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  • Proceedings of the 28th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences - 1995

    Fostering Organizational Learning with Embedded Application Systems: The XTEND2 Prototype

    Department of Computer Science and Information Systems University of Turku, DataCity, FIN-20520 Turku, Finland

    Abstract In this paper it is argued that agents must understand their work as a whole, including computerized tasks, if they are to employ information systems for fostering organizational learning. The Embeaded Systems Approach is proposed for redesigning the structure and the components of software systems so that it is easier for agents to develop such an understanding. In the approach the applications are embedded in extended support systems that make the organization of work and the coordinating role of information systems explicit as well as support agents in handling unexpected breakdowns. The resulting systems are called Embedded Application Systems. The XTENDZ prototype is &scribed to illustrate the approach and to inspire commercial implementations.

    1. Introduction

    Much attention in information systems research has been paid to developing systems on the one hand for enhancing managerial decision making and learning (e.g., group and executive support systems) and on the other hand for automating and coordinating routine work on the shop floor (e.g., workflow systems). For example, in a recent study on information systems research thematics, Swanson and Ramiller [38] found that researchers have focused extensively on computer supported cooperative work as well as managerial decision making, and established strong links between these two areas. While this research continues to be relevant, it undermines the need for new knowledge with regard to the development of systems that tap the resources and capabilities of all organizational members. Even Senge [36], while using the phrase organizational learning, focuses on managerial learning and the use of computer-based information systems (CBIS) in fostering managerial learning.

    It is argued in this paper that information systems research must focus on enabling organizational learning, not only the learning and decision making of the middle managers and executives. Because the agents on the lower echelons primarily employ transaction processing and other production systems, researchers need to produce new knowledge for redesigning these systems so that they would serve as flexible working and learning environments for facilitating individual and organizational

    learning instead of merely automating routine work. Redesigning presupposes changes in the technical and

    conceptual structure of information systems. Ratbswohl [34, p. 4361 asks: In what ways does the current structure of information technologies facilitate our ability to learn - to acquire more useful images of the world, to ask better questions, and to develop a more enlightened basis for practical action. Our ex riences in the Knowledge and Work (K & W) project r- as well as the experiences of Zuboff [40], Orlikowski [31], [32] and many others indicate that too often the structures of CBllS provide poor support for learning. This is largely because they do not allow the human agents using them to see the constructed nature of CBIS 1321. For example, most transaction processing and workflow systems do not explicate (1) the work context and (2) their coordinating role in this context thereby making the computer-mediated communication and coordination invisible [7], [31].

    In our earlier research we have employed structuration theory [ 111 to understand how organizations learn [17] and the Human-scaled Information System (HIS) perspective [30] to search for answers to the redesign issue [8]. Drawing upon this theoretical background and our experiences in the XTEND project2 we propose the Embedded Systems Approach (ESA) as a way of redesigning information systems so that they foster organizational coordination and learning as well as the handling of unexpected breakdown situations. By applying this approach the organizations are able to develop Embedded Application Systems [9] that change the conceptual structure as well as the components of software systems so that they provide agents with such knowledge that the agents are able to see the constructed nature of CBIS and thereby monitor all aspects of their work, including the way information systems and institutional structures are combined within their work context, and how this combination by providing resources and rules simultaneously enables and conditions their actions [24],

    1 The Knowledge and Work project (1985-1989) at the University of Turku was led by Professor Markku I. Nurminen and was mainly financed by the Academy of Finland. 2 The XTEND project (1988-1990) at the University of Turku was led by Professor Markku I. Nurminen, and was mainly financed by the Finnish Work Environment Fund.

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    Proceedings of the 28th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS '95) 1060-3425/95 $10.00 1995 IEEE

  • Proceedings of the 28th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences - 1995

    [32]. This knowledge is a prerequisite to employing CBIS for fostering organizstionsr learning; without it the agents are not able to be in control of and responsible for their work as a whole, including the computer-mediated parts of WQrk WI, [a.

    The rest of the paper is structured as follows. In Section 2 the Embedded Systems Approach (ESA) is presented. In Section 3 the XTEND2 prototype is described to illustrate the approach and to inspire commercial implementations. In Section 4 the conclusions are stated and issues for future research are discussed.

    2. The Embedded Systems Approach to Redesigning Imdornwrtion Systems

    In Section 2.1 we present some knowledge requirements for the effective employment of the CBIS. In Section 2.2 we review the lessons learned in the XTBND project where CBIS prot@ypes trying to meet these knowledge requirements were developed. Drawing upon these lessons as well as the conceptual model presented by Eriksson and Nurminen [9] we propose in Section 2.3 the Embedded Systems Approach for dasigning Embedded Application Systems [9] that provide agents with knowledge about the organization of work, task coordination and the coordinating mle of information systems. Organizational and software process models constructed with the help of Role Interaction Nets [35] are proposed as the structural basis of Embedded Application Systems in Section 2.4.

