posted 22 Jul 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 10
Book review: Making a World of Difference
Lee A. Spain reviews Making a World of Difference: IT in a Global Context by Geoff Walsham.
TITLE: Making a World of Difference: IT in a Global Context
AUTHOR: Geoff Walsham
PUBLISHER: Wiley & Sons, 2001
In Making a World of Difference: IT in a Global Context, Cambridge University professor Geoff Walsham draws from social-science traditions to examine human aspects of worldwide development and adoption of information technology. He pulls from social-science case studies to show how technology fundamentally changes power structures, the way people work together and individual identity. The case studies also illustrate how multi-cultural IT efforts can fail when cultural sensibilities aren’t factored into planning.
The book starts with a theoretical overview of the role of IT and communications technology in society. Walsham surveys the research of sociologists Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, together with other academic writers who have examined the nature of modern society, globalisation and diversity, changing individual self-identity, and the role of the nation state.
With a theoretical basis established, the 252-page book shifts to more focused case examples. These interesting studies open a window into the social consequences of information and communications technology. Walsham examines individual-level changes in worker self-concept and sense of identity. He then looks at issues surrounding collaborative work through systems like Lotus notes and groupware. The professor then offers a critique of business-process-re-engineering projects and enterprise systems. He also addresses how electronic networks are supplementing and supplanting human social networks in some industries.
Walsham drives further into globalisation issues by looking at culture as part of the context of technology projects. His case studies effectively show that information-technology implementations must be compatible with local human culture. He also addresses the problems of collaborative work between project teams of different cultural backgrounds. One interesting study examines the clash of cultures that occurred when a Jamaican company brought in an Indian software firm to help its own programmers in a development project.
Finally, the author sets forth lessons learnt about designing technology for diversity, suggests potential themes for further social-science research and concludes with observations about how IT can be used with an appreciation of diversity to make a better, more connected world.
As an academic writer, Walsham brings a slight bias to his work that suggests that the insensitive enterprise, the greedy business world and an arrogant western culture are to blame for the failings of many technology projects throughout the world. For example, while Walsham criticises business-process re-engineering for its effects on human workers, the global economy demands that competitive enterprises adapt to a changing marketplace. Walsham’s perspective may yield tenure in academia, but to an IT professional tasked with achieving specified objectives within the context of a particular project, a social critique may seem irrelevant.
Nevertheless, there are many useful observations in this book. The case studies reveal how real people react to new technology. Walsham shows us politically astute salesmen communicating through a contact-management system in the hope of getting virtual ‘face time’ with upper management, while others ignore it in favour of concentrating on their customers to make sales and earn commissions. Another study tells of loan officers feeling reduced self-worth when a rules-based computer system takes the human judgement out of the loan-approval process. Another shows us workers in a society that traditionally doesn’t make much use of maps failing to embrace a sophisticated geographic information system. A knowledge-management professional will close this book with heightened awareness of cultural issues, but will not gain a suggested approach for dealing wit them. However, a technologist moving into leadership or an IT management student about to emerge into the ‘real’ world could find exposure to these case studies invaluable.
Making a World of Difference is primarily aimed at an academic audience. The book includes a useful 13-page bibliography. However, the knowledge-management community will be most interested in parts of the book that raise difficult cultural-change issues. IT leaders involved with designing and implementing systems on a global scale with a multi-cultural team or for use in less developed countries will also find this book thought provoking.
Early in the introductory portions of his text, Walsham points out that a business-oriented reader looking for practical guidance and a typical series of action items will be disappointed with his book. Making a World of Difference does not address the technical issues surrounding globalisation and localisation. Instead, Walsham offers a tome packed with academic references and observations on the social and psychological implications of technological change. But, like a good liberal arts education, reading this book is a journey that sometimes challenges conventional patterns of thought and may lead to increased understanding and occasional nuggets of indispensable wisdom. An academic audience seeking a rich source of inspiration for further studies will certainly find it within the pages of this book.
Lee A. Spain is a data architect at a leading, international financial-services firm. He can be contacted at email@example.com