Me as learner – WoW, MMPORGs and learning

Week 1 of the Networked and Global Learning (NGL) course asks the participants to think and write about what they would like to learn. It’s meant to be something other than the principles of NGL and is intended to be something that can be learned through the use of NGL. What follows is my contribution and plans.

What would you like to learn? Why?

My plan is to learn how to play World of Warcraft (WoW) one of the archetypal massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORG). Though perhaps “play” doesn’t really capture the full intent/complexity of participating in WoW.

There are a number of reasons for doing picking WoW

  1. To illustrate a different type of learning.

    I had originally considered using this task as an opportunity to spend more tie re-learning the clarinet (you can hear an early exploration of this on SoundCloud). However, I feel that’s a topic that’s a bit too close to a topic you might learn via a more formal course/learning approach. One of the aims of participating in this activity is to set the example and illustrate something that is quite a bit different. A game is not something many associate with learning.

  2. I’ve always wanted to.

    I’m a frustrated (by time and energy) gamer. I owned a copy of Warcraft (an offline early version of WoW) ages ago and have been aware of MMPORGs for ages. An old friend was completely hooked on them back in the late 1980s/early 1990s when they were a text only affair. More recently I’ve observed vicariously tweeps like @sthcrft and @edugnome report on their explorations of WoW via Twitter. More recently I enjoyed playing Skyrim. So this seems like a perfect opportunity to justify spending a bit of time getting into it.

  3. I can.

    For many years I lived in a rural setting where I didn’t have the broadband connection to play a game like WoW. That’s changed.

  4. It’s a challenge.

    I’m an introvert. I’m the quiet guy that sits up the back in a class, doesn’t really talk, hates the idea of group work and is more than happy to work through something on his own. The idea of working with other people to play a game is a challenge. I’ve tended to avoid this, time to challenge myself.

  5. Exploring a metaphor for courses.

    The rise of gamification – especially in education – is driven by the observation that millions of people (including many people who are not successful participants in formal education) spend huge amounts of enjoyable time learning quite complex bits of knowledge through games. If games can achieve that, why can’t formal education be more like games?

    As someone responsible for a course that averages 300+ people in its largest semester, I want to see what I can learn from participating in WoW that might translate.

  6. A different but successful example of “networked learning”.

    WoW apparently has over 7 million subscribers. Creating a world in which millions of people actively participate requires significant skills. As an example of networked learning what formal education does pales into insignificance. The biggest MOOCs I’ve seen mentioned are talking about one or two hundred thousand participants. You call that a community? This is a community?

How suited do you think it will be to learning via NGL?

An absolutely great fit. Large numbers of people. A huge community around the game. A complicated world in the game with a huge array of roles and possibilities. The necessity at some stage to join with others to achieve more complex tasks….and the other reasons I gave above.

As I was writing this post I did a bit of searching in the literature. A taste of what I found follows.

Seely-Brown (2006, p. 21) describes gaming this way

The first thing you realize is that most video games are incredibly difficult to master. If you’re not extremely good at pattern recognition, sense-making in confusing environments, and multitask- ing—and if you’re afraid to constantly explore and push the limits—then you won’t do well in the game world. In this world you immerse yourself in an immensely complex, information-rich, dynamic environment where you must sense, infer, decide, and act quickly. When you fail, you must learn from that failure and try again and again and again. Continuous decision-making in conditions of uncertainty is the essential skill.

The difficulty of learning a game itself will be a good test of NGL. Can the community around WoW help learn the game. The need to become a member of a community (a guild) to proceed further in the game also offers some possibilities of insights into the notion of community as talked about in the NGL literature.

What will be the benefits and the barriers?

I’m guessing it could be a time sink. Too enjoyable to give up. But beyond that not many barriers.

But that level of enjoyment is also a benefit. It also requires me to break out of the web/social media perspective of NGL. I’ve been stuck in that view for a very long time. Long overdue to break out of it.

What is learning?

Now that’s a question! Or a can of worms when you involve academics and a topic that could take up a course.

The Wikipedia definition current starts with

Learning is the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow learning curves. Learning is not compulsory; it is contextual. It does not happen all at once, but builds upon and is shaped by what we already know. To that end, learning may be viewed as a process, rather than a collection of factual and procedural knowledge. Learning produces changes in the organism and the changes produced are relatively permanent.

