Information and Communication Technology Policy Research in the United Kingdom: A Perspective

Robin Mansell (University of Sussex)

Abstract: Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are altering the ways in which time and distance affect productive activities. Such innovative activity is affected by historical factors, the capacity of individuals and institutions to adapt and act, and by decisions of technology producers, users, and government policy-makers. This paper highlights the directions and perspectives in social science research in the United Kingdom that have emerged in the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) established by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Résumé: Les technologies d'information et de communication sont en train de changer les effets du temps et de la distance sur le travail. De tels changements dépendent en outre des conditions historiques, de la capacité d'individus et d'institutions de s'adapter et d'agir, et des décisions prises par les producteurs de technologies, les usagers et les créateurs de politiques gouvernementales. Cet article met en relief les orientations et les perspectives dominantes en sciences humaines au Royaume-Uni qui ont émergées au "Programme sur les technologies d'information et de communications" (Programme on Information and Communication Technologies [PICT]) établi par le "Conseil de recherches économiques et sociales" (Economic and Social Research Council).

Introduction

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are systemic technologies in the sense that, as they diffuse into all branches of the economy, they radically alter the ways in which time and distance affect productive activities. Such innovative activity is both constrained by historical factors and stimulated by the capacity of individuals and institutions to adapt and to act upon the environment to change it. It is widely acknowledged that decisions by technology producers and users as well as government policy-makers vitally influence how ICTs are developed and used. Yet a still significant component of the social science literature concerned with the implications of technological innovation in the ICT field is articulated in terms of the technological imperative of the "communication revolution."

Many observers continue to suggest that advanced ICTs are themselves transforming the way information is created, processed, stored, transmitted, and used by public and private institutions and by individuals in their everyday lives. Major transformations in the structure of the computing and software, telecommunication and broadcasting, and information services industries are often attributed, for example, to the exigencies of digitalization. The predominant orientation of much research, at least in the ICT policy field, retains its emphasis on the need to adjust socio-economic, political, and cultural systems of organization to the exigencies of advances in technology. Thus, for example, traditional relationships between users and producers and between markets and their governance systems are said to be being disturbed by the diffusion of ICTs within the workplace and the home.

Invariably, it is suggested that communication in electronic space requires new attitudes, skills, strategies, and government policies. Such perceptions are indeed grounded in perceptions of processes of technical change and innovation, and they find legitimacy in the understandings of the relationships between technical change and social systems that are pervasive in many circles. It is of course the case that participation within the electronic communication environment of the late twentieth century is being accompanied by adaptations to the new technical environment in many aspects of socio-economic and cultural activity.

I intend to suggest, however, that a space can be created for the development of alternative understandings of these developments in a way that seeks to explicate the processes, tensions, and contradictions at work as electronic communication networks and information services extend their reach into the workplace and the home. More often than not, the notion that technical change is socially constructed and constituted within an interactive and complex matrix of social, economic, and political relations fades away with increasing pressures in the social science community to enhance the responsiveness of research outputs to the concerns--generally of a short-term variety--of the industrial and policy communities.

This paper does not address the question of why an essentially linear "technology push" perspective continues to mark much research on the determinants of change in the ICT field. The aim of this paper is simply to highlight some of the directions and perspectives in social science research in the United Kingdom that have emerged within the framework of a long-term program directed to the investigation of the social and economic implications of ICTs.

The Programme on Information and Communication Technologies

The Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) was established in 1986 by the Economic and Social Research Council in an environment that was seeing considerable investment in leading-edge research and development in the ICT field in an attempt to stimulate the innovativeness and competitiveness of firms based in the United Kingdom. This was also a period during which an influential Cabinet Office Information Technology Advisory Panel report had called for increased attention to the possibilities of "making a business of information" (Cabinet Office, 1983). Much attention was focusing on the licensing of new cable television franchisees. Inward investment from the U.S. was expected to create high-capacity networks and new interactive services for consumers. Businesses were to thrive as advanced telecommunication technologies proliferated in the wake of liberalization, competition, and the diversity of service choice that would come to characterize the U.K.'s telecommunication market.

