The case study that we described follows the work of the project team led by Johan van Breeveldt whose task it was to provide TopTech with the ammunition needed to decide what to do with the Comate information system. The team's work, and therefore also the focus of the case study, concerns the connection of the first and a possible second life cycle of that information system. We have described an individual life cycle as consisting of the stages of diagnosis, design, implementation, and evaluation. The focus of the case study is on the evaluation stage of the first cycle, which we staged in such a way that it could be connected to the diagnostic and redesign stages of the second life cycle without a reconceptualization of the issues at stake. As we have described in our account of the project team's work, TopTech has also gained insight into some elements of the initial stages of the second life cycle. No full account of the start of a second life cycle for Comate can be given as yet. The elements presented appear as isolated pieces of a puzzle that has yet to be laid down. The key problem the organization currently faces is to decide whether or not extending the life of Comate is a good idea. Responsible for making this decision is Hans Broekmans, the head of Central CMI. While the initiation of Comate's first life cycle took place almost completely on his desk, in the current state of affairs it is no longer conceivable that Hans Broekmans alone will be able to make the decision. Several other stakeholders will want to have their fingers in the pie. Among those stakeholders are the managers of the CMI departments of the business groups and the regional CMI departments. They enter the decision-making stage as representatives of TopTech's internal BI network. Also, the external parties that play a role in TopTech's intelligence network are players interested in steering the decision in the direction that suits their interests, including the much criticized external research bureau that produces most of the externally commissioned reports or "books." Because of the perceived failure of the initial version of Comate and the criticisms it generated concerning the overall operation of Central CMI, the project has also attracted the attention of the board of directors. The board's critically inquisitive interest puts an additional pressure on Hans Broekmans to do things right this time, or at least better than the first time.
From the work of the project team, it has become clear that four areas are crucially important when dealing with the interests of the stakeholders: issues of leadership style, knowledge-sharing and cross-cultural issues, usefulness and ease-of-use-issues, and organizational change and system introduction issues. We will discuss these four areas subsequently.
Comate had been conceived and introduced into the organization via a top-down approach. The initial reason for starting the Comate Project was the observation that procedures concerning the dispatch of information requests that Central CMI received could be improved, as we described earlier in this case study. It must be remembered that the justification for introducing Comate was primarily based on considerations as to the good of Central CMI. In these considerations, the good of the customers of Central CMI, i.e., BI staff in regional and local CMI departments, entered as a derivative from Central CMI's interests. Take, for instance, this characteristic statement by Hans Broekmans: "Our clients are the ones that will benefit most from smoother operations at CMI Central." The top-down nature of the introduction of Comate reflects the way Hans Broekmans conceives his responsibilities. He is a very energetic, talkative, and amiable man, but also a person who strongly believes that things will not be done right unless a strong leader sets the course and lays down a plan for others to follow. He is not the type of person who would postpone his decisions until he has consulted all interested parties or until some form of agreement or compromise has been reached. He is also characterized by the fact that he always works with his door closed. People who want to see him cannot just walk into his office; they have to make an appointment beforehand. While by and large being a sociable person, he is also known for his sudden outbursts of anger. People recognize him as champion for defending the interests of Central CMI outside the office, but at the same time he is not seen as someone who will join others putting their shoulders to the wheel when some unexpected problem occurs within the office. He will rather set a deadline for his staff to meet in fixing the problem.
While this conception of how leadership should be executed does not appear inappropriate for running Central CMI, it is bound to lead to clashes with the type of leadership and management that BI specialists in other departments expect or need. Most of these people are highly trained knowledge workers, who claim sufficient autonomy and intellectual freedom to decide for themselves what defines the quality of their work within their local circumstances. They expect Central CMI to play a facilitating role, not a strictly directing role, although they will accept that headquarters— and Central CMI as its mouthpiece—sketches the outline that defines the boundaries of their freedom. They resist others making their decisions for them. Most of these BI professionals are highly intrinsically motivated. Lifetime employment is no exception at TopTech, although regional variations exists. For instance, in Latin America, where TopTech is recognized by the public as the "number one" brand in its field and working for the company ensures high status, employees often have family-type ties with the company. In Europe and Northern America, the emotional character of the ties is different, and the average duration of the engagement with TopTech is shorter. In these two continents too, a substantial proportion of TopTech's workforce appears "married to the company" (as evidenced for instance by the fact that outsiders see TopTech as a typical example of a company characterized by the "Not-Invented-Here" syndrome, which indicates the existence of a sense of superiority). This implies that they will not consider looking for jobs elsewhere if not forced to do so. In the current situation, there is reason to ask whether the type of leadership shown on the Comate Project is the type of leadership needed to make the system a success.
