Employee Resistance to Digital Information and Information Technology Change in a Social Service Agency: A Membership Category Approach

Kathryn R. Stam, Jeffrey M. Stanton and Indira R. Guzman
School of Information Studies, 4-123 Center for Science and Technology,
Syracuse University, NY 13244-4100, USA
Email: krstam@syr.edu; Web: http://web.syr.edu/~krstam/; http://web.syr.edu/~jmstanto/; http://web.syr.edu/~iguzmand/; http://istweb.syr.edu/


Responding to new government regulations about reporting data, a social service agency decided to require caseworkers to use laptop computers extensively, taking these devices with them on calls to clients. The resistance of caseworkers to this mandate and this change provided an opportunity to examine the phenomena of technology resistance. Initially rooting the study in known models for examining technology resistance, researchers found the need to expand upon these models to acknowledge other social aspects, as well as individual aspects to alterations in work behavior. Perceiving that professional identity was at issue, the study employed concepts from Kling's social aspects of computing and Schein's career anchor theory, and used qualitative methods including an adaptation of Sacks's membership category analysis method from the field of ethnomethodology that led to insights about the underlying causes of IT resistance among social service workers. The originality of this micro-level approach lies in its ability to explore moral aspects of professional and personal identity. The approach revealed, in this situation, that workers' resistance was based particularly on a local history of organizational dysfunction in addition to elements such as performance and effort expectancy, attitudes, and anxiety that is typically discussed in the information technology acceptance literature.


technology acceptance, resistance, information technology change, ethnomethodology, membership categorization analysis, professional identity, social service agencies, employees

1 Introduction

Recent changes in U.S. government laws and regulations mandate that all agencies receiving funds from the Older Americans Act and related legislation work towards a universal reporting standard that effectively requires the use of new information technologies including hardware and software. Although the mandated changes are themselves incremental (i.e. a multi-year series of escalating requirements), the social service agency in our study planned to use the new requirements as a springboard for substantial streamlining of their work processes (e.g. eliminating multiple entry of data, using paperless case tracking processes, and employing local and wide area networks to facilitate transfer of data among functional areas). Thus, federal and state reporting requirements appeared at first to catalyze the long-delayed introduction of new information technology and new work processes into agency operations. For the caseworkers in the agency, this anticipated change would mean, in practical terms, that they would be required to carry laptop computers to field visits and download their data on returning to the office. Employees' resistance to this mandate, seemingly out of proportion with the usual reluctance to learn new technologies, pointed to issues fundamental to their assumptions about their professional practices and, indeed, their very status.

Using in-depth interviews with caseworkers and information technology professionals as well as field notes from follow-up client visits, the research presented here explores this technology resistance, addressing employees' perspectives on past and future technology implementation in their organization. Responding to the early indications of identity issues, we explore how respondents constructed the social relationships in their organization, their professional identities, and their adaptations to past and proposed IT changes.

2 Theoretical considerations

As we learned more about the organization in which we conducted this research, it became clearer that the most commonly used frameworks for exploring technology acceptance, Davis' (1989) technology acceptance model (TAM) and a variety of more recent extensions of the model, did not seem adequate for this application. In particular, we learned that their resistance to the technology-driven change that we encountered had effectively no relation to the character or capabilities of the technology itself. Finding that caseworkers appeared to be highly resistant to the idea of adapting the proposed technology, we decided to seek a new strategy for exploring the reasons behind the resistance and the possibility of institutional and cultural constraints present within the organization. To set the stage, we begin by describing the main technology acceptance models and our rationale for why they appear inadequate for describing our data. Next, we describe two other theoretical areas that have better applicability to our analysis: Schein's (1996) career anchor theory and Kling's work (Dr. Rob Kling Remembered) on the social aspects of computing. Finally, we describe useful aspects of the sociological field of ethnomethodology and the tool of membership category analysis, enumerate a representative set of current research areas using this methodology, and explain how this methodological "toolbox" might usefully serve for studying questions of technology acceptance and organizational culture in light of Kling's and Schein's work.

2.1 Technology acceptance models

One of the most widely used and adapted models of technology acceptance has been the TAM developed by Davis et al. (1989). The TAM derives from Ajzen and Fishbein's (1977, 1980) and Ajzen and Madden's (1986) work on the theories of reasoned action and planned behavior to predict the behaviors of people in specific situations.

The original version of TAM proposed a basis for tracing the impact of external variables on internal beliefs, attitudes, and intentions. The theory suggested that attitudes towards using technology are a function of two belief constructs: perceived usefulness of the technology, and perceived ease of use of the technology. The theory proposed that perceived ease of use has a causal effect on perceived usefulness. Perceived usefulness is defined as the "degree to which an individual believes that using a particular system would enhance his or her job performance". Perceived ease of use is defined as "the degree to which an individual believes that using a particular system would be free of physical and mental effort." (Davis 1993, p. 477).

TAM2 introduced and tested the original model in terms of social influence and cognitive instrumental processes, and found that both significantly affected user acceptance (Venkatesh and Davis 2000). The model made an important distinction between voluntary and mandatory usage, following findings that usage intentions vary even when a change is organizationally mandated (Hartwick and Barki 1994). One of the practical considerations of TAM2 was that mandatory approaches to new systems seemed less effective over time than the use of social influence.

Critiques of TAM and related theories have also suggested that the model has strong limitations. Legris et al. (2003) reviewed 22 articles published from 1980 to 2001 that used TAM and concluded that TAM was a useful model, but one that "has to be integrated into a broader [model] which would include variables related to both human and social change processes." This criticism suggests that other relevant factors are not included in the model and the explanatory power of TAM is limited despite the statistical success of its regression models (Sun 2003).

