Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
Panoptic empowerment and reﬂective conformity
in enterprise systems-enabled organizations
Michael B. Elmes *, Diane M. Strong, Olga Volkoﬀ
Department of Management, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA 01609, US
Received 18 August 2003; received in revised form 22 August 2004; accepted 9 December 2004
In this study of enterprise system (ES) use at a global manufacturing organization, we have
taken an interpretive perspective and used a Glaserian grounded theory methodology to
explore the ES-enabled changes in organizational control that emerged after system implemen-
tation. From our ﬁeld data we identiﬁed two seemingly contradictory theoretical concepts:
panoptic empowerment and reﬂective conformity. Panoptic empowerment refers to the greater
visibility of information provided by the common shared database of an ES that empowers
workers to do their work more eﬃciently and eﬀectively, but which also makes them more vis-
ible to others throughout the organization who can then more easily exercise process and out-
come control. Reﬂective conformity describes how the integrated nature of the ES with its
embedded rules and procedures for organizational processes leads to greater employee disci-
pline while simultaneously requiring them to be highly reﬂective as well in order to achieve
organizational beneﬁts from the ES. These concepts embody an understanding of organiza-
tional control that is rooted in a Foucauldian view of disciplinary power rather than a tradi-
tional perspective of mechanistic bureaucracy.
Ó 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: ERP systems; Enterprise systems; Control; Empowerment; Panopticon; Discipline
E-mail addresses: email@example.com (M.B. Elmes), firstname.lastname@example.org (D.M. Strong), ovolkoﬀ@
wpi.edu (O. Volkoﬀ).
1471-7721/$ - see front matter Ó 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
2. 2 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
Enterprise systems (ESÕs) have become increasingly popular over the last 15 years.
Produced by companies such as SAP, Oracle, and PeopleSoft, enterprise systems are
commercial software applications that support and integrate organizational pro-
cesses across functional boundaries. They are designed to replace disparate, local leg-
acy systems and to support a full range of business functions from ﬁnance and
accounting, inventory management, and sales order processing to HR and payroll,
warehouse management and production planning. The salient and identifying char-
acteristic of ES is their ability to integrate these business processes by standardizing
data, storing them in a common, shared database, and ensuring that these data are
accessible to whoever needs them on a real time basis (Davenport, 1998; Klaus,
Rosemann, & Gable, 2000; Shanks & Seddon, 2000).
Known also as enterprise resource planning systems (ERP), ESÕs have evolved
from their roots as transactional systems supporting back oﬃce functions such as
inventory management and sales order processing, to enterprise-wide systems that
encompass a broad range of organizational and inter-organizational functions from
customer service to supply chain optimization (Davenport, 2000). By 2002, 67% of
all companies and 74% of manufacturing companies were using or implementing
some form of ES, and 15% of the remainder were intending to do the same (Scott
& Shepherd, 2002). This pervasiveness, coupled with the integrated and organiza-
tion-wide and even inter-organizational reach of such systems, as compared to the
localized domain of their predecessors, heightens the need for understanding the
organizational implications associated with using them.
Organizations purchase enterprise systems for a variety of reasons, both technical
and organizational. Expected beneﬁts include improved eﬃciency, reduced costs,
better decision making, increased customer responsiveness, better performance con-
trol, and increased data visibility (Besson & Rowe, 2001; Markus, Axline, Petrie, &
Tanis, 2000; Ross & Vitale, 2000; Shang & Seddon, 2000). At the heart of many of
the intended organizational impacts lies a desire to create rationalized and eﬃcient
processes with predictable outcomes.
Increased rationality lies at the heart of the traditional bureaucratic hierarchy
(Blau & Meyer, 1971; Weber, 1947), and in many ways ESs are structured to sup-
port bureaucratic control. For example, the software promotes organizational dis-
cipline both through constraining users to follow prescribed processes and by
limiting access to transactions to speciﬁc organizational roles. This mirrors bureau-
cratic features such as the application of consistent rules to operations and a clear-
cut division of labor with specialized experts in each position. At the same time an
ES provides visibility of data, which goes beyond the characteristics of a hierarchi-
cal bureaucracy, but which is the cornerstone of FoucaultÕs (1977) views on disci-
plinary power and control. Foucault suggests that because employees know that
their actions are more visible to others, they will engage in greater self-discipline
and act in ways that are aligned with a rationalized system. One objective of this
paper is to discover how enterprise systems are used in the exercise of management
3. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 3
The rhetoric around enterprise systems is not, however, limited to the enhance-
ment of organizational control and discipline. Somewhat paradoxically, organiza-
tions purchasing such systems also expect that the increased visibility of data will
empower employees, enabling them to be more responsive to customers (Ross & Vi-
tale, 2000) and each other, and increase their autonomy, morale, and satisfaction
(Shang & Seddon, 2000). The prospect of increasing empowerment through ES
seems unlikely, however, if an ES increases both bureaucratic and disciplinary (Fou-
cauldian) control. A second objective of this paper is to explore this apparent
Our three-year grounded theory study of the organizational consequences expe-
rienced during and after an ES implementation allowed us to explore the extent to
which these broad and potentially contradictory expectations of ES purchasers
and/or the claims of vendors are realizable. As our theoretical understanding of
the control mechanisms that are employed in an ES-supported organization
emerged from the data, we compared them to traditional views on management
control. We found that while new mechanistic and rationalizing mechanisms are
enabled by an ES, consistent with the tenets of an ideal bureaucracy, its integrated
nature interferes with the realization of completely rationalized eﬃciency. In addi-
tion, workers are indeed empowered, but in a way that is strongly constrained. In
particular, the ‘‘gaze’’ enabled by an ES has signiﬁcant diﬀerences from what Fou-
cault (1977) described, leading to a complex web of power/empowerment. Further-
more, the integrated nature of an ES requires increased reﬂection on tasks, even
though organizational procedures that are embedded in software routines require
greater conformity and discipline. Below we consider these seeming contradictions
by ﬁrst examining the literature on control, empowerment, Foucault, and enter-
2. Background literature
2.1. Control in a rationalized organization
Methods of organizational control are essential for inﬂuencing whether and how
managers and workers engage in instrumental rational action to achieve institutional
objectives. In the literature on organizational control, one standard deﬁnition is ‘‘at-
tempts by the organization to increase the probability that individuals will behave in
ways that will lead to the attainment of organizational objectives’’ (Flamholtz, Das,
& Tsui, 1985). This deﬁnition assumes that organizations have objectives, and that
individuals working in organizations are purposeful and goal seeking, but that their
goals may diﬀer from the ideal state. Thus, from a managerial control perspective,
controls are needed to engage workers in instrumental rational action that is aligned
with the ﬁrmÕs objectives.
The origins of current approaches to organizational control lie in WeberÕs
(1947) delineation of the core elements of an ideal bureaucracy (Beniger, 1986;
Child, 1972). The deﬁning features Weber identiﬁed include the division of labor
4. 4 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
into ﬁxed and oﬃcial jurisdictional areas, oﬃce holding as a vocation based on
specialized training, a hierarchy of oﬃces with both accountability to superiors
and authority to give commands to subordinates on matters within the jurisdiction
of the oﬃce, and the impersonal and objective application of a consistent system
of abstract rules. Combined, these characteristics enable organizations to conduct
business according to calculable rules and to decrease the importance of individual
These characteristics of bureaucracy enable the exercise of process (also called
behavioral) control. Process control uses devices such as operating manuals, standard
operating procedures and reporting structures to specify and monitor acceptable
behaviors directly. The purpose of process control is to control the behaviors of
employees as they work by overseeing how tasks are executed and more generally,
to structure the process of transforming inputs into outputs (Snell, 1992).
While process controls are relatively eﬀective in mechanistic organizations operat-
ing in stable environments (Burns & Stalker, 1961), attempts to deﬁne rules and pro-
cedures becomes more diﬃcult as task uncertainty increases. In an unstable
environment it is more eﬃcient to allow workers greater discretion (Galbraith,
1973). To maintain alignment with organizational goals, two alternatives to process
control are available. Outcome controls focus on performance outcomes and ﬁnan-
cial measures. The central attribute of outcome controls is that at the end of either
a set period of time or a speciﬁc set of activities, a measurable objective is supposed
to be attained; control is exercised by comparing actual to expected performance
(Eisenhardt, 1985; Ouchi & Maguire, 1975; Snell, 1992).
Informal/internal controls use various forms of socialization to promote the inter-
nalization of values, beliefs, and behavioral scripts that align employee objectives
and behaviors with the objectives of the organization. Informal/internal controls
mentioned in the literature include clan controls (Ouchi, 1979) and self-control or
self-management (Manz & Sims, 1980; Mills, 1983). Clan controls (Ouchi, 1979) in-
clude socialization processes designed to ensure that the right individuals are selected
and properly socialized into the values, beliefs and goals of the ﬁrm; they ‘‘appeal to
the shared values and the sense of belonging to align workplace behaviors’’ with
organizational objectives (Tang, Sia, Soh, & Boh, 2000, p. 504). Clan control as-
sumes that with suﬃcient socialization, individuals will act in the best interests of
the organization without explicit outcome or process controls. Self-control, also
called self-management or self-regulation, is deﬁned as ‘‘the extent to which an indi-
vidual exercises freedom or autonomy to determine both what actions are required
and how to execute these activities’’ (Henderson & Lee, 1992; Manz & Sims, 1980;
Studies of the conditions under which each form of control is most eﬀective have
generally conﬁrmed OuchiÕs framework (1977, 1979). Speciﬁcally, use of controls de-
pends on (1) whether performance objectives are well-deﬁned and measurable (if so,
outcome controls are eﬀective) and (2) whether behaviors are observable and the
relationship between behaviors and process outcomes are well-understood (if so,
process controls are eﬀective) (Snell, 1992). If neither, then organizations may use
some form of informal or internal controls. While outcome and process control
5. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 5
are considered to be better forms of control because they can be well-designed formal
systems of control consistent with rational objectives and thinking, organizations sel-
dom rely on only one mode of control; they use all together or some combination to
achieve organizational eﬀectiveness (Ouchi, 1979). Informal controls are typically
part of an organizationÕs portfolio of control methods (Kirsch, 1997). Orlikowski
(1991) notes that training and socialization served to support the formal process con-
trols embedded in CASE tools.
