Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | September 17, 2010

What Makes Individuals use IT?

The central question that research on IT use tries to answer is, simply, “What makes individuals use applications and systems that are implemented by the organizations they work in?” One of the earlier explanations came in the form of the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM), originally proposed by Fred Davis (Davis 1989) and significantly refined since.  This model suggests that an individual will be favorably disposed towards the use of a particular application if he or she finds it easy to use and feels it is going to be useful for his or her work. So simply put, applications that are user-friendly and do what users think they ought to do, are more likely to be used.This model adopts a utilitarian view of IT. That is, applications are meant for the user to accomplish certain tasks – the more easily these tasks can be done, the more the application will be used. The TAM spawned considerable research and literature on designing user friendly application interfaces and systems analysis and design, the underlying attempts of which were to understand how applications and systems could be designed and built for maximum utility and ease of use.

A second view that gained prominence in the early 1990’s was the Institutional approach to understanding systems us. Based on Scott’s  exposition (Scott 1995) of how organizational practices, beliefs and norms congeal to encourage or discourage its members to act in certain ways, this view suggests that individuals will use a particular application if they have to or if is accepted in their departments/teams/firm as being cool to do so.  This view was particular useful in the context of use of ERP applications, for example, where nothing short of a mandate for use was required for people to actually use these massive monolithic systems.  The carrot-stick policies of incentives for use and dis-incentives for non-use, common in the context of  “knowledge management” systems in many consulting firms, also draw from perspectives in this view.

A third view that emerged in the mid- 1990’s related to the concept of task-technology fit as a factor leading to system use. If the functionality and capabilities of the application fit the tasks to which it is applied, then individuals will tend to use it more. For example, if an application is to be designed for creating and emailing purchase orders, it should, at the very least provide an easy to way to choose the particular purchaser and seamless connectivity to email software. This view helped to shape the customization vs. vanilla implementation debate that characterized the implementation of ERP and other process- oriented applications in the last decade. Lack of “fit” with existing tasks and processes resulted in either customization of these out-of-the-CD softwares or in process/task redesign to fit the applications. Either ways, implementation costs increased significantly.

Many applications that we use today are “intelligent”. That is, the user decides how to use it. Take Microsoft Excel for instance – you can use it to build reasonably sophisticated databases or you can use it to simply store tables. Most companies don’t “mandate” how to use it, so its pretty much upto the individual to figure out the level of sophistication of use. This is called “adaptive structuration” (Desanctis and Poole 1994) and applies to many applications we use today – MS Office, the Internet, blogs, wikis, social networking applications and so on. The questions of “fit” and “ease of use” are moot for these types of applications, since they are all quite easy to use and can be made to fit many different tasks. Therefore, these technologies are used through adaptive structuration – that is, each person, depending on what they do, how comfortably and effectively they can use the application for that, and how much help/support is available from peers and technical support people – will adapt and use the application.

So then, for firms, which way to go? Should they simply mandate the use of applications, or should they make it easy to use and hope that people will use them? It depends, and it is safe to say that one set of actions will not suffice. For those applications that enable essential workflows (e.g. ERP applications) such as invoicing, ordering and sales, mandated use and centralized/formal decisions on how the application will be developed or customized is probably the best way to go. For others, such as a project management wiki for example, it is probably best to let structuration take over and let the user decide on the content they want to see and generate, the way in which they want the  content processed  and application  functionalities they want to use.


Davis, F. D., Bagozzi, R. P., and Warshaw, P. R. 1989. “User acceptance of computer technology: A comparison of two theoretical models,” Management Science (3:8), pp982-1003.

Desantics,G.,and Poole,M.S.1994. “Capturing complexity in advanced technology use : Adaptive  Structuration Theory,” Organization Science(5:2),pp 121-147.

Goodhue, D. L., and Thompson, R. L. 1995. “Task-technology fit and individual performance,” MIS Quarterly, ( 19:2),pp 213-236.

Scott, W. R. 1995. “Institutions and Organizations”. Sage Press, 1995, Thousand Oaks, CA


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