptions of many social scientists are pitched somewhere in the range between these two extremes. Indeed, in our view, the assumptions about human nature of an information systems researcher should neither be deterministic nor voluntaristic rather, we believe that in the majority of cases in practical situations, human beings simply act in a non-deterministic, or unpredictable manner. This has serious implications for a nondeterministic system such as an organisation, within which the information system is imbedded.
The three sets of assumptions outlined above have direct implications and consequences for the way -in which one attempts to investigate and obtain knowledge about the social world. It is possible, for example, to identify research methodologies in social science research which treat the social world like the natural world, as being hard, real and external to the individual, and others which view it as being of a much softer, personal and more subjective quality.
If one subscribes to a nomothetic view of the former kind, which treats the social world as if it were a hard, external, objective reality, then scientific enquiry is likely to focus upon:
The analysis of relationships and regularities between the various elements which it comprises. The concern, therefore, is with the identification and definition of these elements and with the discovery of ways in which these relationships can he expressed. The methodological issues of importance are thus the concepts themselves, their measurement and the identification of underlying themes.
The search for universal laws which explain and govern the reality which is being observed.
If, alternatively, one subscribes to the ideographic view of social reality, which stresses the importance of the subjective experience of individuals in the creation of the social world, then the search for understanding will focus upon:
The way in which the individual creates, modifies and interprets the world in which he finds himself.
The explanation and understanding of what is unique and particular to the individual rather than of what is general and universal. This approach therefore questions whether there exists an external reality worthy of study.
The integration theory of society is founded on the following assumptions:
Every society is at every point subject to processes of change.
Every society displays at every point dissensus and conflict.
Every element in a society renders a contribution to its disintegration and change.
Every society is based on the coercion of some of its members by others.
It is important to realise that the distinctions or dichotomy above is more of a continuum than an exclusive relationship. In order to avoid confusion Burrell et al proposed the concepts regulation and radical change.
The sociology of regulation refers to the writings of theorists who are primarily concerned with providing explanations of society in terms which emphasise its underlying unity and cohesiveness. In contrast, the sociology of radical change is concerned to find explanations for the radical change, deepseated structural conflict, modes of domination and structural contradiction which its theorists see as characterising modern society.
Before discussing the detail of each paradigm Burrell et al have the following to say about their use of the concept paradigm (op.cit.:23): "We regard our four paradigms as being defined by very basic meta-theoretical assumptions which underwrite the frame of reference, mode of theorising and modus operandi of the social theorists who operate within them. It is a term Which is intended to emphasise the commonality of perspective which binds the work of a group of theorists together in such a way that they can be usefully regarded as approaching social theory within the bounds of the same problematic. This definition does not imply complete unity of thought. It allows for the fact that within the context of any given paradigm there will be much debate between theorists who adopt different standpoints."
The four paradigms thus define four views of the social world based upon different meta-theoretical assumptions with regard to the nature of science and of society. Also, as pointed out by Burrell et al (op.cit.: 25): "The four paradigms are mutually exclusive. They offer alternative views of social reality, and to understand the nature of all four is to understand four different views of society. They offer different ways of seeing. A synthesis is not possible, since in their pure forms they are contradictory, being based on at least one set of opposing meta-theoretical assumptions. They are alternatives, in the sense that one can operate in different paradigms sequentially over time, but mutually exclusive, in the-sense that one cannot operate in more than one paradigm at any given point in time, since in accepting the assumptions of one, we defy the assumptions of all the others".
Each of the paradigms are briefly discussed in the following paragraphs.
The functionalist approach to social science tends to assume that the social world is composed of relatively concrete empirical artifacts and relationships which can be identified, studied and measured through approaches derived from the natural sciences. The use of mechanical and biological analogies as a means of modelling and understanding the social world is particularly favoured in many of the functionalist theories.
(b) The interpretive paradigm
The interpretive paradigm is characterised by a concern to understand the world as it is, to understand the fundamental nature of the social world at the level of subjective experience. It seeks explanation within the realm of individual consciousness and subjectivity, within the frame of reference of the participant as opposed to the observer of action.
(c) The radical humanist paradigm
The radical humanist paradigm has much in common with the interpretive paradigm, in that it views the social world from a perspective which tends to be nominalist, anti-positivist and ideographic. However, its frame of reference is committed to a view of society which emphasises the importance of overthrowing or transcending the limitations of existing social arrangements.
(d) The radical structuralist paradigm
Whilst sharing an approach to science which has many similarities with that of functionalist theory, the radical structuralist paradigm is directed at fundamentally different ends. Whereas the radical humanists forge their perspective by focusing upon consciousness as the basis for a radical critique of society, radical structuralists concentrate upon structural relationships within a realist social world. They emphasise the fact that radical change is built into the very nature and structure of contemporary society, and they seek to provide explanations of the basic interrelationships within the context of total social formations.
Our approach is different from that of Hirschheim et al (op. cit.), and provides a process-based framework that can guide the researcher in his execution of the research. In contrast to Hirschheim et als implicit use of the different paradigms, being "deeply rooted in the web of common-sense beliefs and background knowledge" (ibid.), we suggest that the researcher, and, as we shall shortly show, the student, should explicitly utilise the different paradigms and the accompanying assumptions to view the problem at hand deliberately from different perspectives. Only in this way can the uniqueness of each problem situation be appreciated holistically to arrive at appropriate solutions.
