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Improvement in productivity is due not only to technology, but also to how it's integrated into the organization.
Repeated economic crises and steadily increasing competition, brought about in particular by the globalization of markets, are forcing an unprecedented rationalization of resources. Improved productivity has thus become a concern of all organizations, both public and private. At the same time, technology is developing with blinding speed and is becoming the principal instrument for meeting this concern.(1) This explains why many municipalities are investing large amounts of money in implementing information systems. However, the advantages offered by technologies, especially in terms of enhancing productivity, depend upon how these technologies are integrated into an organization.
Many municipal officials realize that their systems departments do not have the necessary resources to meet the demands made on them. More and more time is required to complete projects and the work piles up. Moreover, these officials often find that technological, organizational and human resource development processes are not proceeding at the same pace within their organization, which makes them hesitant about adding new systems.(2) Is the penetration of technologies really helping to improve the performance of municipalities? To answer this question, the extent to which information systems are incorporated into the culture and operations of municipal governments must be examined.
The concrete action system model developed by Gagnon and Landry and refined by Dragon outlines a strategy for investigating technological changes that affect unionized work places.(3) As the authors note, "This road map, here called the concrete action system, tries to identify and characterize the principal actors involved in the activity of implementing systems, and then to establish the relationships among these actors."(4)
The concept of a concrete action system is based on the fact that an organization is a social system whose dynamics are grounded in the behaviour of groups of actors who develop particular strategies in a set of relationships that are subject to the constraints of the environment.(5) Organizations contain individuals and groups who differ in their training and functions and have objectives that do not always coincide. Obviously, relationships differ according to context and are not spelled out in a formal structure such as an organization chart.
In such a context, systems development "provides the opportunity and the place for potential conflicts between interests, aspirations and values that involve something other than just technology."(6) Figure 1 illustrates the concrete action system, showing the principal actors and how they relate to each other when organizational information systems are adopted (i.e., the acquisition, successful implementation and use of a technology by an organization).(7)
* The users/decision makers are senior managers who partially or completely control resources and influence the development of information systems.
* The users/managers are those who, on behalf of the users/decision makers, supervise the implementation and operation of systems in collaboration with the designers. It is at their level that the collective agreement is negotiated and interpreted, particularly with respect to the clauses concerning technological change.
* The users/managers/designers run the systems department and are often the architects of the organization's information technology policies, which are ratified by the users/decision makers. The users/managers/designers are responsible for the design and technical management of information systems.
* The designers are the experts who design systems in collaboration with the users/managers and clients. They are, if not the only ones responsible for making systems operational, at least in charge of the work.
* The users/operators produce inputs or receive raw outputs from the systems, which are thought out in terms of the clients. They are indispensable for the day-to-day operation of the systems, but do not have any direct power to change them.
* The local union is located at the interface between the users/operators and the users/managers. The aim of the local union is to defend the immediate interests of its members, the users/operators.
* The central labour organization is responsible for the overall long-term strategy, which provides a framework for and supports the actions of the local union.
* The clients (users/decision makers, users/managers, etc.) are those whom the systems help directly in the performance of their duties.
To study a contemporary pragmatic phenomenon, it is essential to be familiar with the experience of the actors and the context in which that experience takes place. We have selected the case of an anonymous City administration.(8)
We first analyzed many internal documents of this municipal government. These documents describe the City, the history of its administrative development and its strategic plan, technology strategy, systems department and the information systems it has adopted. Then, using a semi-structured scheme, we carried out exhaustive interviews with a random sample of 20 permanent employees who had at least five years of experience with the municipality and had taken part in implementing information systems. Each category of actor was represented in the sample (two users/decision makers, three users/managers, three users/managers/designers, two designers, two clients, six users/operators and two officials of the local union). The respondents worked at seven different hierarchical levels in seven different municipal departments (administration, finance, human resources, systems, municipal court, engineering and fire prevention). Apart from the designers, none of the respondents had taken courses in information technology as part of his or her basic training; however, some had taken professional development courses within the organization or, in certain cases, outside it.
The City and its technological development
The city whose government we selected had approximately 70,000 inhabitants and was typical, with residential, industrial and commercial functions. Its administrative structure comprised an executive level and twelve departments, which were grouped into three different modules: quality of the environment (industrial and business development, technical planning, engineering and environment); quality of life (recreation and community development, communications, public works and fire prevention); and administration (finance, systems, human resources and purchasing). For 1995, the City's total budget was $150 million, of which 24.7 percent was used to pay salaries and 0.19 percent ($305,600) to acquire information technologies. The budget of the systems department was $1.5 million.
The systems department was the administrative unit responsible for systematizing and computerizing activities for all the municipal departments. In concrete terms, this department developed budgets and investment strategies concerning information technologies for all of the City's administrative units. It also administered the organization's data and was responsible for the development of information systems. Finally, it ensured that users had the required information technology tools, that they knew how to use them properly and that the systems met their needs. All activities of the systems department had to meet the following objectives: improvement of the quality and efficiency of the services provided internally and externally; increased productivity; reduction of operating costs; and enhancement of the quality of information.
The City's technological development started with the …