The three modes of organizational control described above - outcome, process,
and informal/internal – are not the only way to conceptualize control. For example,
Henderson and LeeÕs (1992) study of IT development teams includes team control
and OrlikowskiÕs (1991) study of CASE tools deﬁnes control in terms of whether
the mechanisms through which control is exercised are external or internal to the
organization. In our study we use traditional modes and deﬁnitions of control so
that we can distinguish how ES enable and inhibit control of outcomes, control of
processes, and the exercise of clan control and self-control.
2.2. Empowerment in a rationalized organization
Empowerment has been deﬁned as ‘‘power sharing, the delegation of power or
authority to subordinates in the organization’’ (Daft, 2002, p. 411) and the ‘‘use of
voice to provide active participation and commitment to organizational members’’
(Putnam, Phillips, & Chapman, 1996). Conger and Kanungo (1988) have conceptual-
ized empowerment as both a relational construct based on superior-subordinate
authority sharing and a motivational construct that satisﬁes an individualÕs desire
for self-determination and self-eﬃcacy. By giving subordinates greater information
and authority to address organizational issues quickly and autonomously, eﬀorts to
empower workers have been framed as an antidote to the adverse eﬀects – e.g., over-
specialization, lack of motivation, competition among functional groups, customer
dissatisfaction – of highly rationalized systems and structures in modern bureaucracies
(Bandura, 1986; Nielson, 1986).
In this paper, we deﬁne empowerment as any increase in worker power (through,
for example, increased formal authority or greater access to more useful informa-
tion) that enables workers (and, collectively, the organization) to achieve institu-
tional objectives with greater eﬃciency and eﬀectiveness. By greater eﬃciency we
mean with reduced costs and in less time. By greater eﬀectiveness we mean with bet-
ter quality and higher levels of customer satisfaction. By redistributing power in
ways that enable workers to achieve institutional objectives more eﬃciently and
eﬀectively, empowerment serves to rationalize work processes but in a way that is
diﬀerent from WeberÕs ideal bureaucracy. Unlike various forms of control that serve
to rationalize through, for example, the measurement of outcomes, the monitoring
of processes, or socialization into a particular set of values, empowerment rational-
izes the system by both removing or minimizing organizational barriers and giving
workers the means (e.g., information, power, authority) by which they can achieve
institutional objectives more eﬃciently and eﬀectively.
6. 6 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
2.3. Foucauldian views of the panopticon and disciplinary power
The literature on understanding IT eﬀects in organizations and on workers has
cited two concepts from Foucault: (1) panopticism (e.g., Sayer & Harvey, 1998;
Sia, Neo, & Tan, 2003; Zuboﬀ, 1988) and (2) disciplinary power (e.g., Orlikowski,
1991; Robey & Boudreau, 1999). These concepts are key for understanding the ways
in which an ES enables organizational changes beyond those that strengthen existing
forms of managerial control.
Panopticism is based on BenthamÕs panopticon, an architectural structure with a
central tower for observation and cells around the central tower for individual pris-
oners (Foucault, 1977). It involves ‘‘the gaze’’, continuous surveillance that is hier-
archical (the observers can observe the prisoners and can themselves be observed
by their superiors) and one-way (the prisoners cannot see the observer, cannot see
each other, and cannot know whether they are being observed). A key point of
the panopticon structure is that the gaze need not actually be continuous – prisoners
begin to act as if they are being observed because they cannot tell when or whether
they are being observed. While the panopticon was proposed as an ideal structure for
observing prison inmates and thus exercising control over their behaviors, Foucault
discussed it and other arrangements of space to explain the same phenomenon – the
gaze – in schools, in hospitals, in the military, and in the workplace (Foucault, 1977,
Disciplinary power increases as a result of the gaze. As individuals become accus-
tomed to the gaze, i.e., as they are continuously observed by parents, teachers, super-
visors, military commanders and police, they learn to exercise self-discipline, i.e., to
act as though they are under the gaze even when they may not be. As Foucault
(1977) noted, once there is some form of panoptic observation, there is no need to
observe continuously because disciplinary self-control will be exercised.
By applying the panopticon concept to IT, Zuboﬀ (1988) proposed the concept of
an ‘‘information panopticon’’ in which IT rather than a physical structure provided
the gaze. More recently, Sia et al. (2003) suggested that the panopticon lens, still only
infrequently employed in studying IT-enabled control and empowerment in organi-
zations, would produce a better understanding of current contradictory results on
the impact of ES implementation in organizations. Enterprise systems with their
integrated common database provide a much better approximation to the ideal
information panopticon than the earlier technologies from which the concept was
developed. An ES employs a gaze because it records all user actions, which can be
observed in real-time and also stored for later observation. Thus, with no extra eﬀort
ES surveillance is essentially continuous.
In addition to the panopticon and disciplinary power from the gaze, FoucaultÕs
concepts about power and their relationship to individual actions, governance,
knowledge, and truth are helpful in understanding the emerging control and empow-
erment eﬀects of ES in organizations. First, power is a relational concept that ‘‘exists
only when it is put into action’’; ‘‘the exercise of power . . . is a way in which certain
actions modify others’’ (Foucault, 1983, p. 219). Power can only be exercised over
free subjects. If subjects do not have the freedom to choose actions, then by deﬁni-
7. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 7
tion there can be no exercise of power to inﬂuence those actions (Foucault, 1983).
Power is exercised, that is power relations come into being, through many means
including complex controls and systems of surveillance (Foucault, 1983). Thus,
power is not a thing possessed by individuals, groups, or organizations, but actions
taken at the local level governed by local rules that can aﬀect the actions of others.
As such, the traditional concept of empowerment as the delegation of power, i.e.,
authority and resources such as information, from managers to workers is problem-
atic since power is not a thing that can be transferred between individuals (Hardy &
Second, the concept of power as actions that aﬀect othersÕ actions is related to the
concept of governance, which Foucault deﬁnes as structuring the possible actions of
others (Foucault, 1983). ‘‘The exercise of power consists of guiding the possibility of
conduct and putting in order the possible outcome’’ (Foucault, 1983, p. 221), which
has similarities to conventional process and outcome controls exercised by managers.
But FoucaultÕs analysis is at the level of society, rather than an organization. From
his historical analysis, he sees that power in society has moved from a sovereign king
as the source of power to power embedded in the operation of the state, which ap-
plies to everyone, even those with authority over others. Power is exercised through
surveillance, that is, the gaze, such that each individual exercises surveillance and dis-
ciplinary power over themselves (Foucault, 1980a). This connection to governance
helps us understand how the nature of organizational control changes in the presence
of the continuous gaze of an ES.
Third, there is a close relationship between knowledge and power. The knowledge
that they are being observed is what generates disciplinary power in individuals in
the form of self-discipline. In addition, the knowledge gained from surveillance gives
observers power over the observed. Thus, knowledge and power are intertwined as
knowledge produces power and power produces knowledge (Foucault, 1980b).
Knowledge as a source of power is important for understanding how employees
are empowered through their use of an ES.
Finally, truth and power are related through ‘‘regimes of truth’’, which are the
rules negotiated at local levels according to which truth and falsehood are distin-
guished and power becomes associated with truth (Foucault, 1980b). Each society
has its regime of truth, e.g., centered on the scientiﬁc production of knowledge
and truth, which determines the types of discourse that are accepted as truth (Fou-
cault, 1980b). At an organizational level, the installation of an ES may change the
organizationÕs ‘‘regime of truth’’, for example by privileging discipline and control
over clever and creative responses to problems.
2.4. Enterprise systems
Early research on ES focused on this new IT artifact itself and how it diﬀered
from the legacy systems it was replacing (Klaus et al., 2000). This led to an under-
standing of why organizations adopted ES, ﬁnding that organizations are motivated
to purchase such systems because, among other beneﬁts, they expect enhanced infor-
mation capture, increased transparency and better information ﬂow (Bernroider &
8. 8 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
Koch, 1999; Besson & Rowe, 2001; Markus & Tanis, 2000; Newell, Huang, Galliers,
& Pan, 2003; Ross & Vitale, 2000).
As ES implementation challenges became apparent, a signiﬁcant portion of ES re-
search turned to investigating the factors contributing to successful implementation
(e.g., Akkermans & van Helden, 2002; Brown & Vessey, 2003; Holland & Light,
1999; Hong & Kim, 2002; Scott & Vessey, 2002) because, without successful imple-
mentation, organizations incurred enormous costs while failing to achieve the ex-
pected beneﬁts. These studies typically examined ﬁndings from conducting case
studies of successful and unsuccessful implementations. While some critical success
factors are typical of any large-scale IT implementation, e.g., top management sup-
port, others arise from the integrated nature of an ES. For example, research studies
found that impediments (Pan, Newell, Huang, & Cheung, 2001) and tensions (Strong
& Volkoﬀ, 2004) arose as groups within organizations attempted to agree upon the
common processes and data elements that form an integrated system. As these
groups negotiated these commonalities, some were able to exert more power and
control over their future than others (Scott & Wagner, 2003).
As various ES implementation process issues emerged in these cases studies, re-
search began to focus more explicitly on speciﬁc problematic issues and on under-
standing the implementation process over time. One such emerging issue is the
diﬃculty of organizational learning and knowledge transfer as employees attempted
to learn and use an ES eﬀectively in their organizations (Lee & Lee, 2000; Robey,
Ross, & Boudreau, 2002; Volkoﬀ, Elmes, & Strong, forthcoming).
Other studies have explored the implementation process itself. For example, in a
case study involving several implementation phases in one organization, Luo and
Strong (2004) explored the pattern of diﬀerences in the focus on re-engineering busi-
ness processes as compared to changing the ES to match existing processes among
these implementations. Using an interpretive case study, Scott and Wagner (2003)
explored the process of negotiating change over time by examining connections
among which work practices are abandoned, which are transported over time, and
which are created. They took a theoretical approach and used Actor-Network theory
to understand the achievement of order resulting from negotiations over time about
the future of work using an ES. Several studies examine the various phases through
which an ES implementation proceeds and identify the problems encountered and
risks faced in diﬀerent environments and phases (Krumbholz, Galliers, Coulianos,
& Maiden, 2000; Markus & Tanis, 2000; Soh, Sia, & Tay-Yap, 2000; Sumner, 2000).
