10.2 Reflections on the theoretical process


10.2 Reflections on the theoretical process

A key source of inspiration for our theory building was Castells well-cited trilogy (1996) that articulated a theory about new social structures in the late twentieth century. Castells concept of the ˜network society helped to introduce an informed debate on the meaning of the multi-dimensional transformations that are taking place in contemporary society. More recently, Castells (2001) argues that the concept of the ˜network society should replace the notion or metaphor of the ˜information society in aiding our understanding of contemporary social structure. The important distinction Castells makes between metaphors, concepts and theory is elaborated in this extended quote:

In some cases, the use of metaphors allows one to indicate a line of interpretation without closing the meaning, in an old epistemological tradition suggested by Bachelard. Yes, at the end of the process of theory building, we should have a clearly defined system of unequivocally defined categories. I concede without any problem that some (but not most) of the categories I use are metaphorical , and evocative, rather than conceptual because it is too early to close their meanings...Unless and until a systematic theoretical construction is able to produce knowledge when confronted with observation, for me it is not theory, it is discourse , ultimately either a formal game or literary text. So, I prefer the uncertain , less elegant path of approximating categories and observation, and adjusting metaphors to data until they become concepts as tools of grounded theory. I believe this is a fundamental, epistemological option that may take social science away from the impasse of metaphysics without surrendering to empiricism. (2001: 17)

Castells argues for a ˜theory in practice where the relevance of a theory is judged by its ability to yield understanding when the phenomenon is subjected to observation. While metaphors and evocative notions like the ˜information society help to provide an initial language to describe social structure, they have limited explanatory potential when subjected to empirical observation. Castells argues that replacing a description conveyed in a notion or a metaphor by a ˜concept is not just a terminological matter, since a concept proposes a certain meaning and pretends to be based on observation. Castells ˜network society is such a concept about the nature of contemporary social structure and is developed and examined over a period of sustained and systematic empirical observation and analysis. Castells ˜theory of practice perspective resonates with van Maanen s (1989) description of the process of theory-building using the metaphor of an ongoing ˜conversation between empirical data and our theoretical ideas and frames of understanding.

The ideas of Castells and van Maanen guide our approach to building a theoretically informed empirical analysis of the process of GSA relationships. We started this research in 1996 inspired by Giddens (1990) writings on globalization and modernity. Specifically , we were interested in examining how Giddens notions of institutional reflexivity, disembedding mechanisms and time “space distanciation could be useful to examine the relationship between GSW and the ICTs used to support and coordinate this work. Our research started as we obtained access to the ongoing GSA of GlobTel with four Indian firms, a relationship considered pioneering in the Indian software industry and globally. Since this relationship was established in the late 1980s, it has provided access to a rich history and learning about four individual GSAs, thus enabling a higher-level analysis through inter-case comparisons. The extremely dynamic period the industry was enduring also permitted us to observe closely the trials and tribulations that firms suffer and their responses in such turbulent conditions.

In the following paragraphs, we discuss the processes that evolved in developing our different theoretical ideas.

Space and place

Over time, as our understanding of the empirical issues developed, we started to explore various theoretical ideas through ˜conversations with other academic disciplines and by the reading of relevant literature. Given the fundamental role of space and distance in GSAs, studies in human geography provided a rich source of ideas to analyse the relationships between material practices and the social and physical domains in which they occur. We were struck by the contradictions and tensions between the GSA assumptions that emphasize distance and ˜space , and individual needs for proximity and ˜place . These tensions varied with the different stages of the relationship. The ongoing, and sometime self-destructive, nature of these tensions made us explore the concept of ˜dialectics and the manner in which it has been discussed in philosophy, human geography, organization studies and, in relatively less depth, in IS. The combination of the concepts of dialectics and space/place provided the basis to analyse the GlobTel “MCI case. The theoretical framework of the ˜ dialectics of space and place that developed through this rigorous interaction between empirical analysis and conceptual ideas potentially contributes to various ongoing debates in IS and globalization. For example, while Schultze and Boland (2000) describe the activities of IT contractors in an American firm as a dialectical arrangement over space and place, they do not elaborate on issues related to how to manage this process. Our theoretical framework can potentially add further insights into the dynamics of this process. For example, the actors need for identification with particular ˜places is in a dialectical tension with their job demands of operating in a variety of ˜spaces , with significant implications for identity.

