Target Group

This particular case involves the development of a model to assist small businesses to establish and maintain an Internet presence. It is based upon the premise that small businesses should perform a business analysis before commencing such a project and that this analysis should lead to "recommendations" for the business in relation to what should go on the Web site, how it should be implemented, how it should be promoted and how its success (or failure) should be measured. The knowledge required to convert the business analysis into recommendations is stored in a spreadsheet, which is used as the instrument to build the model.

The eventual target group for this project is small businesses. The case that this paper describes is the process that was followed in the development of the spreadsheet model (or "artifact") that was used as the vehicle for the storage of "business knowledge."

Structuration, Communication and Power in the Small Business-Customer Relationship

The structuration theory sees history as interplay between social action and social structure. Giddens terms this action-structure interplay the "duality of structure" (1996, p. 100). Any action, large or small, has the potential to change (strengthen, weaken or modify) the social structure in which it occurs. Ultimately, structuration is a theory of power, because the prevalent structural context at any point in time defines the scope of action that is available to individuals and groups. Structure both supports and limits actions by individuals and groups.

As an outcome, the distribution of power in society is a phenomenon of major concern in the structuration theory. However, the phenomenon that underlies the action-structure dynamic is communication. Before information technology (IT) intervenes, communication operates through co-present, synchronous interactions. IT enables the transmission and storing of information that makes possible remote and asynchronous interactions. In the world of physical objects, transportation and storage technologies play the same part as IT for electronic information. Techniques for the transportation and storage of grain or weapons empower an ancient kingdom to project its power to distant places. By developing symbolic systems for recording and transmitting knowledge (such as inscriptions on an obelisk or writing on papyrus), that ancient culture can project its ideas across both space and time, and influence social structure in the future. In this way, analogue and digital information technologies enable human groups to "bind" or bridge time and space. In Giddens' (1980) terminology, the "binding of space and time" reduces "space-time distanciation".

This case describes the development of a tool to assist small businesses to reduce space-time distanciation between themselves and their customers, while not placing either at a disadvantage relative to the existing power relationships between them; indeed, the preferred outcome is a sense of enhanced empowerment for both.

Structuration and the Research Design

Until quite recently, the research paradigm of the physical sciences was virtually the only one acceptable in information systems and information management research. However, in the present state-of-the-art, a wide range of research approaches is available. This broadened set of options has been called "post-positivism" (Evers & Lakomsky, 2001), and draws on the hermeneutic or interpretivist traditions of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences as well as on the hypothetico-deductive or positivist traditions of the physical sciences.

Today in information systems, information management or knowledge management, a project will not be condemned as "non-research" because it looks more like a history, or an anthropological fieldwork report rather than like a laboratory experiment. However, such freedom to choose approaches and methods brings with it responsibilities to justify the choices made (Williamson, 2000).

The structuration theory helps such justifications. It helps to deal with key ontological and epistemological issues that arise in a case such as that presented in this paper. Regarding ontology, all studies are based—even if only implicitly—on some orienting idea of what constitutes the "reality" under study. It, then, adopts an epistemology (a way of knowing) that the researcher judges to be congruent with that reality. The structuration theory — while not denying other concepts of reality—privileges the notion that reality is a social construct. Ontologically, social reality is constructed and re-constructed through time via the action-structure dynamic acting upon stored knowledge or memory. Epistemologically, the way to "know" social reality is through the meanings constructed by actors. Giddens offers several key concepts of relevance:

The double hermeneutic. As explained above, the recursive mutual interplay between action and structure is called "the duality of structure". The double hermeneutic is a particular case of the duality of structure that relates to social researchers (Giddens, 1996). This concept addresses the relationship between researcher and researched. It elucidates the influence of research action on the social phenomena being researched, and vice versa. There is a mutual process of interpretation or hermeneutic involved. The concept is somewhat analogous to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in quantum physics, namely, that the techniques available to measure the position and momentum of particles themselves affected the values of those variables (Berry, 1988). In this study, the choice of iterated consultation with experts and stakeholders to elicit subjective meanings finds its justification in the ontology of socially constructed reality. It does not claim objectivity but values subjective meanings and, therefore, "cuts with the grain" in relation to the double hermeneutic; researchers and researched collaborate in the identification and articulation of meanings. In other words, the mutual influence of meanings held by the researcher and the researched builds coherence and credibility in successive stages of the study.

