The author attributes the creation of customer relationship management (CRM) to IBM. The intention of CRM is to define process to streamline interactions between the company and its customers across markets, product lines, and locations - in effect, to tidy up the messy and uncoordinated ways in which these interactions take place and force employees and customers to conform to standard behavioral procedures.

Given the increasing complexity of organizations, there is allure in the promise to streamline and coordinate activities in large and complex organizations toward the goal of serving the customer "better." And the CRM system comes with its own scorecard for measuring its own success ... which, like many analytical tools, is rigged to measure the things that CRM is good at, and to ignore the larger problems it creates.

Theories like CRM provide a good example of the role played by IT systems on a corporate organization: beginning with the top-management agenda that adopts such theories, the middle-management imperative of meeting performance criteria, the counterproductive behaviors it requires of the rank-and file, and the ultimate damage it inflicts of the organization.

Alignment and Control

The concept of an all-encompassing "corporate infrastructure" began only in the 1980's - and then, it was primarily as a way to coordinate the systems and data across a large enterprise, resulting in a consolidated IT department to more efficiently support operations. The rationale was "efficiency," but it soon became control, with the IT department no longer supporting the equipment used by the business, but dictating the equipment the business would use, and in turn dictating business practices by means of control of the tools.

The approach of IT has generally been to gather information about business practices and find opportunities for creating efficiency, but once an "efficient" system (by system-centric criteria) was defined, the task remained to create systematic behavior to support the system, to train employees to use the system, and to ensure compliance (i.e., eradicate any other way of doing business).

Another shortcoming in the approach of IT is rigidity: it stresses an infrastructure that is perfectly aligned with past business practices, but is not flexible enough to deal with a wide range of contingencies that must be addressed in the present, not can it be adapted to suite the changes that will be necessary to evolve to a future state.

Some telling caveats: The IT approach to strategy is event-based, geared to freeze a point in time rather than an ongoing evolution. IT strategy does not suit the organization's strategy - it demands that the business change to accommodate the system, not vice-versa. IT accepts as limitation the barriers of technology rather that seeking to overcome them.

And to return to the author's premise: the world is complicated and organic, and it cannot be reduced to a static and systematic model without making significant sacrifices. And this is the Achilles Heel of IT strategy.

The Tactics of Cultivation

Generally, economics are used to justify the establishment of infrastructure: it is cheaper and more efficient to have a single system at the top level, a common good that all may access, than to have a motley assortment of small-scale systems for performing essentially the same task. The assumption that the task is "essentially the same" is often a fallacy, but the economic advantages tend to override any objection that the enterprise solution lacks the functionality needed by a specific group. Hence, the users are compelled to "make do" with a system that does not suit their needs (and does not enable them to accomplish their goals).

Building large systems requires time: it may require several months or years to implement a solution, during which time ht needs of the users are likely to have changed, but any suggestion that the system change to suit the present requirements, rather than the historical ones, is dismissed as "scope creep." Policies and procedures are put in place to control changes to the plan - in effect, to prevent the system from adapting to suit actual needs.

Another instance in which attention history undermines suitability to the present is in interoperability and reverse-compatibility. Any "new" system must for a time operate in conjunction with the old system it is replacing, and with other systems that are in need or replacement, and often must sacrifice needed capabilities to keep in step, albeit a step in a backwards direction, with existing or soon-to-be abandoned systems.

There is also the problem of mob rule, when an existing product or technology has obtained a large number of adopters, it becomes a "standard" by virtue of the mass of individuals and organizations that utilize it, and this mass is often considered more important than the capabilities of the system in ensuring that it will be adopted over more suitable, but less widely adopted, solutions.

The author also mentions, in an oblique way, the Hawthorne effect prevalent in organizations, in which users have the sense that providing honest feedback, particularly negative feedback, could have political consequences. Failure to provide positive remarks may mean offending a superior, undermining a department, or standing apart from peers who all seem to be pleased with the prospective system. It is not an honest assessment of the system, but an assessment of what others think (or want them to think) about it.

Some discussion of "blind giants" (decision-makers whose knowledge is lacking) and "angry orphans" (users who fear abandonment if they don't comply) - but I think the author is trying to be clever and has run out of things to say.

The Actor Network Perspective

Technological infrastructures are often compared to ecosystems - any given solution will be placed into an environment, in which it must act and interact with other systems in the same environment. At first glance, this seems to have greater fluidity and flexibility that a machine-part paradigm, but it suffers from the same inherent flaws. Primarily, it does not consider the needs of the human user, only the ways in which systems behave and interact (or worse, human needs are considered an attribute or limitation of the organism, not its objective). The "ecology" is no different than the machine-model, in that any new addition must be modified to accommodate the existing systems. In some instances, the network ecology is extended to include the non-technical elements (the users, the organization, etc.) While this is an improvement, it still treats a technical "entity" as having the same status as a human or organizational one.