In response to these developments, a unified model of user acceptance of IT (UTAUT) was formulated and empirically tested, outperforming the eight original models on which it was based (Venkateshet al. 2003). The new model confirmed the significant moderating effects of experience, voluntariness, gender, and age. The authors also suggested that public and resource-poor environments were other factors that were not yet adequately addressed in their new model.

All of the theories in this family have roots in a normative tradition of social research, and the weight of quantitatively focused empirical research using these theories suggest considerable success in predicting behavioral intentions toward a piece of technology using the predictors described above (Legris et al. 2003, Venkatesh and Davis 1996, Igbaria and Tan 1997, Dishaw and Strong 1999, Mathieson 1991, Sun 2003).

A common thread of previous technology acceptance models such as TAM is the focus on cognitions about the target technology. TAM examines the precursor beliefs to predict a focal attitude towards the technology in question. Issues related to organizational culture are not present in the theory. Likewise absent is the consideration of the individual's perception of usefulness in respect to career goals and orientation within the organization.

2.2 Social aspects of computerization

The concerns listed above reflect an emphasis on technical capabilities of new technology over social and sociotechnical concerns. As Kling (1996) suggested, "Thinking and talking about computerization as the development of sociotechnical configurations rather than as simply installing and using a new technology is not commonplace." Elements of the social environment before and particularly after the introduction of a new technology can have profound effects on the work lives of employees. New technology affects the social organization of work, access to resources, formal and informal organizational structures, and bureaucratic control patterns.

In efforts to understand new information technologies and their role in changing work organizations, Kling and Zmuidzinas (1994) used the concept of "workplace visions", which include "beliefs about the relationships among computing, workers, and work reorganization" as a central construct to their theorizing. Four possible changes in the ways work is organized include metamorphoses, migration, elaboration/reinforcement, and stability. The authors explain that workplace visions are not necessarily shared by all employees or managers, and "early directions" of workplace vision, although changeable, do have an important effect on later decisions. This "structuration" framework of work transformation is very much at odds with earlier deterministic models (Huber (1990) as cited by Kling and Zmuidzinas (1994)). Unlike TAM, this theorizing puts social structure and dynamics on the same stage with technical matters. By providing an integrated viewpoint for understanding the relations between computing capabilities and social structures, Kling's work provides a lens for understanding technology-driven change in organizations that allows holistic analysis of the new technology rooted in the context of the extant social system.

We believed, however, that one additional element of theory was needed to fully cover the research situation we encountered. Workers in social service professions obtain satisfaction in helping others; this is a primary reason they give for dedication to their work (Bowe et al. 2001). Service-oriented people are driven by how they can help other people more than using their talents (Schein 1993); although they seek fair pay and benefits, material compensation is somewhat peripheral to people in this group. A promotion system that recognizes the service contribution and the possibility to move towards positions with more influence for "good" and freedom to benefit clients by being able to operate autonomously is most appropriate for them. Recognition and support from peers and superiors, and values shared with others, are more important to social service professionals than some other forms of compensation. With caseworkers at our research organization, we perceived that an essential reason they found value in their work was based on beliefs and experiences signifying that their services could help elderly and needy people.

Although such motivations as these do appear implicitly in the "workplace visions" notion posed by Kling and Zmuidzinas (1994), we believed that some useful additional specificity could be added to their ideas through inclusion of what Schein (1993) described as "career anchors". The idea of a career anchor was developed based on research, "designed to better understand how careers evolved and how people learned the values and procedures of their employing organization" (Schein 1993). Schein (1978) followed 44 workers over a period of 10-12 years using in-depth interviews and questionnaires to examine job histories and the reasons behind career decisions. On this basis, Schein (1996) defined eight prototypical career anchors: Security/stability, autonomy/independence, life style, technical-functional competence, general managerial competence, entrepreneurial creativity, service or dedication to a cause and pure challenge.

In short, career anchors explain the job movement choices of workers as they progress through their careers. Career anchors both shape and are shaped by work experiences and, as such, comprise a stable pattern of self-perceived talents, motives and values that serve to guide, constrain, stabilize, and integrate individual careers. Although Schein was originally concerned with career "moves", i.e. changes from one job to another job, the theory has apparent applicability to "intra-job" activities, such as decisions and actions that workers undertake in the face of substantial organizational changes. One of the eight career anchors is service/dedication to a cause, and we found that many of the caseworkers in our research organization described their jobs in ways consistent with this orientation. Thus, we believed that the operative "workplace vision" at our research organization was formulated by caseworkers on the basis of a commonly shared career anchor rooted in the service orientation. This career anchor, and the set of decisions and actions that sprang from it, appeared to serve as a major source of the resistance to the new technology that we encountered at the research organization.

We felt certain that standard normative research methods used in existing technology acceptance research would not provide the kind of rich insights into these ideas that we believed were necessary to understand the applicability of our Kling-Schein theory synthesis. Instead, we believed that ethnomethodological tools such as conversation analysis and membership categorization analysis would prove more suitable for exploring issues of identity and social structure raised by the Kling-Schein synthesis. Thus, we next began to formulate an adaptation of these methods that would be appropriate for our data.

3 Membership categorization analysis within ethnomethodology

Ethnomethodology is a diverse set of research techniques often equated with one of its central tools, conversation analysis. Membership category analysis, one of ethnomethodology's less frequently utilized tools, is concerned with the interactive processes that take place in day-to-day interactions between people and the ways in which they form their identities in relation to other social actors in their work settings (Garfinkel 1967, Heritage 1984, Maynard and Clayman 2003). Skills and functions of talk rather than judgments about the content of talk are the emphasis of this research method. Membership categorization devices comprise collections of classifications or social types used by a group of individuals plus their rules of classification in a specific context (Boden 1990, Boden and Zimmerman 1991, Bowker and Star 1999, Coulter 1989, Housley and Fitzgerald 2002, Potter 1996). Sacks's (1974) membership categorization analysis, and more specifically "membership categorization devices", serve as our main method in the present research.

