Sign in or register
for additional privileges

C2C Lantern (Fall 2014/ Winter 2015)

Colleague 2 Colleague, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

Book Review: (Mis)Managing “Feral” IT

Kerr, D.V., Burgess, K., & Houghton, L. (2014). Feral Information Systems Development: Managerial Implications. Hershey: IGI-Global.

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University  

Whether in government, private industry, or education, the workplace scenarios for “feral” information systems share some commonalities.

An individual or work group has important work for which they need various technological functionalities that are not currently provided by the organization. If they go through official channels to try to achieve their aims, they will lose time, spend social capital working with people in administration, and may still not end up with what they need (or anything at all). Therefore, they go “feral,” with non-sanctioned and unofficial shadow IT systems that are not necessarily condoned by management (which may even be clueless about the usage of the feral tools).

An official definition of "feral" information systems.  A “Feral Information System (FIS)” refers to any alternative to the official mandated IT systems. Information systems are used for a range of workplace endeavors: workflow planning, brainstorming, documentation, data storage, data visualization, data analysis, mediated intercommunications, and other efforts. In higher education, alternates to mandated systems are many—due to freeware and open-source software as well as commercial systems. The limits of institution-level site licensing means that local (college or department-level) licensure is not uncommon. The unique work of professionals throughout the campus means that unique software and IT may be tapped for a range of uses. Even a cursory scan of workplaces may find quite a few of these FISes at play.

D.V. Kerr, K. Burgess, and L. Houghton’s Feral Information Systems Development: Managerial Implications (2014) addresses this “in the wild” IT phenomena to better understand what is occurring in various workplaces. (This term “feral” was first used in this context in 2006 by two of the book’s editors, D.V. Kerr and L. Houghton. It is instructive that these editors are still advocating public awareness of the term eight years after its introduction, given the slow adoption of the term.)

Some Implications of Feral IT Systems

What are the implications of such employee initiatives for workplace productivity but also for IT security and data protection?  Are there ways to encourage employee creativity without costing organizations through intellectual property (IP) loss?  Why are such feral systems so persistent and long-lived once they are set up? What skill levels are necessary to set up (or even create) such systems? Ultimately, how can management address this “covert” issue for the good of the order? The authors weigh in with a range of ideas. (In some ways, this book seems like an empathetic work for employees who would creatively deploy technologies--from any number of sources--to solve their workplace issues instead of for the organization which is fielding a range of insider- and outsider- threats.)  

Organizational phenomena.  A. Maddison’s “Feral Government? The Limitations of Critical Success Factors in the Context of Major Government IT Projects” points to the myriad challenges of successfully developing macro-sized IT projects in the United Kingdom as a context promoting the outgrowth of feral systems. When the large-scale systems do not work, people have to go with their own initiatives to achieve particular work aims. D.V. Kerr’s “Feral Information Systems and Workarounds: The Present Position” writes of the management concern of “islands of untamed systems” that are not interconnected with official information systems (p. 24).

In “Feral Systems as Institutional Phenomena: A Framework for Analyzing Persistent Computer Workarounds,” N. King and B. Azad make the case that feral information systems are an expected outcome of top-down organizational pressures and experienced bottom-up operational work; here, feral workarounds are an artifact of modern institutional work life in diverse contexts. If supervisors do not understand what their employees are doing--and in ever more complex work environments, they may not--then how are they to help acquire the tools that employees need with any discernment?   C. Koch and D.V. Kerr’s “Feral Systems and Enterprise Resource Planning Systems: Content and Dynamics” argues that central administration needs to do more work to integrate their employees into enterprise resource planning systems or risk losing them to FIS.

In L. Houghton and D. MacKrell’s “Sensemaking as Feral Information Systems: Conceptual and Framework Development,” the authors use an ego-based analysis of why employees would go to FIS—in order to address ambiguities with formal systems. S. Craig’s “Money: The Root of All Evil,” based on two anonymous real-world cases, suggests that underfunding mainline ERPs may promote the adoption of FIS. 

In “Architectural Issues Related to Feral Information Systems,” L. Bӕkgarrd, M. Olsen, and T. Tambo explore the uses of technology add-ins (plug-ins) to systems to increase functionality—but which also may interfere with organization-wide integration of IT resources. These authors propose some policy guidelines for organizations to handle user-driven FIS while still protecting their information system infrastructure.  

Worker adaptivity.  T. Tambo, M. Olsen, and L. Bӕkgaard’s “Motives for Feral Systems in Denmark” offers a more liberal view of feral systems and identifies these as an expected choice related to business processes of an “open and non-routinised (sic) character”; the authors see feral systems as originally non-native but with the full potential for official integration as pragmatic solutions. In other words, the ground-level discoveries may inform formal and centralized technology decisions and adoptions. 

In a rare work from a builder of his own feral systems, A. Spierings asks and answers the following question: “What Drives the End User to Build a Feral Information System?  He builds on his own decades of building and using feral information systems for this qualitative research-based piece.  He applies critical theory to advocate for the empowerment of innovative workers to increase their own work efficiencies by using feral systems.

S. Thatte, N. Grainger, and J. McKay suggest that there may be a balance which enables organizations to mitigate the risks of feral endeavors by understanding feral IT through the lens of “anomie” ("normlessness") in “Understanding Feral IT Practices as Deviance: The Contribution of Merton’s Theory of Anomie.”  If there is a vacuum in which employees' needs are not met, those who are innovative will have to seek their own solutions and in so doing perhaps create new social norms.  

Workplace use of social media as feral?  E. Franchi, A. Poggi, and M. Tomaiuolo suggest that employee participation in social networking platforms, which blur their private and public (semi-public) work life identities and which contravene some workplace policies, may be yet another form of feral information system, in “Participation in Social Networks as Feral Information Systems.” In this sense, this is probably one of the most common examples of "feral" technology adoptions. (The authors apparently take a broad approach to the concept of "feral" information systems.)  

In the last chapter, K. Burgess argues for stronger theorizing to address “Feral Systems in Enterprise Resource Planning Systems: The Case to Review Meta-Theoretical Assumptions.” This work lays down the challenge for researchers to move this aspect of IT research forward for deeper insights and improved practices.

A Conversation Starter

The chapters in this book offer a range of insights about how "feral" systems may instantiate in various workplace organizations and contexts.  They enable multiple ways to discussing this phenomenon, assuming that administrators, system administrators, security professionals, and employees want to have that discussion.  It would seem that the openness to such discussions may vary based on the workplace environment. 

Probably, only in military and high security business contexts are unapproved software systems and equipment disallowed.  In higher education, at least, it's pretty much an all-devices and most-software and most-applications environment.  That is not to say that system administrators are unaware of what is installed or used on their systems; however, it's likely that there is no political will to move people off systems that they need for their work as long as it is keeping them productive. Whether by oversight or tacit agreement, many administrators have allowed this proliferation of “feral” technologies in various integrations.

Feral Information Systems Development: Managerial Implications highlights a real-world phenomenon of employees acquiring their own unsanctioned technologies to advance their work.  At heart, this poses a question:  What exactly is the scope of this issue, and should it be addressed differently than it is currently? 

About the Author 

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  

Comment on this page

Discussion of "Book Review: (Mis)Managing “Feral” IT"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...

Previous page on path Cover of C2C Lantern (Fall 2014 / Winter 2015), page 14 of 20 Next page on path