Towards a relational theory of IS/IT adoption and usage: Metaphor and lessons from interpersonal relationship literature
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Towards a relational theory of IS/IT adoption and usage: Metaphor and lessons from interpersonal relationship literature by Jason Simpson

Extant literature has indicated the need to view information systems (IS) and information technologies (IT) as interaction–centric, as well as to understand individuals’ relationships with IS/IT, to fully understand and more accurately predict various IS phenomena. This paper aims to create further discussion around this topic by applying metaphor to IS adoption, rejection, and usage via an examination of the interpersonal relationship literature. Through a hermeneutic review, I interpret interpersonal relationships in terms of beginning and ending point for action (identity), mechanism (control), and strength multiplier (closeness). Parallels are then drawn to the IS literature, illustrating that individuals may interact with IS/IT as if they were human. This metaphorical approach may allow practitioners to transcend much of the anxiety associated with adoption across situations and contexts rather than attempting to further control them.


1. Introduction
2. Extant adoption and usage literature — The 30,000 foot view
3. Interpersonal relationships
4. IPR metaphor and IS/IT adoption and usage
5. Discussion and conclusions



1. Introduction

“... one must conceive of TV along the lines of DNA as an effect in which the opposing poles of determination vanish ... It is this gap that vanishes in the process of genetic coding, in which indeterminacy is not so much a question of molecular randomness as of the abolition, pure and simple, of the relation.” [1]

The topic of adoption is one of the most researched topics in the IS literature, yet managers still struggle to ensure end user acceptance of IT (Schwarz and Chin, 2007). This would imply that IS researchers are not producing useful adoption research for either practitioners or each other (Orlikowski and Robey, 1991), and indeed Venkatesh, et al. (2007) question whether or not this area of study is still alive. Historically, adoption studies have relied on models such as the Technology Acceptance Model, or similar offshoots, to attempt to explain and predict IT adoption (Benbasat and Barki, 2007), while a small number of studies have incorporated identity and affordances (e.g., Stein, et al., 2013) as an adoption or usage predictor. The limitations are that the former tends to not consider that adoption prediction in a real business (or online) environment may be more complex than a handful of variables. It also assumes characteristics of IT determine adoption. Identity and affordance studies tend to stop short of any notion of specific IT adoption prediction and instead take the assumptions of, or something close to, affordance theory (cf., Gibson, 1977). Adoption researchers therefore typically find themselves in the technological determinism versus technology in use debate, while the answer (as with most things) probably lies somewhere in the middle with both happening at the same time (Simpson, 2014a). Indeed, the skill to navigate dichotomies based on context (e.g., risk vs. opportunity) is precisely what we aim to foster in IS graduates. The obvious question we must then ask is why are we continuing to discard this perspective in our own research and theories? Arguably this is due to complexity.

Extant works have brought to the forefront the need to acknowledge and deal with complexity. Principles are developed (Benbya and McKelvey, 2006), and views are presented on co–evolution (Kim and Kaplan, 2006), performativity (Moser and Law, 2006), explore/exploit (Chae and Lanzara, 2006), and exponential information generation (Kallinikos, 2006), to deal with complexity and “how it can, or needs to, be addressed in information systems (IS) research” [2]. While these factors and views provide a valuable way to begin to reconceptualise, how would we begin to operationalize and/or predict under increasingly complex circumstances? As Simpson, et al. (2013) point out, many other disciplines have long ago considered individual relationships as core to understanding and predicting complex phenomena, and call for an understanding of individual relationships with IS and IT to fully understand, and more accurately predict, various IS phenomena. Furthermore, it has been suggested that people may interact with IT in a similar manner as they do with other people (Al–Natour and Benbasat, 2009; Scott, 2012; Simpson, et al., 2013), which implies that if we understand predictability in interpersonal relationships, we might better predict adoption.

Indeed, as we move ever closer to a ubiquitous computing environment on the World Wide Web (Yoo, 2010), economies with billions of dollars in highly individualized, wearable technologies (Weigold, 2014), where individuals will be bombarded with applications (cf., Neale and Russell–Bennett, 2009), software, devices, and so on, the need to understand IS/IT adoption, rejection, and usage is increasing. Furthermore, the exponentially increasing connectedness of the Internet can also not be ignored. However, there is at least one area of study that long ago began studying the interaction, adoption, rejection, usage, and so on, of things that we are bombarded with every day. That area of study is interpersonal relationships, and those things are people.