    2.1. Knowledge requirements in computer-mediated work environments

    The need for fast organizational learning combined with the need to employ CBIS for fostering learning pose new requirements on agents competence [19]. What kind of knowledge is needed to fulfil these requirements? Anderson and Sharrock [l, p. 158-1591 give a partial answer by stating: Social life could not begin if, first, we had to align bodies of knowledge, frames of reference, meaning structures. Rather what is presumed is procedural knowledge - how to fisd things out in this setting, for these purposes etc. What social competence consists in is the knowledge of how to ask questions, pick up, locate, see at a glance, and all the normally thoughtless liooking and seeing that we all do day in and day OUL

    Unfortunately agents often lack parts of this knowledge in compu&r-mediited work environments [3], [7], [40]. They do not understand (1) the nature of the social practices as a whole and how these practices are articulated in time and space by the structural properties of organizations, (2) their own role in the organization, and (3) the role of information systems in mediating communication, collaboration, and control in the articulation processes. One major reason for this is that most information systems have a technical and conceptual structure that (1) separates symbolic information from the material and social systems the symbols represent, (2) hides the processing rules and retention structures into the

    software and database schemas respectively, and (3) blurs the role of human agents as the producers and consumers of information [41, [301, [32].

    This lack of a deep understanding of the computer- mediated work has several implications on information systems development and use. The agents face considerable difficulties in monitoring their actions, since they are not fully able to interpret and validate the meaning of information produced by the systems, and they cannot see and experience the outcomes of their computer- mediated actions [40, pp. 79-961. Even if the agents were able to produce varied interpretations of computerized data, they could not question the basis on which the data has been constructed I221. Managing exceptional or new situations is difficult in this situation; [71. The agents may not be able to take the responsibility for their work as a whole, including computerized tasks, because their abilities to control all aspects of work are limited. Their actions are also more likely to result in unintended outcomes such as coordination bmakdowns, and their capabilities of intervening in the existing social practices are endangered 1143.

    The conceptual structure of software systems must be fundamentally redesigned if the agents are to enact collec- tive meanings for the information produced and cotnmuni- cation mediated by the systems [20] as well as develop such procedural knowledge that they can monitor and consequently be responsible for their computer-mediated actions. First the systems have to enable the agents to develop shared stocks of knowledge concerning the planning, coordination and articulation of work processes [71, 1361, 1401. Secondly they must blp the agents to understand the internal structure of software, if the agents are to operate skillfully through the information system and to use the system as a source of learning and feedback [40, p. 731. Finally, the systems must also be tailorable so that they facilitate the improvement of work practices.

    2.2. The road towards the Embedded Systems Approach

    In the XTEND project the author played a key role in designing and implementing a prototype with an extended support system that aimed at reinforcing organizational learning by providing agents with shared stocks of knowledge concerning their work context as well as the internal structure of the applications [$I. Unfortunately the system did not fully meet our expectations, because we did not adequately question the feasibility of the commonly accepted components of software systems and their relations. The components are (1) applications performing the production function; (2) support systems assisting agents in understanding the function of the applications; and (3) human-computer interfaces 1231.

    The extended support system had a three-layered structure: (1) an organizational model that visualized the organization and coordination of work and allowed the users to navigate in the task lattice of the organization [IO]; (2) a menu structure allowing the users to perform

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    the specitic computerized sub-tasks of each work task in the task lattice in a simulation mode, view the databases, etc.; and (3) the application implementing the computerized sub-tasks in the simulation mode. This structure was similar to the structure of traditional support systems except for one crucial difference. If the agent did not want to experiment with other agents tasks in the other work units, she could experiment with the application that was a copy of the one from which she had started the support system. However, this time the application was embedded in the support system and enhanced with some added features specific to the support system.

    While the structure seemed reasonable at first and sufficiently in line with the traditional approaches of developing support systems but yet crucially different, a number of difficulties soon emerged. We ended up having two slightly different versions of the application system: one from which the support system was invoked and the other embedded in the support system itself. As a result, maintaining the software proved troublesome. Moreover, the prototype became complex to use, since the users bad to become proficient in navigating between the two systems as well as within the support system as a whole.

    Clearly the structure included one application system too many. The solution iu line with the traditional wisdom would have been to eliminate the one embedded in the support system. However, Eriksson and Nurminen 191 proposed a radically different conceptual solution which, when applied in practice, would result in the removal of the application from which the support system was invoked, and thus only the application embedded in the support system would remain. They called such applications Embedded Application Systems. Next we take a closer view on what such a system could look like conceptually by drawing upon our experiences as well as the solution presented by Eriksson and Nurminen [9].

    2.3. The Embedded Systems Approach for redesign According to the Embedded Application System

    concept the applications are embedded into and enacted from an organizational model. This model serves as the building block of an extended support system that has four central characteristics. (1) It eliminates the boundaries between work and information systems by viewing applications as structural resources and rules that the agents draw upon in their knowledgeable (interractions. (2) It facilitates learning before doing by making explicit who is responsible for and who is dependent on which work processes (including their computer-mediated parts), and what are the cause-effect relations between various process fragments. This is realized by modeling and visualizing the various units of the organization, the different roles of agents, the tasks and sub-tasks (including the computerized ones) belonging to these roles, the documents produced and used in these tasks, and the databases [8]. Such knowledge is the basis for reconstructing the missing link between CBIS and work systems [7], [93, [30]. (3) It allows the agents to execute

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    computerized tasks (i.e. algorithms) step by step and check the results from the databases employed by the algorithms. Each execution step fulfils the basic requirement of an algorithm: it is always so elementary that it can be performed by a human using just pen aud paper, or by a machine [6, p. 71. This is especially helpful in breakdown situations that cannot be prescribed in advance. Iu these situations the agents need to zoom in the details of their work to determine what is wrong and to resolve...

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