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Understanding ICT4D Adoption via Institutional Dualism

28 February 2011 12 comments

Sometimes with ICT4D projects, you build it and they don’t come.  Why is that?  Why do potential users resist, object, reject?

One explanation comes from the concept of “institutional dualism”.

First developed to explain how Japan reacted to the import of Western ideas and technologies in the 19th century, this can also be used to understand any innovation – including ICT4D initiatives – in which there is some separation between designers and intended adopters.

Each of those two groups sits within its own institutional network: a complex of institutional elements (e.g. norms, rules, beliefs, values) and organisations and actions.  Left to its own devices, any institutional network will tend to “self-reproduce”.  For example, its cultural values will encourage particular actions, and those actions will in turn reinforce the network’s cultural values.

But innovations like an ICT4D application will bring two different institutional networks – those of the application designers, and those of the application adopters – into contact.  We can call this institutional dualism because of the two institutional networks that come into play (see figure).

A strong example of institutional dualism would occur if a team from a European university designed an ICT4D application and then introduced it into a rural location in Africa.  The European designers’ behaviour is enabled by a set of Western organisations and shaped by a set of Western institutional forces, some of which will be inscribed into the ICT4D application.  During implementation this network is drawn into contact with the very different network of rural Africa, with different organisational structures, behaviours, and institutional forces.

Many ICT4D projects will be a bit less starkly drawn than this, but will still involve institutional dualism because designers and adopters almost always come from different places and different spaces.

What then happens?  There are four possible outcomes from a situation of institutional dualism:

  • Domination: one of the institutional networks prevails over the other in the ICT4D project.  If the designers dominate, the project could fail due to its mismatch to the broader local context.  If the adopters prevail, that requires a complete re-design of the project to have occurred.
  • Contest: neither of the institutional networks prevails, but there is ongoing competition between them.  The ICT4D project may stagger on, but always in difficulty as it is pulled in two different directions.
  • Parallel-Running: a separation is arranged with some aspects of the project guided by the designers’ institutional network, some by the adopters’.  This is only possible where the ICT4D project has a broad flexibility and scope.
  • Hybridisation: the ICT4D project becomes the site within which the two institutional networks blend, forming a mixture of institutional values and hence a set of hybrid actions within the organisational structure of the project itself.

Of these four, only hybridisation and some types of domination are likely to lead to a sustainable ICT4D project.  We have seen this in practice with a large-scale ICT4D case study of institutional dualism from the Brazilian public sector.  Although giving some outward signs of hybridisation, beneath the surface this remained a story of ongoing contest and parallel-running even some years after its first implementation.  It was still contingent, and it demonstrates the great difficulty ICT4D projects have in institutionalising themselves when operating in environments of strong institutional dualism.

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