Given the above challenges and views, this paper builds on these ideas and asks “what can we learn from the interpersonal relationship (IPR) literature?”, as the IPR literature is one of many fields that mitigate complexity through an explication of relationships. Furthermore, interpersonal relationships are something that we all deal with (and like to talk about) every day. This means that to view IS/IT adoption through IPR metaphors may help to reduce the anxiety faced by both practitioners and researchers as they approach ever increasingly complex IS/IT and associated phenomena. Indeed, the simple reduction in anxiety could give way to a more holistic understanding via a more calm and collected ‘mood’, as both practitioners and researchers could then step back and ponder the many ways in which both the end user as well as themselves may be experiencing interaction with IS/IT based on their own experiences interacting with other people.

Hence, this paper aims to give my interpretation of the key matters of concern within the interpersonal relationship literature. In doing so, I explain interpersonal relationships in terms of beginning and ending point for action (identity), mechanism (control), and strength multiplier (closeness). Parallels are uncovered within the IS literature, thus further suggesting the possibility of similar interaction, and possibly similar adoption patterns, with IS/IT.



2. Extant adoption and usage literature — The 30,000 foot view

While there are many limitations in the existing literature, this section calls attention to and illustrates the most fundamental of these, especially if we are to consider IT as interaction–centric (cf., Al–Natour and Benbasat, 2009). However, in doing so, this section also presents a perspective that sees each set of literature as a useful piece of an overall picture rather than ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Indeed, each piece is either embedded in the others or is constituted by them, with time, quantity of IT, and the resulting choice, determining the level of abstraction needed for predictive constructs to hold across contexts. This cements the argument for the examination of the IPR literature and its possible relevance to adoption and usage studies.

2.1. Predicting the adoption of specific IT

TAM and associated models arguably did well in predicting IT adoption in the years that these models were first created, as there were only a handful of IT in any given business context that could perform the required function. Venkatesh, et al. (2007) point out the following to defend TAM as robust and a good predictive model:

“TAM was tested among various types of information systems, including e–mail (Karahanna and Straub, 1999; Straub, 1994), groupware (Lou, et al., 2000), expert systems (Keil, et al., 1995), CASE tools (Dishaw and Strong, 1999), voice mail (Karahanna and Limayem, 2000), calculator (Mathieson, 1991), digital libraries (Hong, et al., 2001), spreadsheets (Mathieson, 1991; Venkatesh and Davis, 1996), and e–health systems (Wilson and Lankton, 2004).” [3]

If we examine the years that most of these studies were conducted, as well as the system or IT in question, we have to ask: did the user really have any choice? E–mail represents a merging of written and verbal communication; expert systems provided a central source of highly useful practitioner information; the alternative to voice mail was to continue calling back; not using a calculator meant doing tedious math by hand; and so on and so forth. There were simply not that many, if any, realistic alternatives to the type of IT in question. In the early days of business IT, the notion that an IT would be adopted if it was useful or perceived as easy to use (cf., Davis, 1989) was perfectly reasonable. However, using just the example of e–mail above, how many different types, never mind different ways, of communicating via IT exist today? Some IT practitioners may be presented with several hundred, possibly thousands, of IT per year, all of which may be useful and easy to use. However, the person obviously cannot adopt all of them, so how do they choose?

If we “consider the possibility that relationships that people form with technologies may be similar to the relationships that people form with other people (Al–Natour and Benbasat, 2009; Scott, 2012)” [4], then consider a time when humans living in tribes of only a handful of people were met by a single individual from outside of the tribe. As there were only a handful of individuals, and survival was paramount, this introduced individual may have been ‘adopted’ based on their ability to be useful to the group, or how well he or she would conform to the social norms of the group (perceived as easy to work with). Furthermore, these notions were presumably straightforward at the time and could easily be blackboxed. Now, fast forward to the current day and age where seven billion people inhabit the planet, survival is more or less given, and each person is fairly free to interact with any other (particularly due to the Internet). Do people still determine their ‘adoption’ based on one or two factors? Possibly. However, what is certain is that the original factors or constructs are obsolete in explaining the phenomenon in a high level predictive capacity even if the same reasons for having them still hold.

2.2. Identity–based affordances

Having acknowledged that people have choice with respect to IT adoption and usage, the identity related IS literature posits that adoption primarily relies on how well or to what degree an IT allows for the ability to express or enact a particular identity (cf., Alvarez, 2008; Lapointe and Rivard, 2007; Martin, 2008; Stein, et al., 2013). While this perspective is indeed valuable, there are several limitations to stopping here.

