1.3: Simonsen, J. (1994): Designing Systems in an Organizational Context: An Explorative Study of Theoretical, Methodological, and Organizational Issues from Action Research in Three Design Projects, Ph.D. thesis, Writings on Computer Science No. 52, Computer Science Department, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark.


This dissertation has presented an exploratory endeavour into the early processes of systems design in an organizational context, focusing on how designers should deal with this kind of activity.

Early design processes are an activity within systems development that is poorly understood, and information systems failures can often be traced back to this phase. There is a need for systematic reflections and discussions about what design in an organizational context is about, and how designers should approach and conduct the activity of designing. The purpose of the research that has formed the basis for this dissertation, has been to develop qualified input into the current discussions among researchers and practitioners within the field of systems design. This input has been developed through an empirical study performed by an action research approach. The action research enveloped project establishment and three design projects in a small organization. As a consequence of the relatively uncultivated status of the research in this field, action research has been chosen as the approach for an exploratory study, where no single model or method have been found feasible as the guideline: a multitude of approaches, techniques, and descriptions have been applied in an experimental form within the action research project, and the experiences from this have been reported systematically and reflected upon. The results are drawn from my own former experiences as a designer, the experiences achieved through the action research, and a wide range of empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions from the literature.

The empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions from the literature have been focused on three approaches: the participatory design approach, the ethnographically inspired approaches, and the systems approaches, in form of Work Analysis. These three approaches have been described in Part II. The description of Work Analysis, in chapter 6, represents a concise, yet comprehensive form, part of which has not been presented and published before.

The results from the research are presented in chapters 7 through 15.

Chapter 7 discusses and relates the three approaches by introducing the concepts' structures and actions. This leads to a clarification of my own perspective and research interest, and hence, the status of my professional standpoint.

Part III, chapters 8 through 12, presents a detailed description of the empirical work: three design projects. The participatory design approach was used in all three design projects, while an ethnographically inspired approach and Work Analysis were used, in particular, in two design projects. The organization, starting point, activities carried out, and the results obtained by the project establishment and by each of the three design projects, are described. Part III, thus, gives three examples characterizing design, in terms of what design is about, what you as a designer might be involved with, and how to approach and conduct design projects. The description of the organization represents parts of the shared understanding of it, that was developed through the design projects. Part III demonstrates that design, apart from technical considerations, also involves organizational issues comprising of social, political, and managerial/strategical aspects within the organization.

The techniques applied and activities performed include:

The descriptions applied and represented with figures include: In Part IV, chapters 13 through 15, three aspects from the action research project have been chosen and further elaborated into three lessons learned. This part of the dissertation is structured as to stimulate discussions among researchers and practitioners within the field of design. Part IV is divided into three chapters, each presenting a lesson learned and formatted into a discussion. The discussions open with a claim (one discussion opens with two claims) followed by the arguments for this claim. The four claims represent an attempt to generalize aspects from the action research into more general design guidelines or principles, with respect to their relation to the organizational and situated context from which they have been developed. The argumentation for the claims is mainly based on the experiences and results from the action research project, but considers also empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions from the literature and my own former experiences as a designer.

The three chapters focus on, respectively, each of the three approaches to design presented in Part II. Also, the three chapters focus on, respectively, an early phase, a "middle" phase, and a final phase within a design project:

Chapter 13, "Including the Organizations Environment and Function", opens with claim no 1: The effects of applying Work Analysis to a design project, and conducting a functional and a strategical analysis, are demonstrated. The point was not whether applying a functional perspective provided a "correct and true" description of the organization. Rather the point was whether this kind of description, as a basis for the design project, could reflect a relevant self-image that the organization wanted to achieve. Hence one result of the analysis was to point out where the organization fails to achieve its function and which kind of consequences this implies.

The results of this analysis were remarkable: the overall policy of the organization was challenged, and it was revealed that the system they believed they needed (a system providing customers with an on-line booking functionality) was irrelevant, while they needed other systems nobody had thought of beforehand: systems providing and monitoring information about income, spending, consumer market, etc., and a system to provide main customers with an electronic version of their catalogue of available films and videos.

