Changes in business strategy usually precede structural adaptation, according to predominant theories, with strategy causing a realignment of a firm’s management processes.1 While there has been some debate on the degree of strategic choice,2 this is the dominant view, both descriptively and normatively. It is also a perspective that researchers on the strategic management of information technology (IT) have adopted, implicitly or explicitly. For example, the widely cited MIT Management in the 1990s framework assumes that a firm’s business strategy drives the subsequent alignment and fit of organization structure, management processes, individual skills and roles, and technology.3
Here we present a case study of the strategic application of information technology in which a very different process took place — almost the reverse of the conventional, rational models. Rather than beginning with strategy formulation, the process began with the tactical and incremental adoption of technology. In turn, that became the catalyst for change in individual roles and skills, followed by structural adaptation, and, later, changes in the firm’s management processes, which embedded and reinforced organizational learning. From the new configuration, a business strategy and vision began to emerge, as a range of new strategic options became apparent. In this way, the IT strategy and subsequent business transformation gradually evolved out of tactical responses to operational needs. In time, the process came to shape the firm’s strategic fit.
The strategic value of the firm’s gradual transformation was not simply a direct consequence of the application of IT but a function of the particular interaction of organizational, individual, and technological factors, for which IT was the initial catalyst. This interaction created strategic fit and embedded processes of learning in the firm. Thus this is a case study of organizational adaptation and strategic dynamics, in which IT plays a critical role, rather than a study of diffusion of a technical innovation.4
We also show how the change process had important implications for the management of risk. The traditional change model revolves around a strategic vision and the implementation of large-scale change, which is inherently high risk. In contrast, the change process here was characterized by incremental, sequential, independent steps, which minimized threats to the firm by decoupling the risks and spreading them over different projects and over time.
We begin with a description of how the change process unfolded at Flower and Samios Pty. Ltd., followed by an analysis and discussion of the dynamics of strategic fit achieved at the firm.
The Case of Flower and Samios
In 1987, Flower and Samios was a small architectural firm in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, with two senior partners, fourteen employees, and an annual project portfolio of $20 million to $30 million. There were no computers used in the business. Within five years, the entire practice was transformed. By 1992, the firm had shrunk to twelve people, with an annual project portfolio of more than $100 million. The architects no longer used drawing boards and pencils. Instead, they did all design work on networked Apple Macintosh computers, using a range of integrated CAD and multimedia software packages.
Over the years, senior design partner John Flower had periodically examined the computer systems available to assist with architectural design, prompted by a vague sense that it would be “a good thing to get into computers.” However, on each occasion, he had generally been discouraged by the expense, size, and complexity of the systems. The impetus to buy a computer came in 1987, when the firm lost a design competition to a rival. When Flower inquired why his “terrific” design had not won, he was shown his rival’s winning entry —a computer-generated, three-dimensional walkthrough of the building. The contrast to Flower and Samios’ entry was dramatic; Flower remarked, “We had only these fluffy little sketches!”
I came back and said to my partner, “That’s it; we are getting a computer.” So we went and saw these Macs that a guy had, and I said, “Show me how to draw a line,” and he went “click, click.” That, basically, was the start of it. We were very nervous because our whole world had been pencils. We bought a Mac II and a little Mac SE and some basic programs.
From this hesitant beginning, Flower began to experiment with computers in his work. As he and then others mastered the range of design functions and capabilities, the firm gradually expanded its involvement with computers. Within a few years, the firm’s technology platform became integral to its professional and business success, and by 1992, its IT investment was more than $20,000 per employee.