First, we must assume that all people are highly educated and are well–adjusted enough to know exactly what will help them achieve the preferred self or enact a particular identity. Furthermore, we must also assume that various IT, which could help in this regard, are not seen by the same individual as a threat to this process (cf., Lapointe and Rivard, 2007; Laumer, 2011; Simpson, et al., 2013). While all of this is arguably what we are aspiring to help facilitate as academics or industry leaders, it is also arguably not the current state of affairs.

Second, the identity construct itself runs the risk of morphing into simulacra and eventually simulation (cf., Baudrillard, 1994; Slattery, et al., 2013) if the underlying relationships are not explicated. For example, if we took “arbiters of fairness” (Alvarez, 2008) as the explanation for the behaviour in an enterprise systems implementation and moved forward using this identity in contexts other than the original, we have no idea how new researchers or interviewees perceive “arbiters” or “fairness”, even though this identity may accurately explain the original phenomenon.

Thus, while these studies show the ever increasing importance of identity in adoption research (as well as IS in general), this paper argues that the relationships that constitute the identities are just as important if we attempt to use them in any predictive capacity as the review of the IPR literature will illustrate.

2.3. Moving forward

Due to the aforementioned challenges, it should not be surprising that debates have surfaced (e.g., King and Lyytinen, 2006; Truex, et al., 2006) over whether or not, or the manner in which, IS should appropriate reference discipline theories or develop new ones. To help avoid reference discipline ‘baggage’ and having to reverse engineer theories to unearth assumptions (cf., Truex, et al., 2006), this paper starts a conversation situated in interpersonal relationship metaphor relevant to a wide audience. This should allow for a more careful consideration of possible realities before we (once again) create, perform, and cement theories or models that may have limited to no large–scale social value. Figure 1 helps to visualize and cement the argument for an alternative approach.


Prevalent predictors of adoption behaviour over time
Figure 1: Prevalent predictors of adoption behaviour over time.


Figure 1 illustrates prominent adoption and usage predictors along with their primary matters of concern. Over time, the number of technologies available to a user for any given task is increasing and so too is their choice about what IT they can adopt. The size of the ovals thus represent the number of low level, concrete ‘things’ (or if assuming relationality, relationships) that must be taken into consideration when attempting to predict adoption behaviour. Furthermore, accuracy without controlling for context necessitates more abstract predictors and, as a person moves from less to more choice, the best predictor across any scenario necessarily becomes less about what the business or technology wants and more about what the user wants.

However, this does not mean that the lower level characteristics or constructs do not exist or that they are not useful — they certainly do and they certainly are — the missing link is the relationships between them.



3. Interpersonal relationships

Given previous calls for research, limitations, and perspectives, it becomes apparent that something can be learned from the IPR literature with respect to IT adoption and usage. This section reviews IPR literature and, from this, presents what I interpret as the primary matters of concern within the literature. Parallels in IS adoption and usage literature are highlighted, providing an alternative view to the classic organizational metaphors of machine and organism (cf., Morgan, 1980).

3.1. Literature search

A search was conducted for the top 50 cited articles with “interpersonal” or “inter–personal” and “relationship” or “relationships” in the title. This query allowed for familiarization with main concepts, themes, and dimensions of interpersonal relationships across many fields, perspectives, and paradigms, which allows for viewing the IS literature through this lens. The search stopped here as I reached theoretical saturation during analysis (no new patterns with patterns continuously repeating in new papers). The IS literature used for comparison was the top 20 cited articles from the AIS senior scholars’ basket of eight and the top 50 cited IS case studies. The justification of the latter is that these are arguably the most ‘famous’ articles in the IS discipline, and thus lend favourably to IPR metaphor.

3.2. Method of analysis

I performed a hermeneutic review (Boell and Cecez–Kecmanovic, 2012) of the IPR literature, considering much of what was going on in my own life at the time. What I found was that many of the interpersonal problems I was facing could be explained by understanding the literature, and many of the semi–connected themes in the literature could be connected based on what I was personally experiencing. Furthermore, it helped me to better frame much of what I was seeing (and was thoroughly confused by) in my nearly decade long experience as an IS/IT practitioner. I then re–read and crosschecked to create themes, superordinate themes, and the connections among them.

3.3. Findings

The overall interpretation of the literature is that people construe, maintain, and realize specific identities, which is accomplished through the mechanism of control. Both control and identity are composed of various underlying constructs, for example power and goals respectively. Identity and control mechanisms are built upon the quality and quantity of various interpersonal and cognitive relationships, which are determined by closeness / interdependency levels. Finally, all of these dimensions appear to be interconnected and simultaneously affect and compose each other.

