I am pleased to form part of a team, with computer science colleagues at UCL, Imperial and QMUL, who have been awarded a EPSRC programme grant for over £6 million to research the interfacing of digital systems. The overall research programme (titled Interface reasoning for interacting systems (IRIS)) aims to research the correct functioning of digital interfaces from technical, social, managerial and organisational perspectives – with my focus being on these latter three topics. Commercial partners involved in the programme include Amazon Web Services (UK), BT, Facebook (International), and Hewlett Packard.
Better understanding the effective management of interfacing is vital as companies and individuals harness new digital innovations and integrate them digitally within their processes and practices. Many digital innovations including the Internet of Things, SmartCities, Platforms and Artificial Intelligence, involve a myriad of systems owned and operated by a myriad of different companies which become tightly coupled together through their digital interfaces (e.g. though APIs and cloud computing). Yet little is known about how the organisations involved in such innovations define such digital interfaces, how they evolve, and in particular what organisational or management commitments are embedded within them.
The research project will formally start in January 2018, with recruitment for a post-doctoral researcher here the LSE starting shortly afterwards. The project will run until December 2023.
The text below provides a more academic introduction of the project.
Within the field of management, “interfaces” are of significant interest; defining organisational boundaries which differentiate “insiders” and “outsiders” and providing connections across these boundaries. Interfaces are thus more broadly defined than engineered logical or digital interfaces as traditional conceived. Yet this broader understanding, in which digital interfaces are considered “boundary resources” for organisations (Eaton et al. 2015; Ghazawneh and Henfridsson 2013), is increasingly important since large-scale composite distributed organisations are emerging from the digital interfacing of organisational entities (e.g. through the growth of cloud computing and the use of APIs). Within these organisational arrangements digital interfaces instantiate, represent, uphold and negotiate boundaries and separations. We therefore need to extend academic understanding of the digital interfaces between digital systems, and connect it to the social, economic and managerial boundaries and connections they create for organisations and society.
1 Research Challenges
There is considerable research interest in boundaries within management and information systems. The internet allowed organisations to transform value-chains by digitally connecting with customers and suppliers; by harnessing cloud provided digital services (Venters and Whitley 2012); and by transforming physical products into digitally connected services (e.g. IoT – Internet of Things) (Porter and Heppelmann 2014). This transforms organisations leading to organisational arrangements whose defining characteristic is their constitution out of complex information technologies stretched across space and time, and defined by interconnections (Monteiro et al. 2014) (e.g. Netflix or Uber). Termed “cloud corporations” (Willcocks et al. 2014) such organisations evolve and change and challenge managerial and organisational assumptions of boundedness, stability, and even stable motivation of boundaries(Monteiro et al. 2014). Yet such boundary resources are poorly understood as are the wider ‘service ecosystem’ they form part of (Barros and Dumas 2006; Fishenden and Thompson 2013). There is a paucity of research on the specifics of the interface within such service ecosystems.
Consider for example Adur and Worthing (a UK local council) harnessing (through Methods Consulting – a programme collaborator) Salesforce.com, Braintree Payments and MATSSoft for their services (Thompson and Venters 2015). Their value-chain leverages this extended digital supply chain such that the council is, to a significant extent, constituted from these services and must continually evolve its business, technology and management in the face of interface evolution of these components. This, it is argued, will instigate “profound changes in the ways that firms organise for innovation in the future”(Yoo et al. 2010). Reasoning about the interfaces by which such “cloud-corporations” emerge is however lacking. While sophisticated mathematical tools exist for systems modelling (Collinson et al. 2012) such tools are poorly adopted in practice. A significant focus then of this programme of work will be to seek to drive innovation in interface reasoning and systems modelling into tools for business leaders to apply in reasoning about the interfaces they are exploiting within their organisations. Further as new technologies emerge (e.g. block-chains and Machine Learning) and become available as services through interfaces so reasoning about the managerial, contractual and organisational challenges, and about the systemic nature of interfaces, is necessary. We will therefore research how computer science understanding of interfaces might be useful in understanding the social, managerial and organisational boundary.
The significance of researching interfaces as “boundary resources” has been recognised (Ghazawneh and Henfridsson 2013; Hanseth and Bygstad 2015; Yoo et al. 2010) particularly in studying software platforms whereby (Eaton et al. 2015) they are negotiated over time. These authors acknowledge we lack a coherent methodological framework for examining such boundaries – the gap we will ultimately address.
2 Scientific Approaches
This research is exploratory drawing on theoretical lenses from information systems, management and sociology as well as computer science. First we will systematically evaluate a range of theories and management ideas and evaluate their appropriateness for researching different forms of interfaces. Two specific theoretical lenses we consider within this exploratory research and application are:
Control and Coordination: Harnessing an interface cedes control for an action to a third party and devises mechanisms for control and defines boundaries. We will therefore seek to understand control and coordination in interfaces, and to devise mechanisms by which managers may better understand how they control or are controlled by interface design. This extends Venters previous work (Whitley et al. 2014) and links to ideas of control whereby interfaces are socially interpreted and significant in driving algorithmic agency and culture. This research will contribute to understanding platforms (de Reuver et al. 2017; Gawer and Cusumano 2002) whereby an interface provider is often dominant (e.g. Apple provides iOS to App developers) in providing boundary conditions for control (Eaton et al. 2015) though their boundary resources (Ghazawneh and Henfridsson 2013). This understanding will, we hope, complement and extend the resource focused modelling of control within distributed systems logic.