Evolution of IT Strategy
We can identify three main elements that are central to the evolution of what became Flower and Samios’ IT strategy, although it would be misleading to imply that they reflect a consciously planned strategy. First, the principal partners agreed that they would learn the new system, essentially a defensive tactical decision rather than a strategic one. Flower was determined not to repeat what he saw as the mistake of a colleague who was “held to ransom” by a CAD operator whose specialized knowledge had made him indispensable. Second, with experience and increasing mastery over the new technology, Flower realized that there were cost and productivity benefits to gain from the investment in IT. However, he recognized that he could capture these only if the technology became integral to many aspects of the business, rather than being marginalized and used just for presentations. This required the senior partners’ continuing mastery of the system and its dissemination throughout the firm. On a project-by-project basis, a staff member was given a computer at the beginning of the job, and he or she learned to use the system and relevant software packages with help from staff members who had already mastered them. Flower explained:
We did everything on the basis of “Here’s a new job, it’s your turn to start on the machine, and we don’t want you using the drawing board at all.” Each time that happened, we bought a new computer, and the cost of the acquisition was added to the office cost for that commission. The learning time was also added to the job costs. This extends the changeover time but reduces the risk. Once all of the workstations were established, we added a file server to the network. We had established the network after the third station was installed.
This procedure and the insistence that staff people “put down their pencils” and master the system disseminated learning throughout the firm. Proceeding gradually, with IT investment costs spread across projects, meant that the investment did not involve large, high-risk bets for the small firm. In addition, with costs absorbed within the overhead for each project, the demands on scarce capital were contained.
The third important component was the decision to use only proven, off-the-shelf hardware and software systems that were relatively easy to learn and use without relying on technical specialists. This was, in fact, critical to achieving the first two elements. Only the availability of such systems enabled the firm to leverage its business, allowing the technology to become central to its core business processes without becoming dependent on a technology that designers could not understand or operate.
In this way, professional needs and then business needs always predominated in decisions about technology. While the technology became the engine of the business, the professionals remained firmly in the driver’s seat. Flower noted, “We are computer-aided architects, not CAD operators.” After accumulated experience with the software and hardware, staff members began to utilize their capabilities more extensively and developed skills in moving between packages and integrating particular software components when working on designs and design presentations.
The availability of relatively low-cost, high-powered personal computers, with sophisticated, graphically based operating systems and software, significantly lowered the risks of the change process for the firm, as did the commitment to master the systems at all levels of the business. This combination of a simple, yet sophisticated, technology platform with continual learning and mastery across the firm has been a critical part of Flower and Samios’ business and professional success.
How Has IT Changed the Business?
Flower and Samios has used technology to redesign its business processes. Internal task and management processes have been transformed, providing increased capacity to focus on customer service. Extensive experience with the new technologies has led to greater familiarity with complex design tasks, ease of use, and greater responsiveness to client needs. The combined effect of the changes has reshaped the firm’s strategic position to give it an apparently sustainable competitive advantage. Flower and Samios increased its business by 400 percent during 1987 to 1992, a time when local architecture firms experienced a severe recession and a significant number of architects in Sydney were out of work. The changes occurred in a number of different areas, such as the design task, response to customers, relations with consultants and suppliers, roles of the architects, and ability to compete.
The Design Task.
Designing is now simplified, faster, more flexible, and more reliable. It is faster because the powerful CAD system contains automated specialist knowledge. Flower commented that, in ninety minutes, he can design a complicated roof, while a specialist needs almost a week to calculate the complex geometry and complete the drawing. In addition, CAD systems allow a number of alternative design ideas to be tested quickly. One staff member remarked that initially he was quite skeptical about the supposed productivity benefits of the system, “I thought it was quicker to do manual drawings, but, after a few weeks, I was much faster on the computer.”
The design task is more flexible because it allows for easy amendments and variations, as well as storage and reuse of design components. It is more reliable because the system automatically ensures that the geometric and other calculations are accurate. Materials quantities and costs can also be accurately estimated by the software program and are updated as designs are changed.