Silverman argued for developing an analysis of how participants produce contexts for their interaction, saying "By beginning with the question of 'how', we can then fruitfully move on to 'why' questions about institutional and cultural constraints." Importantly, this method "reveals the functions of apparently irrational practices and helps us to understand the possibilities and limits of attempts at social reform." (Silverman 2001 p. 407) Using this method, prior research has shown that respondents continually produce and reproduce their professional identities and the social structure of the organization as they talk without necessarily naming the membership category in which they are placing themselves (Psathas 1999; see also Goffman 1959).

Insights from these methods have been used in a variety of sociological studies of work and organizational settings (Sarangi and Roberts 1999, Boden and Zimmerman 1991, Drew and Heritage 1992, Button and Harper 1993, Suchman 1987). Early investigations using similar methods include Baker's (1984) work on adolescent-adult talk and Baruch's (1981) study of parents' encounters with health professionals. Theoretical concerns about the relationship between the accomplishment of work and categorization in institutional settings are also explored by Psathas (1999), Lepper (1995), Watson (1978), and Watson and Seiler (1992). Other works, utilizing data from real-life organizational interactions, document the revival of membership category analysis in law, education, home and work organizations (Hester and Eglin 1997, Housley and Fitzgerald 2002, Paoletti 2001, ten Have 2000, Travers and Manzo 1997). Based on these efforts, we believed that an investigation of the self-construed identities of employees through methods used in ethnomethodology could shed light on the workplace visions and career anchors proposed by Kling and Zmuidzinas (1994) and Schein (1993). By identifying and using the same concepts as these social service workers, we tried to understand their everyday ways of producing orderly social interaction through talk.

4 Methods and results

Our method of data gathering consisted of audio taped interviews, observations of client visits, and text analysis. To protect the identities of our respondents, we have chosen to present reenactments of the quotes as audio-files here rather than using our original tape recorded excerpts. Please note that any differences between the transcripts and the sound you hear are due to mistakes on the part of the volunteer "actors". The data were collected between February and June of 2002 by the authors and five student research assistants. Formal meetings with organizational administrators and interviews with information technology staff were conducted in order to learn about the background of the change to digital information and management perspectives on the local history of the organization. Eighteen employees with a variety of job titles (but whose general work responsibilities were grouped by the authors as "caseworkers") agreed to participate in the 20-50 minute interviews. The authors and two student researchers conducted observations of eight client visits and analysis of field notes. The entire data corpus contained about 145 pages of text (over 47,000 words).

Although we had some predetermined topic areas to discuss and were concerned with perceptions about upcoming IT changes, we approached the data collection in an open-ended manner. The interviews (see the Appendix) addressed general topics related to the employees' position, knowledge about an upcoming IT change, concerns about the changes, and relationships with IT support staff. The open-ended nature of the questions allowed respondents a fair amount of freedom to define themselves and the nature of the problem as it related to the upcoming technology changes. Research questions were further developed as we learned more about the respondents' experiences, and were adjusted for use during our observation of eight client visits several months later. With guidance from Sacks's (1992) methodological work, particularly membership categorization devices, and more general works on qualitative research in organizations (Silverman 1998, Silverman 2001), we coded the data for membership groupings and the many duties, responsibilities and other qualities found within the talk about those groups. We used Atlas T.I. software for qualitative research to help organize and analyze our data.

4.1 Description of organization and established work processes

The agency comprised of six different social service units that provided over 200 different kinds of services to the elderly and disabled. Examples included home delivered meals and rural transportation. In addition to responding to clients' and families' requests for assistance, the social service office seeks legal help for clients as necessary. The organization employs approximately 30 caseworkers to handle the various cases.

At each of approximately 20 routine visits per week, caseworkers were required by their agency to complete a 15-page paper form. Because they were responsible for providing referrals for a variety of social services, caseworkers also brought copies of many other forms with them. They spent much of each visit assisting clients to determine their needs and then filling out the appropriate forms. Later the workers either delivered the forms to the appropriate agencies or returned them to the main office for distribution. Notice of approval or denial of the services was generally received about a month or two later. On occasion, there were long delays in the return of the paperwork, in part due to the inefficiency of the information flow in the office and in part due to inadequate funding of services. Clients could wait many months or even as long as one year on a waiting list for the services they requested.

4.2 Recent history of IT change in the agency

4.2.1 Theme 1. Proposed laptop computers

As a move toward shifting to digital information in compliance with new federal and state regulations, the agency management mandated that employees and caseworkers take portable laptop computers into the field for collecting data during client visits. The federal mandate for electronic transmission of minimum data sets is the National Aging Program Information System (NAPIS), which is regulated by the federal Older Americans Act. The state mandate for electronic transmission of data is the Consolidated Area Agency Reporting System (CAARS). The agency decided that laptops were the "way to go" in order to reduce duplication and increase efficiency. Ideally, all information would be directly input into the software program by way of laptop in the field, as it occurs. Because the minimum data set is about 20 pages long, it did not seem practical to write that much on a hard copy and then expend more time and energy typing it on a computer.

The agency understood their choice as the following: they could invest in laptops for the case managers, or they could hire many data entry operators to get the information in, allowing a great deal of room for error and inefficiency. It was decided that it would be most efficient to have case managers type in the data, and then make a hard copy from the computer to keep in the client file.