Table 1 lists the exemplary works that fell into one of the three themes, either because the work directly addressed them or the content matched that of the articles that did. Excluded from the table were articles that only included interpersonal relationships as a side note and/or did not examine the nature of an IPR. While many of these articles overlap significantly, they were classified based on the most prominent theme within the article, with the exception of articles that explicitly illustrated the interplay between all themes.


Exemplary IPR articles with superordinate and subordinate themes


A key illustration of control in IPRs is Lewis (1998), who examines the characteristics of successful marriages. Lewis states the first characteristic as the equal sharing of power and that successful marriages naturally work out a balance of power mainly through trial and error, as each individual seeks to get their “definition of the relationship accepted”. The second characteristic is that there are high levels of both connectedness and separateness, in which each individual demonstrates high levels of closeness, yet each individual also has a solid self–identity, autonomy, and the capacity to be left alone, as well as leave the other alone. The third characteristic is the respect of subjective reality, or the ability for each to accept the other’s opinions, feelings, and view of the world, which comes from the sharing of power. In other words, if one person was completely dominant over the other, the less dominant’s opinions, feelings, and views would be completely ignored or discredited. The fourth characteristic is that affects are openly expressed or, in other words, each individual is able to speak their mind in any given situation. Again, the author points back to shared power allowing for this. The fifth and sixth characteristics are that problem solving is highly evolved, and conflict is infrequent and rarely escalates. The author then suggests that both of these are dependent upon the former characteristics.

Of particular importance to the interaction–centric IT metaphor is the focus of the article on the idea of “healing marriages”. Lewis points out that most of these successful marriages did not just occur. Rather, they were the result of individual transformations or a healing process:

“It was usually possible to identify a central problematic relationship of childhood that was either being vigorously defended against or being re–enacted in the marriage. The issue can be framed as why some people repeat the pattern of the past (why transference prevails or, in Ackerman’s evocative words, why love is ‘the language of scars’) ... whereas others work through the internalized childhood relationship and experience a healing process.” [5]

The article suggests that one of the closest interpersonal relationship types will continue into the future if both individuals relinquish a certain amount of control over the other person and the situations surrounding deep seeded psychological issues, whereas if this does not take place the relationship will most likely fail. Indeed, this requires both parties to take on a certain level of vulnerability without being able to predict whether or not the other will reciprocate the growing process/transformation (Lewis, 1998). If one or more individuals do not grow, those individuals will simply continue to exert control through any power they have over the other individual and all situations surrounding them, until one person concedes to being dominated or one person ends the relationship. Other control themed articles are illustrated in Table 2.


Exemplary control themed IPR articles


Hence, the IPR literature paints a picture of control where each individual seems to control for various things for various reasons; not all individuals necessarily want to control the same things, and even if they do each person might have a different reason for it. However, even when individuals appear to not want to control one thing (such as the women prisoners not controlling for being exploited in Greer, 2000), this relinquishment of control can usually be viewed as an attempt to control something else (such as the same women prisoners controlling for loneliness, an emotion). This can be seen in the aforementioned study on successful marriages, where relinquishment of control of the other person can be seen as controlling for the loss of a companion. In the virtual communities study (Lo, et al., 2005), the participants relinquished control of their “real” lives because they were given the opportunity to control formation of IPRs in an unusual way. When the terminally ill lost control of their lives, they focused on one thing that they could control, their existing IPRs and the view of the life they had lived. Still, others may violate all of the above to control for something else.

While the IPR literature reveals that control is a fundamental part of the human condition, and most likely with objects or concepts as well (cf., Iacobucci and Ostrom, 1996), we have to ask: what exactly are these individuals trying to control against? In the case of the women’s prison, some prisoners were controlling for loneliness but why is loneliness something to control against? If loneliness in its typical sense is a universally ‘bad’ thing, then it stands to reason that everyone would be controlling for it in the same way; yet many individuals choose to be ‘lonely’ and are perfectly happy doing so, and yet still others choose how to not be lonely. Furthermore, the way in which people control seems to differ depending on the individual specific context and respective power levels. Control may come in the form of manipulation of another’s emotions, the structure or configuration of the environment, the refusal to entertain certain ideas or possibilities, etc.

Thus, the question of “who chooses to control what and why?” [6] emerges as a valid question, and identity may be the answer. Although there are many ways in which we can conceptualise identity, the following definition of identity will be used going forward as it allows for a continuance of examination across literature:

“... the totality of one’s self–construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future.” [7]

Weinreich and Saunderson (2003) describe the “identification with” process in depth, in that individuals construing identities will help, protect, listen to, accept, and so on, individuals they can identify with, whereas they will hurt, ignore, reject, and so on, individuals that they cannot identify with.