Although our principal focus is on the strategy and management issues relating to the use of IT within the firm, we acknowledge that a related debate is occurring within the architectural profession, centered on whether IT removes art from the design process.5 The IT advocates argue that, with the technology absorbing much of the mundane work of architecture, such as production of detailed documents and specifications, and with architects fully in control of their desktop design work, there is a greater focus on creativity. A director of a British architecture firm, Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners (NGP), claims that Macintoshes “liberated us to use more organic and complex forms than we could have designed without them.” The opponents claim that, instead of better design, the technology merely results in a formulaic approach where all the details look the same because they have been stored and used repeatedly. While Andrew Herron of Herron Associates acknowledges that “some early adopters of CAD systems did fall easily into the trap of using lots of repeats,” this is now considered to be less prevalent.6 Flower contends that the real gains in design are made by allowing architects to work continuously in three dimensions, without constantly reinterpreting from two-dimensional drawings.
Response to Customers.
Flower and Samios had always been client focused, but the innovative use of IT has enhanced its ability to service customers by increasing the flexibility of customization, reducing time to completion, and expanding the range of value-added services it can offer. The presentation technology maximizes the client’s understanding of particular design functions and alternatives, facilitating meaningful and direct client involvement and feedback on the design process. Now the client can see a proposal in three dimensions at all stages of the design development, and project cost information is updated quickly and regularly, leading to increases in customer satisfaction at relatively low cost. The delivery of the final product is typically on time, on budget, and meets the client’s expectations. As a result, the clients we interviewed confirmed that Flower and Samios is increasingly being sought out because of its growing reputation both for its ability to solve difficult problems and for its reliable performance.
The firm has also been able to adapt and utilize developments such as multimedia integration. For example, the client can see a movie of a new design in its planned location, with scanned photos or video images of the site, integrated with three-dimensional images of the planned development. Walkthroughs of the buildings, with light, shadows, and views accurately simulated, provide the client with a more detailed picture of the design that is easier to understand than the typical two-dimensional sketches.
In addition, Flower and Samios can meet the increasing local government council requirements for community participation and feedback on proposed developments. After seeing three-dimensional movies of the design on large video screens in public meetings, city residents can gain a clearer picture of the proposal. The greater clarity and improved communication reduce controversy and conflict and lessen the risk of expensive litigation in court. One major client who had been through the community participation process commented, “People can’t read plans, so Flower’s presentation made it much easier for them to understand. They were less fearful and antagonistic. It was also easier to answer their questions.”
IT also allows the firm to give property developers an assessment of a proposed site’s capacity and income potential by doing site and block modeling on the computer. The developer can make more profitable investment decisions about proposed sites after having a clearer initial picture of the options. The speed of the full design process also minimizes interest and site holding costs because time to market is reduced.
Consultants and Suppliers.
Communication with external specialists is increasingly electronic. Instead of passing reams of large, detailed paper plans between offices, the firm exchanges computer disks with surveyors, structural engineers, and photographic or printing shops to significantly reduce interorganizational errors, communication costs, and response time. Operationally, this is like a just-in-time system among networked professional service firms.
The close relationships that Flower and Samios has established with hardware and software suppliers means that it is kept well informed of new developments and is a test site for new technology from specialized software developers. Periodically, the firm holds internal workshops to share learning, in which the technology suppliers often participate. This reinforces and sustains its position as a prime mover.
Changes in traditional architectural and drafting roles that relate to the transition from pencils and drawing boards to computer screens and a mouse have meant that an architect (or a team of architects on larger projects) is now responsible for a greater proportion of a project, using the computer to design, detail, estimate, and schedule the project, with less dependence on drafts-persons and external specialists. Flower and Samios has moved away from the conventional staffing policy in which it employed students, new graduates, and specialist draftspersons to undertake various tasks in the design process. Now it employs experienced architects and trains them to use the technology.
