Bricolage: a solution for SMEs?

Building and implementing information systems (IS) is considered as a highly rational endeavor carry out by engineers with the aid of all sort of tools. The strive for control, and therefore also a strive for formalization is omnipresent in the mind of most stakeholders. The reigning paradigm is inferred from mechanical engineering which has proofed to be of significant success in the past century. However, one cannot ignore the large quantities of failed IS projects conducted in organizations. For small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who suffer from resource deficits and a lack of necessary managerial IT capabilities, the acquisition of an IS is an almost unachievable goal. SMEs are therefore constant in search of alternative ways to take advantage of IT in their organization. The implementation of ERP is a solution, although ERP suffers from a high barrier to enter and leads not always to success. Cloud computing with software as a service (SaaS) looks promising for SMEs, albeit that SMEs still hesitate to adopt the concept because of issues of privacy and security.
Going back to the idea of IT and formalization, there is a method which contrast with this school of thinking. A resulting concept of this alternative way of thinking is known as ‘bricolage’ and was introduced by C. Ciborra (2002). At first glance, the (French) term bricolage does not have a positive overtone and is mostly associated with amateurs fooling around with all sort of tools and materials trying to build something useful. The results of their craftwork is certainly not a piece of art nor has it nicely followed the rules of a careful and pre-planned design, but it has one major feature: it works! People hesitate to call their way of working bricolage, but actually this is often done in organizations and thus in a professional environment. What else would you call an information system that is build up with three different operating systems linked together with middleware that is downloaded from the Internet and not approved by a supplier, with on top an application that was started from an ERP system but already drifted away from the official version due to an overload of customization software? A SME CEO could not care less as long as the system is doing what it is suppose to do, supporting the business.
IT people dare not to tell frankly about their own IT systems on public occasions and conferences. All presentations given at these venues are stuffed with terminology and buzz word that suppose to match the reality. Less is true. There is a very wide gap between what consultants (and academics) are telling on seminars and what is really happening in organizations. Ciborra, being a scholar, had the courage to see through the lens of a practitioner to IT in organizations while keeping up an academic stance. So he came up with the concept of bricolage. His initial inspiration came from the Russian MIR space station. MIR was suppose to have a short lifetime, but this was constantly prolonged by space engineers who muddled with all sort of tools and materials to kept the station longer in space and succeeded with this approach.
The concept of bricolage is well defined by Ciborra. Bricoleurs are using resources that they intimately familiar, so called ‘materials at hand’, to address new tasks and challenges. Applying bricolage to IS, materials at hand are considered to be hardware and software artifacts. But there is more needed to establish the full concept of bricolage in SMEs. The contribution of professional and personal networks play also a role in forming the strategic direction. So bricolage in SMEs is certainly noticeable on the operational level but also on the strategic level. There is mostly no long term direction  or strategic plan on IT in SMEs. So improvisation and opportunism also make a deal of the strategic action in SMEs. This is bricolage on the strategic level. Indeed SMEs tend to improvise with the strategic choice for an IS by choosing and adapting a business model offered by an external IT vendor.
To succeed with the concept of bricolage in SMEs, the following is suggested by Ferneley and Bell (2006):
–    CEOs of SMEs must be aware of their available resources, which they often are, but also have a favorable view on external resources and be prepare to purchase additional technical resources to support bricolage on the operational level.
–    CEOs must observe and listen to external bricoleurs without immediately viewing proposals in term of costs. Observation of competitors with similar business models can be a stimuli for internal bricolage.
–    Trust in external and external bricoleurs is essential to create an environment where bricolage can thrive.
–    Bricolage needs some control. The bricoleurs need to come to a level of self regulation. Bricolage with no control is naive, but too much control can stop the innovation process.
An example of a project of bricolage with IT in an SME is currently running and is under observation to report progress and findings.  A case study report on the results will be published shortly.

jan devos


About jangdevos
I'm an IT/IS professor, a late Baby Boomer, married with Ann and father of Hélène and Willem, a Stones fan and interested in almost everything. I work at the UGent (campus Kortrijk), Belgium. My research domain are: IT Governance in SMEs, IT/IS Security, IT Management, IT Project Management, IT Trends and IT/IS failures.

2 Responses to Bricolage: a solution for SMEs?

  1. w9 form says:

    i love your blog, i have it in my rss reader and always like new things coming up from it.

  2. Really nice design and style and great content material, practically nothing else we require :D.

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