Key in illustrating this process is the work of Marzano, et al. (2006), which explores the practice of interdisciplinary research by following a project in which both natural scientists and social scientists needed to collaborate. The study reports that “in an interdisciplinary setting, people measure others as more or less different to themselves” [8]. Throughout the project, frustration levels would increase due to one ‘side’ or the other not being able to relate to the methods and perspectives of the ‘other side’. For example, natural scientists carried an identity of being extremely precise and using a small set of tools while social scientists tended to identify more with holistic approaches. The researchers would attack the other side and attempt to discredit its way of doing research; however, the study reports that these attacks were primarily due to each side feeling insecure in their ability to speak the other’s language; it had nothing to do with one side honestly believing that the other was doing shoddy research.

Additionally, in almost all the literature reviewed, the setting of goals constituted part of identity and goal conflict was at least implied; and the more that goals were different from that of the other person (cf., Greer, 2000, future interaction), the harder it would be to maintain the IPR (cf., Lewis, 1998). Thus, the more differing the future goals between two people, the more we would expect to see emotional distancing (cf., McFarlane and Bookless, 2001), as well as attacks on the other’s identity (cf., Weinreich and Saunderson, 2003), in an attempt to reinforce their identity and plans for the future.


Exemplary identity themed IPR articles


Each of the above studies highlights the importance of identity in forming IPRs, as well as the IPRs themselves forming identity. Additionally, we can see a picture beginning to form in which individuals’ identities appear to be the reason for the deploying of control mechanisms. Although we can most likely observe the interplay between control and identity in the preceding articles, two articles reviewed explicitly show this interplay (Ho, 1998; Thelen, et al., 1990).

Ho (1998) compares two types of relationships (asymmetrical and symmetrical) in Asia: the father–son relationship and a married couple relationship. In Asia, the father–son relationship can be viewed as asymmetrical in power/dominance and, thus, the authority and control lie in the hands of the father as long as each continues to re-enact their respective identity. The identity of “father” or “son” determines the level and method of control deployed by each individual. On the other hand, a married relationship is seen as much more symmetric and egalitarian in nature. In this case, control mechanisms may or may not be deployed against the other as their identity as “husband” and “wife” allow for this.

Thelen, et al. (1990) illustrate nearly all of the previous themes in a study on bulimia. The authors illustrate how in these situations the identity of a particular group of women rests on the acceptance of a particular group of men, thus the men have most of the power due to their ability to reject. Both groups of people are controlling what they have the power to control for based on identities, in that the men control the women through the power gained by the women’s future goals/identity, and the women exert control over the food by not allowing the food to digest. Acceptance and rejection come into play by both the men and women as the men are rejecting the women, and the women are rejecting the food. The future goals for these women include acceptance by men, and for men include gaining an attractive mate; presumably, the women gain the identity of ‘attractive’ and the men gain the identity of ‘able to attract’. The authors illustrate how all of these themes, goals, and identities have an effect on the way in which relationships with the other gender are formed and maintained, and how these themes, goals, and identities are in turn constructed by previous relationships (IPR or otherwise). If the women’s identities relied on the acceptance of some other group or person, then control mechanisms would be different and deployed in other areas. The same logic applies to the men.

Finally, closeness and interdependency appears to affect and be affected by all of the above. Berscheid, et al. (1989) create a measure for IPR closeness and report that many types of IPRs (e.g., acquaintance, friend, spouse, family, romantic) simply fall on a continuum of closeness or interdependence. Since many of the preceding papers used particular types of IPRs as the unit of analysis, and each had different contexts, closeness may be the better concept going forward, as many issues surrounding identity and control may be more or less pronounced depending on the closeness between two people, and possibly, a person and a concept, or a person and an IT. Indeed, it intuitively follows that the closer or more interdependent a person is on someone or something else, the more likely that person is to exhibit strong emotional reactions under relationship strain or identity attack.

By examining the IPR literature we can see how identities serve as a rationale for control, as well as the possible result of control, and that past, present, and future construal will all play a large role in individuals’ interpersonal and psychological relationships. Additionally, the decisions that individuals make about these relationships and identities often have emotion permeating the process, and much of this emotion can be tied to relationship closeness. Furthermore, the literature shows that IPR dimensions can indeed be transferred to things and concepts. Based on this review, I present what appears to (Figure 2) describe the nature of human relationships, and can be used as a metaphor for IT adoption and usage scenarios.


