From Essex to cyberspace: virtual organisational reality and real organisational virtuality

Patrick Dawson, David Preece, Ian McLoughlin

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    To shed light on the relationship between technology and organisation, this article examines the classic work of Joan Woodward (1970; 1980) and her pioneering research conducted in 100 firms in South Essex. This work is rightly famous for its identification of technology (defined as 'production system') as the principal contingent variable in organisational structure and behaviour. After a brief review of salient points from this work we then discuss some more contemporary literature. Our focus is with those studies that examine the potential for organisational and business transformation through advances in Information, Computing and Telecommunications technologies (ICTs). The view that organisations can be embodied within a 'virtual reality' constituted through electronic interactions is questioned and the consequence of such a stance for our understanding of work is discussed. For more managerialist writers, it is shown how these possibilities have been presented as servicing the empowerment of both the employee and the customer (Hammer and Champy 1993). For critics, they often signal new and more pervasive possibilities for surveillance, control and the invasion of privacy--a trend captured by the concept of the electronic panopticon (Foucault 1977; Sewell and Wilkinson 1992). We shall suggest that both these positions owe a considerable amount to misinterpretations of Woodward's pioneering work and the tendency to elevate the determining characteristics of technology. However, we shall question what we term the 'South Essex' legacy of the technology/organisation relationship. To do so we will draw upon the distinction made by Castells (1996; 2000) between 'virtual reality' and 'real virtuality'. This, we argue, suggests a rather different way of conceptualising the possibilities for organisational transformation through the application of 'virtual technologies'. The insights gained have, we believe, considerable potential practical implications for both organisational and system designers.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)73-90
    JournalLabour and Industry
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


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