In planning for the upcoming change, the organizational leaders made an assessment of current computer skills and arranged for caseworkers to attend basic computer training. Customizing software to fit with government regulations was done through a contract with a small software company. A budget was set aside for the purchase of 30 new laptop computers. At the time of data collection, 17 computers had been purchased; the administration was awaiting purchase of the remaining computers before completing the changeover to required use of laptops for the collection of digital information in the field. We had informal discussions with the agency's managers and information technology professionals that revealed a preoccupation with the budgetary, logistical, and technical aspects of the planned transition to the field use of the new technology. We learned that the agency's management had not discussed or planned any fundamental changes to the pattern or methods of the daily work undertaken by field workers or caseworkers that would occur because of the shift to digital information.

We found the employees at first appeared resistant to technology, but even before systematically applying membership categorization analysis techniques, we learned that their more salient concerns were twofold: they were resisting the administration's treatment of them, in part because of other technology adoptions that they found inconvenient (e.g. requirements for carrying cellular phones), and in part because of a reported belief that their clients might not feel comfortable in the presence of the new technology.

Caseworkers' initial reactions about the prospect of new technology for the delivery of digital information also indicated resistance: learning how to use the laptops would be difficult, taking them to the field would be inconvenient, and laptops might invite theft and/or burglary. However, further questioning revealed that the skepticism on these grounds could be overcome if it meant that the caseworkers would be able to provide enhanced services. Describing their vision of the near future as a period when service to clients would be compromised due to the added time constraints and the difficulty in maintaining a caring visit with the clients if an intrusive laptop were present, the majority of caseworkers did not consider laptops beneficial to them or their clients in any way.

In the following excerpts, caseworkers explained their reactions and those of their coworkers. One worker reveals several of her concerns about the new laptops for her relationship with clients. Note that in the first excerpt, the resistance is ascribed to coworkers, a tactic that is recognized as freeing the speaker to express feelings without censoring her/himself.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#1]

R1 (Respondent 1)
I (Interviewer): How do you think your coworkers will react (to the new laptops)?
R (Respondent): I think most of them will be very challenged and very stressed out by it because they are not familiar with computers. I mean, I hear it from them. They are not looking forward to it. In fact, I don't think I have heard anybody say, "Oh great, now we are going to use laptops and that will help." It's "Oh no, I really don't know how to do it."
I: What is their fear?
R: That it is going to take more time. And the clients are not going to like it.
I: And do you have some similar concerns?
R: Yeah, I do. I have a physician that I go to where it's on his laptop and he'll sit with his back to me, talking to me and looking at the screen. I don't like it.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#2]

I: Do you think that is going to affect your relationship with clients?
R: Yeah I think so
I: Worse or better?
R: I think they are going to feel worse.
I: Why are they going to feel that way?
R: Uncomfortable. They are not used to it, it will make them inhibited. The screen thing is like this, in front of your face. They can't see what you are doing. I do not know. I've never done it so I can see it seems to be a little more impersonal for me. But if it was me I will feel intimidated.

There were also concerns about the income/class disparities between clients and caseworkers that would be magnified by the presence of a computer. Describing computers as "impersonal," "robotic," and "intimidating," respondents anticipated that some clients might feel upset, distrustful, and anxious, and this would lead to clients being "less open" about their actual situations. That situation in turn would compromise the delivery of social services.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#3]

R1: They are not going to like it. Like if you are writing on a client's chart or something, they don't like it. They get very suspicious.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#4]

R2: I am concerned about (pause) safety. We don't travel in the nicest parts of town, you know what I'm saying. It won't be safe to drag along.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#5]

R3: I don't know, it's just impersonal. And we work in the inner city, and there are places where I wouldn't even want to bring my cell phone. There are houses that I don't even want to sit down in.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#6]

R4: The other thing would be I really like to have eye-to-eye contact with the client and I don't think that is to me is almost not very polite to sit there, you know, with a senior or anyone and have to be trying to type and concentrate on your typing errors and (pause) just to look at them occasionally (pause), it is almost like a (pause) quick insurance salesman or something coming into the house, I don't know. It does not seem right now that it is going fit our goals.

Beyond that, caseworkers described the homes as places where there are no computers, and they do not want to alienate their clients:

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#7]

R1: This (computers) is something the clients have no concept of. They are old, they are afraid of it.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#8]

R2: If I go to their homes, where some of them are poor, just old fashioned and don't know anything about computers, they're going to wonder what you're typing up about them. They're also going to wonder, you know, like I don't know...I guess I just feel like, here I am coming in their house with a nice laptop computer...I don't know like here I'm with laptop, who do I think I am? I don't know, I think things like that get a lot of people uncomfortable and here I am with a nice laptop computer in their house.
I: So, is that a concern?
R: Yeah, a little of that...I mean I like the whole computer thing. Our information can't get lost like files get lost because everything is on the desk. But the whole computer thing, they're going to be like, what are you typing about me?
R: Do you think this would affect your relationship with the clients?
I: Not really the relationship. I think they're just going to be like curious and wonder. Like a lot of people don't like government workers as it is (lowering her voice). They are going to be like, she comes here with a fancy computer, what does she think she is?

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#9]

I: What have you heard about the new information system?
R: I have heard that we are going to use laptops for our home assessments, and then come back to the office and hotsync it, whatever that means (laughs).
I: How do you feel about that?
R: I am kind of skeptical about the ease of using it, how the clients will react to us, like a 90 year-old sitting there with us in front of them with the computer. I think my attention is going to be on the computer and not the client, so I don't like that.

A few workers contradicted these sentiments and said that they liked the idea of computers because they perceived potential benefits in their service provision:

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#10]

R1: So I think if you have a good rapport with the client I do not think it matters what form you use as long as you have the trust that the reason they gave this information is to provide services for them. So that is going to be advantageous to them because you are not going to spend so much time, you know, doing things on paper, just more time for them.