I can live with that.

@cj13 did point towards this article which takes aim at associationism largely seen as the underpinning mechanism of learning which I found interesting.

Rather than delving further into that can of worms, time to move on to other work and hopefully some first steps in WoW tonight.


Seely-Brown, J. (2006). New learning environments for the 21st century: Exploring the edge. Change, (October), 18–24.

Next step for NGL

Note: Most of the following was written a week or so ago. Since then course site and week 1 has come into being. Also, it appears that enrolment in the course has skyrocketed up to 15.

The initial call for input into the re-design of the Networked and Global Learning (NGL) course was more successful than I hoped. What follows is some reflection on that response and some thoughts about the next step.

Decision #1 – I have set up a blog on that I think will become the main repository for course information as used by the students. They’ll also have their individual blogs for their own work which will hopefully be aggregated into the course blog.

Reflection – just how much design is needed?

The first response to the tweet I sent out

Came from @type217

A little related to this is the second comment from @s_palm

Over the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about the amount of design that these two suggestions assume is required for a course. “Design” provided either via the services of a “top notch learning designer” or through a “coherent reference”.

Does/should a “networked” course have the same level of design that is associated with a traditional course?

If the aim for a “networked” course for the student to build and grow their own knowledge networks in directions, then should there be more of a light touch?

A comment on the Google doc from @cj13 captures this

Why not get them to build the course, i.e. you do a spot of “master curation” and teach them how to curate

I’m currently thinking of a middle ground as mentioned in the comment I made on @cj13′s point

My rationalisation is the short time frame to get this up and a fear/recognition that too much radical change will put the students off. So the plan is I’ll put in a small path, but then encourage/require the students to ramble away from that. And it’s in that rambling (joint and separate) that the real course will emerge. What they follow, find etc.

I have been thinking about just how much of my role as teacher should be design and how much should be participation in the networks associated with the course. Too often I feel that my practice is focused too much on the design stuff and not enough on the participation. I have a feeling that the amount of time I spend on design doesn’t always have a significant impact on the networks/learning of the students.

This also links to some ideas about bricolage as a perspective for teaching (and just about everything else) in networked/distributed/complex world. More on that later I hope.

There are a range of other suggestions in the Google doc.

@alanarnold’s suggestion

takes things a little further than what I intend. However, there will strong evidence of the influence of the CCK MOOCs and other Canadian influences.


So how then does the “small path” and the “ramble” get implemented? Here’s what I’m thinking.

This Study Schedule page will follow a similar pattern to the CCK’12 course outline and the associated weekly pages. i.e. provide a brief overview, a couple of readings, and then have a collection of activities.

Each week will cover one of the topics from the current potential topic list.

The activities will be designed to encourage the participants to build and share artefacts that connect the topic to the learner’s specific targets in terms of themselves as student, learner and teacher.

Which suggests a range of additional tasks to complete

  1. Identify the weekly topics.
  2. Identify the weekly tasks.
  3. Link the tasks to the assessment.

Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like design?

Similarities and Differences between the old version of the course

This is just an ad hoc collection of reflections based on looking through the prior version of the course


  • Started with students engaging in some reflection and identifying where they are
  • Closed with a symoposium (asynchronous) leading to a final paper – this offering will rely on writers workshops instead.


  • Theme 1 focused on learning communities.
  • Theme 2 – spent time looking at a range of theoretical perspectives
  • How much “social presence/netiquitte” is required?

Reflections on the current state of the course

Current state

I’m reasonably happy with it. It’s nothing earth shakingly innovative, but it pushes the boundaries sufficiently that I think it will (hopefully) provide a more useful learning experience for the students. It is constrained by my capabilities. But in the end the next few weeks will tell how successful that is.

To that end, I do want to find more time to engage in on-going bricolage. That’s partly Downes’ idea of teaching in this space being about “modeling and demonstration” but also about the idea that a course like this – even with only 10 or so students – is a complex system. Big up front design doesn’t work for such a system. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. You have to watch it evolve and respond appropriately.