In 1984 the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) agreed to fund a major program of research that would be established "with the aim of developing a network of UK researchers in the social science aspects of information and communication technology, a network within which there would be some centres provided with substantial funding" (Economic and Social Research Council, 1984, Appendix A, p. 7). At this time it was observed that:

most research into information technology is funded by SERC [Science and Engineering Research Council] rather than ESRC. The Alvey Directorate ... is to spend £350 million on research and development but is concentrating almost entirely on the natural sciences and engineering. Although the sponsors must take account of what is happening in the marketplace, there is unfortunately a dearth of academic work in economics and related fields which would provide a context for decision making. Moreover, there is an important role for the social sciences in studying the human factors in the new technologies. This is not to challenge the importance in making progress in technologies as such...but to argue the need to put them in context. (Economic and Social Research Council, 1984, Appendix A, pp. 2-3, emphasis added)

Although research on the social and economic aspects of ICT would account for only a small proportion of expenditure on R & D in the field, the social changes associated with the development and diffusion of these technologies were recognized as being as important as technical innovations. The objective of the program, when it was established in late 1986, emphasized the importance not only of the cluster of technologies that comprise advanced ICTs but also of the role of information and communication in public and private institutions. The objective was to: "examine the multi-faceted role of information and communication in the UK economy and its relation to the global economy, with particular reference to the implications of information and communication technologies for economic development and for changes in public and private institutions" (Melody, 1986, pp. 3-4).

As the research program has unfolded, debate over the primacy that should be accorded to information and communication as compared to the ICTs themselves has continued. Some claim that research associated with the program has continued to be predominantly technologically biased. However, arguably the program has enabled an important observation to come more prominently into the foreground among communities of developers and users of technology, industrial strategists, public policy-makers, and the academic community. This is that the production and use of ICTs and information are inseparable from the dynamic processes of developing shared understandings and interpretations of the world. This is a world in which the changing dimensions of time and space are transforming the ways in which people act and in which "the basic domain of study of the social sciences...is neither the experience of the individual actor, nor the existence of any form of social totality, but social practices ordered across space and time" (Giddens, 1984, p. 2).

The program provided the essential financial support for a relatively large number of social science researchers to strengthen their claim to a space that would encourage research on the complex processes in the laboratory, the company, the economy, and the household that are giving rise to the so-called communication revolution. This program has by no means escaped pressures to undertake research which gives primacy to the impact of ICTs. Nevertheless, it has been possible to extend and deepen theoretical and conceptual work that is framed, not in terms of simple cause and effect relationships between technology and social, political, economic, and cultural outcomes but rather by approaches that raise policy questions about routines and their destabilization--and how these create understandings about the interdependence of technical and institutional change. These understandings are at once social, political, cultural, and economic.

Research Themes and Issues

It is possible to highlight only some of the work that has been undertaken over the past several years. The organization of the following review of substantive research areas runs the risk of creating the appearance either of fragmentation or of greater theoretical coherency than more detailed examination would reveal. Nevertheless, it is offered as a way of providing a thematically based framework which moves from micro- to macro-institutional perspectives and as a means of surveying the range of research that has been undertaken. The selection among the large number of themes that have been explored within PICT is also undoubtedly considerably influenced by my interest in the relationships between electronic networking, instability in governance systems, and the policy formation process. The reader is encouraged to pursue the broader range of themes via the references provided.

A ICTs and the Individual: The Human Interface

Analysis in this area tends to focus on the individual. Research focuses on the implications of advanced ICTs for the individual's interaction with technologies in a variety of settings and circumstances. The primary concerns are: (i) to achieve more effective use and productivity gains; (ii) to provide human-machine interface environments that do not require substantial training; and (iii) to promote the evolution of advanced commmunication systems in parallel with socio-economic and demographic changes. Individual rights to privacy and control over personal information are included in this area.

B ICTs and the Organizational Interface

The analytical emphasis here is on the public- or private-sector organization. Research focuses principally upon the systemic implications of the application of new ICTs for organizational restructuring. Studies include the reorganization and redistribution of productive functions; alterations in organizational decision-making processes; changes in production processes; changes in intra- and inter-organizational information and communication flows; and restructuring to achieve new configurations of size and scale. Research on intra- and inter-firm networking and management information systems focuses on the ways firms both shape, and adapt to, new ICT-based applications, e.g., Electronic Data Interchange, online databases, or electronic publishing.