Interestingly, in our job observations of the caseworkers at work in the field, the alternative viewpoint described in the immediately preceding verbatim seemed to be most veridical to the likely reactions to the laptops by clients. In other words, we ascertained that clients did not appear to be poised for the strong negative reactions to laptops expected by the other respondents reported earlier. The reported expectation of negative reactions to laptops was thus arguably a shared argumentative strategy for creating resistance rather than an accurate reflection of ground truth in the field.

4.2.2. Theme 2. Introduction of cell phones for work

When we asked about laptops, respondents often referred almost immediately to past negative experiences with organization-owned cell phones. The connection was critical in the mind of caseworkers and thus bears explanation here. To caseworkers, cell phone introduction was an example of how they perceived that the administration treated them unfairly.

About six months before the interviews, caseworkers were given cellular phones to use in the field. Agency management told caseworkers that the phones were only for use in emergencies, and also gave instructions to document all calls. Personal use of the phones was strictly prohibited. Described as "old-fashioned" because of their size and inability to hold a charge, the phones were rarely used. Caseworkers expressed frustration over the requirements to charge the battery nightly and also complained about having to carry the heavy phones, along with the many other heavy items, including a briefcase of paper forms and a bathroom scale. Although several caseworkers said the telephones were helpful for calling a client when they could not hear the doorbell, most caseworkers found them not only inconvenient, but also an instrument of control by the administration. When asked why they got the cellular phones, one respondent said, "so that they could find us if they needed us." They compared the new laptops to the cell phones, saying that although in theory they were supposed to help them, instead they caused inconvenience in a number of ways, such as physical burdens and interruptions in the workers' schedules.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#11]

R1: We have cell phones but we aren't allowed to use them. They are used for emergencies or if they want to call us. It's only rung once since I got it, which was over six months ago.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#12]

R2: I can retrieve the messages, but I don't like it as a way of communication. People get you on the cell phone and say, 'While you're on your way back, do this.' I have a heavy schedule already, and I don't really like to be bothered in the field. And I also don't have it charged and I'll get in trouble.

In describing the cell phone directive, one caseworker, echoing others, expressed her perception that it was an instrument of administration control and intrusion.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#13]

R: You have to find way for saving the time. It is boom, boom, boom, you gotta keep moving quickly. You have to manage your time really well or you are not going to see the things done. I can go and see someone, instead of waiting for somebody. I do not have a beeper. We have cell phones but I just used twice, we have to carry them with us. They are big, they are heavy. I only use mine for only safety reasons. When I go to a visit, I leave it in the car. Do I really feel comfortable with it?? In the sense of, I don't know, if there is an emergency. I am just not familiar with it. I do not feel comfortable with it.

Subjects repeatedly compared their experience with having the cellular phones and the administration's justification of the cellular phones with what they expect will happen with the laptops.

4.3 Caseworkers' membership categories

Developing category assignments resulted in changes of our assumptions about these data. As a warm-up phase of each interview, employees were asked how they felt about their jobs. The process of identity creation began at this point, as they begin to reveal the membership categories to which they identified and described themselves in relation to the other groups in their social world. The membership groups, or in Sacks's (1992) terms "standard relational pairs", identified by the employees included the caseworkers themselves, the administration, and their elderly or homebound clients.

The "feature-rich nature of the pairings" is evident in caseworkers' responses. The main pairings are outlined in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1. Standard relational pairs: caseworkers and clients
Caseworkers Clients
Helpers Recipients of help
Listeners Speakers
Vulnerable Living in unsafe neighborhood
Respectable, neat Pathetic, filthy
Fearful about learning computers Fearful about having computers in their homes

In relation to the clients, caseworkers' primary professional identities were expressed as helping people in need, showing concern for clients, providing personal service, and finding solutions to problems. For most respondents, their job satisfaction was reported as based in this primary aspect of their jobs as helpers. Their roles in the office and administrative responsibilities were constructed as secondary and, for the most part, frustrating. Working often in difficult, rushed, and dangerous conditions, caseworkers described themselves in relation to this negative situation and presenting their moral and professional identities in the course of these categorizations.

Table 2. Standard relational pairs: caseworkers and administration
Caseworkers Administration
Oppressed Oppressors
Uninformed Unwilling to inform
Babies Babysitters
Monitored Source of surveillance
Forced to adapt to new technologies Enforcers of rules

In relation to the administration, there were many areas of contention and dissatisfaction. One caseworker described the work place as a "fishbowl". Others resented the "red dot" magnetic white board system that required each of them to post a message with their location at all times throughout the day. Caseworkers expressed frustration about excessive monitoring while they were in the field, including some instances where office staff followed them to client visits or called them while they were with clients just to confirm their presence.

4.4 Organizational issues

Respondents reported knowing very little about the mandated plans to integrate laptops into their fieldwork. Most said that all they knew was that there were going to be laptops, and that the transition was mandatory. The respondents did not mention participation in the planning process, although there were several public announcements about the change. When prompted, caseworkers responded that they understood that it was just something they had to accept.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#14]

R: Some of them will groan (about the upcoming system), but most of them are just like me. That's just the way things are, like women wearing high heels. It's like the thing to do so they do it, even though it kills their feet.
I: Do you think the people who are planning the system are sensitive to these issues?
R: I don't know.
I: How do you feel your participation has been in this process.
R: There was none. We were just told.