If other firms follow Flower and Samios’ lead, the changes in the firm’s staffing requirements could have significant implications for the profession generally. The tradition of hiring recent graduates as apprentices has always been an efficient solution for architects because the experienced staff could focus on high value-added work. Now, Flower and Samios does not employ inexperienced graduates because the computers have absorbed the more mundane work of documentation and drafting. Furthermore, the firm has found that it is less costly to employ an experienced architect who is willing to work with computers (and many now have had some prior exposure to CAD) than to bring a new graduate up to speed. Over time, if technology becomes central to the core business of many other firms, the profession could confront a real dilemma of how it trains, recruits, and develops new members.
Just how integral the IT platform is to the work of the firm, and how the roles have changed, is illustrated by one staff appointment. Although a competent architect, a recently hired employee found it difficult to abandon his traditional skills — designing on paper and drafting well and quickly — to master the computer. He commented that, while CAD technology had a useful role to play, he believed it should not dominate the architectural process: “It is easier to do the early, rough conceptual sketch on paper and then use CAD to formalize it later, to get all the dimensions and documentation right. The broadbrush, creative side of the process is more suited to rough sketches.” By this stage in the evolution of the firm’s IT strategy, the partners required mastery of the technology. Because of his misfit with this commitment to an IT-based practice, the new appointee left the firm after a few months.
Ability to Compete.
Within the architectural profession in Australia, the centrality of IT to Flower and Samios’ operations is quite distinctive. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons it has been able to grow, even during an economic recession. Field research and anecdotal evidence suggest that the local firms see IT primarily as a technical support function or as a means for automating existing work. Most of the large practices in Australia have substantial, often mainframe-based IT systems, which they typically operate as a separate department with CAD specialists. Alternatively, they give one or two junior staff people PC-based CAD systems to learn and then rely on them for the technical work. For example, while visiting a large architectural firm, one of the authors asked a senior partner how a particular system worked. The partner did not know and asked a junior designer to give a demonstration. Using IT this way means that organizational learning and experience with the system remains limited, the technology is marginalized, and its strategic opportunities are not realized.
At an architects’ association seminar on IT that John Flower presented, the architects asked questions that were essentially tactical, rather than strategic (“Can you automate . . . ?,” rather than “How does this change our business?”), suggesting that most architects’ understanding of IT’s application is at the “automate” stage. Flower and Samios’ incorporation of IT has evolved well beyond this to the “informate” or “transformation” stage.7 Several architects made comments like, “We’ve got computers, but we can’t do what Flower does with his.”
Furthermore, many architects are resisting the change in their traditional work practices and remain attached to the image of the architect as an artist who sketches in pencil and hands the design over to draftspersons who complete the formal drawings. Some believe that using a computer, with its straight lines and fixed measurements, somehow reduces an architect’s creativity. Flower commented:
There is a lot of resistance to this stuff in our profession — “We are artistic and creative, we don’t get held to ransom by machines.” Most of our competitors are quite senior in the business; they are well-established firms with enormous credentials and really aren’t interested in computers. They have come from another time, and they really see no need to change.