Nature of IPRs based on review
Figure 2: Nature of IPRs based on review.


This figure illustrates the interplay of each of the three core IPR themes; there is always a constant interaction among them. For example, closeness may cause a change in a person’s need to control another since it describes the strength of a relationship, and the need to control another may cause changes in closeness; both of which are determined by how a person sees themselves currently and what they hope to become. The identity, the type and level of control mechanisms employed, and closeness levels are all based on the unique relationships an individual has not just with another person, but with everything else they have ever interacted with; and conversely, these relationships are formed, severed, maintained, etc., due to these themes. Additionally, the discourse surrounding the three dimensions necessarily leads to a description of the relationships, while description of the relationships necessarily elicits the dimensions, both of which have been illustrated in this section.



4. IPR metaphor and IS/IT adoption and usage

Metaphor is considered by many organizational theorists as one of the most powerful tools we have in research, and a means of “liberating the imagination” [9]. In the Information Systems discipline, Claudio Ciborra was well known for his use of metaphors that ultimately led to some of the most influential ideas and research that we have in IS (Avgerou, et al., 2009). One of the most famous examples of this was Ciborra (1996) where he used the “Hospitality Metaphor to describe the process which involves the appropriation, sensemaking and even rejection by users of a new technology, seen as a stranger hosted by the organization” [10]. Saccol and Reinhard (2006) then extend and contribute to this discussion by using “the Hospitatlity Metaphor as a theoretical lens for understanding the ICT adoption process”. This paper takes this conversation one step further by using the IPR Metaphor as a lens to view the adoption, rejection, and usage process.

4.1. Asymmetry and interaction continuance

Many acceptance and adoption studies describe the process of adoption or usage as if the IS or IT in question is another person. For example, Wu (2012) examined the acceptance of a campus alerts system in which the constructs of usefulness, intention, and behaviour were dependent on key interpersonal relationship dimensions: historical interaction (Al–Natour and Benbasat, 2009; Berk and Andersen, 2000) and control (Chatterjee, 1972; Kemper, 1973). Students felt that the system might be useful, but whether or not they would use the system was dependent on past experiences with other campus systems. The intentions were also shaped by whether or not the students felt that they could control and personalize the system (Wu, 2012). Other individuals, if unable to control a system and the system threatened that individual’s authority due to loss of power, would simply stop “using it, even though he perceived the system as useful and easy to use” [11]. This loss of power, and thus control, with respect to the IS/IT can be seen as a threat (Laumer, 2011) to that individual’s identity (Alvarez, 2008). In these studies, the interaction appears as if the IS/IT and the individual are entering into an asymmetrical relationship, and just like asymmetrical relationships described earlier, if individuals have the option they will simply stop interacting with the IS/IT.

4.2. Success

IS success (which implies adoption and/or usage), when viewed through the IPR lens, can be compared with IPR success. For example, Chiu, et al. (2007) examine factors such as “continuance intention”, “fairness”, “quality”, and “satisfaction”; each of these factors is reported to have an influence on “IS success”. If viewed as a successful relationship, continuance intention can be seen as intention for future interaction (cf., Greer, 2000), and fairness as balance of power (cf., Lewis, 1998). While Chiu, et al. (2007) conceptualize fairness more along the lines of outcomes rather than focusing on power, by re–examining Lewis (1998), for example, we can observe that outcomes in IPRs — accepted relationship definitions [12], the outcome from values [13], problem outcomes [14], acceptance of subjective reality [15], and so on and so forth — all revolve around power and are simply subordinate to power, which is subordinate to control.

4.3. Quality and satisfaction

Quality and satisfaction (which arguably lead to adoption and usage decisions) are conceptualized in the literature in a nearly identical fashion; however, it is the way that they are researched that differs. For example, Lewis’ (1998) study illustrates that one aspect of an unsuccessful marriage was that one person was depressed (similar to low IPR satisfaction) which arose from having the far less powerful role. An important distinction that needs to be made here is that depression (an outcome, which appears to be the result of any number of causes [16]), is simply one way to describe an unsuccessful marriage. Abuse, infidelity, or any other number of constructs could describe an unsuccessful, low quality, unsatisfactory marriage. Additionally, these observations and conclusions were drawn over a period of time and by comparing many aspects of these individuals’ lives and interactions. This contrasts with Chiu, et al. (2007) in which a survey instrument is used to simply ask the individuals about their satisfaction levels with the system. The first approach may unearth emotions and concerns not immediately expressed by the individuals, while the second relies on an instant rationalized answer without context. Thus, the primary difference between the two (and what is apparent between the two groups of literature in general) is one of research approach or perhaps paradigms. This is however only a broad generalization with respect to IS success studies, as Myers (1995) does show that IS success is completely dependent on who we ask and when. In any case, the IPR themes in the literature are certainly apparent.