While current research continues to investigate the problems, contradictions, ten-
sions, and risks that emerge during the ES implementation process, studies are start-
ing to explore the outcomes of ES implementation, that is, ES-enabled
organizational changes, both intended and unintended, that are emerging in organi-
zations. Studies of ES-enabled organizational change, like the study described in this
paper, build on the foundation of existing ES research that has uncovered and stud-
ied various problems and contradictions during implementation and investigated the
need for negotiations as organizations attempt to resolve contradictions and tensions
that are inherently not resolvable (Pan et al., 2001; Scott & Wagner, 2003; Strong &
9. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 9
Our study focuses on emerging changes in control and empowerment in organiza-
tions as enabled by an ES. Before describing our study, we review the few papers that
examine ES consequences related to control and empowerment.
2.5. Studies of ES, control, and empowerment
Fundamental changes in organizations may arise from the opportunity for in-
creased managerial control through the improved visibility of operations and ac-
cess to information aﬀorded by an ES implementation. While ES implementation
studies noticed this potential, focused investigation of such changes has drawn lit-
tle research attention with a few notable exceptions (Hanseth, Ciborra, & Braa,
2001; Sia, Tang, Soh, & Boh, 2002; Tang et al., 2000). Sia et al. (2002) examined
the potential for both increased panoptic control and employee empowerment
through ES implementation at a hospital in Singapore. They deﬁned panoptic
control as ‘‘the heightened workplace visibility through embedded system access
or workﬂow dependencies’’ (Tang et al., 2000, p. 503). In theory, according to
the authors, the underlying ES characteristics can enable increases in both panop-
tic control and empowerment. ES can enhance control because of their ability to
track workplace behavior and make it easier for managers and peers to observe
worker activities. They can empower workers by making information more visible,
obviating the need to seek information from others, and potentially enabling
workers to be better informed to make decisions at local levels. Sia et al.
(2002), however, found greater evidence for increases in panoptic control than
empowerment, which they attributed less to the technology itself than to institu-
tional and organizational conservatism, a desire to do things the ‘‘old way’’,
and paternalistic cultural values.
By contrast, in their study of SAP implementation at the European fertilizer divi-
sion (HAE) of Norsk Hydro, Hanseth et al. (2001) found that despite the standard-
ization, streamlining, and integration of business processes inherent in the ES, which
should have made it an ideal control technology, the actual result was a loss of con-
trol. In attempting to establish common work practices across various divisions (and
thus making it easier to monitor and control the processes from head oﬃce), various
irreconcilable local diﬀerences required that the ‘‘universal’’ solution evolve into spe-
ciﬁc site ‘‘variants.’’ In addition, users extracted data from the ES and put it into lo-
cally created ‘‘extension’’ applications using Lotus notes or spreadsheet software,
not visible to headquarters. Borrowing a term from Giddens (1999), the authors
characterized an ES as a manifestation of the ‘‘juggernaut’’ of the modern world –
‘‘a runaway engine of enormous power, that, collectively as human beings, we can
drive to some extent but that also threatens to rush out of our control in directions
we cannot foresee’’ (Hanseth et al., 2001, p. 46).
These two studies are inconclusive but do suggest that the implementation of an
ES is likely to impact organizational control systems in signiﬁcant, and often contra-
dictory, ways. They support our interest in investigating further the sometimes con-
tradictory changes in organizational control we observed at our ﬁeld site.
10. 10 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
3. Research setting
The research reported in this paper presents ﬁndings from a three-year case study
at a global organization (ACRO) undergoing a multi-year, multi-phased ES imple-
mentation. ACRO is a global leader in the design, assembly, and post-sales service
of certain high-precision industrial products. While ACROÕs corporate headquar-
ters, engineering design, and assembly operations are concentrated along the entire
East Coast of the United States, component production and after-sales service plants
are scattered throughout North America, Europe and Asia. With 20,000 employees
and world-wide distributed operations, coordination and control issues are a major
concern of ACROÕs top management. In order to address these issues, in 1998
ACRO embarked on a multi-phase, multi-year plan to implement ES software from
SAP, conﬁgured as a single instance, throughout the company.
The ﬁrst two phases consisted of relatively small, localized projects, and helped
the company gain experience with both the software and the implementation pro-
cess. We started our observations in 2000, shortly before Phase 3 go-live. This phase
focused on component production and assembly operations, and entailed imple-
menting a full set of SAP modules including Finance, Production Planning, Sales Or-
der Management and Materials Management. Before Phase 3 ended, the company
started work on Phase 4, which focused on extending the functionality to support
the maintenance and repair operations. In Phase 5, the last of the phases that we ob-
served, the system was implemented in the engineering design units and introduced
functionality to monitor progress of the companyÕs multi-year research and develop-
ment projects by measuring earned value. The advantage of starting our observa-
tions when we did is that the company had learned a great deal about ES
implementation during the earlier phases, so the issues being encountered pertained
more to the organizational impacts of the system than to the implementation process
We collected data at ﬁve diﬀerent locations. Corporate headquarters is situated at
a large industrial site that houses the main R&D facility, as well as some production
and warehouse operations. A second location has the main production and assembly
plant and product test facilities. We also visited two diﬀerent after-market service
locations, and the separate site that housed the large (more than 200 people) ES
4. Research methodology
Data collection and analysis employed grounded theory methods (Glaser &
Strauss, 1967). The choice of methodology was based on the research problem:
our objective was to discover the organizational impacts associated with the imple-
mentation of an ES, and to understand how these organizational changes arise. We
needed to employ a methodology that could uncover rich information, and that did
not limit us to looking for impacts suggested by theory. A case-based methodology is
recommended for exploratory research that tries to understand how a process un-
11. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 11
folds (Yin, 1994). Grounded theory speciﬁcally rejects a priori theorizing and allows
for discovery of descriptive and explanatory theories that arise directly from empir-
ical observations (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). To the extent that Glaser and Strauss di-
verged in their approach to grounded theory methodology after the publication of
their original book, we have taken a Glaserian approach. 1
We take the position that IT-enabled organizational change is an emergent and
dialectical process that evolves from the sequence of social interactions that occur
over the course of system implementation and use. This perspective demands that
we collect data from multiple sources (Klein & Myers, 1999). Epistemologically,
our approach is interpretive rather than either positivist or critical (Howcroft &
Truex, 2001; Klein & Myers, 1999).
4.1. Data collection
For each of the three implementation phases studied we collected data through
observations, interviews and informal conversations. We made 155 trips (approxi-
mately one trip per week over three years) and conducted 71 formal interviews (some
of which were group interviews) with 60 diﬀerent people. In addition to these formal
interviews we attended meetings, observed testing and training sessions, sat in the
‘‘war rooms’’ during go-live, shadowed people as they solved implementation prob-
lems, and collected documents, such as training material and handouts at meetings.
We also conducted informal interviews during our visits, engaging in casual conver-
sation in the war rooms, before and after meetings, and during testing and training
sessions. In addition we had the opportunity to listen in on group conversations,
both casual and formal.
With a few exceptions, formal interviews were taped and transcribed. The
remaining data were captured in ﬁeld notes taken on site and written up after each
visit. Data collection for each phase started before go-live, and continued through
the early days of use, to a period of stable use, more than a year after go-live. The
purpose of longitudinal data collection was to ensure that we understood the start-
ing point so we could better gauge what had changed once the ES was imple-
mented. It was also valuable for developing good personal relations with our
At the start of each phase we identiﬁed 6–8 key informants through our corporate
contacts. We looked for people who were users, but who were actively involved in
the implementation. In addition to conducting formal interviews with the informants
The main diﬀerence between the Glaserian and Straussian approaches lies not in the underlying
motivation and core analytic procedures, but in the relationship between the researcher and the
phenomena under study (Locke, 1996; Locke, 2001). In particular, Strauss and his coauthors suggest
structured interrogation of the data through a sequence of diﬀerent types of coding and a speciﬁc set of
questions. Glaser, on the other hand, prefers to take a more passive approach, where the researcher does
not initiate the questions, but rather responds to the data. While some have suggested that this assumption
of neutrality is inherently positivistic, we do not assume a single reality, but attempt to let the diﬀerent
voices in our data speak for themselves.
12. 12 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
at several diﬀerent times over the course of the implementation, we shadowed them
as they worked and spoke informally with them often. In most cases our key infor-
mants were power users (individuals who were selected to help test the system before
go-live, become familiar with its operation, and train other users), since they were the
only users involved from before go-live to full operation. They represented all the
areas that were going to be aﬀected by the new software, and those chosen generally
had signiﬁcant experience with the organization, often in a variety of positions. Most
had been with the company for more than a decade and many for much longer than
that. These people were ideal as key informants, not only because of their knowledge
of the company, the software, what it could do, and how to use it, but also because
they were primarily users, with a ‘‘business’’ rather than an ‘‘IT’’ perspective. Their
involvement in testing and training over protracted periods of time allowed them to
reﬂect on how the new system ﬁt with the organizational processes.
We were never ‘‘participants’’ in the implementation, but over the course of our
three-year association developed close relationships with the key informants. Obser-
vations were made by shadowing them over the course of a visit as they attended
meetings, worked at their desks or in the war room (during go-live), and conducted
testing or training. During a testing session, for example, we would sit behind them
as they worked through a test script. Often they encountered problems that needed
to be resolved by the ES team before they could move forward, and as they waited,
they were happy to chat with us. In many cases they seemed to appreciate having
someone external to the operation who would listen sympathetically to their con-
cerns and to whom they could freely express their frustrations and satisfactions with
the system and the implementation process.
They also introduced us to other users whom we then interviewed. In addition,
during the downtime before and after meetings or training sessions there were many
opportunities to engage in conversation, not just with the key informants, but with
the other attendees, who became accustomed to our presence. By shadowing the key
informants, we came in contact with many members of the organization, and this
association provided us with credibility, so that other users spoke freely in front
In addition to the multiple interviews and regular conversations with the 21 key
informants, we formally interviewed 39 other users, ranging from managers to shop
ﬂoor employees, and spoke casually with many others, including members of the ES
implementation team. Table 1 gives a breakdown of the interviewees by phase, role,
and location. While all of the authors participated in data collection, either singly or
in pairs, one of the authors took primary responsibility for Phase 3 and the manu-
facturing plants, and another took primary responsibility for Phase 4 and the repair
and maintenance operation. During Phase 5, one author took responsibility for the
subproject devoted to measuring earned value while all three authors spent time fol-
lowing the implementation in the R&D operations.
