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Successful IT systems
Successful IT systems

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5 Power and success in IT systems

We have looked at the nature of success in IT systems, and the different ways in which that success is understood by different stakeholders. The previous section touched briefly on the very important concept of power, which governs the relationships between the stakeholders of an IT system.

Power manifests itself in various ways in different settings including decision making, agenda setting and in the shaping of felt needs: think about the role of advertising in getting consumers to purchase particular products such as cars, and the power of media such as newspapers, television and, increasingly, social networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in shaping public opinion on a range of issues. But what exactly is power?

Notwithstanding the fact that as Clegg (1989, p. xv) has argued ‘there is no such thing as a single all-embracing concept of power per se’, it is important to get to grips with this notion. We might begin by defining power as the ability or capacity to perform or act effectively; alternatively, we might define it as the ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events in the pursuit of some goal or agenda. In his classic study, Power: A Radical View, philosopher Steven Lukes (1974, p. 37) identifies the most basic concept of power as follows:

A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests.

Importantly, on this view, power is something that is necessarily antagonistic or ‘oppositional’, only operating at sites of conflict between individuals and groups. What this means is that in the absence of conflict – in more technical language, where power remains unopposed or ‘uncontested’ – there simply is no exercise of power.

Yet another way of thinking about the issue is presented by Clegg (1989, p. xv) who identifies three family groupings of concepts of power:

  1. Dispositional – power as a set of abilities.
  2. Agency-based – power as the ability to bring about events or cause changes to occur.
  3. Facilitative – power as the ability to achieve goals, that is, to get things done.

The principal difference between the first of these three groupings and the other two has to do with an understanding of power as something that can be possessed by an individual or group in the former, as contrasted with a view of power as something that is necessarily ‘situational’ in nature, that is, determined relative to a ‘background’ context constituted by a network of relations between various actors – for example, stakeholders – in an organisational setting. Another important distinction is that between the power of agents (individuals, groups, organisations etc.) and the power of structures in which such agents are embedded. Structural power can manifest in different domains – social, economic, cultural, technological and so on – and take a variety of forms including legal, financial, governmental and educational institutions.

Issues of power are central when considering the role played by different stakeholders in planning IT systems and, as you saw at the end of the last section, stakeholders can enhance their power by coming together, mobilising their power in pursuit of a common goal or agenda. According to Clegg (1990, p. 349) and others, the process of mobilising power is what is known as politics, and in the remainder of this section our focus will be on issues of politics and stakeholder power relations within organisations.