Thoughts on two papers about Sociomaterial theory by Orlikowski (2007 & 2010)

Maybe it’s two papers or maybe it’s a paper and an essay – but they’re both published in journals so I think they should be considered valuable in terms of my lit review. I think I prefer essays in all honesty, though it seems like papers have more currency. My problem with papers is that more rigour is required to demonstrate the value or validity of one’s argument while an essay is able to cut to the heart of the idea more quickly and spend more time teasing it out. If I understood Sociomateriality better I suspect that I could probably explain this in terms of the ‘constitutive entanglement’ between the form/technology and the practice of writing but I’m not quite there yet. These two pieces however have at least given me enough of a taste of this theory to want to pursue it further.

Looking at Orlikowski’s work in this area is a slightly sideways step for me in that it focuses on the complex, holistic relationships that exist between the material (primarily technology in this instance) and people and what they do in the workplace. Clearly Higher Ed is a workplace as much as a place of learning (it would be interesting to see where learning sits on a spectrum of work) but her interest lies more in conventional workplaces and her discipline is more about management and organisations.

One thing that I found in reading these is that it became a lot clearer after I got to the tangible examples, so I’m going to start with that and then backtrack to the more cerebral side of the theory. (I actually find this in a lot of presentations – I’d really like people to show me the thing first and then explain why and how they did it.) The author does a nice thing in the 2010 paper where she describes a scenario of people using a “synthetic world” (p.127) (essentially a company virtual world like Second Life but before the virtual part of the term was in wider use) and then refers back to this as she describes how the different current theoretical approaches would explore it.

Anyway, the two examples that cut through best for me were descriptions of searching via Google and what happens when a workplace gives its staff all Blackberries (mid-2000s) with push email. The core idea put forward is that when we examine how organisations work, we shouldn’t consider what people do and what impacts tech has as two separate things but more as a unified whole.

Orlikowski starts by describing the way we often discuss searching with Google.

‘I googled it’ has become a well-accepted and widely understood reference to the online activity of information searching on the web. And what most of mean by this colloquialism is that we ‘used’ the Google search capabilities to obtain some information.

But this account, while simple and descriptive, is problematic. In the terms of the preceding discussion, it privileges the users, clearly putting the locus of control principally in the hands of the human researchers and relegating the technology to a relatively passive, even domesticated role (2007, p.1439)

She quickly moves on to describe how Google searches work, driven by the PageRank algorithm that weigh up incoming and outgoing links and credibility (to an extent) and relationships between linking webpages to determine the order in which search results are displayed. (Presumably there are some commercial influencers in there as well). It is people however that actually choose which sites to link to and how – and this changes organically over time – so when we think about how we search, if we focus more on the machine or the people, we aren’t getting as clear a picture as if we were to focus on both at one, as one integrated system of sorts. I think this is what she means when she uses (frequently) the term ‘constitutive entanglement’ (2007, p.1435)

At this point I need to reiterate that most of these concepts are fairly new to me in terms of taking an ontological (nature of being) and epistemological (theory of knowledge) view on things. I haven’t spent a lot of time considering them but I can see that they offer an interesting lens to look at larger questions through.

Orlikowski helpfully went on to explain why this mattered.

The same Google search issued by a researcher at different times will produce different results in terms of webpages displayed and their order. While this would also be the case if the researcher had conducted her search in libraries and colleague’s offices, the Google example manifests it more acutely. The information obtained with a Google search done today will shape research practices differently than had the Google search been done last week or last month. And in certain circumstances, such differences may be quite consequential. Indeed, as contemporary commentators writing about the web have noted, algorithms such as Google’s PageRank don’t so much ‘search reality’ as create it (2007, p.1440)

Her other example that illustrated the interconnectivity between the social and material was a case study about Plymouth, a small(ish) private equity firm in 2000 that gave its employees BlackBerrys. (Prestige mobile phones with push email notification – kind of a big deal when they came out but now massively overshadowed by smartphones). This company had a relatively decent philosophy when it came to work/life balance and treated employees well.

