Sunday, September 04, 2005

Inscription and Loose Coupling

While searching for something else, I happened upon a dissertation on Business Processes and IT in the Pharmaceutical Industry, by Kai A. Simon. The dissertation contains a lot of useful material, including a comparison between the change management practices of several large consulting houses. (PDF is available via the Waellisch website.)

But what I want to talk about here is a theoretical aspect of loose coupling. Simon derives a theory of loose coupling from Madeleine Akrich's concept of inscription.

The relation between global and local aspects of an infrastructure can be analyzed through the concept of inscription (Akrich 1992). ... Taking this point of departure, we can describe how inscription occurs at technology and organizational level and what impact it has on the relation between IT and organization.
  • Technology inscription can be defined as the rigidity of the technology in constraining the users in the way they are related to the technical object. In other words, it refers to the way technological systems can be used within or outside their design and which forms of work-arounds the system allows or prevents.
  • Organizational inscription, on the other hand, reflects the level of freedom or rigidity in organizational procedures or, in other words, the extent to which organizational agents are allowed to reshape the ways in which the technical object are used with respect to organizational rules.

To the extent that technology inscription and organizational inscription are orthogonal, we get a 2x2 matrix.

Here is Simon's account of the four quadrants, including some comments on the implications for BPR and process improvement.


Strict alignment 

In this case, the design of organizational procedures leaves no room for local adaptation. At the same time, technology is rigid: There is no option for use outside the defined context. Standardization of technology and organizational procedures and strict alignment between these elements typically characterize the infrastructure. 

In most process improvement initiatives, the aim is to develop and implement a strictly aligned organizational and technical infrastructure, following a pre-defined process design and using information systems that are supporting this design efficiently. 


Rigid Technology

Organizational procedures are open for local adaptation, while technology does not permit changes in use. Infrastructure is characterized by tensions between global and local organization procedures aiming at satisfying the same objectives, but differing in the means for their achievement. 
[Simon describes a change management project that fell into this category, despite the original intention to develop a strictly aligned infrastructure.] The reason can be found in the lack of control that was exercised with regard to process compliance. It was assumed that all monitors would comply with the globally designed process and senior management was not aware of the local adaptations that took place.


Loose coupling

Organizational procedures and technology use can be redefined and adapted locally. The infrastructure allows adaptation to internal and environmental dynamics and is typical of knowledge intensive organizations. 
[Simon describes a change management project with this intention, which was discontinued after the organization underwent a merger.] 


Rigid organization

In this context, organizational procedures are strictly defined at global level, while technology is open for modifications. The infrastructure is characterized by tensions between different technologies adopted at local level, or local variations in technology use. This context is typical for a post-merger situation, where the merging firms are aiming at developing a common and standardized set of organizational procedures, but maintain their individual technical infrastructures.

As described here, loose coupling gives you THREE different types of flexibility - technological flexibility, organizational flexibility AND flexibility in the relationship between technology and organization.

Reference: AKRICH M., 1992, «The De-scription of Technical Objects» , in BIJKER W., LAW J., (ed.), Shaping Technology/Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, p.205-224.

UPDATE: I have just received an email from Kai Simon, who writes:

The version of my dissertation you have found on the Waellisch site is not the final one, but a draft that was modified in several aspects before it was published. E.g., the final version does not contain a comparison of four consulting approaches, but only of those that were used in the case study company. 

However, the section you analyse has not been changed. You can find the final version in the publication section of my web site ( 

The section on inscription and loose coupling is based on the work that I have conducted with Antonio Cordella, one of my colleagues from my time at the Viktoria Institute in Sweden ( So it was a joined idea and I would like to give Antonio the credits he deserves.

Our concept was the result of our research, but we also received valuable input from the late Claudio Ciborra. He was in the lead for the book "From Control to Drift - The Dynamics of Corporate Information Infrastructures" (Oxford University Press) that summarizes the results of multiple case studies on the manageability of IT infrastructures.

Thanks Kai

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