Understanding IS development and acquisition: a process approach

McLeod, Laurie Carina
MacDonell, Stephen
Tan, Felix
Item type
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Auckland University of Technology
Computer-based information systems (IS) play an increasingly pervasive and important role in contemporary organisations. Despite decades of continuing research and the development of an extensive prescriptive literature, IS development projects continue to be problematic, with many failing or being seriously challenged. In addition, the IS development environment has changed significantly in recent years, with rapid advances or shifts in technology, increasing devolution of IS responsibility and expenditure to user groups, high levels of packaged software acquisition and customisation, greater outsourcing of IS development, and an increasing emphasis on enterprise-wide and inter-organisational IS. In many cases these changes are interrelated and involve more flexible, ad hoc or non-traditional development approaches. Combined with the fact that at the same time IS have become increasingly sophisticated and integrated, the potential for unpredictable or unintended consequences has also increased. Together, the continued problematic nature of many IS projects and the changing IS development environment, suggest that there is an ongoing need for a fuller understanding of IS development processes and practices. Given the limitations of factor-based, prescriptive studies, an understanding of how contemporary IS development is enacted needs to be grounded in and built upon the cumulative body of research that attempts to understand the complexity and dynamic nature of IS development. Accordingly, this study uses a conceptualisation of IS development as a process in which an IS emerges from a dynamic and interactive relationship between the technology, its social and organisational context, and the negotiated actions of various individuals and groups. The thesis presents the results of an extensive empirical investigation into contemporary ARE development practices based on data collected from New Zealand. The study uses a range of research methods and ultimately develops a sociotechnical process model of IS development as situated action. Following Walsham’s (1993) emphasis on the content, context and process of IS-related organisational change, the methods used in this study are three-fold. First, an extensive literature review is undertaken to provide a comprehensive synthesis of contemporary empirical knowledge about the content of IS development. Second, a survey is used to collect contextual data about IS development and acquisition practices in New Zealand. Finally, these both support an in-depth longitudinal case study of the IS development process in an organisational setting. The literature review synthesises the results of recent empirical studies of the various influences that shape IS development, using a classificatory framework based around actors, project content, IS development processes, and context. The review shows that, while a number of traditional factors influencing IS development continue to be relevant, other factors have emerged as important as a result of changes to the IS development environment and to IS development practice. In particular, increasing recognition within the IS literature has been given to the relative importance of people and process and of the organisational and environmental context in which IS development takes place. The results of the literature review inform the design of a survey instrument intended to provide an updated assessment of IS development and acquisition practices in New Zealand organisations. A Web-based survey was administered to a sample of senior IS managers in 460 public and private sector organisations with 200 or more FTEs. Based on the 106 usable responses, the results of the survey confirm the ongoing relevance of a number of traditional factors identified in the IS literature as facilitating or inhibiting IS development. However, a number of factors were identified as emerging or increasing in relevance in light of changes in the IS development environment. While the survey provides a useful description of contemporary IS development and acquisition practice in New Zealand, it does not enable a detailed understanding of IS development in action. To address this, an IS project in a large New Zealand organisation was followed in action for over two years. The project involved the development of a sophisticated financial database model using a purchased commercial software package and external consultants. As such, it provides a useful exemplar of development in a contemporary IS environment. The case study illustrates how a seemingly small, well-defined project experienced delays and difficulties as might be expected in larger, more complex projects. It offers insights into the significance of external actors, the importance of full stakeholder participation, the influence of initial characterisations of the nature of the project, and the observance of project management processes. Consideration of the project outcome reveals its multi-dimensional, subjective and temporal nature. A process approach (Markus & Robey, 1988) is employed to structure the analysis of the case study. A combination of temporal bracketing, narrative analysis and visual representation is used to analyse the sequence of social action and organisational processes involved in the project and to develop a process explanation of how and why the particular project outcome in this case study developed over time. Underpinning and informing this analysis is the construction and utilisation of a model of IS development as a situated, sociotechnical process. Drawing on theoretical concepts from structuration theory and the sociology of technology, the model considers the situated actions and practices of various individuals and groups involved in IS development, the ways in which these are enacted within different contextual elements, and the role of existing and new technological artefacts in this process. IS development is characterised as iterative and emergent, with change occurring dynamically from a trajectory of situated interactions (in which meanings and actions are negotiated) and intended and unintended consequences. As a whole, this PhD highlights the changing nature of the IS development environment and the way a complex ensemble of ‘factors’ interact to influence IS project outcomes. Common themes emerge around the importance of people and process, and the context in which IS development takes place, while at the same time explicitly including a consideration of technology in the analysis.
Qualitative data analysis , Process approach , Interpretive case study , Sociotechnical , Situated action , Project management
Publisher's version
Rights statement