Understanding ICT4D Adoption via Institutional Dualism

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.


12 thoughts on “Understanding ICT4D Adoption via Institutional Dualism

  1. This is a very interesting article. Having lived in a developing country, I can easily relate to the dualism you talk of here. In deed such projects are sometimes seen as threats. Its almost like the case of the human body rejecting new implants which are supposed to help it. Many ICT4D projects as you point out come from ‘foreign lands’ and when they are to be introduced, the people or the institutions feel this sense of being overthrown.
    I think hybridisation is definitely what we want to be achieving with ICT4D projects and this can become more frequent if the local (adopter’s) institution is integrated into the designer’s institution right from the onset of the project. Just as in the field of HCI, you really want to be designing with the user’s input or else you might end up with a product nobody wants to use!

  2. Hi.
    I worked for Japanese ICT assisting foundation for nearly ten years (www.cicc.or.jp) and now working at a University.
    The problem you have raised is which we also concerned. However, I felt we alsomust consider following three points.
    And if I read your article wrong, please feel free to correct:)

    1.internationalization and localization
    2. need of IT coordinator between the adopter and the designer
    3. need of considertion for limit of time length

    First, when introducing the ICT4D application, you must consider about data- interoperability. Without this, the application will cause more digital divide to the country.
    ( I am not saying that you do not need consider about institutional elements (e.g. norms, rules, beliefs, values), you must think separately for internationalization and localization. Otherwise, there is no compatibility between the application and others. We saw generous people giving ICT4D project to developping countries without compatibility:-()

    Secondly, this is the cause which also happens within the same norms, rules, beliefs, values. For example, if a organization ask a IT company to introduce a new application, and some separation between designers and intended adopters easily occurs. In order to prevent this, I think we need a IT coordinator. ( a person to advice the intended adopter and the designers( who knows the work flow of the organization) and writing requirements documents and specifications.
    For ICT4D project, maybe project officer or manager will be at this position….

    Lastly, we must consider about the time length of the project. Since ICT is the technology which changes very fast, so once your ICT4D was appropriate that time, but after several years, it easily get legacy technology. And since ICT4D projects have limits of project time, after it is finished, then there is no maintainance after the introduction of application, so it is easily to get becomes fail.

    It was very interesting to read your article.

  3. Thanks. I found this article inspiring. Will just draw a couple of ideas that came to my mind when reading it. Institutional dualism helps understanding the gap (together with its consequences) that sometimes exist between the context in which a technological solution is identified and design and the context of a certain population with specific needs to be solved. The example of a Western university and a rural location in Africa may look quite extreme, but unfortunately is more than real in many development interventions.

    From my experience working with local public institutions in Latin America, these cases where ICT4D projects are guided by foreing research or practicioner organizations not only threaten sustainability but also help perpetuate old domination roles in North-South cooperation. I would say the kind of hybridisation or domination that could lead to sustainable ICT4D projects might be better achieved in at least two steps. Firstly, Western designers working together with a local twin institution (e.g. university vs.university) in problem-solution identification and application-infrastructure design. Secondly, local institutions furthering contextualised hybrid actions together with local beneficiaries. Local institutions in Latin America are already strongly influenced by Western ideology (e.g. about research or governance) and organizational concepts. Therefore, they can better withstand frictions caused by hybridisation with European institutions and with local rural organizational styles.

    Having local institutions being part of problem identification and solution design, would improve knowledge transfer in ICT4D projects. In deed, I would say a good long-term objective is to have local research institutions using the best of Western knowledge and the best of their own inherited knowledge and be able to create local solutions or maybe just to say: we need this… can you help us implementing it? Furthermore, such joint work could also improve the quality and appropriateness of ICT4D designs made by both Western organizations, and reduce institutional dualism in the future.

    1. Interesting – and what this shows is that an implicit model that informed the work on institutional dualism is actually somewhat visible. This is the “design–reality gap” model which measures exactly the gap you identify – see e.g. http://www.egov4dev.org/success/techniques/idfailure_drg.shtml – and which I have also now recalled advocates exactly the type of hybrid idea you’ve spelled out (http://www.egov4dev.org/success/techniques/drg.shtml)

  4. Interesting article. Is it possible that institutional dualism could be more dynamic and involve more parties than just the designer and the adopter? (i.e., the government sponsor, the ngo sponsor, etc.)

    1. Yes, definitely: the two dualistic networks can involve various organisations, and so in cases where there is a sponsor external to the adopting organisation into which the innovation is being introduced, that sponsor might well be part of the designer’s institutinoal network. Probably the most obvious cases are those involving international donors/agencies introducing reforms into developing countries.

      The question of dynamism could be seen as somewhat separate, but certainly both networks are dynamic; particularly so when they come into contact via the introduction of the innovation.

  5. For those interested in institutionali dualism, a new paper is available online that looks at the impact of institutional dualiam on women working in Sri Lanka’s IT sector. It identifies the tensions between a rhetoric based on equality, diversity, professionalism and opportunity on one hand, and the constraints of a traditional patriarchal social context on the other. It’s paper no.49 at: http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/idpm/research/publications/wp/di/

  6. It seems here that many people believe the ‘problem’ is that people do not know what is best for them. or that institutional mechanisms are not facilitative, or that the solution is solely a technical one. This is rather patronizing. However, i suggest that the real issue is that ICT4d projects are often not participative, in allowing users’ views and articulated needs to be incorporated in design and deployment, and that the social environment in which these projects are to be embedded are not comprehensively surveyed. Technologies are embedded in social constructs and environments, and thus these factors have to be considered and collaborative arrangements made with local communities to enable successful design and implementation.

    1. So the question is – since we’ve known for at least 30 years that user/beneficiary participation is a critical success factor in IS projects – then why does it so rarely occur? Is it lack of awareness from parvenus into the ICT field? Is it politico-cultural factors? Is it a rational reaction in knowledge of the “tyranny of participation” evidence? Is it growing time pressures?

  7. I don’t think the answer is straightforward. I tend to believe that the issues are part practical, part political. Oftentimes, techies are convinced that there technical solutions are all that are need, not cognisant of the socio-cultural dynamics of the environment in which they wish to deploy their projects. In addition, it depends on their theory of change and mission: is it transformative or profit-making? And if they intend for or to be transformative is that tied up in conflicting agendas?

    I recently had the pleasure of engaging with a corp manager at Solar Aid. They believe that their solar devices will “transform” Africa. A very paternalistic view indeed. This is where the politics intervenes. The power dynamics usually resides with project leaders, who carry unbridled influence and they exert this influence in subtle, and sometimes deliberate ways. Communities are often viewed as “consumers” and are often complicit. I’m not being deterministic here but power plays off in different ways, both within the country itself and between the actors and the communities. .

    Gillian Marcelle has written a very interesting contribution on the practice and policy dimensions of innovation in the global South, soon to be published in a Handbook on Innovation in developing countries. She argues that innovation projects that even have a participatory aspect often end in the design stage, and transformation of the community where they are implemented is not the end goal in mind.

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