If the design project had not taken environmental issues into concern, as prescribed by Work Analysis, it could have resulted in a design-solution recommending an investment in an irrelevant system. Involving environmental issues, moved the perspective from design of a specific system into an analysis at a strategic business level, challenging the overall purpose of the organization. As a result of this, The Film Board decided to reconsider the overall image and policy of the organization, and initiated discussions, based on the design report, within the governing body and the management-group.

Work Analysis, its conceptual framework, and guidelines proved to be very efficient in this design project. The "language" within Work Analysis provided an appropriate level of abstraction in communicating with management, while non-managerial staff had difficulties in relating to it.

Chapter 14, "Taking a Closer Look: Applying Ethnographically Inspired Approaches", opens with claims no. 2 and 3:

The effects of applying an ethnographically inspired approach to a design project, are demonstrated by pointing out some concrete consequences this approach had on a preliminary design proposal. The relevance of applying an ethnographic approach to systems design has been argued in a number of recent research papers, but reports on concrete consequences on a specific design due to such an approach seem scarce, if not non-existent.

In the design project, an immediate knowledge was achieved, mainly through interviewing all employees in one department. This lead to the development of a preliminary design. This design proposal did not directly support all employees: some did not have any ideas as to which kind of systems support they needed.

An ethnographically inspired approach was then applied to test if, and how, this would affect the preliminary design proposal. A detailed insight into the employees work was then developed, mainly by observing them while working, and by observing and video-recording various meetings. Questions and situations which arose from the observations, were further investigated in a second interview round.

A deeper insight into the work unveiled that a system could be designed that directly supported all the employees. This deeper look into their work unveiled a different view on the life cycle of a production when compared to different occupational groups within the department. This also resulted in a specified redesign of the former proposed system.

The difference in viewpoint between two occupational groups was harmonious in the sense that the functionality needed for one group, could easily be added to those functions needed by the other. Another difference in viewpoint was more problematic, and lead to a choice between two possible design proposals. The design could either support the interests of one group, or the other.

Besides the effects that the ethnographically inspired approach had on the design, some preconditions for using such an approach in systems design, in industrial settings, are suggested: the designers and the user organization must have a positive attitude towards investing needed resources, and these resources must be available, since when using ethnographic techniques, you may not know in advance what effects this will have on the final design. Also, it must be possible to identify potential domains in terms of work practices, where applying ethnographic techniques seems appropriate, since these techniques require quite an amount of resources. Finally, the designers must have the competencies to conduct such an approach and to handle the situations that may arise.

Chapter 15, "Anchoring the Visions", opens with claim no. 4:

Chapter 15 focuses on a managerial aspect within participatory design. I introduce the concept 'anchoring', addressing the concern of taking care of communicating or assigning visions to those actors that have the competence to decide upon and further to realize the visions into implemented computer-based systems.

Participatory design mainly focuses on anchoring within a design group, i.e. between designers and current/future users, concentrating on the learning processes and performance. In this discussion, I seek to establish a concept of anchoring in a broader organizational and managerial context, by addressing the three levels of competence: the designer, the decision maker, and the system developer/project manager.

Those who decide if a proposed vision should be implemented (having competence in regard to decision-making) and those who actually implement a vision (having the competence in regard to realization), are not necessarily the same as the main participants in the design project who develop the vision.

I argue for the assumption that you need three specific levels of competencies in order to be responsible for: the design project developing the visions; making the decision regarding this vision and its recommendations; the further realization (purchase/development and implementation) and maintenance of the vision.

As a consequence, designers need to anchor the vision in the organization with respect to the competencies responsible for, respectively, decision-making and realization.

The different levels of competencies are described and characterized, and the descriptions needed in anchoring visions are discussed. For this purpose, a model is developed, presenting some important questions that these descriptions should address.

Finally, the results of the anchoring in the three design projects in The Film Board are described.

The four claims, presented in Part IV, represent some general guidelines or principles, and are thus a very concrete contribution to the development of an approach to early systems design. Before they can be integrated into a coherent approach to design, they need to be further empirically tested. This may be done by practitioners in industrial settings. This way, results from this dissertation may be challenged: a claim may be "falsified", e.g. in terms of disproving its applicability in a certain context. Also, by publishing research papers and by presentations given at various seminars, etc., for both the researchers and the practitioners, discussions among researchers and practitioners within the field of design could be initiated, through which a coherent approach to design in an organizational context can be developed.