Technology has dramatically meshed with work, society and even language – with phrases like “Google it” and “Call an Uber” entering the everyday lexicon. Yet the academic field of organisation studies has instead viewed tech as a mere enabler to be deployed for managerial efficiency. A just published article in a leading journal challenges this view as a narrow and wrongheaded focus on theoretically lovely rather than practically likely explanations for tech’s huge influence on organisations.
From a series of thinkers including Karl Marx (“The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist” – 1847) to Joseph Schumpeter (firms face gales of “creative destruction” – 1942), the study of organisations has largely viewed technology as an independent force reshaping society.
But this constrained view needs an overhaul in the third decade of the 21st Century, argues the article in the journal Organization Theory co-authored by Dr Stella Pachidi, University Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School. Technology should instead be seen as closely “entwined with organisation actions and structures” while playing an “endogenous and co-constitutive” role in how organising is now practiced.
“The field (of organisation studies) has either avoided technology, or alternatively, blackboxed it and reduced it to an external force to be exploited and deployed as a source of innovation,” the article says. “As waves of new technological developments, eg artificial intelligence, facial recognition, robotics, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, blockchain and the Internet of things, are unfolding, it is high time to consider how these developments challenge the field’s bedrock beliefs about organisations and organising.”
Says co-author Dr Stella Pachidi: “While our article focuses on the scholarly discipline of organisation studies, the themes explored have relevance to everyone: society, organisations and politics need to be more attuned to the technological changes that are emerging all around us, because if we fail to make sense of how technology is shaping many facets of our lives we can easily find ourselves in situations where only a few big firms are controlling the economy, workers have no rights, people are increasingly surveilled and controlled, and so forth. As the article says, technology is entwined in our lives for better or worse, so we need to analyse tech in this way and not view it as some kind of outside force.”
The article outlines several reasons why organisation theory has shied away from technology, noting that less than 3% of articles in leading journals explore the connection. These reasons include a “fear of falling prey to deterministic thinking” about tech, and a preference among scholars to focus on “‘lovely’ matters of social construction, transaction costs, or institutional forces”.
“In sum, most organisational theorists have chosen to view technology through the prism of social construction”, and this approach too-conveniently emphasises managerial choice in terms of using technology for efficiency rather than seeking a fuller and necessary understanding of what technology actually does, the authors say.
The article in the journal Organization Theory – entitled “Beyond Uberisation: the co-constitution of technology and organising” – is co-authored by Professor Samer Faraj of McGill University in Montreal and Dr Stella Pachidi of Cambridge Judge Business School. The essay draws on another article published in the same journal that compares how the ridehailing industry including firms such as Uber and Lyft is organised in seven countries ranging from the US to Germany to Nigeria.
“Approaching Uberisation as a regime of organising can generatively unpack how new ways of co-ordinating work, making decisions and controlling workers emerge and are contested,” concludes the article by Professor Samer Faraj and Dr Stella Pachidi. “We are in the midst of deep transformations of what we have come to conceptualise as work and organising. Currently dominant conceptualisations of technology as separate, exogenous, or causal are too limiting to fruitfully address the new forms of organising that are currently emerging.”