The tools

The biggest time sink in preparing the week 1 activities was figuring out and setting up the initial set of tools we’ll use in the course.

The week 1 post was written in Word and then manually converted into HTML. This is silly, but fits with the use of Mendeley for citation management and my past experience. It leads to the problem of two different copies.

Setting up the OPML file was also manual. A bit of editing in vi. There don’t appear to be any truly useful tools for constructing OPML files. Need to look for tools that allow for curation/gathering of feeds and then convert that into OPML.

Also had the grand idea of using Menedely as a group. Not sure how that’s going to work, haven’t really used it in anger for that purpose just yet.

The design/content

I found that there was always the desire to provide the perfectly crafted instructional sequence. To offer the pre-packaged conception of the topic. Need to keep a focus more on providing diving off points, rather than a self-contained whole.

Designing a course on “Networked and Global Learning” – scope, thoughts and call for suggestions

The machinations of University decision making are always (more than) a bit obscure, opaque and uncertain. Especially when the institution has just been through a restructure. Late last week I found out that the Networked and Global Learning” Masters course I was allocated to would actually run. Since the course was last re-developed sometime ago, I’ve also pushed for the opportunity to bring it into the modern network age. Hence this this post.

Semester starts in two weeks time. By then I need to design most of the course and have a few weeks implemented. Given the topic (networked and global learning), the limited amount of time, and my limitations it’s only sensible to do this in the open and hopefully benefit from the network.

If you have any thoughts, ideas, or resources that might be helpful please feel free to suggest. Either in the comments below or in this Google doc that has some initial thoughts and resources.

The initial model

The course synopsis (which I have to align with) includes stuff like

  • critically examine the practice of networked and global learning (N&GL) using a variety of theoretical lenses
  • situate themselves within N&GL communities
  • and investigate, reflect upon and evaluate their experiences of N&GL.
  • include an exploration of current tools for and trends in N&GL.
  • Participants will develop insights around how to harness N&GL to support their learning and learners.

Hence I’m thinking the course will be based around a small collection of readings/resources around appropriate topics in NGL.

In engaging with these the participants will be asked to think about how that applies to their use of NGL as

  1. Student – Participants will be asked to transform how their practice as a student in formal education (i.e. this course) through NGL.

    The course will require the students to do things like maintain a blog and use it as a reflective journal. Engage in social bookmarking, curation and anything else that helps build their network.

  2. Learner – i.e. in less formal contexts. Participants will be asked to use NGL to learn something personal
  3. Teacher – i.e. how to harness N&GL to support their learning and learners.

The “teacher” task being the focus toward the end of semester as they draw on their experience.

The only traditional type assessment piece might be an essay worth 20/30% of the final mark. Most of the rest will be participation and reflection type activities spread over the semester.

What’s next?

Feel free to add your suggestions. For me it will be about re-engaging with the resources and ideas I’ve got hidden away in my network.

Not to mention reflecting on how much all of the above indicates that I’m suffering from this problem.

Tracking task corruption with Moodle activity completion

The following documents a quick kludge required for the assessment for a course I teach. It’s primarily a document to help me think through the task and document what was done and why.


A small percentage of the overall mark in this course is generated by completing a weekly list of activities on the course site. Each student’s completion of of these activities is tracked using Moodle’s activity completion feature.

The activities are (in theory) designed to enhance student learning and are aligned with the other course assessment. Obviously they are so well designed and the students so well motivated that they complete the tasks as intended – of course not. There is growing evidence of task corruption and in particular of simulation.

In response, I should be exploring why this is the case and modifying the course, but that will have to wait until later. Right now with the looming end of semester I’ve decided I need to ensure that those engaging in simulation are not rewarded for completion. My rationalisation for doing this is to provide some little reward for those students who engage with the tasks.


Moodle activity completion is one way (apparently). Once a student completes the activity it is recorded in the database and displayed to the student and the staff. There doesn’t appear to be anyway to change the status of this activity completion to “not finished”. Essentially a reset button.

The marking for this aspect of the assessment is done via a perl script. That script draws on the fact that I have a local version of Moodle into which I’m importing the activity completion data from the institutional system. The plan here is to modify the marking script so that it draws on data of the form “student X did not complete activity Y” when calculating the mark of individual students.

