Posts Tagged ‘Institutional Logics’

Open vs. Closed Institutional Logics in Open Development Projects

“Open development” is a concept with some momentum in the ICT4D field, encouraged particularly by support from IDRC[1].  A core challenge has been theorisation of open development, and here I briefly propose and test the idea that institutional logics can offer such a foundation.

As noted in an earlier blog entry, “institutional logics are broad social forces with both material and symbolic elements that shape the way we think and act.  Religion, family, state, and market are typical logics but running through digital development is a conflict between two other logics:

  • Open logic: a cooperative logic that values openly-accessible inputs, participative and collaborative processes, and shared distribution of benefits.
  • Closed logic: a competitive or controlling logic that values restriction of inputs, processes and benefits to particular individuals or groups.”

We can understand these ideas better by applying them to a real open development ICT4D case; selecting here the iDART system – open source software developed in South Africa by Cell-Life to help pharmacists dispense anti-retroviral drugs to those with HIV/AIDS.  The case has been written up by Melissa Loudon and Ulrike Rivett[2], and is here reinterpreted through a logics lens.

Cell-Life originated as an inter-university collaboration in Cape Town and, as such, has been heavily influenced by the institutional logics that operate within academic organisations.  Universities can be understood as sites of conflict between open and closed institutional logics; with the latter traditionally dominant but the former finding voice.

Examples of the constitution of the two institutional logics and their material (resources, processes, structures) and symbolic (culture) elements are shown in the table below, drawn from the case study[3].

  Open Logic Closed Logic
Resources Open source technologies


Freely-accessible data and content

Proprietary technologies


Restricted data and content

Processes Inclusive production of knowledge and technology


Student-centred learning

Exclusive production of knowledge and technology


Didactic teaching

Structures Unbounded peer-to-peer, multi-disciplinary networks Mono-disciplinary silos
Culture Universities seen as learning and action research environments


Academics seen as facilitators

Universities seen as ivory tower storehouses of knowledge


Academics seen as experts


With Cell-Life an enclave of open logic within a wider context of closed logic, conflict between the two logics was inevitable.  Examples include:

  • System development processes: system developers with a background of closed processes encountered with some difficulty very different open logic imperatives within the project.
  • Intellectual property rights: the university’s approach to software – proprietary IP that would be commercialised to the benefit of the university – conflicted with the open source approach underpinning Cell-Life’s work.
  • Software market: direct rivalry occurred between open-source iDART software and competing proprietary pharmacy management software.

There were also conflicts over the closed focus on disciplinary silos vs. the open logic of multi-disciplinary action research.

When organisational logics conflict, there are a number of potential outcomes including “decoupling”, “compromise”, and “selective coupling”[4].  In this case, two main outcomes were seen:

  1. Compromise: a hybrid approach that combines aspects of both open and closed logics. System development processes were neither completely open nor closed, but a mix of the two.  Users were involved through feedback on prototypes but the Cell-Life team retained control over the development process, often acting as proxies for users and acting as overall custodians of the system.  Some but not all user revision requests were incorporated.
  2. Protected Niche: Cell-Life created a protected niche of open logic, with barriers created against closed logic. After five years within the university system, Cell-Life was spun-off as a non-profit entity, thus increasing the structural barriers and distance to the dominant closed logic of the university system.  The software itself was developed to focus particularly on low-resource, rural pharmacies; a market niche not targeted by closed-logic-based commercial vendors.

What can we conclude?

First, that the idea of open vs. closed institutional logics is applicable to open development projects.  Institutional logics offers a new language; a new way to describe and explain what has happened on the project.  From this brief analysis, it’s not clear what new insights it provides beyond this; but that may be the nature of this post-hoc, external reinterpretation.  There is certainly a case for pre-hoc application of institutional logics – definitely, to analyse open development; likely, to analyse ICT4D more broadly – to help describe the outcome of conflicting logics; to explain when one logic dominates another; to understand how to deal with conflicting logics in practice; and to identify the role of open development/ICT4D champions as institutional entrepreneurs.

Second, and assuming we could generalise the idea of conflict between open and closed logics, this suggests that achieving true “open development” may be very difficult: there will always be pressure to hybridise.  But not only might fully-open development be unfeasible, it might also be undesirable.  Indeed, both extremes might be undesirable: closed development because it leads to inequality and exclusion, open development because it leads to disincentives to action and potentially-ineffective or chaotic outcomes[5].

One can see the latter in the case study, which restricts the openness of processes not only because of the pressures of closed logic, but also for reasons of project effectiveness and efficiency.  The evidence base here is just preliminary, but could suggest – assuming most development systems lean further to the closed than open end of the spectrum – that the objective should be “more-open development” rather than “fully-open development”.