Initial interviews, lasting anywhere from 30 to 60 min, employed an interview pro-
tocol that addressed some broad themes using open ended questions (see Appendix
A for our initial interview protocol). These themes, suggested by our initial research
objectives, included existing job processes and responsibilities (focusing on current
13. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 13
Distribution of interviews across phases, locations and roles
# of times each person was interviewed
6 key informants 1 manager 2 times
3 power users 3 people · 2 times
2 users 2·2
6 non-key informants 1 manager 1
5 users 5·1
2 key informants 1 power user 2
1 user 2
4 non-key informants 4 users 4·1
6 key informants 6 power users 5 · 3, 1 · 1
8 non-key informants 1 manager 2
3 power users 2 · 2, 1 · 1
4 users 2 · 2, 2 · 1
10 non-key informants 3 managers 3·1
2 power users 2·1
5 users 5·1
7 key informants 5 power users 1 · 3, 2 · 2, 2 · 1
2 users 1 · 1, 1 · 2
11 non-key informants 9 power users 3 · 2, 6 · 1
2 users 2·1
21 key, 39 non-key 6 managers 8b
29 power users 52b
25 users 31b
While most of the operations related to Phase 5 occur at Location 4, several of these individuals also
spend time at Location 1, and some of the interviews occurred at Location 5, where the ES team was
Because some of the individuals were interviewed together, there were only 71 separate interviews
conducted to obtain these 91 person-interviews.
task structure, ﬂexibility and communication patterns) and expectations regarding
how the new software would alter these. Our objective during these interviews was
to get base-line information on the pre-ES organization. Subsequent interviews fol-
lowed up on the same themes and the changes that had been encountered, and in-
cluded new questions suggested by information from previous interviews. Field
notes and interviews were transcribed, with coding and analysis occurring through-
out the data collection process.
14. 14 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
4.2. Data analysis
The central tasks in a grounded theory approach are to identify descriptive con-
cepts within the data and to uncover the ways these concepts are related to each
other. The primary activities used to accomplish these tasks include coding the data,
making constant comparisons of incidents, both to each other and to the emerging
theory, and memoing (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Locke, 2001). Analysis starts early in
the data collection process and evolves as the research progresses.
At ﬁrst, the data are examined line by line and coded in a way that names each
incident (open coding). At this stage most of the codes are ‘‘substantive’’ and labeled
by words taken from the protagonistsÕ vocabulary (Glaser, 1978). In this study the
ﬁrst few interviews were coded by all three researchers. We then met to discuss the
codes, to ensure we all used the initial labels to mean the same thing. After that each
interview was coded by the researcher who conducted it, since being able to recall the
body language used to generate the words on a page helps to keep the interpretation
of the words aligned with the speakersÕ intentions. As we each added to the initial list
of codes, we shared the labels and their intended meanings with each other. Our ﬁnal
list includes 53 codes. As open coding progressed, memos were written to propose
potential relationships, and codes were organized into trees.
At the same time as substantive codes are emerging, researchers should look for
theoretical codes that conceptualize how the substantive codes relate to each other.
Glaser (1978) indicates that while these codes may have their origin in the disciplin-
ary training of the researcher, they only earn their way into the ﬁnal analysis if they
ﬁt the data in the same way that the substantive codes do. He asserts that the
grounded theorist needs to ‘‘know many theoretical codes in order to be sensitive
to rendering explicitly the subtleties of the relationships’’ in the data (Glaser,
1978, p. 72). He lists 18 coding families as an aid to researchers, but reminds them
that these families are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, and urges research-
ers to combine coding families and spawn new families in whatever ways make sense
in the context of the data. GlaserÕs approach is in contrast to that of Strauss, his for-
mer co-author, who advocates a more formal activity of axial coding to follow open
coding. Glaser ﬁnds axial coding overly restrictive, with questions emanating from
the researcher rather than the data (Locke, 2001).
In following a Glaserian approach, we combined three coding families, namely his
‘‘Six CÕs’’ family (causes, contexts, contingencies, consequences, covariances and
conditions), the ‘‘type’’ family, and the ‘‘degree’’ family. Thus as the core coding cat-
egories of ‘‘visibility’’ and ‘‘discipline’’ started to emerge from the data, we looked
for the diﬀerent types of each, the conditions and contexts surrounding each type,
and the consequences. For example, as discussed in our results section, we discovered
that changes in visibility of information might occur along four diﬀerent dimensions,
namely visibility of information from other functional areas, visibility of information
from other geographic locations, visibility of new forms of historical data, and vis-
ibility of all of this information in real-time. We also looked for the range of out-
comes, such as visibility either increasing or decreasing, and the job contexts in
which the diﬀerent changes were occurring.
15. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 15
Discovering these relationships and building up the theoretical codes is done
through a process of constant comparison. By comparing data incidents with each
other and noting similarities, the categories become more clearly deﬁned. Diﬀerences
help identify the properties of each category, and the conditions under which they
arise. Data incidents also need to be compared to the emerging theoretical codes
to ensure that the latter are a good ﬁt.
Theoretical sampling is used to ensure that the full breadth of emerging possibil-
ities is explored and each category is ‘‘saturated’’. Since the purpose of an ES is to
integrate across functional boundaries, we started by deliberately choosing infor-
mants from diﬀerent functional areas. Since the emerging category ‘‘discipline’’ usu-
ally refers to diﬀerent levels in an organizational hierarchy, we interviewed managers,
salaried and hourly paid workers. To uncover the eﬀects of diﬀerent contexts, we
looked at the diﬀerences between an assembly plant, the after-service facilities, and
the research and development organization and between two after-service facilities
(one of which was considered a more successful implementation than the other).
Once the categories ‘‘visibility’’ and ‘‘discipline’’ emerged, we paid special attention
to the earned value functionality, as it focused speciﬁcally on enabling a group of
individuals to monitor R&D project progress.
As substantive and theoretical coding progresses, it moves from ‘‘open’’ coding,
where every line is examined, to ‘‘selective’’ coding, where the researchers focus on
data that illuminates the emerging categories. Thus those parts of the interviews
and ﬁeld notes that related to our main categories were used to elaborate the emerg-
ing theoretical concepts. We also turned to the literature on management control,
discipline and visibility to see how prior research ﬁt with our ﬁndings.
In conducting a grounded theory study, various tensions need to be managed
(Locke, 2001). While total immersion in the data helps to keep the emerging concepts
grounded, it inhibits the ability to keep them in perspective. The researcher must stay
close to the text, but also make abstractions to a higher level of generality. Further-
more, researchers are urged to suspend knowledge of existing concepts and proposi-
tions, while at the same time remaining theoretically sensitive so they can
conceptualize their data. The advantage of having three researchers with very diﬀer-
ent backgrounds and raised in diﬀerent intellectual traditions was that no precon-
ceived ideas could enter the analysis without the scrutiny of a diﬀerent mindset to
ensure that the inclusion of a theoretical concept had earned its place by ﬁtting with
the data. In addition none of the three of us had a background in managerial control
beyond general knowledge, and it was only after the data led us to our understanding
of visibility and discipline in an ES-supported environment that we turned to un-
cover what had been written about these topics in the literature.
4.3. From data to results
Once we had established the core categories of visibility and discipline and satu-
rated our understanding of the various ways in which they were manifested in the
data, we turned to understanding them from a theoretical perspective. What
we learned from the ﬁeld suggested an examination of the literature on managerial
16. 16 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
control, particularly work that discussed control and IT, and the writings of Max
Weber and Michel Foucault on discipline and control in organizations. In a
grounded theory study the literature is not used as the starting point, but one more
source of data and a stimulus of theoretical sensitivity (Glaser, 1978, p. 31). While we
found much in this literature that could be folded into our results, we also uncovered
some contradictions that required more careful consideration.
From this analysis two theoretical concepts emerged, panoptic empowerment and
reﬂective conformity, which are critical aspects associated with the introduction of
an ES into an organization. These two concepts capture the contradictions we ob-
served in the organizational changes related to managerial control.
Below we present the analysis of our data that led to the two theoretical concepts.
In particular, we highlight the contradictory observations regarding our two core
categories. In Section 5.1, we present data showing that increases in visibility
brought about by the ES simultaneously empowered workers and increased control.
In Section 5.2, we present data on how the integrated nature of the ES increased dis-
cipline and conformity to rules and procedures while at the same time demanding
greater reﬂection on local, integrated, and future work practices.
5.1. Visibility of information
As we conducted interviews and made observations at ACRO, we saw how the
salient characteristics of an ES, namely its ability to integrate business processes
through a common, shared database, available in real time, increased the visibility
of information. Through increased visibility users experienced various types of
changes in both empowerment and control.
5.1.1. Visibility and empowerment
The ES increased the visibility of cross-functional, global and historical informa-
tion and provided this information in real time. One group of employees experienc-
ing increased visibility to cross-functional information was customer service
We can see a lot of other functional areas that we couldnÕt see in our [legacy]
database. We have access to certain shipping records and even ﬁnancial records
[such as] invoice records and billing records that [previously] we were not able
to view, [and for which we] had to call on other areas. (Customer service
At the request of the reviewers, we have edited the quotations for clarity, and in particular removed
process-speciﬁc jargon. This particular quote combines statements made by the interviewee at two diﬀerent
17. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 17
Being able to view shipping or other order status information allowed them to re-
spond immediately to customer requests rather than having to call the assembly
plant for status information before getting back to the customer. In addition, view-
ing ﬁnancial data related to a customer, e.g., invoicing and billing records, allowed
them to answer these types of questions from customers instead of referring them to
the Finance Department, the previous standard practice. With this increased visibil-
ity of information, customer service representatives were empowered both to per-
form tasks without having to go to someone else for additional information and
to be more responsive to the customer, which they viewed as an important part of
The increased visibility of global information was a beneﬁt to materials planners,
who are responsible for ensuring that the correct parts are available when it is time to
assemble the product.