I don’t want to modify the Moodle database structure. Even though it’s a local copy this is probably too much effort for this type of kludge. So it appears the easiest approach is to create a new data structure in the script of the form

my %simulation = (
    "studentX" => (  "Checking your understanding of some models, frameworks...." => 1 ),
    "studentY" => ( "Share your posts on the Connect.ed resources" => 1,
                    "Share what you already know about lesson planning" => 1 )

A hash keyed on student ID which points to a hash keyed on activity names.

As the script is calculating the mark for each student it will check this hash for entries for the student and modify the mark accordingly.


Will those keys work?

The student ID will work, though there will be some manual work identifying it for each student. The question is whether the activity name can be used as an ID. Is it stored in the local database?

Activity completion is kept in mdl_course_modules_completion. It doesn’t store the activity name. Do I store it elsewhere? Nope, not storing that information.

Is there a table for it? For the life of me (or at least this early on a Saturday morning) I can’t find where this information should be stored in the Moodle tables.

The import script I use can easily insert data into a table linking the activity id with the activity name. But for the immediate kludge dumping a Perl data structure might do. In fact there’s a variable already to dump.

Now what about the students and the activities they’ve simulated? What I currently have is their name and the name of any simulated activities. The student ID being used is Moodle user id. Only a half-dozen students, so some manual SQL will do, implementing the above idea

    283 => { "Share your posts on the Connect.ed resources" => 1,
             "Share what you already know about lesson planning" => 1 },
    149 => { "Checking your understanding of some models, frameworks…." => 1 }

Re-calculating mark

The completion data is taken from the database via a class. That same class generates a PERCENT completion figure for each student. That seems a sensible place to stick the code to re-calculate the mark. Use case something like

$completion->reCalculate( \%activityMapping, $SIMULATION );

The hash from above is passed into recalculate which then (surprise, surprise) recalculates the grades. This way I don’t have to modify any of the script code. Good plan.

Of course, the module is actually getting SQL to do the calculation rather than Perl. So this implies a rewriting of the module to

  • Get all rows of completion data for the BIM activity.
  • Have Perl generate an array for each user with the number they’ve completed based on START/STOP, actual completion and the data in SIMULATION.

All that’s done and seems to be working

Modifying the report

With the data changed, now need to update the report to include mention of this simulation. The function calculateLearningPath seems the best bet.

All done.

Making BIM ready for Moodle 2.6

The very nice folk from my institution’s ICT group warned me back in March that

I have started work on the moodle 2.6 upgrade that will be happening midyear and have come across some deprecation warning from BIM. Just giving you plenty of notice that an updated version will be needed before release.

That was just as my first use of BIM on the institution’s servers was getting underway. That’s gone reasonably well and it will be continuing (and hopefully expanding as I learn more about what’s required and possible with the approach) next semester, so I better get BIM playing nicely with 2.6. That’s what this post is reporting on.

BIM for Moodle 2.6 (and also 2.5) is available from the BIM plugin database entry and also from GitHub.

Get Moodle 2.6 running

Let’s get the latest version of Moodle 2.6 – 2.6.3 – and install that.

So that’s the first change. PHP setting for caching. Not that I’ll need that for testing. Looks like I can ignore it for now.

Get BIM installed

I’m doing this so irregularly now it’s good that I actually documented this last time.

That all appears to be working. Ahh, but I haven’t turned the debugging all the way up to annoying yet.

That’s better

get_context_instance() is deprecated, please use context_xxxx::instance() instead.

And about this stage it was always going to be time to….

Check the Moodle 2.6 release notes

The Moodle 2.6 release notes and then the developer notes. Nothing particularly related to this warning.

Do it manually

As outlined in this message it appears that this particular usage has been deprecated for a few versions. The deprecatedlib.php suggests this gets removed in 2.8.

So the changes I’m doing appear like this

#$context = get_context_instance( CONTEXT_COURSE, $course->id );
$context = context_course::instance( $course->id );

I can see this is needed in the following

  • ./coordinator/allocate_markers.php
  • ./coordinator/find_student.php
  • ./index.php **done?**
  • ./lib/groups.php
  • ./lib/locallib.php
  • ./marker/view.php
  • ./view.php – this one had actually been done earlier
    #$context = get_context_instance( CONTEXT_MODULE, $cm->id );
    $context = context_module::instance( $cm->id );

That all seems to be working.

