Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | August 19, 2009

Structuration in an iPod World

One of the most influential ideas explaining the way that organizations and individuals use technology is that of “structuration” (Giddens 1979). This view states that there is duality in the way that technology is used by organizations and individuals and in turn, is shaped by them. That is, there is an interplay between the structures (or functionalities, in every day language) of a technology and their use. The initial structure of the technology determines its use and the subsequent structure is shaped by that use (Orlikowski 1992, DeSantis and Poole 1994). Structuration then essentially means that the way we use technology is as much a function of us and our contexts as it is of the technology. In addition, the structure of the technology is a function of its user and the environment of its use.

The iPhone and its predecessor, the iPod are two of the most compelling examples that I can think of, of structuration. The iPod first gave us the power to shape the content of the media through which we listened to music. Instead of trudging through 11 tracks on a CD to get to the 12th track and perhaps the only one we really cared for, we could now carry around with us, the exact songs we wanted to listen to, no more no less. So each of us could “structure” our own iPod’s according to our moods, where we were going, the time of the year and the singer we wanted to listen to. I remember a friend’s iPod “structure” changed every time she was in a new relationship – to reflect the contingencies of each new “situation” :-). The iPhone has ratcheted up this structurability several notches. Everything that the iPhone does can be shaped by the user through applications downloaded into it. Indeed it can become a very faithful (and sometimes an eerie) reflection of its user by looking (thousands of “appearances”), doing stuff (playing scrabble, twittering, disintegrating at the slightest shake), playing back, storing and communicating just the way he or she wants. Not just individuals, even organizations are using the flexibility afforded by the iPhone to give customized applications to their employees. One of my students who worked part-time at a gas station told me about an iPhone app that all employees were encouraged to have, that scouted for prices at every gas station within a given distance of a particular station. Doctors, traditionally extremely wary of new technology are now demanding iPhone apps that let them keep track of their patients’ histories by remotely logging into hospital databases. Indeed one of the newest challenges that IT departments face is that of figuring out security issues for enterprise iPhone users.

A consequence of all this is that as we interact with others and tell them about the iPhone apps we downloaded and use (its initial functionality determining its initial use), they tell us about the applications they have. If we think those are cool or useful, we download them as well (the use determining subsequent functionality), which further enhances the way we use the device.

References:

Giddens, A. (1984), The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration, University of California Press.

DeSanctis, G., and Poole, M.  (1994), Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory, Organization Science, Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 121-147.

Orlikowski, W. J., (1992) The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations, Organization Science, Vol. 3, No. 3, 398-427

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