4.4. Identification with

Yet another highly cited perspective in the IS literature that deals with success, acceptance, and adoption is that of “legitimation” via structuration theory. Hussain, et al. (2004) conducted a longitudinal study on the acceptance and adoption of an intranet system, in which the IT management were met with high levels of scepticism since workers within the organization were not “IT literate”; however, in the end, the intranet system was enthusiastically accepted by the workers. The way that this was achieved was to get the workers to “agree to something that conforms to their societal and personal norms” [17] or, if viewed through as if it were an IPR, accepting someone that conforms to their societal and personal norms (i.e., someone with whom they identify). The IT management spent much time eliciting and understanding these norms and creating relationships with respect to the users’ preferred selves, so that, when the intranet was introduced, it would be introduced as something that conformed to these norms. Additionally, much time was spent on understanding the power and control needs of the workers. Only then did IT management gradually begin introducing aspects of the system rather than the system itself, thus slowly building a relationship with the technology since the workers had no prior relationships with the identity it afforded. By the time implementation talk began, the workers had built a positive relationship with the technology, it represented empowerment (and thus control), and the system was adopted.

Additionally, notions of identity and self–presentation (cf., Baumeister, 1986), just as with the IPR literature, appear in Hussain, et al. (2004). In addition to the observation that “Having email was a status symbol ... Having a laptop with remote access was the ultimate” [18], which suggests that the workers now had identities around the intranet, the introduction of the technology in a light that demonstrated conformity to societal and personal norms is by nature the same as the “identification with” process outlined in Weinreich and Saunderson (2003). The IT management were in fact attempting to understand the “continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future” [19], and then projecting this onto the intranet while injecting it into the implementation process, thus creating both a personal and social identity consisting of an intranet in the same manner as with groups, a house, a car, appearance, job title, social class, etc.



5. Discussion and conclusions

This paper builds upon extant interaction–centric (e.g., Al–Natour and Benbasat, 2009; Simpson, et al., 2013) and identity related (Simpson, et al., 2013; Stein, et al., 2013) IS literature via an examination of the interpersonal relationship literature. This paper presents a novel way of viewing how individuals interact with each other, and how this is many ways similar to interacting with IS/IT. The central aim is to create a much needed multiplicity of perspectives and realities with respect to IS/IT adoption, as the IPR Metaphor is accessible to nearly everyone (cf., Kelly, 1955, The Range Corollary).

The paper contributes an individual level perspective to conversations around the usage of metaphor in IS theorizing (e.g., Ciborra, 1996; Hekkala, et al., 2014; Saccol and Reinhard, 2006), and how this is helpful in making sense of the adoption and usage process. As illustrated here, the IPR Metaphor may be more helpful in situations regarding individual views, as the metaphor must necessarily be more broad/abstract as to be applicable to a wide audience. Whereas organizational metaphors may need to be more specific/concrete to properly convey the essence of the metaphor and what the organization does (i.e., what makes an ‘organization’).

By using the IPR Metaphor as a lens through which to view adoption and usage, it may be possible to break out of more traditional views (cf., Morgan, 1980) and move towards theories that are able to cope with increasingly complex IS/IT phenomena. This paper has created a straightforward way to ‘hit the reset button’ and spawn new discussions with respect to this area of enquiry.

From this, one possibility for future research would be in–depth analyses of relationships and identities that individuals have with IS/IT with respect to the metaphors presented here. Through this lens, it may be possible to better predict IS/IT adoption and usage across various contexts and scenarios than extant behavioral approaches, as the more commonly understood metaphor may give rise to commonly experienced insights. For example, as revealed in the interpersonal relationship literature, identities stand to predict decisions that individuals will make about other people that they choose to interact with across various contexts. Therefore, through further research, technoidentities (Simpson, et al., 2013) may also be useful in predicting IS/IT interaction across contexts without the need to control for context.

Closeness with IS/IT is another promising area of research. Berscheid, et al. (1989) show that classifications such as “friend”, “romantic partner”, etc., can be plotted on a closeness continuum. As illustrated in the IPR literature, the closer one is to another, the more concern there is with power, domination, invalidation, etc. Therefore, the intensity of reactions to IS/IT that stand to render the system or technology with which one is close obsolete may be higher than reactions to those with which a person has no relationships (is not close). In other words, closeness levels show promise in determining the intensity of possible reactions to novel IS/IT with similar characteristics (‘actual’ or attributed).

