Barua, A., Sophie Lee, C. H., & Whinston, A. B. (1996). The calculus of reengineering. Information Systems Research, 7(4), 409-428.

This article was assigned simply as a good example of a lit review, but it provides some good content for my general research area as well.

Note that right off, the authors find failure rates of 70% for reengineering projects. But this is 1996, before the PMP revolution, right? I look at Barua’s mention [412] of his own multi-stage business value models from 1989, 1991, and 1995 and wonder if they are still applicable. How odd to be working in a field where we automatically question whether research from just 10-20 years ago remains relevant to current research. But then Barua bases this research on complementarity, a theory Edgeworth put forth in 1881. We can fit modern technology into older theories. We certainly need to look for lasting theories that will keep our research relevant past our lifetimes.

Practical Lit review note: Barua et al. give a thorough review of the concept of supermodular functions, devoting a page and a half to a single article. They can justify this detailed attention to a single extradisciplinary article (if we are allowed to consider anything extradisciplinary to IS) by noting that the topic “has not been addressed in prior MIS research” [414]. Instead of guessing what their readers might know, Barua et al. let the existing literature direct their detail. MIS literature lacks information on the topic, so they take it upon themselves to introduce the topic to the MIS literature.

Did Thomas Friedman read this article before writing The World Is Flat? Barua proposes the complementarity theory. He also talks about the move in reengineering away from “the Adam Smith division-of-labor attitude and to shift to a process oriented frame of thinking” and “structural changes such as replacing the conventional hierarchical structure with cross-functional teams… and decision making empowerment” [Barua (1996) 412]. Friedman talks about “the complementary convergence of the ten flatteners” [Friedman (2005) 177] (events and innovations that have made the world market more interconnected and accessible to all participants) and the shift of businesses and individuals “from largely vertical means of creating value to more horizontal ones” [Friedman (2005) 175]. Can we say that Friedman bears out for the lay reader the operation on a global scale of the firmwise theory Barua introduces to IS? Not bad foresight on Barua’s part, for a theory and formula based on “anecdotal evidence available in the reengineering literature” [416].

Given all the talk about reengineering including big personnel cuts, do the profit and productivity benefits for each company translate into net benefits for the surrounding community? Increased productivity and profits for a company don’t mean much for us if we lose our jobs. Do the extra profits get plowed back into the economy the same way all those paychecks used to? Are those downsized workers freed up to engage in other business activities that they are better suited for? Reengineering might be useful for everyone with respect to state government — we downsize government agencies, provide more efficient service while enabling tax cuts or reprioritization of tax dollars for other programs. But all those job cuts in the private sector don’t look good for the community’s economic picture.

[421] IT fundamentally makes things more horizontal (Friedman’s flatness). More people at all levels, bosses and peons, have access to more information. To act on that information, we have to horizontalize the power structure as well. All the info in the world won’t help the peons if they still have to fill out requests in triplicate to be able to act on that info. Bosses don’t get to hog all the information; they can’t hog all the decision-making any more, either. IT drives Friedman flatness.

[421] But it looks like reengineering won’t save money unless it allows us to dump people. Salaries are the budget killer; IT needs to save us from the trouble of hiring people to work for us. Ugh. IT in itself doesn’t save the budget; shedding workers does.