One caseworker who said she felt neutral about the new regulations suggests by her language that she is both fearful and resentful.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#15]

I: Have you heard about the proposed changes?
R: No. Just that we are going to be logging the information, I don't know the current terms for it, putting in the information into the computers, as opposed to using paper.
I: What are your concerns about that?
R: I haven't really stopped to think about it that much, because I don't feel like we have a choice. Well, I don't think anybody has a choice.
I: Even the administration?
R: Well, they probably do, but I mean, if they want us to work with computers I don't think it's a good thing to say no. I mean, it's a state thing, from what I understand.
I: What would happen if you did protest?
R: I think you would be fired.
I: And that would be a problem.
R: That depends on how you look at it (loud laugh). I wouldn't want to be fired, because I like my job. (to the tape recorder) Did you hear that? (laughs) No. Like when they tell you are going to move to another building, there is not much you can do.

4.5 General resistance to technology

Caseworkers' resistance to the technology in the workplace appeared in some cases to filter into their personal lives as well, as shown in the following excerpts that exude the negativity we referred to earlier:

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#16]

I: Can you think of anything else that would make your work life better?
R: Yeah, have the Internet self-destruct.(laughs)
I: Do you have a problem with the Internet?
R: I don't know. It's just very impersonal or something. I like the telephone better than email, for example. I just have never liked computers. I don't even watch much TV. I like videos. I don't know. I just don't like computers. I would like the world without computers.

[See Supplementary Files for audio clip#17]

R2: It is not something I am going to do in my free time. If I have to learn it for my job I'll learn it, but I am not going to spend my free time with computer. I'd rather be doing other things. I do not connect with machines. I am not a machine person. So that is why does the trouble with the cell phone and so on. I do not feel comfortable working with machines, a little difficult for me.

5 Discussion

The origins and basis of technology acceptance and resistance in an organization becomes complex when examined in the light of how technology has been used in the past, how it may be seen as a tool of oppression, and how these experiences affect employees' emotions and attitudes about the proposed new technology in the workplace. Beyond the features and characteristics of the technology and the usability issues that are normally addressed in studies of technology acceptance, a deeper look at the workers' membership categories appeared to show that there were many issues of power, organizational dysfunction, and experience with past technological transitions that affected employees' visions of themselves and their workplace.

Kling's research and writings frequently suggested that technological changes such the ones described above often come with the technical details carefully planned but with little or no consideration of the ways the change will affect people in their everyday work lives. In our research setting, the caseworkers had received very little information about the technology-driven changes but nonetheless quickly concluded that the new technology would be burdensome. Although not completely avoidable, these perceived burdens could have been lightened through the development of a shared worldview or "workplace vision" between the two groups. We suggest that development of a shared workplace vision between management and workers comprises a difficult but necessary step for avoiding technology resistance. Although we have only the caseworkers' perspectives here, and we must consider the possibility that they collectively brought hidden agendas into the interviews, we can state with some confidence that lack of trust in management about the technology changes by caseworkers arose from earlier perceptions of negative treatment at the hands of administrators.

As local, on-the-ground experts in work methods and workflow, employees often develop an early intuition about how an organizational change, IT or otherwise, would fit into their visions of themselves and their work, and they may act on this intuition when making decisions about their adoption. Silverman's note to avoid value judgments about the apparently irrational behavior of workers is important here: we construed their espoused attitudes and behavior as skillful maneuvers to maintain orderly situations and processes in the workplace. Seemingly irrational negativity about the new laptops became more understandable when examined in light of the cumulative histories of technology use in the organization, and specifically at how earlier experiences challenged workers' self image and professional relationships.

We believe that the caseworkers' career anchors played a role here too. We found ample evidence that many of the caseworkers had "service" as a career anchor, and their expectations about the future use of laptops for client visits was related to how they envisioned  their ability to serve their clients, as well as their own safety, might be compromised by use of the laptops. These caseworkers performed jobs that gave them little pay or benefits but they did gain recognition from clients that they are providing essential services to a needy population. Their job satisfaction appeared to arise largely from their image of themselves as "doing good". Any challenge to that self perception was understandably resented and the magnitude of their resistance is related to the degree to which their professional effectiveness is anticipated to be negatively affected.

6 Limitations

By using interviews as a main source of data, we encountered two limitations, some inherent in the method and others peculiar to the situation. First, the context of the interviews was such that respondents understood that the researchers were interested in their opinions about the upcoming technological change but they themselves knew little about what those changes would entail. It is possible that their responses were thus particularly negative and their anxiety about the effects of the technology on their future work lives was at a maximum. Secondly, "in action" studies are often based on analysis of audio tapes from "real life" organization interactions such as parent-teacher conferences, patient-doctor interactions, or other kinds of organizational data (diaries, notes). Our study used interview data as organizational data, in part because of the difficulties (technical, social, and ethical) involved in audio taping visits with elderly and sick clients. In an ideal research situation, we might have chosen to use daily interactions between caseworkers and clients as our main data set, but given our limitations, we think that the interviews, with field notes from client visits as additional confirmation, presented an adequate window for viewing the kind of organizational features in which we were interested. Given these limitations, we did not attempt to apply formal conversation analysis techniques to the entire corpus, but rather used the concepts from membership categorization analysis to help us to identify key passages and to provide structure for analysis of those verbatims.

Another limitation was rooted in the relationship of interviewees and members of the investigating team. We represented an outside organization that could have been associated with the upcoming change. Respondents may have been trying to influence the decision about the necessity for the change, looking for sympathy from an outsider, and using the interview as a forum for complaining or trying to blame other people for their fears or inability to adjust to changes. Although there is a chance that some of these strategies affected the interviews, we found that there was considerable consistency across the interviews whenever conducted, and concluded that it was unlikely that such possible distortions seriously altered the validity of our approach.

Another limitation of the study was that there were some changes in key personnel during the study. Interview requests were granted by the previous administrators, but we did not have access to high-level administrators who were in charge of implementing the new policies at the time of the study. Most of our access to the inner workings of the new administration was through the perceptions of the IT managers who had closer contact with them than other employees. Even their contact was rather meager at the time of our study, however. It is likely that organizational upheaval in general may have played a role in the negative perceptions of our respondents throughout the time of our study. Although this would have been a major flaw in our ability to predict future events at this organization, we believe that these limitations did not have a major effect on our understanding of the local history and the case managers' perceptions at the time of the data collection.