C ICTs and Structural Change: The Institutional Interface

Here, research tends to be concerned with broader institutional issues such as the interface between market and administrative (public) institutions. For example, it might focus on the analysis of the interdependence of industry sectors and government agencies. The implications of ICTs for public-sector activities including education; social service delivery; administrative mechanisms for resource allocation; the geographical and distributional implications of ICTs; and the role of institutions in national and international contexts are considered together with structural changes in regional and international markets. The allocation of public and private resources to R & D in microelectronics, information systems, and advanced communication networks is also considered.

D Information, Communication, and the Policy Interface

Research within this general theme is explicitly concerned with policy and tends to seek to integrate analysis of the social and economic implications of ICTs for the individual, the public organization or private firm, and across industry sectors and governance institutions. It also focuses on the changing character and significance of information in society. For example, research often focuses on the way information that has been generated, processed, transmitted and stored using advanced ICTs is employed across a broad spectrum of public and private, commercial and non-commercial, and military activities.

Table 1 highlights the areas of research that are being supported by the Economic and Social Research Council's PICT and other sources of funding in the United Kingdom. It provides a general impression of the degree to which the research areas overlap with the the four themes described above.

Table 1 Overlapping ICT Research Issues
ICT ICT ICT and Information and
and the and the structural communication
Research areas individual organization changes policy
Networks, indus-
trial restructuring,
and policy -- XX Y Y
Organization
strategy XX XX Y Y
ICTs and spatial
development Y XX XX Y
Telecommuting XX XX Y Y
Software develop-
ment and infor-
mation systems XX XX Y Y
Standards -- XX Y Y
Electronic
trading -- XX Y Y
Research
collaboration XX XX Y Y
Public service
concept Y XX Y Y
ICTs, institutional
change, and
public policy Y XX Y Y
Note:
XX denotes areas in which considerable research from a variety of social science, applied science, and business management perspectives is underway. Y denotes areas that are under-researched. A dash (--) indicates not applicable.

The following provides a brief synopsis of the research areas listed in the left-hand column to give the reader a flavour of the range of work that is underway.

Networks, Industrial Restructuring, and Policy.

The following are often the focus of research in this area: the economic and social consequences of the uneven development and diffusion of advanced ICTs; the capacity of social and economic institutions to design and adapt ICTs to maximize social, cultural, and economic advantage; the implications of changing relationships between telecommunication technologies, supplier and user strategies, regulatory institutions, and markets; the policies of government agencies that affect the operation of communication networks; the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunication technologies; and the social and economic implications of new infrastructures and associated services. Also of interest are international telecommunication networks and services and the globalization process; new information products; and the performance of telecommunication, computer, and information service supplying firms and their perception of user requirements (Garnham & Locksley, 1991; Littler & Leverick, 1992; Locksley, 1990; Mansell, 1991, 1992, 1993; Thomas & Miles, 1989).

Information Technology and Organizational Strategy.

This area includes the role of intermediaries (e.g., management consultants) in the development of ICTs and information systems in organizations; the determinants of ICT strategies in public organizations; ICT strategies and systems development in relation to business and corporate strategies focusing on inter-organizational relationships with subsidiaries, suppliers, distributors, and customers; strategic management of technological change in large firms; the role of ICTs in the reorganization of R & D in multinational firms; comparative analysis of technology management practices in firms; and analysis of how the strategic management of the design-client relationship affects competitiveness (Bloomfield & Coombs, 1992; Coombs et al., 1992; Webster, 1990, 1993).

ICTs and Spatial Development (Regions, Cities).

The following have a high profile in this research area: the opportunities for new area economic development policies in a global networked economy; the social and economic significance of global-local phenomena; local policy responses to ICT development through creation of "local media districts" and teleports; the relationship between the role of external information flows within the innovation process, the competitiveness of firms, and economic development processes; the relationships between organizational innovations based on the use of ICTs and institutional innovations that link organizations and territories; the implications of regulatory change in the communication industries, corporate restructuring, and the supply of communication services; conflicts and complementarities between rules for enhancing corporate competitiveness within the Single European Market and the objectives aimed at reducing regional disparities (Amin & Goddard, 1986; Gillespie & Robins, 1989; Goddard, 1990; Hepworth, 1989; and Robins & Gillespie, 1992).