For those more inclined towards models, a significant change in technoidentity, control mechanisms, or closeness might allow for an observation of a significant change in the other two constructs. As illustrated in the IPR review, these three constructs appear to be highly interactive and constitute each other. Therefore, a significant adjustment in one might cause an observable change in the other two.

These avenues could be explored in both the academy and industry using a combination of methods found within Personal Construct Theory (PCT) (cf., Fransella, 2003; Kelly, 1955) and Terror Management Theory (TMT) (Fransen, et al., 2008; Greenberg, et al., 1986; Williams, et al., 2012). The Repertory Grid Technique (otherwise known as RepGrid) and Laddering are the methodological extensions of PCT that can be used to gather relationships and technoidentities, respectively (see Simpson, 2014b). TMT related studies provide both quantitative and qualitative techniques for predicting various reactions (such as emotional reactions, comprehension, etc.) when common technoidentities, along with their respective relationships, are known. Furthermore, each of these theories revolves around the aforementioned question “who chooses to control what and why?”

The implications of this research centre on explanations for practitioner and researcher behaviour, thought processes, decision–making, and social/interpersonal action, but more broadly, are concerned with what technology means to people. For example, what if an IS or IT introduced by team members is perceived by a manager as having more power over the IS manager, which denotes a possible asymmetric relationship? The IS manager might in these instances reject any talk of technology (and thus the technology itself) and instead shift team conversation to politics or some other non–technical topic, thus exerting control over his team (another asymmetrical relationship). There may be other cases where the IS manager has quite strong ties to the IS/IT, may view it as something of central importance, and may speak in a way that denotes respect for it. In these cases, it may be possible that the manager perceives a much more equal balance of power, and adoption at his or her level (and the resulting diffusion) may be more likely. By using the IPR Metaphor to form questions, it may be possible through future research to predict the manner in which a particular manager may react to the introduction of a novel IS or IT.

As we move towards technological ubiquity (Ahn, 2012; Apperley and Leorke, 2013; Yoo, 2010), combined with an increasing interest in space migration (Hooton, 2014; Leary, 1994), along with the position that said migration may only be possible through the merging of human and technology (Kurzweil, 2005; Leary, 1994), the issues that surround interaction of any sort will only continue to become more prominent. IS/IT that take on characteristics of human beings (personality, biology/circuitry, etc.) may not just be a possibility but, rather, a necessity. Whether it is due to the limitations of the human body or the limits of technology on its own, or whether it is to comfort those who will be so lonely that none of us can even begin to comprehend it, metaphors may allow for the formation of IS/IT that we need to overcome the ever widening gap between what is and what could be. In other words, research and practice in IS may end up being less about truth claims or philosophical revelations and, instead, ultimately about the need to create certain realities given complex, inter–disciplinary, inter–philosophical perspectives. End of article


About the author

Jason Simpson is a Ph.D. student in information systems, technology and management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Jason is a keen proponent of space migration and consciousness expansion. Much of his research is aimed at forming practical foundations for these eventualities, as well as helping people achieve their potential through a combination of reflection and the appropriation of technology. His professional profile as well as other published articles can be found at
E–mail: jason [dot] simpson [at] unsw [dot] edu [dot] au



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2. Jacucci, et al., 2006, p. 5.

3. Venkatesh, et al., 2007, p. 268.

4. Simpson, et al., 2013, p. 7.

5. Lewis, 1998, p. 584.

6. Simpson, et al., 2013, p. 6.

7. Weinreich, 1986, p. 317.

8. Marzano, et al., 2006, p. 189.

9. Morgan, 1980, p. 612.

10. Saccol and Reinhard, 2006, p. 154.

11. Lapointe and Rivard, 2007, p. 101.

12. Lewis, 1998, p. 583.

13. Ibid.

14. Lewis, 1998, p. 584.

15. Ibid.

16. E.g., “controllingness, emotional inaccessibility, and lack of investment in the marriage” — Lewis, 1998, p. 585.

17. Hussain, et al., 2004, pp. 408–409.

18. Hussain, et al., 2004, p. 415.

19. Weinreich, 1986, p. 317.



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Editorial history

Received 8 August 2014; revised 24 August 2014; accepted 25 August 2014.

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Towards a relational theory of IS/IT adoption and usage: Metaphor and lessons from interpersonal relationship literature
by Jason Simpson.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 9 - 1 September 2014

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