7 Conclusion and future research

This paper has documented some of the bases on which current, attitudinally-focused technology acceptance models might be critiqued. In place of such models we have synthesized two theoretical areas and one methodological area: namely Kling's work on the local history's impact on the social aspects of computing, Schein's career anchor theory, and the ethnomethodological tools of conversation analysis and membership categorization analysis.

As our data was not the "natural" in-action talk normally used in ethnomethodological studies, we did not undertake a formal linguistic analysis. Rather, we began by adapting several useful concepts of the method to view our data. Using members' talk as a guide, we identified the caseworkers' own categories and found how they described themselves, the key actors in the organization from their perspective, and the features of each category. We anticipated that these features were especially important for the next step of analysis, which was to connect them with what could be considered the failure of past technology implementations and dim prospects for the planned laptop implementation project. Caseworkers defined themselves as "helpers" and "listeners" in relation to their clients who were "recipients of help". When describing the agency's administration, caseworkers considered themselves "oppressed", "uninformed", and, "monitored" in contradistinction to the administrators. In describing the past introduction of cellular phones, the caseworkers shared many of the salient aspects of each category as well as the details of the local history and organizational structure, and in turn shed light on some highly plausible reasons for such a high intensity of negative emotion surrounding the upcoming new technology.

In future research on technology acceptance and resistance problems, one might use the strengths of conversation analysis to highlight issues such as members' production of asymmetry, approach of delicate topics, and use of linguistic markers for "political" purposes. In an ideal world, this extension of the reported research would include return to the research site to record actual client visits using the new, required technology. We envision that new studies relating to the adoption of new technology in the workplace could readily reveal rich and useful data, and that this data could answer many of the unanswered "why" questions about technology acceptance.

From a practical perspective, our ethnomethodological analysis of interview data in light of Kling's and Schein's theoretical guidance appeared to highlight the importance of workplace visions, and of workers' basic career orientations in the emergence of those visions. If managers wish to avoid technology implementation failures, we suggest that one fruitful step in diminishing the potential for technology resistance would lie in eliciting those workplace visions from workers and orienting the technology planning, communication, and deployment processes based on a sensitivity towards preserving what workers consider predominantly important in their own work lives.

8 Epilogue

At the time of writing, the laptop project has still not come to fruition. The person responsible for information technology at the agency explained in a recent email message:

"We have purchased the software, have obtained our own server, but still no laptops. Our new director has identified some funding, and assures me that the laptops will be forthcoming this year. We are in contact with the state regularly as we are not yet in compliance, due to the mandate and lack of funding for equipment."

The cell phone policy has undergone some changes as well:

"The case managers are still using cell phones for communication and emergency situations. The only change in the previous policy is that they may now use their own personal cell phones, in place of (agency issued) cell phones if they choose. They must get approval to use their own, give their supervisor their cell phone number, and cannot charge the office for calls made on their personal phones. Some case managers preferred to carry only one cell phone (their own), and this change was the compromise between personnel and the case managers."


This research received support from a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation (SES9984111/0196415), but the ideas and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and not necessarily endorsed by the National Science Foundation. Many thanks to Martha Nimon, Shannon Tracy, Tatyana Poletski, and Patrick Serumola for their invaluable assistance in conducting this research, and to Christina Finneran and Deirdre Stam for their editorial suggestions, and to Carolyn Baker for her suggestions and encouragement on our original idea. We would also like to thank the staff members and students from the School of Information Studies who helped us with the audio-files presented in the paper.


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Author details

Kathryn R. Stam, Ph.D.

, is the Associate Director of the Syracuse Information Security Evaluation (SISE) project at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, and is currently a Visiting Professor of Anthropology at the SUNY Institute of Technology in Utica, New York. Dr Stam earned her Ph.D. in Social Science from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has published a range of qualitative research on the topics of culture, health, and technology, and has received financial support for her research from the National Science Foundation.

Jeffrey M. Stanton, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. Dr Stanton's educational background and research interests lie at the junction of information technology and organizational behavior. He has published more than 30 journal articles and book chapters on organizational psychology, organizational research methods, and the measurement of job attitudes.

Indira R. Guzman is a doctoral student and adjunct professor at the School of Information Studies, Syracuse University. Following nearly a decade of work experience in the IT field, her research interests include the impact of information technology in organizations, and the role, career orientations and occupational subculture of IT professionals.

Appendix: Interview protocol

Before we begin, I need to mention a couple of formalities about this interview. I am working with Dr Jeffrey Stanton at Syracuse University on a project that has been funded by the National Science Foundation. This research has been approved Syracuse University's institutional review board and given project number 01123. In this research we are looking at some effects of technology on the workplace and the changes that occur with the introduction of new information systems and practices. We would like to get your perspectives on these issues during this 50-minute interview.

All of your responses will remain confidential. We will aggregate information from many individuals to develop our research conclusions. Neither you personally nor your organization will be identified in any of our research. We will protect your identity in any reports that are provided as feedback to your organization.

With your agreement, we would like to tape record this interview. For this reason we ask that you try to avoid naming specific individuals associated with your organization. Remember that your participation is voluntary and you are free to not answer any question that does not fit your circumstances or that you feel is inappropriate; you may also withdraw from the interview at any time. As you know, I have already obtained approval to ask for your voluntary participation. If you wish to participate, please read and sign the attached informed consent forms. Please keep one signed copy of the form for your records.