In part, this may reflect the profession’s comparatively late adoption of computers. As recently as the late eighties, fewer than 40 percent of British architecture practices had a CAD facility. Five years later, however, in 1993, nearly 70 percent of surveyed practices had computers.8
Dynamics of Strategic Fit
It is important to consider how Flower and Samios’ competitive advantage evolved in order to understand how strategic fit was achieved. IT’s potential to support or shape an organization’s competitive strategy is widely argued and just as widely recognized as difficult to translate into reality. Flower and Samios now clearly exhibits strategic fit: what Miles and Snow describe as “convergence on a set of core business values — doing what one does best, a lean action-oriented structure that provides opportunities for the full use of people’s capabilities at all levels.”9 As they describe it, this gestalt within the firm is now so obvious and compelling that complex organizational and managerial demands appear to be simple. This simplicity leads to widespread understanding that reinforces and sustains fit. And the structure and key management processes teach staff the appropriate attitudes and behaviors for maintaining focus on strategic requirements.10
In order to understand how this fit is achieved, we need a dynamic model of strategic change. The most frequently cited model of strategic alignment is the MIT Management in the 1990s framework (see Figure 1). While all elements of the model are interdependent, what we need is a dynamic model of the process by which alignment is achieved. Most descriptions of fit in the IT strategy literature tell little about the path to fit. However, the often implicit assumption is that the path to fit is driven by the business strategy of the firm. For instance, Scott Morton comments:
None of the potentially beneficial enabling aspects of IT can take place without clarity of business purpose and a vision of what the organization should become. . . . When the issue at hand is organizational transformation, enabled by technology, it appears particularly important to invest a large amount of time and effort in getting the organization to understand where it is going and why.11
The implicit conventional path to fit is shown in Figure 2. The traditional theoretical argument is that a firm devises the strategy, chooses the structure and management processes that fit it, aligns IT, and ensures that individuals are appropriately trained and that roles are well designed.12 While, for the most part, the organization theory literature is inconclusive about whether this sequence is descriptive or normative, the IT strategic change literature takes a normative approach.
A snapshot taken today of Flower and Samios would certainly reveal an organization with tight fit and true integration between technology and the business strategy. Further, any strategy adopted from now on will integrally involve IT because it is tightly embedded in every aspect of the firm’s operations — it is how the staff members work, not simply a tool that they use for their work. Nevertheless it would be misleading to assume that because they now have reached the normatively desired end-state of tight fit, they followed the conventional normative path. Our study of this particular firm during several years makes clear that its dynamic path to fit was quite different.
While business processes and performance were certainly transformed, the senior partners initially had no strategic vision regarding the adoption of the technology. They openly admit this and note that they leased two Macintoshes as a trial and only gradually purchased others as they learned how to use them and gained some benefits. Even now, they have not revised their personal version of history to claim that they unconsciously envisioned a grander future as a consequence of their initial investment in two small computers or had any idea, let alone a detailed picture, of how a transformed firm would look five years down the track. For some time, they experimented with the technology, starting at the very simplest level. Their initial focus was on using the technology as a presentation tool, because the competitor who had beaten them in the design competition had used it. As their proficiency with more sophisticated technology grew, and as the benefits of different ways of working became apparent, so the business options began to emerge.
Thus the sequence of events we observe in Flower and Samios’ progression to fit differs from the one implied or stated in the literature. The partners did not develop their strategy, adjust their structure, and then align technology, management processes, and individual skills and roles. The dynamic path is more accurately represented by Figure 3. In response to a perceived threat, the initial intervention was at the level of technology, followed by a transformation of individual skills and roles, then changes in structure, and the subsequent alignment and integration of management processes. The clarification of strategic intent and insights into the strategic drivers of this new configuration occurred only after the initial organizational gestalt emerged. The strategic vision grew out of the implementation. However, we are not suggesting that, because it does not follow the rational model, this process is somehow inappropriate. In fact, this case may help us understand strategic dynamics by suggesting evidence of a different path to the achievement of fit.
Flower initially acted to implement new technology because of an immediate threat. Once introduced, the first impact of the technology was at the level of individual skills and roles: first the partners mastered the system and then trained the staff, gradually but comprehensively, on a project-by-project basis. All staff members had to use the system and give up their old drawing skills. Roles changed to encompass greater scope, and an architect could more easily “own” a particular project, or at least a substantial section of a major project.
The structure of the firm changed to reflect the changing skills and work practices. The traditional division of labor between architects, draftspersons, and apprentices was no longer necessary. Reduced staffing needs meant cost reductions. With fewer staff and no drawing boards, the structure became flatter, with greater delegation to more highly skilled staff. In addition, less office space was required. Over time, management and control processes were also adjusted to integrate the work processes. As the number of computers grew, the firm installed a local area network and a file server to facilitate communication and file transfer. Materials specifications and costing programs, as well as project management and accounting and electronic mail, were also added.