You can look at all your orders you are working with, you can look at all your
inventories, across [the whole company], not only just here in our area. . ..
Whereas before, we didnÕt have access to information like that. We had to
go to either our spares group, call [one of the plants] or other places, where
at a ﬂick of a button [now] you can grab that information. (Materials planner,
With the old legacy system, they had system access only to the local inventory. To
access global inventory, they had to call other plants and beg for parts. The ability to
search for parts from the world-wide inventory when there was a critical shortage
made their job much easier. It increased their control over the part shortage process
and their sense that they were empowered to access and use world-wide inventory. It
also provided better part availability to production, which reﬂected well on the job
performance of the materials planners. With this visibility of global inventory infor-
mation, materials planners also had authority via ES transactions to access and use
Access to historical data was similarly empowering, as users could perform more
analysis, allowing them to do better planning.
A lot of people are just ordering one part for every one required. Now weÕll be
able to use historical data to plan ahead. . . . It will reduce purchase order costs.
(materials planner in a second plant)
The integrated nature of the ES also helped to keep historical information in a
more accessible form. While the system was still too new to have collected much his-
torical data at the time of our interviews, users anticipated being able to trace move-
ments of goods and equipment over time.
. . .this is going to improve the process, in that weÕll have more history on our
tools, where they are located, where theyÕve been, who they belong to. . . .weÕve
got a hodgepodge of tooling out there that [the client] comes back to us and
says ‘‘Hey, where is all of our tooling?’’ We donÕt know. . . .At least now with
the system [we will have that information]. (Manufacturing Engineer)
18. 18 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
In these quotes, we see visibility of information directly supporting job roles and
empowering employees to perform better at these roles, or even expanding those
In addition to increasing visibility of data across functions, around the world, and
back in time, the new system provided data in real time. Because outcomes and pro-
cess performance were now visible in real time, people were alerted sooner to issues
requiring attention either in their own work, or in the work of their colleagues or
subordinates. An employee who worked in one section of the plant, but who recog-
nized that products had to ﬂow through various processes to get to him, and through
other processes after they left him, noted that SAP relieved time pressures.
SAP has relieved a lot of that [time] pressure, because everything is identiﬁed
immediately. ItÕs identiﬁed when itÕs received, itÕs identiﬁed when itÕs being
ready to start, itÕs identiﬁed when itÕs sitting or ready to go to inspection, itÕs
identiﬁed a lot faster. (Inspector)
The idea that responding to real-time data relieves time pressure may seem incon-
gruous, but shop-ﬂoor workers and materials planners previously spent a lot of time
looking for parts and for partially assembled products, e.g., whether they were still
out for repair or waiting in the inspection area, and checking whether something was
ready for the next step. The system provided this status and location information in
real-time alleviating time spent checking on things. Employees could also see parts
and products in earlier stages and were more able to anticipate when they needed
to perform their tasks. This visibility was empowering because it provided employees
with more control over their jobs.
As seen in the above analysis, from the viewpoint of individual employees, in-
creased visibility of information has an empowering eﬀect. In the cases of increased
visibility of other functional areas, to global operations, and to historical data, the
consequence was that the users felt more empowered to perform a task, irrespective
of whether it was an explicit part of their job, without having to go to someone else
for additional information. Overall, increased visibility of information made their
jobs easier and they were more in control of their tasks because they knew what
was happening, and they had to ask others for assistance less often. Thus, increased
visibility of information enabled by the ES increased employee empowerment.
The ES, of course, was not perfect in increasing visibility of information. There
were situations in which visibility decreased, for example, when the complexity of
the ES contributed to diﬃcult and time-consuming searches for information, when
some information previously available in legacy systems was not converted to the
ES, and when the required common data deﬁnitions and editing constraints matched
the needs of some local units better than others.
The decreased visibility of most interest from an empowerment perspective arose
from the abstract representation of concrete physical objects in the system. Like any
information system, an ES ‘‘informates’’ business processes – generates information
about the underlying organizational processes, making them more transparent or
visible – but it does this by representing physical reality in symbolic form (Zuboﬀ,
1988). As Zuboﬀ discusses, abstraction can be challenging at any time by requiring
19. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 19
a new level of intellectual eﬀort. In an ES the diﬃculty is compounded by the de-
mands of integration. Abstractions that have meaning in one part of the business
may not, in fact, provide useful information in another functional area. At ACRO,
the problematic eﬀects of abstraction were experienced by materials planners and
handlers as they moved from a world of physical parts labeled with colored status
tags to a world of bar-coded parts whose status was stored in the system. For exam-
ple, while they thought of repair parts in terms of characteristics such as time in ser-
vice, the system tracked parts as part of a production batch, a repair order, or a
it stocks [items that] are time controlled and serial number controlled. . ...in the
warehouse by a batch number. And it is just an arbitrary number that is
assigned to it. (materials planner)
Part of the problem was that in an ES, the artifact, e.g., an item out for repair,
stopped being treated like a physical entity, and was instead represented as a piece
of data. For the materials planners the speciﬁc representation chosen, namely a num-
ber associated with a sales or service order, was not particularly useful. Abstracting
the movement of a physical object in this way might be useful to ﬁnance or sales, but
materials handler were more interested in looking at information related to speciﬁc
parts, regardless of the sales or service order to which they were attached.
At ACRO, to overcome gaps in the information available to them, users started to
keep private spreadsheets of data that were not readily available in a form that suited
their speciﬁc needs. Thus, for cases of reduced visibility, employees developed work-
arounds to ensure their ability to do their job eﬃciently. As such, these employees
took responsibility for remaining empowered to do their job.
5.1.2. Visibility and control
The same ES-provided information that empowered employees also enabled man-
agers to exercise tighter control over employees. By providing visibility in real-time
to all operations, the ES at ACRO served as a near-perfect panopticon for manage-
ment – an excellent mechanism for increasing control. Visibility of global, cross-
functional and real-time information was clearly useful to senior management since
it supported their already legitimate control over the entire ﬁrm. This was especially
helpful for establishing better outcome control over production and service facilities
in Europe and Asia.
One of the goals for the ES was to provide more visibility of and control over re-
search and development activities and costs performed under contract to others. In
the ES, each contract was set up as a project where labor hours, other costs, and per-
cent completion were recorded against the project plan. The rules for tracking con-
tract progress and costs were designed by a new organization at ACRO, the Earned
Value Group, and embedded in the ES. The ES provided increased outcome control
by computing earned value, which compares project completion rates to project
expenditure rates. While the establishment of the earned value group was not
‘‘caused’’ by the ES, it was only through the additional information provided by
20. 20 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
the ES that this group and the contract project leads were able to manage and con-
trol the research and development activities and costs.
Outcome control increased at ACRO, both through a reduction in the time
needed before outcomes could be examined – information was now available in real
time – and because the information was visible to a wider group of people, both
peers and managers. Outcomes were no longer the weekly or monthly reports that
were compiled for management after the fact, but were the daily, hourly or instan-
taneous data that were monitored by a broad audience. For example, ﬁnance began
to review outcomes daily. The ES provided the information needed to follow-up on
anything unusual. In addition to daily reports, reports could be run at the comple-
tion of any set of work activities to provide immediate outcome control. For exam-
ple, a cost manager had increased ability to exercise real-time cross-functional
[SAP] has the ability to put in standard labor. . . hours and then you can run
reports to see where you are on a daily basis. ItÕs not the end of the cycle.
You can say, ‘‘Okay, this module is ﬁnished, so how many hours was it?’’
And itÕs over your threshold, you can go to the ﬂoor very quickly and say
‘‘You were 400 times over on your hours. I need to know what happened.’’
. . .[I]f you wait at the end of 30 to 60 days, youÕre going to go, ‘‘Oh my, I donÕt
know what they did.’’
The above instance demonstrates cross-functional control as a manager responsi-
ble for costs can immediately check on outcomes that do not match planned out-
comes. At ACRO people on the ﬂoor were aware that others had this visibility,
and discussed it in terms of ensuring data accuracy and proper procedure:
. . ..itÕs basically coming down to inventory. You have to have proper inventory
levels. What you say you have you should have and what you donÕt have you
shouldnÕt have. ItÕs that simple. . . .. WeÕve been doing a lot of inventory adjust-
ments. Our ﬁnancial people donÕt see those today, because thereÕs no dollar val-
ues on them. TheyÕre not getting feeds from SAP, but come [next go-live],
theyÕre going to. (long-time materials planner)
At the time of this quote, ﬁnance was not seeing inventory changes in real-time
because the system was not yet associating costs with every inventory transaction,
but the materials planners knew this was coming in the next phase. When asked what
the ﬁnancial people were going to see after the next go-live, the materials planner re-
sponded that ﬁnance would see every plus and minus inventory adjustment.
This enhanced visibility by managers and fellow workers to real-time data about
operations increased disciplined action among workers. For example,
The material is coming in a timely manner now. You canÕt have what you call
‘‘in transits’’ hanging out there forever. There are reports that are drawn now
that show exactly whatÕs in transit over. . .. four days now, and everybody is
driving to clean that stuﬀ up . . . (MRP controller)
When asked who looked at those reports, the user responded:
21. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 21
Everybody. Everybody in materials, from higher management down and it
comes down through [my boss], who would generate that down to me . . .
Such increased information visibility served to conﬂate process and outcome con-
trol. Interim outcomes – realistically every step of a process and not just ﬁnal out-
comes – were being monitored. Every step in the process could be controlled in
the same way outcomes had been controlled – by comparing results to a standard
or goal – and this could be done in real-time. Outcome control was no longer exer-
cised periodically, but continuously, and was no longer concerned only with planned
outcomes, but also with the process itself. Thus, we saw the emergence of continuous
outcome control, that is, outcome control that was exercised continuously rather
than periodically and included elements of process control as the result of individual
process steps being controlled as outcomes.
