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Socio-Technical Systems and the Management of Information Technology
Alcan is a market driven multinational organization whose core business revolves around the production of aluminum as well as packaging products and services. The Alcan Organization employs over 67,000 people either directly or through joint ventures and operates in over 60 countries worldwide (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). The organization’s head offices are situated in the Canadian city of Montreal and as a publicly listed company; Alcan boasts revenues in excess of 20 billion dollars annually. This paper seeks to assess, analyze, and discus the Alcan Organization with regard to the Socio-Technical Systems theory. This paper will also discuss how the STS theory can be employed in the management of information technology at Alcan to nurture further future organizational improvements.
Socio-technical systems theory
As an organization, Alcan produces and sells a diverse range of aluminum-based products and is primarily heavily dependent on a vertically integrated production process. Information technology management presently plays a critical role in an organization’s bigger picture more so with regards to organizational development (Carlsson, Henningsson, Hrastinski & Keller, 2011). The socio-technical systems theory explores means with which organizations can appraise productivity while at the same time boost employee morale. This implies that socio-technical systems tend to foster a symbiotic relationship between human and non-human systems by optimizing the correlation between the two (Petkov, Petkova, Sewchurran, Andrew & Misra, 2012). Sociotechnical systems employ bottom-up communication policies among employees through participation, internal regulation, discrete behaviors and more so, work-group structures.
Socio-technical systems via action research explore means through which organizations are able to favorably appeal to economic as well as social operating environments. Through the establishment of semi-autonomous organizational divisions with greater flexibility, organizations are better positioned to appeal to the expectations of human communities as well as positively realize goals towards technical efficiency (Davis, Challenger, Jayewardene & Clegg, 2014).
The STS theory and IT management at Alcan
Robert Ouellette joined the Alcan organization at the start of 2006 as the Vice President for the Corporate IT function. Prior to the arrival of Ouellette, the Corporate IT function remained without a leader for about 9 months (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). During this time, the organization felt the operational pressures calling for better organizational leadership for the IT function as well as cost-cutting measures necessary towards improving support functions (Davis, Challenger, Jayewardene & Clegg, 2014). As a result, the IT function was identified as a priority area and the position of the Vive-President Corporate IT was created to report directly on the IT function to the CFO and Alcan Executive Vice President, Michael Hanley.
IT management challenges prior to 2006
Prior to 2006, Alcan depended on an IT management approach based on the organization’s preferred culture of decentralized functions. Alcan is made up of four different core business operations groups. Primary Metal, Packaging, Engineered Products and Bauxite and Alumina (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). Each group run its own IT management functions independently in line with the group’s IT strategic Plan biased towards specific objectives. This implies that during the initial days of Ouellette’s analysis of the Alcan Organization’s Corporate IT function, he was perceived as the firm’s IT consultant.
However, upon further assessment of the overall IT function, it was found out that the organization incurred IT costs that could not be conclusively accounted for. In his attempt to ensure that the Corporate IT administrative structure was firmly under his command, the autonomous structure of the Corporate IT function had to be completely overhauled (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). This implied that the socio-technical systems of the IT function in the four core businesses at Alcan had to be realigned into a single IT function.
Ouellette pointed out that different IT functions tended to create an intricately complex IT management and application function which presented adverse socio-technical challenges with regards to the organization’s overall IT function. The business operational processes thus performed below the expected effectiveness and efficiency levels mainly due to poor coordination among groups, weak IT-oriented human systems, and IT management transformation plans which presented significant project risks (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009).
Realigning the Corporate IT Management function with the STS theory at Alcan
As at 2006, Alcan employed more than 900 hundred people to work within the organization’s decentralized IT management system (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). The organization is heavily dependent on IT services and as such prior to 2006, Alcan’s total IT budget was largely used for consultative IT services and outsourcing requirements. The structure of the IT function was made up of five responsibilities sectors. These include corporate applications, architecture planning, Information Systems Solutions, Infrastructure Planning, and Shared Infrastructure Services (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). It is important to note that the organization’s communications policies played an integral role in enabling Ouellette to acquire accurate and timely information and more so cooperation from the fore business groups.
By the time Robert Ouellette was joining Alcan, there were a number of developments instituted in an effort to align the organization with appropriate STS mechanisms for the IT function. Some of the business groups were already seeking to minimize system diversity as well as standardization and consolidation of IT infrastructure (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). This was however not enough to carter for the proposed transformation of the Information technology governance structure. In an effort to transform the IT governance structure, there was a need to address issues with regard to IT HR, cohesion, IT management vision, and other appropriate means within the IT function. This implied the need for human resource development, better economies of scale, software package development, as well as IT infrastructure development.
The Corporate IT function was then aligned towards a shared services philosophy so as to allow the establishment of a centralized IT function at Alcan (Dube, Bernier & Roy, 2009). This highlighted the fact that the new strategic IT management plan resulted in a greater desire by the senior IT management for optimized integration of IT services in line with the organization’s corporate business strategies. Under this strategic plan, the organization was able to highlight stakeholder involvement in IT management, minimize technological diversity, reduce IT management structure complexity, develop and foster ideal partnerships with global leaders in IT service delivery as well as encourage consistency in the improvement of information security protocols.
The need to align the organization’s socio-technical systems to the new shared services philosophy for the Corporate IT function served to improve the relationship between the human and non-human systems. The company’s vertical organization structure employed good communication policies whether informal or formal. Through the provision of vital and accurate information, the new Vice President Corporate IT was able to realize organizational objectives that were both sound and profoundly beneficial to the organization’s core business operations. This allowed for the development of a centralized IT team and cooperation from the four core business groups at Alcan. As a global organization, Alcan was thus able to align it STS and the IT management function to global implementation standards and thus allow for greater changes in other business functions.
Carlsson, S. A., Henningsson, S., Hrastinski, S. & Keller, C. (2011). Socio-technical IS design science research: developing design theory for IS integration management. Information Systems and e-Business Management, 9(1), 109-131.
Davis, M. C., Challenger, R., Jayewardene, D. N. & Clegg, C. W. (2014). Advancing socio-technical systems thinking: A call for bravery. Applied ergonomics, 45(2), 171-180.
Dube, L., Bernier, C. & Roy, V. (2009). Taking on the challenge of IT management in a global business context: The Alcan case – Part A. International Journal of Case Studies in Management. 7(2), 1-10.
Dube, L., Bernier, C. & Roy, V. (2009). Taking on the challenge of IT management in a global business context: The Alcan case – Part B. International Journal of Case Studies in Management. 7(2), 1-12.
Petkov, D., Petkova, O., Sewchurran, K., Andrew, T. & Misra, R. (2012). The work system method as an approach for teaching and researching information systems. In Information Systems Theory 413-424. New York: Springer.
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