The partners’ awareness of the strategic importance of the firm’s experience and skills with the technology, and how it opened up opportunities for creating value-added client services, developed out of the initial application and integration of technology in the organization, rather than before. In effect, once the new organizational gestalt was in place, they could assess the underlying strategic options and decide which should be the focus of future developments. The technology enabled lower-cost operations, but, more important, mastery enabled the creation of competitive advantage through the ability to provide high-quality, timely, and unique customer service. Flower and Samios is only now becoming aware of how these value-added services differentiate it from its competitors and form the basis of its distinctive competence. It can be argued that this scenario is quite consistent with the models in the IT strategy literature that advocate formulating strategy in light of IT’s potential.13 However, most of these researchers assume, if not recommend, that the process should be deliberate, planned, and logically phased. Venkatraman, for example, comments, “An organization cannot just choose to implement, without any planning, a particular piece of technology. Research has shown that it must do so in context, that it must consciously align its business strategy and its organization with its technology.”14 In contrast, the evidence of the Flower and Samios case suggests that, while strategic fit did evolve, it was not consciously planned but emerged from an incremental, tactical implementation of technology, which, in interaction with the organizational factors discussed above, gradually transformed the business. While the literature may explain why Flower and Samios has been successful, it does not explain how — the dynamics of its behavior.
Our evidence is consistent with the widespread criticism of rational behavior models in organizations, including that of strategy formation.15 At each stage, Flower found a solution to the next problem or took up the next opportunity. The outcome has been a strategic advantage that he did not originally envisage. This dynamic aligns with claims that it is what managers do, not what they plan, that explains their success. Here, strategy is portrayed as an emergent process rather than the outcome of a strategic vision involving small steps that gradually foreclose alternative courses of action and limit what is possible.16 The case exemplifies Cyert and March’s analysis of organizational decision making under uncertainty, in which they argue that potentially complex problems get decomposed into a series of tactical, sequential decisions.17 At each incremental step, learning occurs and creates an awareness of different opportunities for action, which in turn affect the next step. Thus, in many cases, it is not rational, planned strategies but the interplay of small-scale, tactical decision making with ongoing experience that shapes outcomes.18
In a rare example of applying this type of analysis in the IT management domain, Ciborra points out how strategic information systems such as Baxter’s ASAP, American Airline’s SABRE, and France’s Minitel gradually evolved from localized responses to particular operational problems or customer needs, rather than being created from grand strategic designs. Ciborra comments, “Incrementalism, muddling through, myopic and evolutionary decision-making processes seem to prevail, even when there is a formal adherence to [the rational models of strategy formation].”19 Ciborra also suggests that this incremental and evolutionary organizational learning can form the basis of a sustainable competitive advantage for a firm, where the innovation is embedded and emerges from a unique set of conditions and experience that is not easily replicated. The Flower and Samios case provides examples of this; although the hardware and software Flower and Samios uses are readily available, the successful application of IT in the business comes from the firm’s unique body of learning and experience and the way it has integrated IT into the core business processes.
In the normative model, determining the strategic vision and managing the problems of implementation become the central issues. The alternative view is consistent with Ciborra’s analysis and the experience of Flower and Samios. In this view, strategy development is an emergent process and is based more on descriptions of how firms experience strategic change. The reality is often an incremental and “muddled” process of adaptation that shapes the available strategic options. IT is embedded in the evolution of strategies, structures, and management processes, rather than being aligned with these elements. Thus we challenge the notion that the critical issue in managing IT successfully is alignment. The current dominant design is to align the IT strategy and structure with the business strategy and structure.20 We argue that, in this case and others we have observed, IT is a central component in strategic change and is embedded in core business processes, rather than being “folded around” or aligned with the prevailing configuration.21
We do not argue for a technological imperative to explain the change process at Flower and Samios. The outcomes emerged only from the dynamic interaction of individual, organizational, technological, and strategic factors. Thus our analysis is closer to Markus and Robey’s “emergent perspective.” The difference is that, instead of emphasizing how general social processes and social interactions shape the uses and consequences of IT, as Markus and Robey do, we focus on how the specific business context, management processes, structure, and individual roles and skills interact with the incremental adoption of technology to shape the strategic intent of the firm.22 It is this dynamic interdependence among factors at different levels of analysis that creates the tight fit for the firm. The embedding of the new learning and work practices in management processes again affects the individual level. For example, all new employees at Flower and Samios are hired on the condition that, after learning, they will work exclusively on the Macintosh system.
