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Title: The illusion of diffusion in information systems research
Author: McMaster, Tom
ISNI:       0000 0001 3625 828X
Awarding Body: University of Salford
Current Institution: University of Salford
Date of Award: 2007
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I have had an interest in "technology transfer" for many years, and have been researching and publishing work related to this domain for the last fifteen. At the present time these include approximately 46 refereed papers, 22 of which are book chapters or journal articles; the others are included in international conference proceedings - mainly those of the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP). IFIP is a worldwide organisation formed in 1960 following the first World Computer Congress in Paris in 1959, operating under the auspices of UNESCO 1 I have co-edited 2 books on technology transfer, one with the late Enid Mumford and others in 19972 , and the other more recently in the spring of 2007 3 In 1993 I was a founding member of IFIP Working Group 8.6 whose interests lie in the transfer and diffusion of information technology, and I am one of only two members of this group to have contributed to and attended every event that the group has been engaged in. In 2006 I was elected Secretary on the steering committee of the group. I am also a member of IFIP 8.2 - a related group concerned with the interaction of information technology and the organisation, and I am a founding member of the UKAIS (UK Academy of Information Systems), and the IRIS Association (Information Systems Research in Scandinavia). Additionally I am a member of the British Computer Society (BCS), and the BCS special interest group (SIG) on Information Systems Methodologies, for which I am also that group's current Secretary. My main research interest lies in theoretical accounts of technology transfer, the most dominant of these being diffusion theory (Rogers, 1962, 1995) or variants upon this (JAM for example), and my early papers are distinctly Rogerian in tone. However around 1993 I discovered Actor-Network Theory (ANT)4 , and I began to question the philosophical basis upon which diffusion theory rests. There are problems with diffusionist thinking that are never satisfactorily addressed (by diffusionists), such as for example 'pro-innovation bias' - that is the propensity to attribute blame to those who 'ought' to have adopted an innovation when they have not done so, describing this failure to adopt pejoratively using terms such as 'laggards' and 'resistors' etc. They never actually question the innovation itself, assuming this to be obvious, desirable, natural and inevitable. There are a number of other serious problems with diffusion theory, such as the extreme deterministic nature of the theory, so much indeed that its proponents are often tempted to believe they can predict implementation outcomes, sometimes astonishingly, using algebraic formulations to support their assertions, as if human beings were molecules of water in a beaker about to receive a few drops of dye in Brownian Motion experiment! A number of the contributions herein deal with these and (many) other problems with diffusion in some detail, but it is one thing to criticise diffusion, it is quite another to answer at least one inevitable and far more interesting question which I have been engaged with for the last 5 or 6 years, namely, if diffusion theory really is so obviously 'flawed', then how, or why has it come to be as dominant across the cultural institutions of the western world as it so clearly has?5 This submission addresses precisely this question through ten contributions that show the evolution of my own thinking on these and other matters, starting with a contribution that could easily be described as a classical 'diffusionist' paper. This presents a factor-based analysis - typical of diffusionist approaches - to describe the failure of a local authority to adopt a CASE tool for the development of software artefacts. It also presumes to 'predict' that if these factors had been better accounted for, then success rather than failure might instead have been the outcome. The final contribution answers (or at least goes some way toward answering) directly the question above. The results of the explorations chronicled in this final contribution are perhaps surprising and controversial. Put simply, diffusionism represents a mindset that has been derived from five hundred years of colonial exploitation by a few western European countries and is deeply embedded in the collective psyches of western Europeans. 6 Evidence can be found in the relationships between (for example) traditional IT specialists and users through the attitudes and arguments used between these respective groups. 7 These mirror precisely the same attitudes and arguments that were used to justify colonialist ambition and European expansionism in the past. The worldviews reflected in the first and last contributions described briefly above, represent extreme contrasts. The eight additional contributions between these, map the journey between them over a period of a decade-and-a-half. While the content of each paper has, by virtue of its publication, offered something of interest to someone, of no less interest is the journey itself from diffusion to a critique of diffusionism via emerging social theory that is embedded in this work, and reflected in the accompanying commentary.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available