Do a big test

Will back up a large BIM activity with a temp course from my Moodle 2.5 instance and restore it under Moodle 2.6.

Some more issues

print_container() is deprecated. Please use $OUTPUT->container() instead. Done

Does my course suffer from semester droop?

The institutional LMS seems to be having some problems, so I’ll post this instead.

Quite a few folk I work with have made observations about semester droop. i.e. attendance at lectures/tutorials dropping off as the semester progresses. @damoclarky and @beerc confirmed that the same droop can be seen in the longitudinal LMS data they have access to across most courses.

So the question I wanted to explore was

Does the course site from the S2, 2013 offering of my course show evidence of semester droop?

The quick answer is “Yes, a bit”. But it’s not huge or entirely unexpected. Might be interesting to explore more in other courses and especially find out what’s behind it.

Why do this?

I thought this would be interesting because

  1. I have a little tool that allows me to view usage of the site very easily.

    If it were harder, I probably wouldn’t have done it.

  2. The S2, 2013 offering is entirely online, no on-campus students so the course site is the main form of official interaction.
  3. Part of the final result (no more than 3%) comes from completing the sequence of weekly activities on the course site.
  4. I’ve tried to design these activities so that they explicitly link with the assessment and Professional Experience (the course if for pre-service teachers, they teach in schools for 3 weeks during the semester).


Created two views of the S2, 2013 EDC3100 course site using MAV

  1. Clicks; and,

    Shows the entire course site with the addition of a heat map that shows the number of times students have clicked on each link.

  2. Students.

    The same image, but rather than clicks the heat map shows the number of students that clicked on each link.


  1. Students – there is some drop off.

    91 students completed all the assessment. 9 did not.

    97 students is the largest number of students clicking on any link. This is limited to the Assessment link and a couple of links in the first week. Where did the other two go?

    The activities in the last week range from 48 students clicking on a link up to 83 students.

    So definite drop off with some students not completing the activities in the last few weeks.

  2. Clicks.

    Assessment link had the most clicks – 1559 clicks.

    The “register your blog” link had 1211 clicks. This is where students registered and looked for other student blog addresses. The blog contributed to final result.

    Discussion forums for Q&A and Assignment 3 – 977 clicks and 949 clicks.

    Activities in the first week ranged from 177 clicks up to 352. Indicating that many students started these more than once.

    Activities in the last week ranged from 83 to 146 clicks. The 146 clicks was titled “Pragmatic assignment 3 advice”.

    Definite drop off. The most popular activity in the last week got less clicks than the least popular activity from week 1.


@palbion made the point that students are pragmatic and do what they think they need. It appears that the EDC3100 design addresses this somewhat in that they tend to stick with the activities as they need it.

However, by the last week the students have the results from two assignments that make up 59% of their assessment. I wonder if the small percentage associated with completing study desk activities and knowing their likely mark results in them making a pragmatic decision? One potential explanation for the drop off in the last week.

The other is they are probably busy with other assignments and courses they need to catch up on after being on Professional Experience.

@beerc has made the suggestion that perhaps by the end of semester the students are more confident with the value of the course site and how to use it. They’ve had the full semester to become familiar, hence less clicks searching around to make sure everything is checked.

Of course, asking them would be the only way to find out.


From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems

What follows is a long overdue summary of Ciborra (1992). I think it will have a lot of insight for how universities implement e-learning. The abstract for Ciborra (1992) is

When building a Strategic Information. System (SIS), it may not be economically sound for a firm to be an innovator through the strategic deployment of information technology. The decreasing costs of the technology and the power of imitation may quickly curtail any competitive advantage acquired through an SIS. On the other hand, the iron law of market competition prescribes that those who do not imitate superior solutions are driven out of business. This means that any successful SIS becomes a competitive necessity for every player in the industry. Tapping standard models of strategy analysis and data sources for industry analysis will lead to similar systems and enhance, rather than decrease, imitation. How then should “true” SISs be developed? In order to avoid easy imitation, they should should emerge from from the grass roots of the organization, out of end-user hacking, computing, and tinkering. In this way the innovative SIS is going to be highly entrenched with the specific culture of the firm. Top management needs to appreciate local fluctuations in practices as a repository of unique innovations and commit adequate resources to their development, even if they fly if the face of traditional approaches. Rather than of looking for standard models in the business strategy literature, SISs should be looked for in the theory and practice of organizational leaming and innovation, both incremental and radical.