While most of the changes in control observed at ACRO were increases in con-
trol exercised by managers and peers, we did observe two instances of some loss of
control. The ﬁrst was a side-eﬀect of increased empowerment. For inventory plan-
ners, access to global inventory information was empowering and allowed these
workers to perform their jobs better and to better meet organizational goals. They
now had authority to use information directly related to the performance of their
job. There was, however, some loss of control as they lost sole authority over their
local inventory. Global inventory visibility violated the highly rationalized nature
of an ideal bureaucracy by supporting an organizational goal of optimal use of
world-wide inventory, yet still measuring production performance at the local
The other instances of loss of control were due to decreased visibility caused by
diﬃculties of reversing transactions in SAP which made changing entries diﬃcult
or impossible. This meant that in certain circumstances it was easier not to enter
the information while it was still subject to change, even where that information
might have been helpful for planning purposes. A user responsible for writing up
work orders explained:
. . .[in the old system] you could save [what you typed in] and . . . you were able
to change it – well in SAP you canÕt do that, youÕve got to save it and you canÕt
go back and revise what you did, itÕs all grayed out and you canÕt change it. So
itÕs tough. . . ..
Since the people performing this function found this unacceptable and confusing
to those reading the work scope instructions, they developed a workaround.
What [weÕre] learning to do is to type the work scope into a Word document
and then . . .. save the Word document and right when [weÕre] ready to release
it, [weÕll] cut and paste it over to SAP, so if there is a change in work scope [we
catch it] before [we] release it.
That is, they delayed entering information into SAP until they were more conﬁ-
dent of its accuracy, thus reducing the timeliness of the information and the visibility
of that information.
22. 22 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
At ACRO, we observed increases in outcome and process control due to informa-
tion visibility, with only rare instances of decreases in control. Overall, the ES served
as a mechanism for increasing organizational control. For senior management and
ﬁnancial controllers especially, the ES became an ideal control mechanism – just
as ES vendors and advocates have advertised. Unexpectedly, this happened at the
same time that workers were experiencing greater empowerment.
5.2. Implications of integration
‘‘Discipline’’ is the code we used whenever people talked about ‘‘doing what they
were supposed to do’’ – adhering more closely to predeﬁned operating processes. As
we analyzed the data coded under this core category we discovered that heightened
levels of discipline were closely related to the integrated nature of an ES. At the same
time, integration demanded that employees reﬂect on business processes.
5.2.1. Disciplined action
We have already seen how increased visibility of information enhances outcome
control. The integrated nature of an ES further supports control in two ways: (1) di-
rect process control by embedding process rules and procedures into the system and
controlling which actions must be, can be, and cannot be performed, and (2) infor-
mal/internal controls by promoting a mindset of disciplined actions.
Over time, many users became aware that the process rules and procedures
embedded in the ES profoundly inﬂuenced how they were expected to perform their
job. For example, a user responsible for the movement of material talked about get-
ting prompted if some procedure remained incomplete:
Before if every part wasnÕt kitted, it didnÕt stop anything. It didnÕt have a ﬂag
come up and say, ‘‘Hey, you didnÕt kit speciﬁc material.’’ As weÕre moving for-
ward, everything has to show that itÕs in the ‘‘withdrawn category,’’ and itÕs
If users ignored these ﬂags, then they were stopped further down in the process
when the system would not let them conﬁrm that a speciﬁc set of activities was com-
plete. The integrative nature of an ES supported cross-functional and real-time vis-
ibility of data, but it also required that tasks be done properly and in a timely
manner, and that data be both correct and complete. In a continuation of the pre-
vious comment the user added:
If a section of that [product] is now saying ‘‘Hey on these sheets, this is billed,’’
it needs to reﬂect that in the system. And. . .. one of the things we do, is we
make sure that it does. If it doesnÕt, we need to get it corrected or you canÕt
do what they call conﬁrm the network. Which is to go into the system and
say, ‘‘Yes this is conﬁrmed and everything is there and that assembly is built.’’
A user performing the same function in a diﬀerent plant summed it up succinctly
23. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 23
If you are not doing your job the way you are supposed to, the system will
catch you. . .. SAP creates a standard process for everyone to follow. . .. There
is a set order to do things.
Embedding rules and procedures into the software is the traditional concept of
using IT to increase control. The system controls what users are allowed to do. Orli-
kowskiÕs (1991) study of IT-enabled control examined CASE tools into which the
organizationÕs development methodology was embedded. While in principle these
users could take other actions (Giddens, 1984), in practice they were required to fol-
low the steps in the methodology as they did their work (Orlikowski, 1991). Simi-
larly, the ES has deﬁned procedures and sequences, which users must use to
accomplish their tasks. Furthermore, the integrated nature of an ES highlights any
failure to follow procedures as mis-steps in one area stall further progress in another
In addition to software features that alert users to errors and omissions, and
embedded procedures that ensure correct process, users of an ES are further con-
strained to follow oﬃcial procedure through carefully controlled authorizations that
limit access to transactions. With integration everybody works oﬀ the same database,
so anyone could, in theory, have access not only to view all data but also to make
changes. While cross-functional visibility may have many beneﬁts, there are risks
in allowing cross-functional transaction access. As a consequence, authorization to
perform each transaction must be assigned to speciﬁc roles. At ACRO the lack of
ﬂexibility this imposed on users was frustrating at times, not least because these con-
straints often had the eﬀect of slowing down production. A middle manager pre-
sented the following scenario:
Before ERP implementation occurred, I had the ability to go into the system
and [determine availability. . .. In] just a couple of keystrokes, I could get the
material pulled appropriately with all the right codes, with all the right avenues
and send somebody on the road to pick it up and get it here within an hour or
two maybe at the most. Now. . .. I donÕt have that authorization anymore, itÕs a
buyer/planner function, IÕve been told I canÕt have a buyer/planner code. . ..
This manager went on to explain how he personally used to have the ability to
ﬁnd a part, place an order to have it pulled from inventory, and have it en route
to where it was needed within minutes. Under the new set of role-based authoriza-
tions he had to ﬁnd other people to perform these transactions as he was not autho-
rized to perform them despite his position as a manager. This had the eﬀect of
delaying arrival of the necessary parts for hours, disrupting production.
The combination of embedded procedures, separation of roles, and transactions
authorized only to selected roles increased disciplined action and process control.
In the above examples, only the material buyer/planner role and the spares manage-
ment role had authority to approve requests for inventory. A middle manager on the
shop ﬂoor could no longer both request and approve parts by himself. This increased
control over inventory, a stated goal of ACRO, at a cost of occasional delays in
24. 24 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
In addition to these structures for enforcing discipline, the ES system generally
encouraged a culture and a mindset where the discipline of following the process
properly was valued. One exchange between two employees responsible for control-
ling the bill of materials suggests that while users were frustrated by some of the con-
straints put on them by the new system, some were starting to support the need for
greater discipline imposed by the system:
[S]ystem functionality. . .says you must have all this data prior to issuing a pur-
chase order. . .for decades. . .we placed purchase orders with almost noth-
ing. . .and it was a factor of speed. . . This system is forcing us to do things
which quite frankly donÕt ﬁt with the business. . . (First individual)
The second individual countered that updating purchase orders in the old way
had a detrimental eﬀect on quality, and the need for speed did not justify ignoring
TheyÕre forcing people to do what is [proper]. Like today youÕre saying you can
go in and change your purchase order or issue a purchase order with very lim-
ited information on it. Is that right? I do not think so. I think when youÕre talk-
ing quality, youÕre talking quality, when youÕre talking [about data that aﬀects]
ﬁnance, youÕre talking ﬁnance, and all that [purchase order information]
should be there. (Response from second individual)
Given the integrated nature of an ES, data entered in one area immediately aﬀects
other areas. Unlike before ES at ACRO when diﬀerent parts of the organization
were more loosely coupled and buﬀered from the eﬀects, increased integration and
the authorizations that controlled who could do what increased the cost of errors.
Reversing an entry involved undoing all the ripple eﬀects, not just changing an entry
on a screen. Not only was reversing a process inherently complex, it might also have
involved a variety of individuals, each of which had authorization to perform a sub-
set of the transactions involved. Such problems raised the need for more faithful and
accurate execution of processes, and limited the scope for process variation. Further-
more, the need for both increased data accuracy and more timely data was an under-
lying motivation for increased discipline.
Overall at ACRO, we noticed a growing sense that disciplined behavior became
increasingly important after the implementation of the ES. In general a greater
understanding of the integrated nature of organizational processes, and how the
ES links them together, led to recognition of the importance of following prescribed
processes. The notion that processes should be done in a particular way was a reﬂec-
tion of how an ES serves to rationalize the organization by inculcating the value of
discipline in everyday task behaviors. As one materials user stated, ‘‘I think things
are starting to be done the way that they should’’.
5.2.2. Reﬂection on work practices
At the same time as users were conforming to embedded processes, they were also
reﬂecting on how the system supported the network of business processes they were
engaged in. Reﬂecting on work practices is an important part of how practitioners
25. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 25
address and solve problems (Schon, 1983). Our interviews provided examples of in-
creased reﬂection on local, integrated and future work practices involving the ES.
We focus on the latter two, reﬂection on integrated and future work practices, since
these are the unexpected ﬁndings.
The integrated processes in the ES encouraged workers to reﬂect on work prac-
tices outside their local area. For example, in the following excerpt a troubleshooter
from the receiving area of one plant explained how he unraveled problems that oc-
curred in his area, and how he tried to get users in other areas to realize that errors
made in one place had an impact elsewhere.
I think a lot of it was people didnÕt understand what information they were
inputting, how it was aﬀecting somebody else. A lot of what happens in
[inspection], when they route a part out, we donÕt see the problem until it gets
back to receiving. . . . Well once you got into understanding how to ﬁx it, why
was it happening in the ﬁrst place? Well actually because [inspection] was
inputting the wrong information. So we would have to go back and say
‘‘Hey look, donÕt do that, because in the end, weÕre going to catch it back here’’
The ES would not receive a part into the system unless all the records for that part
matched, i.e., the bar code on the part as it was received had to match the bar code of
the part requested. At ACRO after go-live, the receiving well of plants started to ﬁll
up with parts the ES rejected and no one knew what to do about that.
To solve these problems the workers went through the pile of parts, determined
the problems, and the initial source of the problem, as indicated in the quote above.