Telecommuting and ICTs in the Home.

The organizational implications of telecommuting; the factors within the household that affect the successful development of telecommuting; the economic, social, and cultural implications of telecommuting; and the factors that affect the incorporation of new ICTs into the home through the process of domestication (Haddon & Silverstone, 1993; Silverstone, 1991; Silverstone & Hirsch, 1992).

Software Development and Information Systems.

Major areas of investigation in this area include: the analysis of organizational, management, and non-technical factors influencing the use of software engineering tools and methods; the importance of organizational issues in addressing software development problems; formal and craft-based methods in software development; comparison of software development processes in different countries; the social and cultural factors that affect the development and implementation of computerized information systems; the development of computing systems with respect to work organization, labour practices, and design techniques; and the development of safety critical computer systems (Bloomfield, 1992; Littler & Wilson, 1991; Quintas, 1991a, 1991b, and in press).

Standards and ICTs.

Prominent in this area are: changes in the process of standards-setting and the implications for policy, particularly for industrial support policies; innovative approaches to standardization processes and their implications for the evolution of ICT-based systems; the relationship between electronic trading, trade efficiency and standards; the emergence of informal (de facto) industry standards in the software market; and appropriate levels of expenditure on the development of compatibility standards for ICTs (Cave & Shurmer, 1991; Hawkins, 1992; and Mansell & Hawkins, 1992).

Electronic Trading Networks.

Under investigation in this field are: patterns in the development and use of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) services and the geographical spread of EDI and related services; trade equity and efficiency, and the implementation of EDI and related services; the implications of legal and regulatory barriers; sectoral and cross-country comparisons; the failure of private- and public-policy institutions to develop regulatory competence; and the factors that create tendencies toward open or closed networks (Mansell & Jenkins, 1992a).

Research Collaboration and ICT Firms.

Of research interest in this area: the role of co-operation and competition in ICT-related research and development, and the factors contributing to successful research collaboration and differences in national systems of innovation (Fransman, 1990; Massey et al., 1992).

Concepts of Public Service and Consumer Views.

The following are being investigated in this area: public or universal service concepts under alternative telecommunication supply arrangements; the implications for democracy; and the emergence of new broadcasting and telecommunication organizations and markets in Eastern and Central Europe (Garnham & Mansell, 1991; Porter, 1991; Scannel, 1992).

ICTs, Institutional Change, and Policy.

Of considerable interest here are: the role of socio-technical constituencies in the innovation process, including the role of negotiation and conflict resolution; and the innovation and design of technological systems within the economic, organizational, cultural, and policy context (Mackenzie, 1990; Molina, 1989; Swann, 1992).

Table 1 suggests that greater attention has been given to research at the individual (Theme A) and at the organizational level of analysis (Theme B). ICTs and Structural Change (Theme C) and Information and Communication Policy (Theme D) have been receiving somewhat less attention. Trends in the development of ICTs and information services and related structural changes (Theme C) often tend to be considered in industry marketing studies and research on strategic alliances. Much of this work takes little account of the characteristics of the policy environment or the ways in which the private and public sectors engage in decision-making.

Research under Theme C tends to ask questions about the development and implementation of information systems and the communication infrastructure, the promotion of technical innovation, the stimulation of widespread access to ICTs and public and private information services, and the protection of commercially, strategically, or individually sensitive types of information. Questions of how public authorities and the private sector should interact in an attempt to understand the implications of ICTs and to influence the policy-making agenda (Theme D) are of substantial long-term importance. Changes in the structure and organization of bilateral and multilateral institutions have a bearing on the development and use of ICTs, and there is a growing need to examine how these systems of governance are adjusting to, and shaping, an environment in which ICTs increase the speed of information flows, alter the contours of markets, and change the meaning of geography and culture for businesses and consumers.

Premises and Perspectives

Much of the research described above, though by no means all, is characterized by a critique of conventional and widely articulated perceptions of the impact of ICTs on the socio-economic fabric of the late twentieth century. Theoretical perspectives and conceptual frameworks are devised to assist in problemetizing the notion of "impact" in ways that reveal how electronic modes of information processing and communication are mediating various aspects of social, political, cultural, and economic life.