The much criticized response button connected to documents available through Comate, that was introduced for the purpose of stimulating communication between producers and users of these documents, indicates the aspiration of the designers of the system that Comate would become a meeting place for its users. Perhaps inspired by the popularity of knowledge-management approaches, the idea was that Comate could be a useful instrument for stimulating and facilitating knowledge sharing among BI professionals worldwide. However, in their initial development activities, Hans Broekmans and the technical developers of the system had simply introduced these functionalities into the system without any explicit consideration of how and why BI people do or do not share knowledge. The investigation of the project team led by Johan van Breeveldt did not delve into these issues in a systematic fashion either. While the prevailing opinion of the interviewees was that the current functionalities of Comate would sooner frustrate knowledge sharing than bring it about, with a clear undertone that they resisted sharing knowledge through Comate-like technology altogether, it would be too rash to jump to the conclusion that the Comate system could play no role at all in stimulating knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer. In a business realm where knowledge creation is core business, there is no lack of awareness that knowledge sharing can make the difference between successful and ineffective intelligence development. Social networking typically drives BI work. A better BI professional distinguishes him/herself from a good BI professional by the quality of his or her social network. Knowing who knows what is key business in competitive intelligence work. The attitude towards knowledge sharing among BI professionals is therefore invariably positive, and people are always interested in learning about new tools that truly enhance knowledge transfer and knowledge sharing. This also explains the strong aversion to the types of functions that were offered through Comate, because, as we saw, these were seen as frustrating rather than enhancing knowledge sharing. In a world where knowledge sharing lies so close to the heart, anything that erects barriers will be hissed down.
What makes studying knowledge-sharing practices and barriers particularly complex in the situation of TopTech with its offices in many countries is the fact that multiple cultures exist within the firm that all influence the attitude towards knowledge sharing in different ways. TopTech has clear regulations as to how specific knowledge-sharing flows should be generated. Headquarters sends out instructions, deadlines, information about targets, etc. The local offices send back their reports on a regular basis following strict formats. These flows relate almost exclusively to management information. No clear and unambiguous overall policy exists as to sharing knowledge by BI professionals at an operational level. No formal structures for knowledge sharing exist to give these people a hold. It should be recognized that coming up with such structures would be problematic because knowledge-sharing practices are very different in BI offices in different locations and cultures. The social networks that define the operation of the BI function and constitute the main backbone of knowledge-sharing flows operate very differently in different cultures, and do not connect easily to each other. For instance, in cultures with a high-power distance, as present in several South American, Asian, and South European countries, the social networks typically have a strong vertical axis, connecting individuals mutually through their supervisors. Direct horizontal linkages are usually stronger in cultures with a low-power distance, such as most West European and North American countries. TopTech does not allocate time and resources to activities aimed at transferring existing knowledge to other parts of the organization where that knowledge may be useful. In summary, connections between the various BI offices follow a clearly defined path with strict regulations and are limited to the targets, goals, and outcomes of BI, and not to the operational process of BI collection. The language of these communications is English. Mutually, BI offices have no systematic contacts, for instance, between business groups' "audio" in two different countries if these countries are in a different region, or between business groups' "audio" and "video" within the same country.
Because of this lack of connection between social networks, chances are small that someone faced with a specific problem will find another person who has experience with related problems if this person does not belong to his or her social network. Within BI circles at TopTech, there is a broad recognition of the surplus value of enhanced knowledge sharing and transfer. Defining programs to further these processes seems like maneuvering in a maze of mazes; it presumes an understanding of the different ways knowledge sharing develops within different cultural settings, as well as being able to deal with the challenges of cross-cultural knowledge sharing between offices in different locations. How ICT, in general, and a specific system like Comate, can play a role in this maze of mazes is not well understood, but it is clearly too soon to conclude that Comate has no possible role to play in this arena. The inquiry by Johan van Breeveldt has only scratched the surface of the issues involved, but it has had the effect of moving concerns of knowledge sharing higher on the agenda.