Gradually, by explaining to all how the system worked and what they needed to do,
the rejects in receiving declined to almost nothing, and for those that occurred, the
workers in receiving knew how to resolve the problems. As one receiving inspector
So what weÕve had to do is learn what the other department was going through
in order to, how we can solve our problem to ﬁx their problem at the same
time. . . So weÕve done a lot of going back and forth trying to understand just
overall just how the whole process works. And that has helped. We are able to
catch the problems before they even happen anymore. . . . And we have to com-
municate back and forth a lot, you know, just so everybody understands how
everything is going to work.
This increased reﬂection and understanding of the new integrated processes went
beyond just the receiving area. For example, the site implementation manager noted:
WeÕre trying to log what area is experiencing the problem and then the root
cause, we want a narrative of what area created the problem. The reason weÕre
doing that is so that we can utilize this information and weÕll be able to see that
the individuals that generate the network or the sales order are causing these
problems that donÕt become apparent until three or four weeks later and the
inspector has the problem.
26. 26 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
While the materials inspectors had problems generated by other areas, these
inspectors also came to realize that their work could generate problems for others.
As one materials inspector noted:
What I do aﬀects the whole process. If I mess it up from the start, materials is
messed up, warehouse is messed up, . . .
At another service plant they initially attributed the receiving problems and
other problems to the ES. When the ES would not accept received parts, they used
various workarounds including re-ordering the parts to get the parts they needed.
The result was excessive and out-of-control inventory costs – the opposite of the
beneﬁt expected from the ES. When they heard about the success at the other plant,
they realized they needed to learn the system better and to understand how it
Some might argue that these ﬁndings of increased reﬂection on work practices
in the ES environment were temporary; and as soon as everyone understood what
they needed to do, reﬂection would stop. Our observations did not support this
explanation. The assembly plant continued to explore ways to make better use
of the ES to improve the assembly and inventory planning processes. In an inter-
view two years after Phase 3 go-live, a process engineer discussed several changes
to ES-related work practices that would improve their use of the ES. For
So weÕve had some meetings over this and they would like a change now where
it will allow them to approve a plan with multiple parts. . .
This idea for better use of the ES in the future and the other ideas he mentioned
are process improvements that would not have been possible without the ES. The ES
provided an infrastructure that enabled workers to reﬂect on what additional sup-
port could be provided and to request changes, enhancements, or add-ons. There
have been on-going formal and informal discussions of improved future work pro-
cesses and IT support for these.
Even workers at plants that initially had many problems with the ES started to
reﬂect on the future possibilities enabled by the ES:
I would like to see the parts ﬂowing through the facility a lot quicker, get rid of
all the holdups. I would like to see the parts that donÕt need inspection not have
to go to inspection because that just creates a bottleneck, everywhere. (a mate-
Furthermore, this reﬂection extended across plants:
ACRO is doing one thing that is real good, is getting the business units
together. I spent two weeks with [two other repair plants], talking about com-
mon issues and common reports, so that now that weÕre all up and weÕve got
some level of experience and weÕve made it through that ﬁrst knowledge,
now weÕre going back and as a group sitting down and trying to look at what
are common issues. (controller)
27. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 27
While we observed increased reﬂection, not all workers engaged in such reﬂection.
Because the ES was complex and diﬃcult to understand, reﬂection on work in the
context of the ES was not easy. Some workers did not engage in problem-solving
but rather depended on the power users to do work for them or waited for someone
to explain to them what to do. Furthermore, the reﬂection stimulated by the ES was
sometimes narrowly focused on solving problems in current ES-related work prac-
tices. In summary, what we did observe was that, despite an increase in the level
of conformity to speciﬁed processes imposed or encouraged by the ES, this new sys-
tem simultaneously demanded, and often elicited, an increased level of reﬂection on
how the processes related to each other, and on ways to alter and improve them to
achieve organizational objectives.
Our observations, far from resolving the question of whether an ES enhances con-
trol or empowerment, suggest instead that it enhances both at the same time. Simi-
larly, based on our observations, we note a simultaneous increase in both conformity
to and reﬂection about business processes. Paradoxes of this nature are an inherent
part of organizational life (Lewis, 2000). By exploring these tensions rather than try-
ing to eliminate them, we can illuminate the complexity and avoid oversimplifying
Various strategies exist to address apparent paradoxes (Lewis, 2000; Poole & Van
de Ven, 1989). These range from trying to resolve the paradox by identifying how the
competing elements reﬂect diﬀerent levels of analysis and/or moments in time, or
transcending the paradox by reframing the way we view the two sides so they can
be synthesized. Acknowledging the interdependence of two opposing concepts rather
than focusing on their distinctions permits a richer understanding of complex phe-
nomena (Jackson, 1999). In the discussion that follows, we propose a concept we call
‘‘panoptic empowerment’’ as a means of transcending the tension between control
and empowerment. Following this we propose a second concept, ‘‘reﬂective confor-
mity’’, as a means of transcending the tension between conforming to the ES while
simultaneously reﬂecting on its use, and discuss why these elements not only can, but
in an ES environment, must coexist.
6.1. Panoptic empowerment
The simultaneous increase in control and empowerment occurs through the medi-
ating eﬀects of information visibility. Workers are empowered, not because they
have more authority, but because they have more information, which in turn gives
them greater control over factors that aﬀect the way they execute their jobs. This
same access to information allows for a certain degree of job expansion. Visibility
is, however, a two-edged sword, and at the same time an ES enables individuals
to see more and do more, it also makes them more visible to others. Control in-
creases in part from the creation of a panopticon, where individuals are likely to
28. 28 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
be disciplined in their behavior and to engage in high levels of self control because
their actions can be watched by others. Furthermore, real-time information visibility
reduces the time cycles over which outcome control can be exercised, eﬀectively con-
ﬂating outcome control with process control.
The contradiction between control and empowerment arises when control is
viewed in the bureaucratic sense of a supervisor exercising power over a subordinate,
and empowerment is viewed as the transfer of power from managers to workers. If
instead of this zero-sum view of power we take a Foucauldian perspective, then
empowerment and control can coexist more comfortably. By making actions of
employees visible in real-time and enabling continuous real-time control of outcomes
and processes, an ES ﬁts well with FoucaultÕs understanding of disciplinary power
and control (with some limitations, which we discuss below).
Work cannot be done without the ES, which generates the paperwork or data
movement necessary for the next step in the process. As each step is completed,
the system records who executed the transactions and when. All this process and out-
come status information is stored in the shared database, available to anyone with
access at any time. As with the panopticon, since employees know their actions
are being recorded, disciplinary power will be in eﬀect whether anyone is observing
or not. Furthermore, even if users are not observed in real-time, the information is
available in complete detail at a later time, so that process and outcome controls can
be exercised whenever convenient. As a panopticon, the ES serves to perpetuate and
re-enforce existing managerial power and control in organizations, similar to the re-
sults observed by Sia et al. (2002). Thus, our ﬁndings of increased outcome and pro-
cess control are consistent with conventional literature and consistent with the
expected beneﬁts of an ES, which is designed and sold as a mechanism for increased
organizational control. The question then becomes: How do we theoretically explain
the simultaneous ﬁnding of increased empowerment?
An ES diﬀers in three potentially critical ways from the ideal panopticon. First,
the mechanism of observation is less visible. In the panopticon, the window in the
observation tower reminds prisoners constantly that they could be under observa-
tion. While employees know the ES is recording everything, the gaze is less visible
– the system is not primarily for observing employees, but for doing work – so they
are not constantly reminded that they are being watched. Potentially, this could
weaken the disciplinary power and self-control of a panopticon, and could increase
a willingness to act independently.
Second, while there is no escape from the gaze in an ideal panopticon, there is
some room to hide with an ES. Although there is complete visibility of any informa-
tion entered into the ES (and usually, to do oneÕs job, there is no choice but to enter
it), individuals sometimes withhold information until the last moment. While process
controls can reduce such activity (it is clear when information has not been entered),
outcome control is diminished until the information is available.
Third, the ideal panopticon provides hierarchical visibility in only one direction
(only observers have visibility), and no horizontal visibility (the observed cannot
see each other) (Foucault, 1977). An ES goes well beyond panoptic visibility – every-
one can see everything in the common database – to provide a network of cross-func-
29. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 29
tional, global, and real-time visibility. It is this violation of the ideal panopticon that
provides the possibility for empowerment. The employees at ACRO clearly saw this
visibility of information as empowering, and took actions based on this additional
information. They also used this visibility to follow up on anomalies in their own
work that they believed might have been caused elsewhere. These results contrast
with Sia et al.Õs (2002) ES study, in which similar opportunities for empowerment
due to visibility were available, but where the nurses studied viewed these opportu-
nities as extra work, which they refused to do.
Some might argue that the increased empowerment we observed is not ‘‘true’’
empowerment because managers have not given some of their authority and re-
sources to employees. In fact, few of the actions that employees had been enabled
or empowered to do were previously done by their supervisors or managers. Rather
than a transfer of power as envisioned in the traditional empowerment literature, we
saw an increase and a spread of knowledge that was empowering. Some of this
knowledge was previously held only in local legacy systems, e.g., inventory informa-
tion and order and invoice status information, while other knowledge was previously
either non-existent or not in an easily usable form, e.g., historical and real-time data.
From a Foucauldian view, then, there was an increase in knowledge and thus an in-
crease in the power to do things. In this way, an ES can be empowering without
transferring power from managers to employees – allocation of power need not be
viewed as a zero-sum game. Furthermore, Foucault would argue that power is not
held by individuals in any case, so cannot be ‘‘transferred’’, but instead is a property
of the system as a whole.
While this information provides empowerment, it also provides the opportunity
for peers and other managers, not just hierarchical managers, to exercise control.
The eﬀect of everyone being able to gaze upon everyone else in real-time changes
the nature of control in organizations from hierarchical to multi-directional. The
transparent environment also fosters an organizational culture that promotes disci-
pline. The theoretical concept ‘‘panoptic empowerment’’ captures this combination
of empowerment and simultaneous, multi-directional visibility.
