Highlighted Selections from:

The Development of Electronic Information Systems for the Future: Practitioners, 'Embodied Structures' and 'Technologies-in-Practice'


DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcr202

Gillingham, P. “The Development of Electronic Information Systems for the Future: Practitioners, 'Embodied Structures' and ‘Technologies-in-Practice’.” British Journal of Social Work 43.3 (2013): 430–445. Web.

p.430: There is a growing body of research about the current forms of electronic information systems (IS) being used in human service organisations in both the UK and Australia, which demonstrates that, far from being a positive development, their implementation can impede service delivery. These problems have been acknowledged in the recent review of child protection services in England by Professor Eileen Munro and attention is now shifting to how current IS may be modified and future IS designed. In this article, ‘technologies-in-practice’, as a conceptual approach to understanding the interactions between practitioners and IS, is applied to the findings of research that focused on how practitioners in a child protection agency used a set of decision-making tools (Structured Decision Making) embedded in an IS. The aim is to demonstrate how this approach might be used to contribute to an evidence base that might guide the future development of IS in ways that enhance the abilities of practitioners, particularly by focusing attention on their needs rather than organisational imperatives for compliance and accountability. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.431: Research in the UK in child welfare agencies has demonstrated that IS may contain ‘latent conditions for error’, which only emerge in the field of practice and which serve to undermine the best intentions of their designers (Broadhurst et al., 2010). IS may not deliver the desired or expected outcomes and may actually impede rather than enhance the provision of services to clients (Peckover et al., 2008; Pithouse et al., 2009). White et al. (2009) describe how the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) in the UK has transformed practice by attempting to formalise and standardise the responses of practitioners to children and families, in ways that might actually increase error in the decision making of practitioners. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.432: In Tower Hamlets, for example, an action research approach has been taken to redeveloping the forms within ICS, in order to make the system more streamlined, less onerous and to keep the focus on the child. The aim has been to ‘reduce bureaucracy of the assessment format and promote social worker analytical thinking and decision making’ (Munro, 2011b, p. 108). -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.432: In New South Wales, in his findings from a Special Commission of Inquiry into child protection services, Justice Wood’s conclusions echo the concerns of the Victorian Ombudsman:

DoCS (Department of Community Services) information management technology is not adequately suited for the purpose of supporting workers to assess and intervene in the lives of children and young people, and its complexities and shortcomings continue to be a source of frustration and delay to its staff (Wood, 2008, p. 3).

-- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.433: Historically, there is ample evidence about the effects, challenges and pitfalls of implementing technology in human service organisations, from the 1980s onwards, which appears to have been ignored in the development of current forms of IS. Much of the literature in this field promotes the increasing use of technology to meet challenges faced by human services organisations. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.433: However, within this body of literature, there are also warnings about how mistakes can be made in the design and implementation that resonate with the current problems mentioned above. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.434: In a previous article (Gillingham, 2011), an approach to research that draws from ethnography and social informatics was proposed to bridge the gaps between the designers of IS, senior managers and front line practitioners to generate knowledge that would inform the future development of IS. AsWhite et al. (2010) point out, the ‘principles of effective design praxis are not the carefully guarded secret knowledge of an hermitic priesthood, they are well known’ (White et al., 2010, p. 424) and social informatics, or socio-technical systems design, has much to offer. Social informatics is defined as ‘the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information technology that takes into account their intersection with institutional and cultural contexts’ (Kling, 1999, p. 1). The main theme of this article is how we might draw from this field of knowledge, using a particular example of an approach to conceptualising how practitioners interact with technology, to produce what have been termed ‘technologies-in-practice’ (Orlikowski, 2000). -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.434: Consequently, the form of knowledge used by practitioners has changed from ‘social’ to ‘informational’ (Parton, 2008), as detailed ‘surface’ descriptions of what clients do have replaced ‘depth’ explanations that draw from psychological and sociological theories to explore and pursue interventions that address why they might be experiencing difficulty (Howe, 1996). Computers break down all tasks, including cognition, into sets of smaller, discreet tasks that are best carried out in a sequential order (Henman, 1995). -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.434: IS also contain structures that are socially constructed, which represent ‘world views’ and ideas about how things should be (Henman, 1995). As Orlikowski (1992) explains, IS designers ‘build into technology certain interpretive schemes (rules reflecting knowledge of the work being automated)’ (Orlikowski, 1992, p. 148), known as ‘embodied structures’. These embodied structures may be deliberate attempts to shape work practices, as in the case of IS in human service organisations that contain structures to guide case management or decision making. IS are therefore prescriptive (Franklin, 1992) rather than passive recorders for information. However, the reaction of users to these embodied structures may not be straightforward and predictable, as users need to interpret them for use in their daily work and exercise discretion in how they use them. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.437: As mentioned above, concern has been expressed that the structures within IS have shifted the emphasis in practice from the consideration of people’s circumstances with reference to social and psychological theory to the collection of information (Parton, 2008). The way that this information is required to be recorded on IS also means that people’s lives are reduced to pieces of information, rather than the more traditional narrative that aims to capture the meaning of such information (Aas, 2004). -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.438: There were many examples of how the structures within the ICMS and the SDM tools tended to restrict the information used to make decisions, as practitioners felt that they could not go beyond the information presented to them. The SDM tools were then used to justify the decision. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.440: The IS could not be described as ‘tool’ that amplified the ability of users (Hollnagel and Woods, 2005); indeed, the opposite was found to be the case, as the IS and its embodied structures added another layer of difficulty to dealing with what has been described as the ‘wicked problem’ (Devaney and Spratt, 2009) of child abuse. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.440: Conceptualising the interaction between users and technology as the enactment of technologies-in-practice drew attention to the dilemmas faced by practitioners when compelled to use it. Practitioners struggled to match the embodied structures of the IS with the reality of day-to-day practice, as the structures failed to account for the complexity and diversity of the situations of children and parents, leading to confusion and frustration. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.441: As the examples provided above demonstrate, the application of technologies-in-practice as a conceptual tool to interpret the research findings can provide considerable insight into the interaction between the users of technology and its embodied structures. The study of technologies-in-practice does, as Orlikowski (2000) argues, illustrate the complexity of the interactions between prescriptive technology and practitioners and so contradicts assumptions that the outcomes for practice are easily predictable and consistent -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014