Authoritative and allocative resources. Giddens (1996, pp. 100–101) describes authoritative resources as those structural artefacts, which embody the semantic and moral rules for social interactions. Allocative resources are those that govern how the rules are applied in the material world. This distinction was reflected in the research design by first exploring the literature to produce a high-level Information Management-Knowledge Management model (Figure 1) and then exploring stakeholder's interpretations or meanings to produce a conceptual model (Figure 2). These models constitute authoritative resources in structuration terms. The corresponding allocative resource in this case is the spreadsheet. The blank spreadsheet is a meta-document that can instantiate and apply, in a particular way, the general tenets of the authoritative resource. What to instantiate, and how to instantiate it, is discovered by eliciting and interpreting preferences arising from meanings held by experts and stakeholders. In every sense, the spreadsheet customized as a decision tool in this case study becomes a knowledge document, incorporating the best understandings of those who collaborated in its development.

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Figure 1: The Relationship Between Information Management and Knowledge Management

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Figure 2: A Model to Assist Small Businesses to Interact with Customers on the Internet

Structuration-Based Perspectives on Small Business

Viewpoints in the current literature of small business research affirm that the environment that an organization is concerned with is made up of those groups that are important to the organization. These groups could be effectively labelled the "organizational field" for that organization. The participants in the group are important because they either maintain contact with the central organization or perform a similar role to them (competitors would do this) (DiMaggio, 1986). An organizational field is influenced by the groups within it, who are, in turn, influenced by the organizational field. As has been indicated, this interplay is described by Giddens as "the duality of structure." While overarching contexts or structures make up the environment that supports or constrains small businesses, the duality of structure holds that there is always a reciprocal impact. The organizational field or structure is strengthened if small businesses find it supportive and act in compliance with it. Conversely, it is weakened to the extent that small businesses – individually or collectively – act in opposition to it.

Small businesses differ from large businesses in a number of ways, particularly in relation to the resources (time, expertise and capital) that they can devote to the use of information technology (Burgess, 2002). As such, the composition of their organizational fields is likely to differ from that of larger businesses, and its potential influence on the structure or organizational field within which it operates is likely to be less than that for larger businesses. For a small business, an organizational field would typically include customers, suppliers, governments (perhaps), competitors, consultants and support groups.

A structuration approach to small business knowledge management is useful as it helps to identify characteristics that effect an organizational field and individual groups within the field separately. It is easier to identify the process of strategic change when it is realized that organizational fields can influence managerial decision-making within groups and that these decisions can, in turn, influence the central organization and the organizational field through the shared interactions and perceptions of other groups in the field (Bloodgood & Morrow, 2000).

Groups within a field can be influenced to change by a number of factors, including the number of organizations within the field that are changing, the direction they are heading in and the success (or otherwise) of the strategic change. While managers may draw from other experiences, many of their perceptions are taken from their current experiences within the organizational field. If one group within the field does something, others will take notice (Bloodgood & Morrow, 2000).

Knowledge Management

Grover and Davenport (2001, p. 6) discuss the various differences between data, information and knowledge. "Typically, data is classified, summarized, transferred or corrected in order to add value, and become information within a certain context." The technologies that facilitate this have been typically associated with the storage, processing and communication of data – resultant information has utility within that context. "Knowledge has the highest value, the most human contribution, the greatest relevance to decisions and actions, and the greatest dependence on a specific situation or context. It is also the most difficult of content types to manage, because it originates and is applied in the minds of human beings" (Grover & Davenport, 2001, p. 6). Knowledgeable people have the information and the ability to frame it within the context of their expertise, experience and judgement. From a business viewpoint, all new knowledge comes from people. It is, however, possible to incorporate knowledge into artifacts, such as processes, structures and technology (Grover & Davenport, 2001).