In the course of analyzing the communication practices of these information professionals, it became increasingly evident that attempting to understand their practices in conventional ‘media use’ terms neglects critical aspects of what they are experiencing. In particular, viewing the professionals as ‘using’ their BlackBerrys to communicate with each other significantly overlooks how their communication practices have been substantially reconfigured through their engagement with Blackberrys. (2007, p.1441)

In a nutshell, everyone in the company became addicted to checking their emails and responding almost immediately. (The ‘Crackberry’ effect) If people didn’t get a reply from someone at virtually any time, they would quickly grow worried that something was wrong. It wasn’t necessarily that everyone became workaholics but their behaviour changed. This wasn’t the intent in introducing the tech and nor was it what the tech was designed to do but in examining the phenomena, Orlikowski realised that existing theoretical approaches either focused on the tool or the people but not sufficiently on the intertwining of the two and the way that each shaped the other.

As sociomaterial practices, mobile communications at Plymouth is signficantly changing why, when, where and how members interact. Norms of communication are reconfigured, altering expectations of availability and accountability, redefining the boundaries of the workday, and extending and intensifying interactions within the communication network. Plymouth members experience both increased flexibility (about where and when to work) and increased obligation to be continually responsive. The resulting blurring of employees’ work and and personal lives is beginning to undermine the espoused family-friendly values of the firm. (2007, p.1444)

Orlikowski’s main point throughout these papers is that current approaches to examining organisations either ignore the role of ‘things’ (“absent presence” – 2010, p.127) or overplay them (“exogenous force” – 2010, p.127) or overplay the way that people use them (“emergent process”- 2010, p.127). By delving deeper into how things shape behaviour and vice versa by treating people and things as more of an holistically integrated kind of entity (if my understanding holds up), we can come to a richer understanding of how organisations function. (To be honest though, I do still feel like I need to dig much deeper into this theory as I feel like this explanation is missing some core points.)

One of the biggest problems that I have in appreciating Sociomateriality at this point brings me back to the 2010 paper that uses the example of the ‘synthetic’ (virtual) ‘world’ to describe how the different preceding approaches would explore in looking at the use of that tech in the workplace. It contrasts this with what a sociomaterial exploration would examine. It’s probably a matter of my more practical orientation but I’m more interested in the questions examined in the other ‘flawed’ approaches. Perhaps the trick is to find the kinds of questions that a sociomaterial focus would support.

In the ‘absent presence’ approach, Orlikowski considers that

“organisational researchers could use synthetic worlds methodologically, as platforms for coordinating and conducting their inquiries into social behaviour. They are unlikely, however, to inquire into specific technological entailments of synthetic worlds, how they are taken up and changed by participants or how they configure participants’ interactions and with what outcomes. In the absent presence perspective thus, the role and influence of synthetic worlds for distributed collaboration – like technology more generally – will likely remain backstage concerns” (2010, p.129)

This seems less problematic to me than the author if the researchers aren’t actually researching the interaction between technology and behaviour. It almost feels as though Orlikowski’s point is that ‘you aren’t looking at this thing – distributed collaboration – that I consider important and this lessens your research’. But perhaps I’m missing something.

Next we come to the ‘exogenous force’ approach, which assumes that “technology is an exogenous and relatively autonomous driver of organisational change, and as such, that it has significant and predictable impacts on various human and organisational outcomes, such as governance structures, work routines, information flews, decision making, individual productivity and firm performance” (2010, p.129)

Orlikowski feels that researchers working through this lens

“would generally not be interested in studying the specific instance of the MPK20 synthetic world. Instead, common features of various synthetic worlds would be assessed (or represented through proxies such as investment value or information richness) in an attempt to produce statistical regularities about the effects of synthetic worlds in general. These worlds would be predicted to produce certain identifiable impacts on organisations, including impacts on the phenomenon of distributed collaboration. For example, studies might focus on how investments by organisations in synthetic worlds influence the productivity of distributed participants and how these effects might vary across the type of team, organisation or industry.” (2010, p.130)

Once again, this kind of feels like comparing apples and oranges, even though I’m happy to agree that simply exploring the role of tech (and assuming that it leads to change autonomously) seems fairly flawed.