The first two areas of challenges and problems—leadership style and knowledge sharing—involve elements of the organizational context influencing the success and failure of Comate. Characteristics of the system itself also play a part here. In its current form, the intended users do not consider the current system very usable. Some quotes may serve to illustrate this: "If they [i.e., Central CMI] want their pet to be a success, they had better come and take a closer look at how we do our work, and, perhaps more importantly, how we do not like to do our work." "I do not believe that the builders of Comate have much in common with my colleagues and myself. These people do not have the least clue of how our day-to-day routines run. They think more in terms of procedures and instructions, than in terms of what is needed to get the job done. Their conceptual point of departure is the technology—all the good it brings and how fancy it may look—and not our daily-life worries of picking up the right signals from customers and competitors." These comments along with others indicate that Comate does not connect to how BI professionals go about their daily routines and, as a consequence, it is not considered useful. Along with the criticisms of awkward and user-unfriendly elements in its user interface, the overall verdict can only be that Comate is currently not a usable system, which explains much of its adoption failure. Looking into issues of usability is clearly an important area of concern at the hinge point of the first and second life cycle of Comate. Deciding whether or not to continue the Comate Project depends on the question of whether its functionalities can be redesigned in such a way as to make the system usable. The investigation of Johan van Breeveldt and his team has only begun to unravel the intricacies involved here. Their study appears more as an evaluation of the current system than as a systematic and complete needs assessment.
Comate has not landed in TopTech. The first version was not introduced as a pilot version, but it does not appear as the launch of a full-blown information system either. Fences have been placed around its introduction, and its promotion did not receive the attention it deserved. The question remains as to who should have been convinced that using Comate would be a good idea. Were these the local and regional BI managers, the analysts who were designated as intermediate users, the intended end-users, or the producers of reports? What appears indubitable is that attempts should have been made to convince people of the system's boons. Also unanswered is the question of whether addressing issues as to the most effective introduction procedures should not have been taken up much earlier, by involving managers and possible users in conceiving and testing prototype versions. Establishing that things went wrong in the first round is no guarantee that things will run smoothly in a second round. But some progress has been made; it did result in an increased awareness that Comate's PR needs to be developed, as indicated by the calls for promotional campaigns, extended help facilities within and outside the system, and training and discussion meetings. But such initiatives alone will not save the day for Comate. The situation is complicated by the fact that, because of the way Comate was introduced, people cannot look at the system without looking at Central CMI too. It is hard to identify which part of the criticism of Comate is disguised criticism of Central CMI. In addition to the discussion on a possible reintroduction of Comate, a discussion seems necessary as to the overall operation of the BI function in TopTech, with its division of tasks over several offices and many channels whose cooperation is, at times, far from ideal.
Currently, TopTech is considering what line of action appears most appropriate. The options from which the company – and in particular Hans Broekmans– has to choose are those that we described in the introduction: Should they continue or discontinue the Comate project? In case of continuation, which alterations should they make to the functionalities of the system? Which implementation and organizational change procedures should they consider? Questions implied are those involved in deciding which criteria to take into account when weighing these alternatives, establishing how these criteria can be met, and deciding which path to follow as to dealing with the combination of these criteria. If there is one thing in particular the investigation by Johan van Breeveldt and his team produced, it is that answering these questions is a formidable task. Looking at Comate alone will not suffice. The operation of the BI function at large is at stake, as indicated by the critical comments of the interviewees. If future versions of Comate will only serve to confirm and re-establish the role of Central CMI in the operation of TopTech's BI function, any attempt to revitalize Comate will be futile. The four classes of issues described before define the areas for special attention. The tasks involved concern dealing with both the questions implied in each individual class and with their integration. For instance, considering issues of usability is directly related to the choice of strategy as to the cross-cultural knowledge-sharing issues and vice versa. Each of these tasks presents TopTech with just as many dilemmas. The ultimate dilemma is to decide whether or not to continue with Comate by integrating solutions and answers to the broad spectrum of problems and questions involved in these four areas and their integration.
As to Hans Broekmans himself, he is not fully convinced that commissioning the investigation was the best idea he ever had. He now questions whether he should have instructed Johan van Breeveldt to stick to the more traditional issue of software design, rather than allowing him to fan out to all sorts of organizational issues. He wonders if perhaps the inquiries have stirred more unrest than would be good for him, for his department, and indeed for the survival of the Comate system. One thing is clear to him: while decisions concerning the continuation of Comate may formally still be his department, the number of prying eyes is such that he feels a great distance between the formal and the actual situation. And he is not sure whether or not he really likes this idea. He feels as though he has lost custody of one of his beloved offspring.