Identity

Giddens emphasizes the inter-relationship between institutional-level dynamics and self-identity as an important feature of current globalization processes. Similarly, Castells describes the ˜power of identity as a defining aspect of the network society. In contrast, our interest in this concept was at the organizational level and how it was drawn upon by managers to shape GSA processes. We encountered managers, for example, those in ComSoft, who explicitly discussed identity, and its practical implications for everyday processes such as the management of attrition. However, identity was not static and was continuously enacted and redefined in action. The mission of ˜unleashing Indian creativity was initially a defining aspect of ComSoft identity, held together by the ideological glue of the ethos surrounding ˜made in India . As discussed in chapter 5, further fieldwork in Japan emphasized the managers preference for technology approved in the USA, which led to ComSoft needing significantly to reposition both identity and image. The speed at which these dynamics unfolded made us reflect on the largely functional role of identity, and the conscious manner in which it was continuously hybridized in response to changing global conditions. The idea of boundaries, external and internal, and the manner in which they are continuously negotiated in GSAs, was important in appreciating the image and identity linkage and the role of organizational culture in shaping this relationship. We draw upon Giddens (1984) structuration theory to develop an interpretative framework to conceptualize organizational culture in terms of rules and resources that actors draw upon in shaping agency in the construction of identity and image. This structurational analysis helps to move some of the debates in globalization debates to a more practical level. This also helps in addressing the question of how the ˜power of identity unfolds in particular micro-level situations of GSW in particular, and global work more broadly. The ˜power of identity is observed above all in the response of actors to attempts to standardize their everyday work practices.

Standardization

Towards the end of the period of the empirical work on the GlobTel relationship, one of the authors moved from Canada to Oslo where a strong research tradition existed focused upon technology, standardization and actor-network theory. Ongoing conversations with colleagues, further readings, attendance at seminars , listening to PhD student presentations and various informal discussions inspired us to examine the data with the ˜lens of standardization . These discussions and readings enhanced our awareness and sensitivity to the role of standards, standardization processes and the tensions that ensue in establishing and maintaining a large infrastructure to support a GSA. Such concepts provided a powerful way to develop a holistic perspective on the relation- ship and emphasized the multiple and complex socio-technical and political processes that evolve over time to establish standards and gain compliance. Our analysis helps to extend these existing debates on standards and standardization to the domain of management practices, thus broadening the earlier primarily technical focus. A focus on how standards unfold through processes of use also helps to extend the previous theoretical discussions which had focused mainly on the politics of how new standards were created.

An insight into these additional dimensions to the standardization question potentially yielded deeper understanding into the ˜global “local debate. Management practices can be seen as more closely related to ˜local -level issues that are relatively more complex to standardize than technology-related questions that can be conceptualized as more ˜global issues, relatively more amenable to standardization. Issues of standardization are linked to issues of power and control, especially relating to who has the power to standardize and how.

Power and control

The theoretical ideas in this area developed during the course of the doctoral studies of one of the researchers and his travels to India on holiday to meet the other authors of this book. The interest that the doctoral researcher developed in India provided the motivation for the empirical work on his PhD that was carried out in the UK and India. Initially, the researcher experienced a sense of frustration and even anger after the initial interviews as he felt that the Indians were being treated in a rather instrumental manner by the UK firm, echoing the historical colonial pattern. This led him to undertake further reading relating to Indian culture and society and provided the basis for the initial political and cultural analytical framework set within the context of globalization. Early reading of the data was sensitized by Hofstede s (1980) analysis of cultural consequences, which was soon found limited for the various reasons discussed in the case studies in earlier chapters. Subsequently, Morgan s (1986) metaphors of organizations, specifically the political and cultural metaphors, provided a useful lens for the analysis, which primarily focused on new forms of power and control emerging from the impact of globalization.

The first attempt to publish the work in a journal led to many useful suggestions from reviewers who encouraged the use of structuration theory for the analysis. Another paper (Sahay and Walsham 1997) that had analysed a GIS implementation case in India using a structurational lens provided a further basis for the development of a revised framework. Particular attention was given to theorizing the issue of ˜control at a distance , a crucial concern in GSAs. This process of theorizing was aided significantly through ˜critical discussion groups , in which one of the authors was a member, along with PhD students and colleagues at Manchester University. These various discussions and readings became the basis for the resubmission of the paper and its subsequent publication in Information and Organization (Nicholson and Sahay 2001). In revising this paper in line with the aims of this book, we consciously tried to situate the analysis in relation to phases of the GSA viewed within the globalization context. Foucault s work was inspiring in the analysis of the power “control “culture relationship, and this was incorporated into the theoretical framework. Comments by an organization specialist led to a more focused discussion of the case study data in relation to the revised theoretical frame. Foucault s ideas that emphasized the power “knowledge relationship also have implications in appreciating the complexity of knowledge transfers.

