a little bit of introduction

As this is a new where I blog, it seems to be appropriate to write a little bit of introduction about me and what I do. I often characterize my work as an intersection among information technology, innovation and design. Recently, I am dealing with the duality of design in products/services and organization itself.

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you busy making plans.” That might be the best description of how I have come to my current research topic. Soon after I started my PhD program at the University, I became interested in the potential role of information technology in organizational learning and innovation. Back then, however, it was a topic that I would never be able to get my arms around. So, I focused on collaborative technology, which seemed to be a more manageable topic. Through my dissertation work, I became aware of the work by Giddens. His theory of structuration of social structures made me aware of the importance of history and the human agency. In his theory, he explains on how any social change can take place in the presence of powerful social structures that reproduces itself through human actions in our everyday life. It is the human agency, that is, the willingness to do otherwise, that is fundamental to any social change. Design is an explicit form of such human agency whose sole purpose is to do otherwise. That is the first connection to my current work.

During my PhD program, I also worked very closely with Maryam Alavi to study the impact of collaborative technologies on learning. Back then, we did not even have the term, e-learning. It was a fun time. We were determined to do ‘otherwise’. We built new software, designed new classroom, and experimented with all sorts of crazy ideas. Doug Vogel, who was at the University of Arizona, was our collaborator. We connected two classrooms with one pair of ISDN lines and two dial-up modems. (One day when the video connection went bad, Doug would call us from his cell phone, while driving through the DC downtown.) We were naive and curious. But, we were all designers at heart. Students embraced the project with equal excitement. During many inevitable technical breakdowns, they gracious took it as novel learning opportunity for technology innovations. For the project, I reconnected myself to the learning literature.

Soon after I got my first job at Case Western Reserve University, I began new projects. First, I continued on e-learning projects. Case was an ideal place to experiment with new technologies as it truly was an entrepreneurial place. Together with my doctoral students, I continued to pursue my interests on the role of social structures on change and learning in those projects. It was then when I began noticing the tight connection between technological innovations and organizational innovations (structural and cultural). In the case of e-learning, the powerful new tools that allow radically horizontal and multiple communications does not simply fit in the old pedagogical model where one teacher speaks to many students. Second, I began studying knowledge management practices in companies. During these projects, I became aware of the work by Edwin Hutchinson. His work powerfully illustrates how knowledge is distributed among people and artifacts. It is the connections among them (in the form of network) that makes up the knowledge in organizations. Later, I was introduced to the work by Bruno Latour whose Actor Network Theory provides explicit language for this illusive idea. Combined with Giddens’ structuration theory, the idea of heterogeneous socio-technical network gives me a powerful theoretical lens to think about social structures. Around 2000, I began collaborating with Kalle Lyytinen on ubiquitous information environments. Applying the heterogeneous socio-technical network, we began conceptualizing the problems of ubiquitous information environments as a design problem — both for technological and organizational sense. Digital convergence fundamentally disrupts the conventional boundaries across industries. While this may lead to new innovation opportunities, organization’s ability to leverage such opportunities seem to be constrained by their own identity and knowledge resources. Mobility also affect organizational structure. As people and things can move around, organizations can now re-design both their organizational and physical structures, which also lead to identity and cultural issues. All of these issues point to the need a new language.

In year 2002, I began collaborating with Dick Boland and Kalle Lyytinen on an NSF-funded project to study the use of 3D representation tools by Frank O. Gehry in his design practice. In the project, we used the idea of heterogeneous socio-technical network to explain how Frank Gehry challenges and transforms the conventional practices in architecture, construction and engineering industry. It is what we called design attitude that propelled him and his team to continue to explore ways in which to create something extraordinarily powerful. Yet, at the same time, we saw a clear example where his design does not only simply focus on buildings that he builds, but also his own firm and his own design practice. What he builds is reflected in who he becomes. It is this powerful image of reflective duality of design that seems to be at the core of his design genius. Innovation and design were distributed and emergent through seemingly unpredictable patterns of connections among heterogeneous actors and artifacts. We also noticed the role of 3D representational tool as an infrastructure that create “trading zone” where actors from different trade can come and exchange ideas and create new one. About the same time, I studied the implementation of enterprise resource systems at NASA and the diffusion of 3G in different countries (with Kalle Lyytinen). There again, I saw the importance of infrastructure as an important part of the heterogeneous socio-technical network. These observations led to the current NSF-funded project in which we are exploring the role of information infrastructure in the emergence of distributed innovations.

I also began meeting with people in the design practices — IDEO, Samsung, IBM, and Design Continuum. I became deeply interested in their human-centric approach to design. It was from them, I learned the importance of verb (over noun), background context (over foreground) and multiple meanings of products and services. These powerful ideas gave me conceptual tools to think about innovations in the context of digital convergence and mobility. These ideas led me to think about the importance of place and experiences. I was led to John Dewey’s Art as Experience as I was looking for more theoretical grounding. His work illuminates the centrality of interactions in time and space as we struggle to understand experience.

So, here it is — a brief introduction of my intellectual pilgrimage. As you can see, I was all over the place. Yet, I found myself keep coming back to the same few ideas: heterogeneity, multiplicity, socio-technical network, agency and design. So, these will be the themes that cut across many of the postings on this blog.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

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