4 Theoretical background
4.2.4 How the imbrication lens helps to understand organizational routines and immersive technologies
The imbrication lens serves to underline the following important points.
First, while imbrications, and therefore organizational routines and technologies, are constituted by human and material agency, both are ontologically distinct phenomena. This distinction serves to highlight that these phenomena, and the agencies they both consist of, are different. In
Thesis 71 particular, as elaborated on in the philosophy of science chapter, while both humans and technology can do things, only people have the ability to form goals and only humans have the ability to form intentions (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998; Giddens, 1984; Pickering, 1995).
However, while material agency is able to act on its own without human intervention, it does not have intentions of forming goals by itself (Pickering, 1995). Technologies can have an intention, but their intentions are formed and designed by humans as it is humans that have intentions and the ability to form goals (Leonardi, 2011; Taylor, 2016). Accordingly, it is always humans that, at some point, configure material agency and decide what goals are designed into technologies.
But how technologies act and become imbricated cannot be determined beforehand. In fact, as many studies show, technologies can and will be used in many often unpredictable ways when they interact and intertwine with humans (Leonardi, 2011).
Relating this point to the review on organizational routines, in the section on “Digital and non-digital artifacts in the practice perspective on organizational routines”, imbrication offers a language that builds on the current conceptualizations from organizational routines theory, which is primarily rooted in Actor-Network theory, with the aim of bringing forth the role of artifacts in organizational routines. In particular, by seeing both technologies and organizational routines as consisting of human and material agency, the imbrication lens matches with D'Adderio's (2011, 2008) argument to provide technologies with agency while avoiding technological determinism.
But the imbrication lens differs in focus as imbrications explicitly argue that human and material agency are different and therefore should be seen as distinct phenomena. Accordingly, the imbrication lens maintains the distinction between the material and human agencies. Its emphasis is therefore slightly different than existing conceptualizations of technologies in organizational routines theory. That is, as existing literature utilizes concepts such as actants, it is difficult to trace if the actions are coming from humans or technologies. This way, human and material agency can become indistinguishable, such that action has no clear point of origin and either one of them can begin changes in sequences of action – the actions of human and technologies are, in the words of Actor-Network theory, hybrids (Latour, 1993; Leonardi, 2012, 2011). With the imbrication lens I aim at extending current literature on organizational routines, by arguing that while both the material and humans have agency, ultimately, humans decide how they respond and appropriate a technology (Leonardi, 2011). Therefore, humans and technology should be seen as ontologically distinct phenomena.
Thesis 72 This clear distinction of human and technological performances further helps to make another point clear for the organizational routines and for literature on immersive technologies. In particular, it explicitly articulates that, while technology and organizational routines when imbricated both consist of human and material agency, the materiality of technologies needs to be considered in order to understand how agencies are weaved together to create or change organizational routines and technologies. Materiality here refers to the matter and form of technologies and helps to point out that what a technology is (its materiality), is important to distinguish from what a technology does (its material agency). Thus, the distinction between a technology and its material agency, what a technology is and what it does, sensitizes me, to a larger degree than prior literature on organizational routines and immersive technologies, to the materiality (matter and form) of technologies and therefore new technological developments of immersive technologies. This is done by introducing the theory of affordances (Gibson, 1977).
Affordances directly conceptualize an object and its physical properties as they highlight an artifact’s materiality and its possibilities for actions. However, the affordances of an artifact can change across different contexts even though its materiality does not. Thus, affordances are not exclusively capabilities of people or of artifacts – they emerge in relationships between people and the materiality of the things with which they come in contact (Hutchby, 2001). In short, the materiality exists independent of people and can remain the same across contexts and time, but affordances as well as artifact constraints do not. Consequently, people might see different affordances and constraints in a technology as they engage with artifacts and its materiality with distinctive goals. Affordances and constraints are therefore relational and as a result, actors' goals are shaped by the form and matter of artifacts and what they afford – and vice versa.
Second, the imbrication lens highlights, how past imbrications create infrastructure of technologies and organizational routines over time. This way, and to a larger degree than current literature on organizational routines, the imbrication lens sensitizes me to the surrounding context and how organizational routines and the materiality of technologies are embedded in organizational structures (Howard-Grenville and Rerup, 2016; Parmigiani and Howard-Grenville, 2011). In particular, when human and material agency imbricate, they generate an outcome by creating and/or changing organizational routines or technologies. An imbrication can in time become taken for granted, or black-boxed, by actors in an organization when technology allow actors to fulfil their goals and intentions. And when that happens, the new or changed organizational routine/technology becomes an infrastructure which conditions, but does not cause,
Thesis 73 future imbrications. For example, if a head-mounted displays become part of an organizational design routine and it fulfills the intention of the architects by helping them to reduce errors, it is likely to condition how future imbrications occur in the organizational design routine. For instance, the flexibility or inflexibility of the materiality of the head-mounted display, as well as the surrounding technical infrastructure it is connected to, will determine if it is changed or un-enrolled. If the materiality of the head-mounted display, and the technologies that it is connected to, is too inflexible, the same technology will constrain the new intentions and be replaced or altered. This way, past imbrications that have occurred will influence and condition the way that current and future agencies of organizational routines and technologies imbricate. In this manner, the implications of past imbrications are directly theorized and accounted for using a non-deterministic language, while also accounting for the materiality of the technology. Accordingly, the materiality of head-mounted displays and the other technologies that are involved in or connected to the head-mounted display can more easily be conceptualized as well. In turn, the imbrication lens helps to include the surrounding context that the organizational routine is imbedded in, in a more direct way than existing theory on organizational routines.
In summary, the imbrication lens helps to view the relationship between organizational routines and technology in a more dynamic way by regarding both technology and organizational routines as dynamic. It does so by keeping organizational routines and technology as ontological distinct entities as they are seen as different. Humans have the ability to form intentions while technologies do not, but technologies can have intentions designed into them. On the other hand, technology is different because it consists of a materiality that can potentially remain the same across time and place. Consequently, the imbrication lens helps to put focus on the materiality of head-mounted displays by keeping organizational routines and technology as distinct phenomena, in turn building on existing ways that organizational routines theory conceptualize artifacts.
Technologies can change organizational routines by affording new performances, but technologies can also be un-enrolled or changed if they constrain the performances of actors in organizational routines. Furthermore, the imbrication lens aids in including the context and the embeddedness of organizational routines and technologies in a more direct way by directly conceptualizing the materiality of head-mounted displays and the other technologies that are connected to it, through the concept of infrastructure.
Hence, the imbrication lens complements existing theory of organizational routines by seeing both technology and organizational routines as potentially flexible. In turn, it makes it possible to better
Thesis 74 understand how the matter and form of immersive technologies, for example head-mounted displays and its related software and hardware, imbricate with organizational routines.
Key concept(s) Definitions and explanations
Imbrication When a human’s and a technology’s agency tune in on each other, they eventually lock in on each other, and their agencies create an imbrication while remaining distinct entities. Imbrications either create or change routines, or at other times produce new technologies or alter them.
Infrastructure Organizational routines and technologies are infrastructure. And the infrastructure is produced by the imbrications of the performances of humans and technologies – their agency.
Affordance A technology’s possibilities for actions which emerge in the relation between the performances of humans and technologies.
Constraint The constraints a technology imposes on humans’ goals which arise in the relation between the performances of humans and technology.
Table 8: Key concept(s) used in this section.