Knowledge transfers

The knowledge transfer analysis has its root in the Sierra case presented in chapter 7. What was interesting about the case was the manner in which Sierra established their India operations full of hopes and expectations, and how they shut down some two years later full of remorse and disappointment. We were interested in understanding why this happened , and a closer examination of the data emphasized the difficulties experienced in knowledge transfer, and the practical realities of how the process differed very significantly from their expectations. An initial analysis of the case was presented in the IFIP 9.4 conference in Cape Town (Nicholson, Sahay and Krishna 2000) drawing broadly upon Giddens (1990) analysis of modernity. Suggestions from the audience at the conference broadly pointed to the importance of knowledge-related issues in the case. Initially, we were guided by Blackler s (1995) ˜images of knowledge because they went beyond the objective perspective taken to ˜knowledge management . We also explored related literature on interpretivist approaches to knowledge drawing from philosophy, management and sociology in addition to IS. While we found Blackler s images to be useful in sensitizing us to the ˜different kinds of knowledge involved in a GSW, we felt the images metaphor was limited in developing the process perspective that this book was trying to articulate . We found the ˜community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1993) perspective to be useful in trying to link Blackler s images of knowledge with the practice of GSW so as to develop the processual analysis. In development and refinement of this framework we were greatly supported by feedback and discussions on early drafts by PhD students and other colleagues at the University of Manchester working in the area of knowledge and knowledge management. The complexity in knowledge transfer is fundamentally linked to issues in communication, and how knowledge about products, processes and practices can be transmitted, interpreted and used by the different parties involved.

Communication issues

Towards the end of the empirical work in the GlobTel project, we found an increasing frustration in both GlobTel and the Indian firms about the future of the relationship, which seemed to be achieving a ˜plateau state . We were intrigued by an increased mention in the Indian firms, especially ComSoft, about the rich potential of Japanese markets especially when compared with North American clients like GlobTel. By this time, we had developed a high level of trust with the ComSoft management and felt comfortable in requesting permission to visit Japan and meet their office staff and also some of their existing and potential clients . Meetings with ComSoft developers in India working on Japanese projects, followed by interviews in Japan and Korea, helped to clarify some of the initial issues that both sides were experiencing in establishing GSAs. The Korean interviews served to sharpen the analysis as the kind of communication problems experienced there were similar to those in Japan.

We were struck by the challenge of communication that seemed to lie at the core of the definition of the relationship, from the kind of business model adapted , to the nature of projects outsourced and to shaping inter-personal relationships. Since we did not follow any one relationship longitudinally, but talked to people in different firms about their perceptions and expectations, we could not develop theoretical insights into the nature of the process. Instead, we obtained a ˜snap-shot of the factors that managers described as important in shaping their perceptions about the GSAs. We then related these issues to other writings on cross-cultural communication. Our contribution is in emphasizing the importance of national stereotypes , and their role in shaping communicative action. Our analysis presents a point of departure from typical academic debates that criticize the use of national stereotypes in studying culture on the grounds that it is reductionist and limited. We rather argue that these stereotypes are crucial to understanding, as actors draw upon them in shaping their everyday action. The stereotypes that the Indian developers have about Japanese, for example, are reflected in the structure and content of the messages they send. This structurational perspective emphasizes that these stereotypes do not remain static but are redefined and also strengthened in and through the process of communication.

Another interesting aspect of our analysis was in the comparisons that the Indians made concerning the North American and Japanese styles of communication and working. These comparisons were significant as they both consciously and unconsciously helped to provide a frame of reference for the Indians to make sense of their Japanese experience. This emphasizes the importance of situating the analysis of GSAs in a network structure and not just in one-to-one relationships that tend to obscure the larger picture. Since actors and firms are situated in a multiplicity of relationships in the network, experiences developed in one part inevitably have ˜spread effects to others.

While this discussion helps to describe the individual processes involved in the development of theory, we develop in the next section a synthesis that looks across these issues. This has three key components :

  • It summarizes some key features of the themes, drawing upon examples not only from the particular case in which it had been discussed earlier, but also by looking across all the various cases.

  • We then develop an inter-theme and inter-case comparison that permits us to see how some of these different themes relate to each other.

  • We then discuss how the analysis of particular micro-level themes contributes to our understanding of the macro-level social theory such as that of Giddens, Beck and Castells upon which we have drawn.

We develop these contributions drawing upon the framework of the ˜model of and ˜model for relationship between processes of GSA growth and globalization. To aid the understanding of this rather detailed discussion we make use of multiple tables. Two sets of boxes are presented for each theme that first summarize key features and secondly relate these features to the ˜model of and ˜model for relationship.