Minimization of Risk
The experience of Flower and Samios suggests that the management of risk made an important contribution to the effectiveness of the change process. Each incremental step in the creation of its organizational configuration involved essentially low-risk actions, anchored in particular client projects, rather than dramatic or expensive shifts of focus. Each change implemented was job-or project-based and thus closely tied to the customer, rather than being large scale or driven by fascination with the technology. Being new to computers meant that the firm had no history of incompatible systems to manage, and an integrated platform developed by restricting the hardware and software to systems that could communicate easily with each other.
What Flower and Samios effectively achieved was a partitioning of the total risk of the transformation into a series of smaller, manageable risks, so that the threat to the business from the change process was low. By spreading risks over time and dealing with them sequentially, the firm was protected from potentially adverse consequences. Managing the process in this way meant that potential performance variance was always low, relative to the firm’s financial strength. The downside of this strategy is that it takes time to implement, but Flower and Samios’ position as prime mover in its field meant that this was not a threat.
The incremental evolution of strategic fit at Flower and Samios raises the question of whether a competitor can implement the fully configured solution to fit in one major shift or whether an effective fit has to grow gradually. We doubt whether competitors would be able to emulate Flower and Samios’ success rapidly because such unique learning and extensive experience with the technology is not easily or quickly replicated.23 Even if a strategic transformation were possible, the risks associated with these two paths to fit are obviously very different. Major simultaneous shifts in most or all domains represented in the model (see Figure 1) require large-scale transformations that are inherently risky and often a threat to organizational survival.24
Implications for Other Professionals and Organizations
On a small scale, the Flower and Samios case illustrates many of the ways in which the innovative use of information technology can transform business processes and create competitive advantage through professional mastery and an emergent strategic application of technology. Can large architectural projects be handled by technology such as Flower and Samios’ network of Macintoshes or do they require hardware and software that cannot be introduced incrementally? Although a small firm, Flower and Samios’ projects are relatively large and complex, including city blocks, retirement villages, factories, schools, and rehabbed multistory buildings, some with a construction value of $20 million, all designed on Macintosh computers. Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners (NGP) has also used networks of Macintoshes for large, complex projects like Waterloo International in London, which took five years to complete and entailed a budget of $250 million, and the Berlin Stock Exchange.25
The scale of the architectural practice does not require a more deliberate approach to introducing technology. Gensler Associates, a U.S. firm, now has 150 networked PCs but, nine years ago, had only eight.26 At Gensler, the impetus for using the technology was a large project that could not have been completed without it — Columbia Pictures Burbank Studio Plaza. The technology allowed quick, daily input from some twenty-five consultants and the delivery of immediate area calculations in response to requested changes, which embedded and expanded its use within the firm. One employee commented, “It validated Gensler’s faith in the technology beyond any question and became a model for its future use in the firm.”27
For both these firms, the technology played a crucial role in resolving the complexity of coordination, and, as in the Flower and Samios’ case, the use of IT was a tactical response to a specific, immediate challenge. Their experiences show that such strategic IT change does not always require the transformational leadership of someone like Flower. At NGP, for example, while the adoption of the technology was incremental, one or two computers at a time, it was driven from the bottom by the designers, while the principals were followers rather than initiators.