The research activity within (and beyond) PICT has tended to provide the space for a critique of mainstream perspectives that have focused attention upon the impact of the production and use of advanced ICTs and electronic information and communication services on individuals, organizations, and markets (Melody & Mansell, 1983). Such research is visible in the social science literature and in the rhetoric of much industrial strategy and government policy. For example, British Telecom's (1982) observation that "digital communication and the microchip would shape tomorrow's world" is as unexceptional in its attribution of impacts to technology as is the Information Technology Advisory Panel's (Cabinet Office 1983) claim that the technological changes that underlie IT would result in the creation of a new economic sector.

Even now, the rhetoric remains unchanged. Thus, for example, software packages are offered as the solution to inefficient business practices; high-performance computing systems are expected to solve problems of managing and interpreting information; and intelligent digital telecommunication networks are to improve the quality of decision-making within organizations and bring people together in electronic space.

The mainstream social science community has echoed and reinforced the legitimacy of this impact-oriented perspective and it continues to flourish. Scholarly journals in virtually every discipline--from sociology to political science, and from economics to geography--contain illustrations of research on the impact of ICTs on every aspect of life. As the academic literature proliferates in an ever-increasing number of hard-copy and electronic journals, much of it perpetuates a mystified and mystifying notion of technology as a cure for the world's very real problems (Smythe & van Dinh, 1983, p. 120). But the rapid innovation and diffusion of advanced ICTs most evidently has not solved the world's problems. Investment in research and development in advanced ICTs by the private and public sectors, the implementation of advanced information systems in businesses, the use of ICTs in the home, and the introduction of high-capacity telematics networks that span the globe, have not, in themselves, resolved problems that arise in the family, in the workplace, or in local, national, regional, and international economies.

For proponents of mainstream research traditions in the ICT field, more research funding targeted at detailed analysis within the same framework should yield better results, which will help to resolve this apparent paradox. A more sustained effort to investigate the impact of advanced ICTs--including faster processors, higher capacity communication networks, more user-friendly human-machine interfaces, etc.--should yield insights that enable society to adjust to the characteristics of advanced technical systems. More funding of research on the impact of ICTs is expected to expose the reasons for the failure of the positive developments foreseen in variations of the Information Society thesis to materialize.

This mainstream research agenda has singularly failed to comprehend and unravel the relationship between technological and socio-economic change. To a considerable degree, the research sponsored by PICT is informed by a different set of perceptions as to the priority questions for analysis. Much of the research tends to address questions concerning how people act and communicate, why they act, and what the implications of their actions are for the development, diffusion, and use of ICTs within a variety of cultural, social, political, and economic settings. The focus on people, agency, and processes of decision-making is arguably essential to the elucidation of what the mainstream literature encapsulates in the term "impact."

In addition, the focus on both structure and agency questions is applicable when individuals act alone, and when they act in small groups or in institutions such as firms, international organizations or the market. Research neither ignores technical artefacts nor denies the importance of policies. Many of the researchers have also tended to recognize that these questions are not the special preserve of any single discipline such as sociology or psychology. It is perfectly possible to adopt this theoretical stance within the disciplinary boundaries of political science, geography, or economics. There is a growing realization that, as Bloomfield et al. (in press) have suggested, although technologically deterministic perspectives may be becoming less visible in some research circles, social determinism is no less subject to simplistic causal explanations.

The versions of determinism on offer are either a technological determinism in which organizations are seen as adaptations to the unfolding logic of technologies; or a social determinism in which technologies are seen as products or reflections of particular constellations of social and organisational forces.... There can be nothing that is "purely technical," or for that matter "purely social." Notions of "the" technical or "the" social must be considered as tied to conventional dualistic narratives. (Bloomfield et al., in press)

In contrast to the impact-oriented mainstream literature, it is the process of problem-definition and the way that shared understandings of appropriate action and decisions emerge that is at issue in much of the research described above. Rather than proceeding as if individual perceptions and actions can be held constant for the purpose of analysis or that individuals are motivated by a single goal (e.g., profit maximization), analysis focuses upon how and why perceptions and action are continuously changing through time and space. The analysis is concerned with the construction of meaning and action and how this process is reflected in decisions with regard to the development of ICT systems and their use.

