Tech Know-How: Meeting The Challenges of
Technology in the Workplace

Anyone who has encountered a technology change -- whether through a new personal computer or a systemwide conversion in the workplace -- has experienced the time-consuming problems that accompany the implementation of a new computer system.

"For most companies, change is expensive, time-consuming, and traumatic," says Cynthia Beath, associate professor of management information sciences in the Edwin L. Cox School of Business. As a former computer analyst, programmer, and manager, Beath has experienced many of the frustrations that she studies. In these positions, she first began to question why adapting to technological changes in the workplace is so difficult and how the process could be improved.

The key to correcting the problem, Beath believes, is creating a working partnership between the technology specialist, or service provider, and the user. In her current research, Beath investigates how charge-back systems can foster a partnership between the two parties. A charge-back system is the method by which an organization bills itself internally, or one department bills another for its services. The effectiveness of this system in building relationships depends on how an organization designs and uses it. For example, charge-back systems are more effective if charges are negotiated before the service occurs, she says.

"If the departments negotiate rates, explain the bill, and help users understand what drives costs, then they can jointly focus on reducing those costs. The benefits are an improved working relationship, better investment in technology, a more standardized infrastructure, and a partnership that can make future technology decisions," she says.

In other research, Beath is determining how firms can contract for systems development or systems integration in situations where new learning or new discoveries are the key to completing projects successfully. When a firm needs new software, information technologists often need to learn more about the organization's business practices, or even about what a particular new technology can do. In a joint project funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Beath and Gordon Walker, professor of business policy, are trying to understand how to contract for this kind of learning.

"We know a lot about how to contract for existing skills or knowledge," she says. "Firms want to bring in outside specialists for their technology skills. But how can you know that they will learn enough about the company's business to implement the right system?"

Beath, who joined the SMU faculty in 1992, received her Ph.D. from UCLA. Her latest articles include "The Enactments and Consequences of Token, Shared and Compliant Participation in Information Systems Development" in Accounting, Management and Information Technologies, 1996.