Large architectural firms are typically organized into several small cells, with each cell reporting to a partner or principal and responsible for either whole projects or sections of very large projects. Sophisticated networks of desktop machines enable easy interchange and merging of work between the cells. In a sense, the small firm of Flower and Samios is equivalent to one cell. Other professional practices, such as engineering, accounting, and law firms, are also structured as linked cells or teams under partners. Thus the findings from this study may well apply to professional firms regardless of their size or specialty.
In large, complex organizations with multiple levels of management, the process of developing change and implementing strategy is difficult, and some would argue that it requires formalizing the strategy, vision, and change process in a comprehensive strategic plan. This argument assumes that: (1) the complexity that comes with size complicates the change process significantly; (2) the only way to deal with change in such an environment is to formalize the strategy, vision, and change process. But the emergent aspect of the change process that we observed at Flower and Samios has been documented in large companies. The research of Mintzberg, Weick, Lindblom, and others on emergent strategies, improvised organizational design, and incremental change was developed primarily from studying large, complex organizations.28 And Ciborra specifically examined cases of strategic IT change in large organizations and found that incremental, tactical responses to operational considerations, rather than formal strategic planning, were successful.29 Thus successful strategic change in large organizations can occur in the emergent and incremental way it did at Flower and Samios.
The first element of the argument, that size complicates change, is beyond the scope of this paper and is perhaps an area for further research. However, in our opinion, the Flower and Samios case demonstrates that the MIT Management in the 1990s model is a good model of fit for a small architectural firm, as well as for the large firms it was originally developed for. With regard to the second element, we have already shown that strategic change can and does occur in an emergent fashion in many large organizations. The only remaining element then is whether, given an emergent process, the dynamic path Flower and Samios traced through the MIT model (Figure 3) is dependent on size. There is no literature on this issue of the specific dynamics of an emergent process. However, based on the evidence available, there is no reason to assume that dynamic paths would not explain the emergent changes documented in large firms. We suggest that paths to fit should be a substantive research area in their own right.
The Flower and Samios case provides several insights into the dynamics of IT change in organizations, some of which challenge conventional wisdom:
- Business transformation emerged from what was essentially a series of tactical, rather than strategic, decisions. In effect, the firm’s business strategy was an outcome of the change process, in contrast to the normative model in which planned change comes from top management’s explicit strategy and vision.
- The change process occurred incrementally, on a project-by-project basis, reducing business and financial risk, while standardization on a common technology platform maximized accumulated learning over time.
- The continual adaptation of technology through individual mastery and organizational learning was central to achieving a strategic fit in which IT became embedded in the firm’s core business processes, contributing to the firm’s high performance and the development of competitive advantage.
- Practicing professionals, rather than IT specialists, led the move to adopt and implement the technology. Their early commitment to mastering the technology meant that it enhanced and empowered the professional role, rather than subordinating or replacing it. Flower and Samios is now benefiting from many years of focused organizational learning in using IT at all stages of complex architectural projects.
In researching this case, we observed developments at Flower and Samios during a three-year period (1990 through 1992), during which we conducted multiple, in-depth interviews with eight staff members at the firm, including the two senior partners. We also interviewed one staff member who left the firm during the study, both before and after his departure. One of the authors personally conducted all interviews, which were from forty-five minutes to two hours long. The recorded and transcribed interviews are the basis for the quotations in the article. We conducted a number of interviews, totaling more than twelve hours, with Flower, who was the prime mover in the firm’s gradual transformation. Two of the authors attended a one-day, internal workshop for staff to discuss Flower and Samios’ computing issues. We also interviewed two clients of the firm to gain a customer’s perspective on the firm’s services. For a comparative view of current architectural practice, we examined practices in other architectural firms, and one of the authors attended Flower’s seminar on IT in architecture. Finally, we interviewed a director of a U.K.-based architectural firm, known for its creative design, that uses a network of Macintosh computers.