In addition, there has been a rather explicit attempt to address another dualism that pervades research on the implications of ICTs--that is, the pervasive failure to bridge between macro- and micro-institutional issues. There has been some evidence of the process of bracketing within the research agenda--a process to which Giddens has pointed. As Giddens has observed, there are two closely linked levels of analysis in social science inquiry:

Institutional analysis and the analysis of strategic conduct...indicate two principal ways in which the study of system properties may be approached in the social sciences: each of which is separated out, however, by methodological epoché.

To examine the constitution of social systems as strategic conduct is to study the modes in which actors draw upon structural elements--rules and resources--in their social relations. "Structure" here appears as actors' mobilization of discursive and practical consciousness in social encounters. Institutional analysis, on the other hand, places an epoché upon strategic conduct, treating rules and resources as chronically reproduced features of social systems. It is quite essential to see that this is only a methodological bracketing. (Giddens, 1979, p. 80)

Several premises have emerged, albeit not uncontentiously, within the long-term program of PICT research. First, for example, an attempt has been made by many researchers to ensure that analysis accounts for the interrelationships between large numbers of innovations which comprise the complex of ICTs and society as a whole. Second, the character and capacity of technology is understood as being socially constituted. Third, and in contrast to "the bulk of academic endeavour and public policy related to ICT [which] seems to assume that economic and social change associated with the development and use of the technologies occurs on the head of a pin" (Goddard, in press), the determinants of change are understood to involve processes whereby rules and resources are recursively drawn upon through time. Research tends to embrace methodologies that enable analysis of the ways new meanings are negotiated. ICTs themselves are treated as being endogenous to the various conceptual frameworks that are employed.

Yet another premise which has emerged concerns the role of institutions and the sources of inertia and change in socio-technical systems. Institutions tend to be treated as sources of inertia and as facilitators of change. Institutional inertia is closely linked to factors contributing to path dependency or to the tendency for patterns of behaviour and decision-making with regard to the development and use of ICTs to persist through time without major disruption in spite of the availability of advanced information systems and a host of network facilities. Thus, research frameworks do not downplay the importance of historical investment in people or machines. In fact, this legacy of the past is recognized as a force contributing to inertia that not only affects the speed of the diffusion of advanced ICTs but also the criteria for selection of innovative systems.

Counterpoised with factors contributing to inertia are those that engender a state of permanent innovation. Because the design of technical artefacts is determined by human agents, the focus is oriented to technologies as the stimulus to change, and to the ways in which producers and users mobilize power to bring about change. It is through processes of creative consensus-building that institutional change occurs. At the level of the firm, this process tends to be analyzed by drawing upon concepts from the political science and economics literature as well as the discipline of sociology. Thus, for example, the generation of technological capabilities is understood as a complex process in which technical, economic, individual, and institutional actors with a variety of expertise, interests, visions, etc., interact in the context of changing market and political pressures.

Underlying the attention which is given to the sources of creative organizational or technical innovation is a fifth set of premises that are related to different conceptions of power. Some of the contributors to research cited in the preceding section refer to a concept of power that is akin to Giddens's definition of power as "the capacity to achieve outcomes.... Power is not, as such, an obstacle to freedom or emancipation but is their very medium--although it would be foolish, of course, to eschew its constraining properties" (Giddens, 1984, p. 257). Others work within the framework of a disciplinary concept of power drawing upon Foucault. Still others tend to bracket this type of analysis and assume that organizational interests embody power. In these cases, negotiation and power struggles are examined among groups representing different constituencies of expertise, political perspectives, and economic resources. A notion of power, in the sense of the capability to initiate change, is clearly evident in the emphasis of research on the determinants of uneven social and economic development. The differential distribution of the capacity to change time-space relationships is considered within processes of social and system integration and their relationship to ICTs.

These premises have an important implication for the ways in which processes of production and consumption of ICTs are understood and, similarly, for the analysis of producer-user relationships. Insofar as these premises are present, they challenge the assumption in the mainstream Information Society literature that the consumption of more information is necessarily a good thing. The problematizing of the notion of "impact" and the analysis of recursive and systemic relations among people enrolled in different capacities enables research to challenge assumptions about the "demand" for the array of technical artefacts that comprise the ICT complex.

