Storytelling: An investigation of the process of learning during an Information Technology implementation at RMIT University

I have been meaning to clean up and upload my 2003 Master’s thesis. Today, finally, I decided that it should be done. So, here it is. I apologize for the long unsexy title. Not very library related I guess but a load of fun to write…from hindsight.

Abstract

Information Systems (IS) failure research would define the Academic Management System (AMS) project at RMIT University a failure because it did not deliver its expected outcomes. In spite of all the unflattering reports, the AMS has become a permanent fixture in the workplace for staff at RMIT University. They had learnt to work with the system and had adapted to the new working conditions.

This thesis examines the processes people utilise to cope with new systems and new working conditions. It seeks to answer the question: do people who have to work with a new Information Technology (IT) to perform their daily work engage in storytelling as part of their learning process?

The thesis project starts out with a review and analysis of literature in IS, storytelling and learning. It concludes that there are very few studies on how people learn to work and adapt in new IT-enabled environments. As IT permeates nearly all work environments, understanding how people learn to work with new IT systems becomes increasingly important.

It argues that work is situated and complex. It is not adequately represented in official documentation such as procedural manuals and training. This phenomenon is especially prominent in new IT implementations. People are left to their own devices to learn how to do their work and that one of the processes is storytelling. Storytelling is both a cognitive process to organise human experiences into meaningful episodes as well as a social activity to share understanding, feelings, beliefs and perceptions. The argument is then tested empirically through a perception study.

The study was carried out at the School of Business Information Technology, Faculty of Business at RMIT University that has just been through an organization-wide IT implementation. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews with a group of six administrative staff at the school who had experienced the initial implementation phase of a new student administrative system called Academic Management System (AMS). Participants were asked about their learning experiences during the initial implementation phase.

Data collected were analysed qualitatively using an analytical framework derived from the literature review and analysis. The analysis revolved around four key topics: looking for help, requesting for help, sharing experiences and discovering new ways of doing things. The empirical study was able to establish that participants consulted each other frequently for help, and shared their knowledge and experiences freely with each other. They learnt from each other incidentally and through experimentation. This confirmed the social and interactive nature of learning at work.

In addition, data were also scanned for story-like constructions according to two ways of sequencing stories: chronological and consequential. A list of story elements was identified to aid the scanning. The scanning revealed story sequences in the interview data and signified that participants organized events and actions into meaningful structures or episodes.

In both the literature and the perception study, there is evidence to show that people engage in storytelling to learn to use a new IT system and adapt to new working conditions.

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