My final thoughts

The connection with e-learning

Learning and teaching is the core business of a university. For the 20+ years I’ve worked in Australian Higher Education there has been calls for universities to become more distinct. It would then seem logical that the information systems used to support, enhance and transform (as if there are many that do that) learning and teaching (I’ll use e-learning systems in the following) should be seen as Strategic Information Systems.

Since the late 1990s the implementation of e-learning systems has been strongly influenced by the traditional approaches to strategic and operational management. The influence of the adoption of ERP systems are in no small way a major contributor to this. This recent article (HT: @katemfd) shows the lengths to which universities are going when the select an LMS (sadly for many e-learning == LMS).

I wonder how much of the process is seen as being for strategic advantage. Part, or perhaps all, of Ciborra’s argument for tinkering is on the basis of generating strategic advantage. The question remains whether universities see e-learning as a source of strategic advantage (anymore)? Perhaps they don’t see selection of the LMS as a strategic advantage, but given the lemming like rush toward “we have to have a MOOC” of many VCs it would seem that technology enhanced learning (apologies to @sthcrft) is still seen as a potential “disruptor”/strategic advantage

For me this approach embodies the rational analytic theme to strategy that Ciborra critiques. The tinkering approach is what is missing from university e-learning and its absence is (IMHO) the reason much of it is less than stellar.

Ciborra argues that strategic advantage comes from systems where development is treated as an innovation process. Where innovation is defined as creating new knowledge “about resources, goals, tasks, markets, products and processes” (p. 304). To me this is the same as saying to treat the development of these systems as a learning process. Perhaps more appropriately a constructionist learning process. Not only does such a process provide institutional strategic advantage, it should improve the quality of e-learning.

The current rhetoric/reality gap in e-learning arises from not only an absence, but active prevention and rooting out, of tinkering and bricolage. An absence of learning.

The deficit model problem

Underpinning Ciborra’s approach is that the existing skills and competencies within an organisation provide both the source and the constraint on innovation/learning.

A problem with university e-learning is the deficit model of most existing staff. i.e. most senior management, central L&T, central L&T and middle managers (e.g. ADL&T) have a deficit model of academic staff. They aren’t good enough. They don’t know enough. They have to complete a formal teaching qualification before they can be effective teachers. We have to nail down systems so they don’t do anything different.

Consequently, wxisting skills and competencies are only seen as a constraint on innovation/learning. They are never seen as a source.

Ironically, the same problem arises in the view of students held by the teaching academics that are disparaged by central L&T etc.

The difficulties

The very notion of something being “unanalyzable” would be very difficult for many involved in University management and information technology to accept. Let alone deciding to use it as a foundation for the design of systems.

Summary of the paper


Traditional approaches for designing information systems are based on “a set of guidlines” about how best to use IT in a competitive environment and “a planning and implementation strategy” (p. 297).

However, the “wealth of ‘how to build an SIS’ recipes” during the 1990s failed to “yield a commensurate number of successful cases” at least not measured against the rise of systems in the 1980s. Reviewing the literature suggests a number of reasons, including

  • Theoretical literature emphasises rational assessment by top management as the means for strategy formulation ignoring alternative conceptions from innovation literature valuing learning more than thinking and experimentation as a means for revealing new directions.
  • Examining precedent-setting SISs suggests that serendipity, reinvention and other facts were important in their creation. These are missing from the rational approach.

So there are empirical and theoretical grounds for a new kind of guidelines for SIS design.

Organisations should ask

  1. Does it pay to be innovative?
  2. Are SISs offering competitive advantage or are they competitive necessity?
  3. How can a firm implement systems that are not easily copied and thus generate returns?

In terms of e-learning this applies

the paradox of micro-economics: competition tends to force standardization of solutions and equalization of production and coordination costs among participants.

i.e. the pressures to standarise.