Conclusion

Research which emphasizes strategic analysis and examines how meanings are forged by individual agency contributes to an understanding of the design, development, and use of ICT systems and the production and use of information. It also gives rise to specific ways of posing policy-related questions. For example, the premises described above bias research in the direction of concerns about who makes judgments about the design of ICT systems and with what consequences. The focus is on how judgments are made about which skills and experience are relevant, and about how they are brought to bear in decisions to develop or implement systems. In contrast to the "impact"-oriented approach to policy questions, the issue is not whether a particular system (e.g., a software package or quality-assurance programme) represents the best solution, but rather on the factors which contribute to and sustain perceptions of "best practice." At the institutional level of analysis, coalition-building is perceived to be critical to the emergence of a successful technology development program.

The mainstream research traditions in the ICT field are often carefully bounded by consideration of apparently simple relationships. For example, the question as to whether investment in information system x will produce savings over system y by reducing the need for z number of employees can be addressed by holding a vast number of parameters constant. Or, for instance, if the civil engineer designs a bridge that is constructed and then collapses as a result of a design fault that is attributed to a bug in a complex engineering design system, a technical fix can be proposed and a reassessment can be undertaken of the process of software requirements specification. However, if research privileges social processes over technology, the relevant research questions concern the various processes at work in the development of the software and the negotiation of understandings as to what constitutes reliability, quality, and error-free software.

The articulation of these distinctions is neither straightforward nor uncontested. The fundamental issue is which analytical frame provides the appropriate way of asking and answering different types of questions. The institutional level of analysis tends to come to the fore when questions are being asked about the implications of codified formal rules, regulations, and policy. Although these are subject to change over time, they present structural properties that often appear to individual decision-makers as constraints on their ability to act. Strategic conduct analysis is more pervasive when questions of agency and potential are at the forefront.

There are many tensions between these two modes of analysis and the PICT experience in the United Kingdom has been as much concerned with managing these in a productive way as it has been with the results of research and the politics of creating innovative styles of research that engage with a wide academic, public-policy, and industrial community. Many of the differences in perspective that have been highlighted briefly in this paper will remain unresolved, as they are deeply embedded in the political economy of technical and institutional order of the late twentieth century. Assessment of this experience awaits formal evaluation and informal debate during and after the program's final phase, which runs until March 1995.

Notes

1
Dr. Robin Mansell is Reader and Head of the Science Policy Research Unit's (SPRU) Centre for Information and Communication Technologies at the University of Sussex. Dr. Puay Tang, SPRU Research Fellow, assisted in the background research for this paper. The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the ESRC Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT).
2
A reading of journals in the ICT field such as the International Journal of Information Resource Management or the Journal of Information Technology is testament to the growth of research that echoes these arguments.
3
For a comprehensive set of papers that address this set of issues, see Mansell (in press).
4
The Alvey Programme began in 1983 and was sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry, the Science and Engineering Research Council, and the Ministry of Defence in the U.K. It was the single largest U.K. IT Policy initiative of the 1980s, costing government a planned £200 million with industry contributing a further £150 million. See Guy et al. (1991).
5
The research objective for the first three PICT Centres (Newcastle CURDS, Sussex SPRU, Westminster CCIS) is outlined in Melody (1986). The Sussex University, Science Policy Research Unit, Centre for Information and Communication Technologies (CICT) is one of six in the U.K.'s Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) located at the Universities of Brunel (Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology, CRICT, Director, Professor Steve Woolgar) and Edinburgh (Research Centre for Social Sciences, RCSS, Co-ordinator, Dr. Robin Williams), University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Centre for Research on Organisations, Management and Change, CROMTEC, Director, Professor Rod Coombs), University of Newcastle (Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, CURDS, Director, Professor John Goddard), and University of Westminster (Centre for Communication and Information Studies, CCIS, Director, Professor Nicholas Garnham).
6
At its peak, PICT funding employed some 65 full-time equivalent researchers, and supported workshops and network activities involving a wider community of scholars. Although the PICT network has relationships with much research on the economic and social implications of ICTs in the U.K. it does not by any means claim to encompass all researchers in the field.

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