The flip-side of this viewpoint seems to be that of the ’emergent process’ with scholars arguing that “technology results from the ongoing interaction of human choices, actions, social histories and institutional contexts. Technology here is understood as material artifacts that are social defined and socially produced, and thus as relevant only in relation to the people engaging with them…  Scholars working from this perspective sought to explain how the particular interests and situated actions of multiple social groups shaped the designs, meanings and uses of new technologies over time.” (2010, p.131)

“With respect to studying the MPK20 synthetic world, researchers following an emergent process perspective would likely conduct detailed analyses of specific interpretations of and interactions in MPK20 to understand how such a world enables and constrains distributed collaboration. Thus, researchers might conduct ethnographic studies of the MPK20 environment, becoming members of Project Wonderland and participating in the various events and activities of the team. These inquiries might examine how members’ communication in MPK20 differs from their face-to-face interaction, how the roles, norms and identities generated by members within MPK20 resemble or differ from those outside MPK20… Structurational accounts might focus on what forms of structuring are evident in users’ situated engagements with MPK20, comparing the practices of Project Wonderland team members within and outside of MPK20 in an attempt to identify whether and how existing or new structures for distributed collaboration are enacted by team members in the synthetic world, and with what individual, team and organisational consequences over time” (2010, p.132)

Once again, if that was what I was investigating, this seems like a reasonable way to do it. Personally I would find the results of this research interesting. Orlikowski does make a reasonable point that it assumes that the technology is finished and finalised (in design terms) when people start using it, when the reality is that peoples’ use and discover of flaws or opportunities to improve it based on their usage – particularly in software – can lead to significant changes from the first version.

In essence, I guess the main flaws identified with these approaches, and the reason for pushing for a new, more holistic one, is that they lack nuance and underestimate the complexity of both tech and human behaviour. They don’t see the interrelationships between the two and the ways that each shapes the other – the “constitutive entanglements” (2010, p.135). From here the paper digs deep into metaphysics and a lot of discussion of the nature of existence that, coming into this cold, I’m currently struggling with. Orlikowski does refer to Barad’s notion of ‘thingification’ which I at least enjoy as a word. In terms of my research, I’m honestly not sure how deep down the ontological rabbit hole I want or need to go but I imagine I’ll come back to this for a further poke around at some point.

Bringing it all back then to what a sociomaterial exploration of the ‘synthetic world’ would look like, which gives us something to compare to the other lens, Orlikowski offers this.

a perspective of entanglement would focus on understanding MPK20, not as the necessary result of a powerful technological infrastructure, or as principally reflecting the interpretations and interactions of the human developers or users, but as a dynamic sociomaterial configuration performed in practice. Rather than attributing agency either to individual actors (designers, engineers, team members) or particular technologies (computers, algorithms, graphics engines, networks), capacities for action would be studied as relational, distributed and enacted through particular initiations of the MPK20 synthetic world. Drawing, for example, on the notion of apparatus, researchers might study how different performances of the MPK20 synthetic world configure communication and information sharing in Project Wonderland, and how these make some practices and knowledge more salient and determinate than others and with what consequences. A sociomaterial perspective would highlight how synthetic worlds are not neural or determinate platforms through which distributed collaboration is facilitated or constrained but integrally and materially part of constituting that phenomenon. Researchers might also examine how integrating MPK20 into everyday practices reconfigures the phenomenon of distributed collaboration within an organisation and what implications this generates for inclusion and exclusion, for responsibility and control. (2010, p.136)

I wouldn’t normally include that much text in a quote but it’s the closest I can come to understanding how a sociomaterial viewpoint looks. It does seem like it could be valuable in certain circumstances but I’m not yet sold that it is a be-all and end-all. The author on the other hand appears to think that it is.

I propose that we recognise that all practices are always and everywhere sociomaterial, and that this sociomateriality is constitutive, shaping the contours and possibilities of everyday organizing (2007, p.1444)

We’ll see.