Temporality, emergence and evolution: Within commercial settings interfaces regularly change. This project will evaluate the relationships between evolutionary change across multiple interfaces, contexts of use, and organisational goals. Interfaces enable resources to be decoupled and recoupled generating new possibilities and increasing the liquidity of resources within value production. Exploring how interface verification alters resource liquidity may be an important avenue of study, drawing upon service dominant logic (Bardhan et al. 2010) to better understand interface consumption. Exploring how organisations can verify evolving and changing interfaces in a timely manner is an important research question for the wider research programme.
We will seek to explore the inter-organisational architectures which emerge through ecosystems: The prevalence of digital interfaces has allowed a unbundling of enterprise software from vertically integrated technology stacks (Chang and Gurbaxani 2012; Hagel and Singer 1999) towards widely distributed flat architectures spanning multiple global supplier networks (Friedman 2005; Susarla et al. 2010). Tracing and understanding this change in terms of enterprise architecture, and its impact on interfaces is relevant.
Bardhan, I., Demirkan, H., Kannan, O., and Kauffman, R. 2010. “Special Issue: Information Systems in Services,” Journal of Management Information Systems (26:4), pp. 5-12.
Barros, A. P., and Dumas, M. 2006. “The Rise of Web Service Ecosystems,” IT Professional (8:5), pp. 31-37.
Chang, Y. B., and Gurbaxani, V. 2012. “Information Technology Outsourcing, Knowledge Transfer, and Firm Productivity: An Empirical Analysis,” MIS quarterly (36:4), pp. 1043-1053.
Collinson, M., Monahan, B., and Pym, D. J. 2012. A Discipline of Mathematical Systems Modelling. College Publications.
de Reuver, M., Sorensen, C., and Basole, R. C. 2017. “The Digital Platform,” Journal of Information Technology (Forthcoming).
Eaton, B., Elaluf-Calderwood, S., Sørensen, C., and Yoo, Y. 2015. “Distributed Tuning of Boundary Resources: The Case of Apple’s Ios Service System,” MIS Quarterly (39:1), pp. 217-243.
Fishenden, J., and Thompson, M. 2013. “Digital Government, Open Architecture, and Innovation: Why Public Sector It Will Never Be the Same Again,” Journal of Public Administration, Research, and Theory (23:4), pp. 977-104.
Friedman, T. 2005. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Globalized World in the 21st Century. London: Allen Lane.
Gawer, A., and Cusumano, M. 2002. Platform Leadership. Boston,MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Ghazawneh, A., and Henfridsson, O. 2013. “Balancing Platform Control and External Contribution in Third-Party Development: The Boundary Resources Model,” Information Systems Journal (23:2), pp. 173-192.
Hagel, J., and Singer, M. 1999. “Unbundling the Corporation,” Harvard business review (77), pp. 133-144.
Hanseth, O., and Bygstad, B. 2015. “Flexible Generification: Ict Standardization Strategies and Service Innovation in Health Care,” European Journal of Information Systems (24:6), pp. 654-663.
Monteiro, E., Pollock, N., and Williams, R. 2014. “Innovation in Information Infrastructures: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Journal of the Association for Information Systems (15:4), p. I.
Porter, M., and Heppelmann, J. 2014. “How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition,” Harvard Business Review).
Susarla, A., Barua, A., and Whinston, A. B. 2010. “Multitask Agency, Modular Architecture, and Task Disaggregation in Saas,” Journal of Management Information Systems (26:4), pp. 87-118.
Thompson, M., and Venters, W. 2015. “The Red Queen Hypothesis: Exploring Dynamic Service Ecosystems,” in: 4th Innovation in Information Infrastructures (III) Workshop, P. Constantinides (ed.). Warwick, UK.
Venters, W., and Whitley, E. 2012. “A Critical Review of Cloud Computing: Researching Desires and Realities,” Journal of Information Technology (27:3), pp. 179-197.
Whitley, E., Willcocks, L., and Venters, W. 2014. “Privacy and Security in the Cloud: A Review of Guidance and Responses,” Journal of Information technology and information management).
Willcocks, L., Venters, W., and Whitley, E. 2014. Moving to the Cloud Corporation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Yoo, Y., Henfridsson, O., and Lyytinen, K. 2010. “The New Organizing Logic of Digital Innovation: An Agenda for Information Systems Research,” Information Systems Research (21:4), pp. 724-735.
 E.g. The Academy of Management (AoM) conference theme for 2017 is “at the Interface” (premier global academic conference in management) and defines interfaces in these terms.
 Willcocks, L., W. Venters and E. Whitley (2014). Moving To The Cloud Corporation. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Photo (cc) foto1897 with thanks!
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