We have called the framework process-based to indicate the deliberateness behind the use of different sets of assumptions, instead of using a particular point of view which corresponds with ones view of the nature of society and the nature of social science. There is, as will be seen, a deliberate dynamism in the framework - forcing oneself through different perspectives.
Thus, The issue is whether there is a set of generic questions that the researcher selects from when formulating his/her research project. If this is SO, how do these questions relate? And, how do they relate to the framework of Burrell et al discussed above? The discussion below addresses some of these issues.
Typically, the questions which a researcher would pose would be from the following set of mutually exclusive questions. Unlike the four different paradigms of Burrell et al. which are "defined by meta-theoretical assumptions which underwrite the frame of reference, mode of theorising and modus operandi of the social theorists who operate within them" (op. cit.:23), the researcher would deliberately pose different questions to explore different aspects of the problem or situation at hand. There is no problem in posing these questions consecutively (and not necessarily in a linear fashion) since the researcher does not accept the assumptions associated to one question, and defy the assumptions of all the other questions - he merely enquires about different facets of the research problem to obtain as much information about it as possible.
The figure below does not provide any structural relationship between the generic research questions. Indeed, as mentioned above, they are not linearly related, and the uniqueness of each problem situation will dictate which questions would be relevant, and the order in which they should be posed. In anticipation of the later discussion of the implications of our research framework for teaching, and, extrapolated from that, the development of information systems (seen as organisational interventions and "deliberate instrument(s) in organisational change" (Lyytinen, 1989:1).
(a) What is?
With this question the fundamental nature or essence of the research problem is first explored. The question aims at exposing the structure of the problem or the meaning of the underlying concepts or ideas. The purpose is to enquire radically and critically about the problem domain and its accompanying paradigm(s) in order to be able to describe the problem precisely and unambiguously. There is a fundamental assumption here, viz that such universally accepted descriptions for the concepts, ideas and problems do exist.
Examples of What is questions:
What is information? What is information systems? What is information systems development? What is user involvement? What is information systems success?
In some cases the depth of the questions asked in the process of striving for the precision required, will imply that the research could legitimately continue with this generic question only. In other cases this question will only be exploratory.
(b) How does?
Examples of How does questions:
How do information systems manifest themselves in organisations?
How are information systems developed in organisations?
How do organisations involve users in systems development? How is a successful information system recognised?
(c) Why is?
The purpose of this question is to explain the real-life behaviour or characteristics of the phenomenon or problem. In doing so, the focus is on determining relationships between aspects of and/or variables within the problem domain. There is a f~ndame~ta1 assumption underlying this question, viz that these relationships, when uncovered, can be used to generalise about the problem domain and causal consequences.
Examples of Why is questions:
Why do managers use information?
Why do organisations use information systems?
Why are information systems developed in a particular way?
Why are users involved?
Why is is an information system successful?
(d) How should?
This question focuses on the conclusions, implications or normative aspects of the research results. It is an evaluation of the results or new insights obtained during the research. In some cases it might lead to prescriptive conclusions regarding the problem domain - in other cases it might enhance the understanding of the problem domain or redefine it.
Examples of How should questions:
Managers should use information to..
Information systems are ....
Users should be involved because....
Information systems will succeed when....
3. Implications for teaching
It is clear that the research framework would assist graduate students at the masters and doctorate level in directing their research efforts. We have found that research of a nature that requires more than the traditional empirical positivist research paradigm, have been opened up through the use of this research framework, and have yielded excellent research results. Thus, for example, an enquiry into the essence of information (Introna, 1992) has led to new insights about the reasons for the traditional failures of management information systems, and has indicated the way in which more success with the development of such systems could be obtained. These results could not have been obtained using a traditional empirical positivist research methodology.
Our approach in utilising the research framework for teaching purposes, is to approach systems development, and related issues, which are the central-problems facing the typical student, and, when he has completed his study and enters the job-market, the
new employee, as research problems. This enables them to utilise a holistic approach towards problem solving.
Thus, for example, in the study of decision support systems, the student should be acutely aware that there is a place and a reason for taking each of the four paradigm stances in posing each of the (or those he thinks applicable) research questions. In this way a much richer appreciation of the problems addressed by decision support systems would be obtained, and the student would not, in typical functionalist way, simply assume that the technology at hand should be the solution to the perceived problem.
Most importantly, perhaps, our students learn to appreciate that each problem situation is indeed unique and must be approached as a research problem. They behave, not as technocrats or even worse, technopolists, who simply believe that the latest technology and the latest methodology should solve the problem. This does not mean that they have a disregard for technology only that they rightly use it as only one of their tools in serving the (information systems) world.
4. Conclusions: The pedagogical benefits
The subtler benefits accrue during the entire undergraduate study period of four years. The student gains infinitely more than the mere attitude of keeping in mind the impact of computers and systems. Indeed, they learn to appreciate that each problem merits analysis from different perspectives, and, since they make their assumptions explicitly, to extract a rich body of information instead of biased facts about any problem situation. Much like De Bonos thinking hats (which, incidentally, they learn to use in their first semester of study), they can deliberately switch assumptions and probe deeper to enlighten yet another facet of the problem. There is no fixed set of assumptions about the nature of reality, the nature of social science (in which they see information systems embedded) or the human condition. In a sense, as Feyerabend argued, anything goes. Naturally, the individual need not be without his or her own convictions. But they learn the difference between subjective perceptions and deliberate objectivism.