[1] Reilly, K.M.A. & McMahon, R. (2015) Quality of Openness, IDRC, Ottawa

[2] Loudon, M. & Rivett, U. (2013) Enacting openness in ICT4D research, in: Open Development, M.L. Smith & K.M.A. Reilly (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 53-77; an earlier version available as: Loudon, M. & Rivett, U. (2011) Enacting openness in ICT4D research, Information Technologies & International Development, 7(1), 33-46; some details from Rivett, U. & Tapson, J. (2009) The Cell-Life Project: converging technologies in the context of HIV/AIDS, Gateways, 2, 82-97

[3] See also Lounsbury, M. & Pollack, S. (2001) Institutionalizing civic engagement: shifting logics and the cultural repackaging of service-learning in US higher education, Organization, 8(2), 319-339

[4] See Nicholson, B., Malik, F., Morgan, S. & Heeks, R. (2015) Exploring hybrids of commercial and welfare logics in impact sourcing, , in: Openness in ICT4D, P. Nielsen (ed.), Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, Norway, 78-91; which draws on Pache, A.-C. & Santos, F. (2013) Inside the hybrid organization: selective coupling as a response to competing institutional logics, Academy of Management Journal, 56(4), 972-1001

[5] See, e.g., Heeks, R. (2015) The curse of hyper-transparency, ICT4DBlog, 27 Feb; and Dahlander, L. & Gann, D.M. (2010) How open is innovation?Research policy, 39(6), 699-709

Understanding WDR2016 as a Conflict of Closed vs Open Institutional Logics

11 February 2016 3 comments

How can we explain the negative consequences associated with ICTs: the digital deficit and digital ills identified in the 2016 World Development Report?

As summarised earlier, the Report itself blames the digital deficit – inequity in the distribution of ICT benefits to a few “haves” rather than the many “have nots” – on two divides: a digital divide of very uneven access to the digital infrastructure; and a social divide of inadequate policies, skills, and (public sector) institutions.  And it ranges a little wider in identifying authoritarian states, vested interests, and monopolies as the source of some negative ICT-related impacts.

The Report therefore starts to manoeuvre around two classic ICT4D shortcomings[1]:

  • The teleological error: the association of ICTs solely with their intended purposes; assuming that policy needs only focus on removing barriers to diffusion and adoption to deliver development.
  • The structural error: the association of ICTs solely with “imminent development” (incremental, short-term, development driven by individual agency), ignoring the association of ICTs with “immanent development” (the development that emerges from the deep structures of society).

But we can push further than the Report does to look at those deep structures, using the ideas of institutional logics.  Institutional logics are broad social forces with both material and symbolic elements that shape the way we think and act.  Religion, family, state, and market are typical logics but running through digital development is a conflict between two other logics:

  • Open logic: a cooperative logic that values openly-accessible inputs, participative and collaborative processes, and shared distribution of benefits.
  • Closed logic: a competitive or controlling logic that values restriction of inputs, processes and benefits to particular individuals or groups.

At least in the economic and political spheres, closed logic is the dominant global force but challenged sporadically by open logic[2].  On that basis, we can see three patterns reflected in the Report:

  • Reinforcement: cases in which the dominant closed logic is reproduced, or extended, or augmented through use of ICTs. Examples abound: electronic surveillance of citizens by autocratic regimes; the lack of impact of e-procurement systems on bribe-paying and bid participation rates; capture of e-participation systems by political elites; and development of digital monopolies.
  • Insurgence: cases in which the subordinate open logic is strengthened through use of ICTs. For instance, crowdsourcing to report and reduce electoral violence and fraud, creation of open learning systems, or crowdfunding platforms.  But these are fewer and weaker than the reinforcement examples.  So there is a sense of marginality: incremental gains that do not disturb the underlying closed logic – sometimes perhaps deliberate “openwash” that coats closed logic with an open veneer.
  • Metamorphosis: cases in which ICTs initially support open logic which is then translated into closed logic. A number of the Report’s sharing economy examples have followed this trajectory; for example, mutating from non-profit to for-profit.

The Sustainable Development Goals are clear that development to date has been too incremental, and needs to be transformational.  If we take that seriously, then ICT4D must attend to its teleological and structural errors; in particular, asking how ICTs can accompany or even facilitate structural transformation.

This does not mean spurning closed logic and supporting only open logic – competition, control and cooperation are all fundamental human impulses, and none of them alone can deliver development.  But ICTs cannot help deliver the SDGs’ radical agenda if they simply help closed logic grow at the expense of open logic.

This means more ICT4D research on the role of digital technology vis-a-vis the immanent development that emerges from society’s deep structures, and more ICT4D practice that recognises and engages with those structures.

[1] Adapted from Murphy, J.T. & Carmody, P. (2015) Africa’s Information Revolution, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, UK.

[2] See, e.g., Fuchs, C. (2008) Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age, Routledge, New York.

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