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Successful IT systems
Successful IT systems

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5.5 Expert stakeholder power

In addition to the role played by management in influencing the approach to IT system implementation in an organisation, it is important to consider how power is exercised by experts such as designers and programmers. Experts are able to exercise power through the control of access to and accumulation of specialist knowledge and information about technology. They wield significant power in many situations, including system design and implementation, because they possess knowledge and skills that others do not. In addition, experts who belong to professions are often able to limit access to the power loop associated with system implementation shown in Figure 3. In terms of what was stated above about the exercise of stakeholder influence through processes of legitimisation, it should be noted that in some contexts a professional body is able to maintain a situation where unless a person is qualified according to a set criterion they cannot legitimately participate in any aspect of the work of that profession. (This does not apply to the UK since there is no licence to practice in this context, although the British Computer Society has worked hard to professionalise IT practice in the UK.)

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Figure 3 System implementation power loop involving experts and professions

Some professions are more powerful than others, and over time the power of professions may well ebb and flow – consider, for example, the decline in the status of engineers in the USA and UK. In short, although professions in particular, and stakeholders in general (though less effectively), try to control access to, and the influence of, other groups in their domain of influence it is crucial to appreciate that, ultimately, power relations are dynamic. In other words, the power and/or influence that an individual or group has today might not be the same as they had last week or will have in the future.

Finally, it is worth noting that the power of experts and stakeholders is very likely to differ at different stages of the system life cycle in the case of systems developed using the ‘waterfall’ approach, where it is assumed one stage of the system life cycle is followed by another, with little scope for return to earlier stages. For systems developed using evolutionary approaches, the situation is more complex with reversals in power relations occurring due to the presence of feedback loops between stakeholders and incremental adaptation, which sometimes proceeds very rapidly. Stakeholder power can also change with adoption of an approach to systems development incorporating different values. For example, in a study conducted by McAvoy and Butler (2009) looking at the introduction of agile methods in a software development team, it was discovered that the power associated with the desire for cohesion and conformity within the team which required a ‘flatter’, more symmetric distribution of power between the stakeholders led to ineffective decision-making and learning. While recognising that such outcomes might be specific to particular deployments of such methods, it is important to appreciate that promoting different values and pursuing different goals results in different configurations of power; furthermore, that determining which values end up being promoted and which goals end up being pursued depends on power relations between stakeholders.