Knowledge management allows an organization to record and share the knowledge of employees, with a view to learning from employee experience and breaking down barriers between organizations, their departments and their people. In many instances, it is based around saving money or making money, rather than just producing a business that "knows" itself better (Management Today, 1999). In the latter part of the 20th century, organizations began to pour resources into the use of knowledge management as a strategic capability (Lesser & Prusak, 2001) as they realize that competitiveness hinges on the effective management of intellectual resources (Grover & Davenport, 2001). Effective knowledge management helps to identify the processes that are core to the business and the important knowledge flows within and external to the business (Davis, 2001).

Typical knowledge management applications offer a repository containing a specific type of knowledge for a particular function or process, such as (Grover & Davenport):

  • Best practice knowledge within a business process or management function

  • Knowledge for sales purposes

  • Lessons learned in projects or in project development

  • Knowledge around the implementation of information systems

  • Competitive intelligence for strategy and planning functions

  • "Learning histories" or records of experience with a new corporate direction or approach

In more recent times, smaller budgets and reductions in staff have put knowledge assets within the organization as risk. This occurs through knowledgeable employees leaving (often through voluntary departure programs), the demise of critical social networks, diminution of trust and reduced time available for knowledge transfer (Lesser & Prusak, 2001).

In an attempt to reduce the adverse effects on organizational knowledge assets, many organizations attempt to slow down the number of layoffs or spread the burden across all employees in an attempt to maintain social networks. Other organizations combine the use of video interviews and hyperlinks to important documents and reports on departure or retirement, or pay bonuses to departing employees willing to share working knowledge with their replacements (Lesser & Prusak, 2001).

Many small businesses have adopted practices of knowledge management without even realizing it. By their very nature, employees within small businesses tend to be more multi-disciplinary in nature, often sharing work across business "boundaries" (management Today, 1999). However, like other businesses, small businesses face problems when experienced staff move on or retire (Davis, 2001). Modern IT can assist in the sharing and exploitation of information and experience through allowing communication between disparate groups, the use of collaborative tools (such as groupware) (Management Today, 1999) and the building of artifacts that replicate knowledge.

The view of the relationship between information management and knowledge management that informed the study is presented in Figure 1.

Spreadsheets, Knowledge Management and Small Business

Spreadsheets provide users with the capability to alter figures and to see the effects the alterations have on recommendations. Although spreadsheets have been associated with the concept of decision support for a number of decades (Stair & Reynolds, 1999), there are few documented examples of thier successful use in small businesses. Much of the limited research into small businesses has investigated the success factors for information technology, based upon the current use of IT/DSS, or the design and development of specific DSSs for SMEs. Little work has been done specifically to identify those areas that have not been adapted to DSS, but show potential for its introduction for the small business (Duan, Kinman & Xu, 2002).

Spreadsheets have been used as decision support tools in many different ways. For instance, one recent example describes the use of spreadsheets to allocate production resources and combine raw materials in an optimal mix in wood panel manufacturing (Buehlmann, Ragsdale & Gfeller, 2000).

A 2001 study of 133 manufacturing small businesses in the UK (Duan, Kinman, & Xu, 2002) revealed limited use of decision support systems. A lack of staff time to analyze needs and identify solutions was the primary reason given for the lack of use. Where used effectively, firms with a more "strategic" outlook implement them. They mainly take the form of previously developed packages, and most of them are targetted towards support routine decisions.

Because of these factors, there is an opportunity for effective decision support tools to make a real impact on small businesses (Duan, Kinman & Xu, 2002).

The uses of spreadsheets described so far have been limited to applications that are based around the storage of data to provide information for decision-making. The use of spreadsheets as "knowledge documents" has not been pursued in the literature, especially when the knowledge gained is imported into the business to cover a lack of resources within the business.

Annals of Cases on Information Technology
SQL Tips & Techniques (Miscellaneous)
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 367 © 2008-2017.
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