General questions

1. What is your position? Can you tell me a bit about what you do here?
2. How long have you been with the organization?
3. How do you feel about your job? What do you like about it? What do you dislike?
4. What are your current responsibilities in your organization?
5. In brief, what is your "workflow" now? (Optional: What kinds of records do you keep? What is the process for keeping these records - timing and so forth?)
6. What is troublesome about these tasks? How might these be improved? (Optional: What are the problems you are having right now? What other records do you need to access that you cannot conveniently obtain now? How often would you need those data?)
7. How do computers (e.g. laptops) fit into this process now? Do you use a computer at work? At home?


8. How do you communicate with other people in your job? With clients? Other caseworkers? Supervisors? Office staff? Other departments?
9. With whom do you communicate most often and about what topics?
10. Among the people you mentioned, which are the most important communications and why?
11. What technology do you use, if any, to keep in touch with each other (none/face-to-face, phone, voice-mail, beeper, email, public address system, instant messaging or chat)?
12. How much do you count on information from these other people in order to be able to do your job?
13. How do other people in the organization communicate with you?
14. What kinds of information do you get from these other and how frequently?
15. Are there any barriers to communication between you and specific individuals (no names, please)? Within the organization as a whole?
16. Can you think of any ways these could be overcome?

Changes due to information technology

I understand that there is a new client database system being put into place and to go along with this, the possibility of using laptop computers out in the field.

17. What have you heard about the proposed changes?
18. What among these changes causes you the most concern?
19. How would these changes affect your relationship with clients? Other caseworkers? Supervisors? Office staff? Administration? Anyone else in the organization? (Probe for laptops in the field, if not mentioned).
20. How do you think your coworkers will react to the proposed changes?
21. How do you think your clients will react? What makes you think this?
22. What ways do you have, in general, to cope with change that occurs in your department?
23. If you have worked in a similar setting, can you talk about how you handled information differently there?
24. How confident are you that this new system will actually be successful at improving the effectiveness of the work done by your office?
25. How do you see the new system increasing or decreasing some of your current job related stress?
26. How do you see the system affecting your job satisfaction?
27. Based on your experiences in other employment settings, where does this organization stand in terms of using technology to help staff members do their work more effectively?
28. What benefits can you see of having this new information system? What benefits can you see of having laptops in the field?
29. In what ways might it make your work life easier? More difficult?
30. What features or capabilities would the "perfect" system include?

Training on new information technology

Next, I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about training on the new system.

31. How do you feel about learning the new system?
32. How do you feel about learning how to use a laptop in the field? (Or if you do not have computer experience, how do you feel about learning to use a computer in general)
33. In an ideal world, how would you get your training on computers, the new system, and for using laptops in the field?
34. Would it be useful to have some training in how to explain the laptops to clients?

Information boundaries

35. Think about the information that will be stored in the laptops and the new database system that we've been discussing. What, if any, of this information is sensitive? For example, what kinds of sensitive information will the system have about clients, you personally, or about your work activities?
36. What might happen if this sensitive information were released to the wrong people? Who would be affected?
37. In your opinion, how should access to this information be controlled and protected? For example, who should have access to it and what procedures should they have to follow to get access?
38. Do you feel that the planning that is going into this information system and its reported capabilities will be sufficient to deal with your concerns about sensitive information?

Barriers and IT language: user perspective

39. Who are the people here who are directly responsible for information technology (IT) in this organization? (If they are not familiar with IT, you can ask them about computers in general)
40. How much contact do you have with these people or that person?
41. What is it like working with them? In what ways do you depend on that person's expertise?
42. How do they communicate with you about IT issues?

Supplemental online resources

Ethnomethodology and research group Web sites

Ethno/CA News

offers information on ethnomethodology and conversation analysis and has been online since the Fall of 1996. "It is a medium for the exchange of information concerning publications, conferences and other items relevant to Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis among those who work in the field or have a strong interest in it. ETHNO/CA NEWS is produced by Paul ten Have, formerly Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Political and Socio-Cultural Sciences, University of Amsterdam." http://www2.fmg.uva.nl/emca/

Paul ten Have's site also contains these two comprehensive bibliographies:

Work, Interaction, and Technology (WIT) Research Group, King's College, London. University of London http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/pse/mancen/witrg/

The International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis, founded in 1989, is a consortium of persons and institutions in North America, Europe and the United Kingdom which is dedicated to the advancement of theory and method in ethnomethodological and conversation analytic studies and to the development of research, instructional and other programs as well as conferences, symposia and lectures http://www.iiemca.org/

American Sociological Association Section on Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis http://ecampus.bentley.edu/dept/bps/emca/

Conversation Analysis Tutorial by Charles Antaki from the Discourse and Rhetoric Group at Loughborough University, Leicester,UK http://www-staff.lboro.ac.uk/~ssca1/sitemenu.htm

Online communities

Cybersoc is an online resource for social scientists interested in the study of the internet, cyberspace, computer mediated communication, and online communities http://www.socio.demon.co.uk/home.html

Books and articles

Carlin, Andrew. "Observation and Membership Categorization: Recognizing Normal Appearances in Public Spaces." Journal of Mundane Behavior, 2003 http://www.mundanebehavior.org/issues/v4n1/carlin.htm

Malhotra, Y. and D. Galletta. "Extending the Technology Acceptance Model to Account for Social Influence: Theoretical Bases and Empirical Validation." Proceedings of the 32nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 1999 http://www.brint.org/technologyacceptance.pdf

For examples of ethnomethodology sites with authentic soundfiles

Lomax, H., N. Casey (1998) "Recording Social Life: Reflexivity and Video Methodology". Sociological Research Online, Vol. 3, No. 2 http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/socresonline/3/2/1.html

E. A. Schegloff offers access to transcripts and soundfiles for his archived publications http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/schegloff/