The argument is that an SIS must be based on new practical and conceptual foundations

  • Basing an SIS on something that can’t be analysed, like orgnisational culture will help avoid easy imitation. Leveraging the unique sources of practice and know-how of the firm and industry level can be th esource of sustained advantage.
  • SIS development should be closer to prototyping and engaging with end-users’ ingenuity than has been realised.
    The capability of integrating unique ideas and practical design solutions at the end-user level turns out to be important than the adoption of structured approaches to systems development or industry analysis (Schoen 1979; Ciborra and Lanzara, 1990)

Questionable advantage

During the 1980s a range of early adopters of strategic information systems (SISs) – think old style airline reservation systems – arose brought benefit to some organisations and bankruptcy to those that didn’t adopt. This arose to a range of frameworks for identifying SIS.

I’m guessing some of these contributed to the rise of ERP systems.

But the history of those cited success stories suggest that SIS only provide an ephemeral advantage before being copied. One study suggests 92% of systems followed industry wide trends. Only three were original.

I imagine the percentage in university e-learning would be significantly higher. i.e. you can’t get fired if you implement an LMS (or an eportfolio).

To avoid the imitation problem there are suggestions to figure out the lead time for competitors to copy. But that doesn’t avoid the problem. Especially given the rise of consultants and service to help overcome.

After all, if every university can throw millions of dollars at Accenture etc they’ll all end up with the same crappy systems.

Shifts in model of strategic thinking and competition

This is where the traditional approaches to strategy formulation get questioned.

i.e. “management should first engage in a purely cognitive process” that involves

  1. appraise the environment (e.g. SWOT analysis)
  2. identify success factors/distinctive competencies
  3. translate those into a range of competitive strategy alternatives
  4. select the optimal strategy
  5. plan it in sufficient details
  6. implement

At this stage I would add “fail to respond to how much the requirements have changed” and start over again as you employ new senior leadership

This model is seen in most SIS models.

Suggests that in reality actual strategy formulation involves incrementalism, muddling through, myopic and evolutionary decision making. “Structures tend to influence strategy formulation before they can be impacted by the new vision” (p. 300)

References Mintzberg (1990) to question this school of through 3 ways

  1. Assumes that the environment is highly predictable and events unfold in predicted sequences, when in fact implementation surprises happen. Resulting in the clash between inflexible plans and the need for revision.
  2. Assumes that the strategist is an objective decision maker not influenced by “frames of reference, cultural biases, or ingrained, routinized ways of action” (p. 301). Contrary to a raft of research.
  3. Strategy is seen as an intentional design process rather than as learning “the continuous acquisition of knowledge in various forms”. Quotes a range of folk to argue that strategy must be based on effective adaptation and learning involving both “incremental, trial-and-error learning, and radical second-order learning” (p. 301)

The models of competition implicit in SIS frameworks tend to rely on theories of business strategy from industrial organisation economics. i.e. returns are determined by industry structure. To generate advantage a firm must change the structural characteristics by “creating barriers to entry, product differentiation, links with suppliers” (p. 301).

There are alternative models

  • Chamberlin’s (1933) theory of monopolistic competition

    Firms are heterogeneous and compete on resource and asset differences – “technical know-how, reputation, ability for teamwork, organisational culture and skills, and other ‘invisible assets’ (Itami, 1987)” (p. 301)

    Differences enable high return strategies. You compete by cultivating unique strengths and capabilities and defending against imitation.

  • Schumpeter’s take based on innovation in product, market or technology

    Innovation arises from creative destruction, not strategic planning. The ability to guess, learn and luck appear to be the competitive factors.

Links these with Mintzberg’s critique of rational analytics approaches and identifies two themes in business strategy

  1. Rational analytic

    Formulate strategy in advance based on industry analysis. Plan and then implement. Gains advantage relative to firms in the same industry strucure.

  2. Tinkering (my use of the phrase)

    Strategy difficult to plan before the fact. Advantage arises from exploiting unique characteristics of the firm and unleashing its innovating capabilities

Reconsidering the empirical evidence

Turns to an examination of four well-known SIS based on the two themes and other considerations from above. This examination these “cases emphasize the discrepancy between ideal plans for an SIS and the realities of implementation” (p. 302). i.e.

