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Learning Dysfunctions in Information Systems Development: Overcoming the Social Defenses with Transitional Objects

David G. Wastell
MIS Quarterly
Vol. 23, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 581-600
DOI: 10.2307/249490
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/249490
Page Count: 20
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Learning Dysfunctions in Information Systems Development: Overcoming the Social Defenses with Transitional Objects
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Abstract

Given the continuing prevalence of IS failure, this paper contends that a fresh theoretical perspective and new methodological principles are required. It is argued that learning is crucial to the success of ISD, and that many IS projects miscarry due to the inherently high levels of stress and anxiety that imbue ISD and that elicit defense-avoidance behavior patterns in project teams. Such social defenses reflect modes of group behavior that operate primarily to reduce anxiety, rather than reflecting genuine engagement with the task at hand. It is argued that the operation of these defenses can come to paralyze the learning processes that are critical to effective IS development Following a clinical research strategy, case studies are presented illustrating the working of defensive processes which undermined three IS projects. Three social defenses are illustrated: the organizational ritual, the sibling horde, and paranoid isolationism. Drawing on psychodynamic theory, the concept of transitional space is introduced. Such spaces have two important aspects: a supportive psychological climate and a supply of appropriate transitional objects (i.e., entities that provide temporary emotional support). It is argued that IS development should be reframed as a transitional space, with particular attention given to the selection of appropriate transitional objects to assist in breaking down defensive processes. The cases are revisited to illustrate this approach in action; useful insights and positive practical outcomes are shown. It is concluded that the present psychodynamic perspective has considerable value in relation to the IS discipline: theoretically, in terms of our understanding of the social dynamics of ISD and at a practical level too, through the provision of diagnostic concepts and remedial measures that have significant potential to enhance IS praxis and to redress the high rate of IS failure.

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