6.2. Reﬂective conformity
The demands arising from the integrated nature of an ES simultaneously require
conformity to speciﬁc operating processes and increased reﬂection on how the sys-
tem supports those processes. Conformity is not enforced through hierarchical con-
trol, but through the disciplinary power inherent in the rules and procedures
embedded in the ES. Since in an ES these rules and procedures integrate organiza-
tional activities more closely, conformity is essential so that actions taken in one area
do not interfere with operations elsewhere. This systemic set of constraints creates a
‘‘regime of truth’’ – a discourse that values disciplined action over individual heroism
to meet production goals. At the same time the realities of organizational life cannot
all be programmed into the embedded processes, particularly those that must serve
the conﬂicting objectives of diﬀerent functional areas. This challenge combined with
the inherent complexity of how an ES might be used to support variants to standard
30. 30 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
procedure requires deliberate reﬂection. Furthermore, the opportunities that an ES
presents can only be exploited if the users reﬂect on the possibilities.
In the literature, conformity is associated with reduced reﬂection. For example in
her study of IT-enabled control, Orlikowski (1991, p. 38) noted that ‘‘. . . workers be-
come less competent as knowledgeable agents as they become less able to reﬂect on
their means of production and the knowledge embedded therein’’. After implemen-
tation of a system with embedded procedures, Orlikowski observed deskilling of
workers and little reﬂection on work processes, and speculated that this would cause
future problems as the ﬁrm became less able to adjust its practices as the environ-
ment changed. In her study, embedded rules and procedures in combination with
informal controls had the eﬀect of both instilling discipline and reducing reﬂection.
In stark contrast, in our study we observed examples of increased reﬂection. While
much of this reﬂection was directly related to solving problems related to the use of
the ES, such reﬂection was also the start of reﬂection on better work practices in the
future. Since reﬂection is especially important for non-routine problems and for pro-
cess improvements over time, whether or not an ES contributes to more or less reﬂec-
tion by workers on their work practices is an important concern.
Our observations support the critical importance of reﬂection on work practices
in an ES environment. Speciﬁcally, without reﬂection and increased understanding
of the new integration of work across functions, the ES does not function well. Those
workers who did only what the system asked without understanding the impacts on
other areas contributed to an out-of-control inventory situation. Other workers la-
bored to understand the system and how its integrated nature aﬀected work across
organizational boundaries. They also followed prescribed procedures, but through
their reﬂections were able to contribute to increased inventory control.
These are contradictory observations – the ES works well as a control system only
to the extent that workers take control of their work and of the system. We capture
this contradiction in the term ‘‘reﬂective conformity’’, our second theoretical con-
cept. The net result is that while the ES can contribute to less reﬂection due to the
embedded processes, it ultimately requires increased reﬂection to achieve the control
Conformity to speciﬁed processes is enforced by an ES through built-in error
checks and ﬂags, and role-speciﬁc authorizations to perform transactions. These fea-
tures create the system-embedded governance structure that Foucault saw as the
nexus of power and control. Without such constraints, the enhanced information vis-
ibility would empower individuals to perform tasks well outside the scope of their
roles. In fact power users who have broad authorizations can end up performing
tasks for any part of the plant. The need to maintain conformity arises because every
action in an integrated system has ripple eﬀects far beyond the initiatorÕs location.
Integration also demands that transactions be completed in speciﬁc sequences, and
failure to execute all steps as expected can create roadblocks for other users.
This same integration and its associated complexity simultaneously generates a
need for more reﬂection. While the constraints imposed by embedded procedures
might be assumed to ensure that a user can automatically follow prescribed proce-
dures without much reﬂection, this is not always the case. No ﬁnite set of embedded
31. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 31
processes can accommodate all possible operational needs, and individuals will de-
vise ways to deal with exceptions as they arise. As expressed by several users, the sys-
tem worked well under ‘‘sunny day’’ conditions, but any deviation, including simple
data entry errors or malfunctions of parts or equipment, required a clear understand-
ing of how to undo the ripple eﬀects, or force a deviation from embedded proce-
dures. We suggest that without this understanding, working around problems can
create chaos. Furthermore, the system will need to evolve with changing circum-
stances. Both blind adherence to built in procedures and unreﬂective accommoda-
tions to nonstandard situations can have serious negative consequences. Thus
while an ES demands conformity, it simultaneously demands conscious thought
about how processes inter-relate, and how the system supports them.
In summary, the contradictions noted in ‘‘panoptic empowerment’’ and ‘‘reﬂec-
tive conformity’’ are more easily resolved when we consider these ﬁndings in the
context of a Foucauldian perspective and how it relates to core ES characteristics.
Speciﬁcally, the mediating eﬀects of increased information visibility support
both employee empowerment and greater managerial control. The unforgiving
nature of an integrated system demands both a mindset of discipline and more
The two new theoretical concepts that emerged from our research, ‘‘panoptic
empowerment’’ and ‘‘reﬂective conformity’’ both add to the literature and illuminate
practical implications of ES implementations. From a theoretical perspective we ex-
tend the literature on IT-enabled organizational control by unraveling the traditional
views on discipline and control and integrating them with our grounded results to
create a new understanding of the real control eﬀects associated with an ES.
From a practical perspective the emergence of ‘‘panoptic empowerment’’ and
‘‘reﬂective conformity’’ in the course of an ES implementation present an interesting
challenge for organizations and the people who work for them. While an ES really
can deliver on its promise to increase discipline and control while empowering work-
ers, it does this at some cost and with considerable eﬀort. In particular, employees
are under much more pervasive surveillance than in the past, and this gaze can be
exercised by their peers and workers in other parts of the organization, as well as
managers. While they are empowered by being able to see much more than before,
they are also required to become more knowledgeable and reﬂective.
Harnessing the power of an ES requires balancing the inherent tensions of panop-
tic empowerment and reﬂective conformity, so that the various interconnected activ-
ities support rather than interfere with each other. First, employees are only
empowered and reﬂective to the extent they understand the ES. Because of its com-
plexity, this is not a simple task. To be eﬀective, users need not only to learn the
mechanical aspects of conducting transactions with the software, but also to under-
stand the ESÕs essential structure and how the transactions they execute feed the
activities of other people.
32. 32 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
Second, the level of reﬂection required goes beyond employeesÕ own tasks, and
while still task oriented, extends to the network of tasks that includes their own jobs.
In other words the salient characteristic of an ES, namely its ability to integrate orga-
nizational functions, works against the traditional bureaucratic rationality that re-
quires functional specialization. Not everyone in the organization wants the
challenge of reﬂecting so broadly, particularly when what they can actually transact
in the ES is limited by task speciﬁc authorizations. Thus, in some ways, the ES
encourages narrow thinking and mindless entry of transactions, often at the expense
of eﬀective system functioning.
Third, there is signiﬁcant ﬂexibility in how much and what kind of transactional
authority and information visibility is allocated to diﬀerent organizational roles. The
balance between empowerment and control depends both on how the ES is set up,
and the organizational incentives put in place.
There are a number of other eﬀects of working in an ES environment that we have
not explored. For example, the ES enables peer-to-peer control as employees have
cross-functional visibility. How this will work, and how it might aﬀect managerial
and self-control is still to be explored.
While our research was conducted at one company, which could call into ques-
tion the generalizability of our ﬁndings, we did observe a number of diﬀerent oper-
ating units within the organization, and their diﬀerent responses to the ES
implementation support our conclusions. Of course our two theoretical concepts,
panoptic empowerment and reﬂective conformity, should be investigated in other
Our theoretical analysis suggests that with the advent of integrated software sys-
tems such as ES, a Foucauldian lens that treats discipline and control as a function
of the knowledge and power embedded in the organizational system and released by
visibility of information will continue to be a source of insight and understanding of
the organizational impacts of ES. Through this lens we will begin to explain the par-
adoxical and seemingly contradictory outcomes of these systems that, while enhanc-
ing traditional control, discipline, and rationality, also give rise to greater reﬂection
and empowerment, in contrast to the principles of an ideal bureaucracy. To under-
stand IT-enabled organizational changes, more research is needed that uses a Fou-
cauldian lens. This means not just the panopticon, but also disciplinary power,
and FoucaultÕs concept of power/knowledge embedded in the organizational system
rather than primarily in individuals in positions of authority. These concepts become
important as we study the nature of IT-enabled empowerment and reﬂection in the
context of multi-directional control.
This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation under
Grant No. 0114954. Any opinions, ﬁndings, and conclusions or recommendations
expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reﬂect the
views of the National Science Foundation.
33. M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37 33
We thank the organization we studied for generously providing us with open ac-
cess to observe their implementation process, attend meetings, and interview employ-
ees, at a time when they were extremely busy. We also thank the many employees
who willingly talked with us about their experiences with the newly implemented
ES. Finally, we appreciate the thoughtful comments from Dan Robey and the anon-
ymous reviewers who helped us think through our ideas and present them in a more
Appendix A. Initial interview protocol
1. Introduction (when required)
Who we are
We are here to understand the process of implementing SAP and how it changes
workﬂow. In this interview we want to ﬁnd out something about the way jobs are
done now, before SAP.
We will start by asking some general questions.
We will want to come back later with more questions about how things have chan-
ged after go-live.
2. Current: before SAP
How long have you been at [ACRO]?
What is your current job at [this plant]? What other jobs have you had at
With respect to the current/latest job, what are the main things you do? (Describe
What are you responsible for?
Is this job fairly self-contained – or does it depend on other people?
Who are the primary people you interact with to get the job done?
Where, if any, are the time pressures?
Is the process fairly standard, or are there lots of special cases? Examples?
When a special case comes up, who makes the decision on how to handle it?
How closely are your tasks bound by work instructions?
3. Once SAP is here
Knowing what you do about SAP, how will the work process you described ear-
Will the responsibilities of the person doing this job change?
Will the job be more or less self-contained/interdependent than before?
Who will you need to interact with now – is this a change?
Will the time pressures change?
Will the approach to special cases change?
What about the new procedures and work instructions – will they be any more or
less speciﬁc with respect to what you have to do?
Will SAP make the job more or less complex? Examples?
34. 34 M.B. Elmes et al. / Information and Organization 15 (2005) 1–37
What things will you be able to do that you canÕt do now? What things will you be
unable to do that you can do now?
In what ways will SAP make this job easier? Harder?
At some point weÕd love to see this job in action so we can really understand it!
What training is being planned over the next little while? When and where will it
be held? May we sit in and watch?
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