The author asserts that the flaw in this system is apparent when you remove certain "organisms" from the "ecology." Specifically, if you eliminate all the messy, bothersome human beings from the equation, it does not balance out nicely ... it fails. The rightful place of technology is not as an organism of its own, but as a tool used by the organisms (people) in the environment (the business, the market, the economy).

Inscription is a concept that indicates that a technical artifact is affected by patterns of use. The analogy being that the patterns of wear on a tool (hammer) demonstrate the ways in which the tool is used, and that the wear, itself, modifies the tool in a way that makes it more useful (rounding the edges) and suggests future designs that would be more useful (the ball-peen hammer). In practice, the problem with inscription is interpretation - the marks on a tool suggest its use, but do not provide a clear and reliable indication; and if a tool is used for multiple purposes (as is often the case), the inscriptions may be misleading (or overlapping).

Translation is a more literal method of expressing need, in which the user finds some needs to communicate their interests to others, to understand the interests of others, and to integrate the two. The problem with translation is the tendency to form a common language, the most common words and concepts in present use, and the vocabulary excludes the words (and needs) that, while not as common, are of critical importance to some individuals.

Momentum is also an assessment of motion - the directions in which things have moved in the past are used to determine the directions in which they will continue to move. The problem here is self-evident, in the assumption of linear patterns that will continue without change. Supporting momentum also tends to enforce expectations and eliminate options to the contrary.

The author discusses "standards" as another control that limits options, and one of critical importance given the current demand, on many fronts, for the establishment of (and obedience to) standards. The intent of standards are normalization, enforcement of historical practice, and in that way they prevent adaptation and evolution for the sake of enforcing outdated practices.

Adaptation is a response to the environment, a deviation from the standard design effected to achieve success. If the environmental difference is short-lived, so is the adaptation. If the difference is long-lived, the adaptation persists. This is the nature of evolution.

EN: an analogy occurs to me about animal breeding, and how adherence to a standard has created unnatural creatures that are incapable of survival in the wild, but who are utterly dependent upon the human creators of the standard to which their breed is geared).

Infrastructure as Gestell

"Gestell" is the German word for an essential "framework" (in the manner of a skeleton, a chassis, a building's girders), but was modified by Heidegger to mean an act of re-ordering or re-framing, in the sense of deconstruction and reconstruction of a system. In more direct terms, technology organizes information and facilitates (and sometimes performs) tasks; as do the people in an organization. Organizing the multiple actions and actors is "Gestell."

Some random issues:

Concept: Gestell as a system that can exist only if the current one is utterly eradicated and its purpose utterly ignored. In effect, technology places itself at the center of the conceptual universe - obliterating the "actual" need or purpose, obliterating any alternative to itself.

(EN: A similar argument is made by Auberon Herbert, among others, regarding the nature of government in society: it enters on the premise of addressing a problem, does not adequately do so, applies additional government to either remedy that or convince people that it is adequate, then creates additional problems, prescribes more government to deal with the problems that it created, and prevents the consideration of the obvious - that it should just get out and leave well enough alone.)

The danger in addressing the problem is that one is dismissed as a luddite, a "reactionary critic of technology" and progress. Discussion is limited to ways in which the technology should be improved or adapted to overcome its shortcomings, to ways in which humans should be forced to act or refrain from acting to support the technology, and even to questioning whether the goals to which the technology were implemented are accurate or valid.

The author suggests a few means of dealing with a toxic Gestell: To return to the original rationale. Any system is implemented to accomplish a goal, and if you can focus on the goal (rather than system-centric thinking), the flaws become obvious. At that point, a proposal to switch to a newer, better, or different system is more likely to gain acceptance.

A Final Case Study

The author describes a proposed solution for marketing new drugs, which is inherently information-intensive: one must make doctors in various locations aware of its existence, its purpose, its advantages, its side-effects, etc. so they may choose to prescribe it to their patients.

A major pharmaceuticals firm (Hoffman-La Roche) established a strategic marketing division to oversee and streamline the marketing activities for a wide array of drugs to the global market. This division created "MedNet" as a technology to support this task.

Over eight years, the company poured resources into the system, but ultimately abandoned it because it had high costs and was largely ineffective, to be replaced by a suite of internet and intranet applications. Unfortunately, this system fared no better. While less expensive, it was no more effective: it restricted the ways in which information could be provided.

Some product managers broke from the system, and began to develop stand-alone Web sites, outside of the system, to market their products, and achieved better results. Top management, recognizing the value of letting things happen organically, shut down the MedNet system in favor of decentralized marketing for products (which is where they started off) and reduced "strategic marketing" to a supporting role.