The system was not developed according to a company-
by one of the business units. The system was not developed according to company-wide strategic plan; rather, it was the outcome of an evolutionary, piecemeal process that included the ingenious tactical use of systems already available.

i.e. bricolage and even more revaling

the conventional MIS unit was responsible not only for initial neglect of the new strategic applications within McKesson, but also, subsequently, for the slow pace of company-wide learning about McKesson’s new information systems

Another system “was supposed to address an internal inefficiency” (p. 303) not some grand strategic goal.

And further

The most frequently cited SIS successes of the 1980s, then, tell the same story. successes of the 1980s, then, tell the same story. Innovative SISs are not fully designed top-down or introduced in one shot; rather, they are tried out through prototyping and tinkering. In contrast, strategy formulation and design take place in pre-existing cognitive frames and organizational contexts that usually prevent designers and sponsors from seeing and exploiting the potential for innovation. (p. 303)

New foundations for SIS design

SIS development must be treated as an innovation process. The skills/competencies in an organisation is both a source and a constraint on innovation. The aim is to create knowledge.

New knowledge can be created in two non-exclusive ways

  1. Tinkering.

    Rely on local information and routine behaviour. Learning by doing, incremental decision making and muddling through).

    Accessing more diverse and distant information, when an adequate level of competence is not present, would instead lead to errors and further divergence from optimal performance (Heiner, 1983) (p. 304)

    People close to the operational level have to be able to tinker to solve new problems. “local cues from a situation are trusted and exploited in a somewhat unreflective way, aiming at ad hoc solutions by heuristics rather than high theory”

    The value of this approach is to keep development of an SIS close to the competencies of the organisation and ongoing fluctuations.

  2. Radical learning

    “entails restructuring the cognitive and organisational backgrounds that give meaning to the practices, routines and skills at hand” (p. 304). It requires more than analysis and requirements specifications. Aims at restructuring the context of both business policy and systems development”. Requires “intervening in situations and designing-in-action”.

    The change in context allows new ways of looking at the capabilities and devising new strategies. The sheer difference becomes difficult to imitate.

SIS planning by oxymorons

Time to translate those theoretical observations into practical guidelines.

Argues that the way to develop an SIS is to proceed by oxymoroon. Fusing “opposites in practice and being exposed to the mismatches that bound to occur” (p. 305). Defines 7

  • 4 to bolster incremental learning
    1. Value bricolage strategically
    2. Design tinkering

      This is important

      Activities, settings, and systems have to be arranged so that invention and prototyping by end-users can flourish, together with open experimentation (p. 305)

      Set up the organisation to favour local innovation. e.g. ad hoc project teams. ethnographic studies.

    3. Establish systematic serendipity

      Open experimentation results in largely incomplete designs, the constant intermingling of implementation and refinement, concurrent or simultaneous conception and execution – NOT sequential

      An ideal context for serendipity to merge and lead to unexpected solutions.

    4. Thrive on gradual breakthroughs.

      In a fluctuating environment the ideas that arise are likely to include those that don’t align with established organisational routines. The raw material for innovation. “management should appreciate and learn about such emerging practices”

  • Radical learning and innovation
    1. Practice unskilled learning

      Radically innovative approaches may be seen as incompetent when judged by old routines and norms. Management should value this behaviour as an attempt to unlearn old ways of thinking and doing. It’s where new perspectives arise.

    2. Strive for failure

      Going for excellence suggests doing better what you already do which generates routinized and efficient systems. The competency trap. Creative reflection over failures and suggest ways to novel ideas and designs. Also the recognition of discontinuities and flex points.

    3. Achieve collaborative inimitability

      Don’t be afraid to collaborate with competitors. Expose the org to new cultures and ideas.

These seven oxymorons can represent a new “systematic” approach for the establishment of an organizational environment where new information—and thus new systems can be generated. Precisely because they are paradoxical, they can unfreeze existing routines, cognitive frames and behaviors; they favor learning over monitoring and innovation. (p. 306)


Ciborra, C. (1992). From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems. The Information Society, 8(4), 297–309.