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A Rural Tale - a Cautionary Allegory for Is Researchers

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A Rural Tale:

A Cautionary Allegory for IS Researchers

Professor Mike Newman


A textual fragment from a case study describing the attempted introduction of a simple water deliver system into a rural village is presented. Using text as allegory, we try to reveal how textual analysis, management change theories, social theory and IS literature can be used to add to our understanding of the events portrayed in the text. We show what each interpretive device contributes to our understanding as well as uncovering their limitations. The paper ends by drawing some lessons for IS researchers.

Keywords: Allegory, Information Systems, Research, Management Change Theories, Textual Analysis

1. Introduction and the Rural Tale

Consider the following description of a series of events at a rural village:

“A story was recently told concerning a certain village in a developing countryS1. The villagers were approached by foreign aid workers with a view to making their lives easierS2. One of the features of village life that the experts noticed was the considerable time the women spent going quite long distances together to bring back water in jars to their hutsS3.

The experts considered this problem and came up with a fairly low-tech solution to ease the women’s burden: they provided a pump and water pipe from the water supply and taps for each hutS4. Then, instead of walking several times a day to pick up the water, the women could fill up their jars as often as they wished at their hutsS5. The experts, waiting perhaps for the accolades of the villagers were astounded instead by their hostile reaction: collectively, the women decided not to use the tapsS6”.

Ostensibly it seems straightforward as a tale. A group of aid workers (experts) enter a village and attempt to make the women’s lives easier by removing what they saw as the drudgery of collecting water in jars from some distant water hole and replacing this with a water delivery system (WDS) consisting of a pump, pipe and individual taps. A worthy goal you might think, demonstrating altruistic behaviour. However, without consulting the women (or anybody so it seems) the experts go ahead and design, build and hand over the system to the women. Contrary to the experts’ expectations the women reject the taps (and therefore the WDS) and make their feelings known to them (“their hostile reaction”). We are not told how this rejection was handled by the experts or what they did subsequently.

There is a popular formula in the management change literature that “user” involvement is a sine qua non of successful implementation (Newman and Robey, 1992; Robey and Farrow,1982; Gallivan and Keil, 2003). Success without user involvement is impossible to achieve. User Involvement of course may range from consulting the users to allowing the users to participate fully in the systems’ design (Demodaran, 1996). You have to have the users’ “buy-in” to increase their commitment to the system and thereby increase your chance of delivering a workable, acceptable system. The tale supports this: the lack of user involvement in this case brings user rejection of the WDS by refusing to use it. But was it as simple as this? Were there deeper reasons why the WDS was rejected? For example, did the system violate the collectivism as apparently practiced by the women? Could it be that the women liked to spend time together? The individual taps undermined this and removed a perfectly reasonable excuse to meet and “network” at the waterhole while performing the socially useful task of water gathering. Moreover, this could also be an issue of status in the village. In this scenario water gathering is a recognised, high status role in the village. Take this away and the women’s role and status would be threatened by the WDS, a more than enough reason to reject the system . Alternatively, it could be that the women were concerned about the quality of the water supply: could water be polluted in its transit through the pipes or could its transit violate religious ideals? And who would repair the pump if it broke down? There also appears to be no effort spent training the women in using the WDS and educating them as to its advantages. The WDS was just handed over as if education and training were someone else’s job. In summary, the experts seem to have violated all the generally-accepted rules in making this system.

But you might say that we are getting ahead of ourselves. All we know from the description above is the reporting

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