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The Role of Politics in IS Career Progression.

INTRODUCTION

This paper uses a case study of a large information systems (IS) department and its employees to investigate the significant factors involved in career progression. As an alternative to examining the requirements of employers, the question can be reversed to ask: `What do employees require in order to increase their potential for a successful career in IS?' The answer to this question is of significance to enlightened organizations, educators and individuals embarking on or already part of the IS profession.

The role of politics in career development is given little attention in IS courses as the emphasis is usually put on achieving technical competencies, problem-solving and in acquiring satisfactory communication skills. Whilst there is no doubt these skills/knowledge are important, it is worthwhile expanding the definition of relevant skills to include the more subtle political skills. A review of previous studies of the skills required in the IS profession is included. The case study findings are then explained and the implications of the role of politics in IS careers for employers, employees and educators are discussed.

The study takes a systems perspective, in the sense mentioned by Jackson (1995): `in the management context, we are talking about using systems ideas and models simply to learn about and clarify different view points on the world, in which case we are using them as an epistemological device' (p. 26). Many previous studies of careers and the skills needed in IS have concentrated on the formal aspects of the organizational system. However, there is something to be gained by viewing the system holistically since the analysis of isolated components can create distorted understanding. In this respect the study gives voice to the informal aspects of the system, multiple representations of the system, in addition to the formal rational aspects. It also needs to be recognized that it is the interaction of the components that creates the emergent properties which are often overlooked and which are such a force in organizational politics.

SKILLS REQUIRED IN THE IS PROFESSION

The requirements of employers in the IS field have been a frequently studied topic. This is mainly due to the continuously changing nature of technology and techniques used within the IS sphere. These requirements have been a source of information for those developing courses in universities and colleges. There is no doubt that IS professionals have read the surveys of employer requirements in order to adjust or develop their skill set to become more marketable entities. Having the skills that are perceived to be in demand is important, not just for applying for external positions but also for internal promotion. A successful career, in this context, is taken to mean career progression in terms of status, recognition and remuneration, and also continuing satisfaction that can come from greater challenges.

The IS profession has become fragmented because of the growth of a great variety of jobs within the same profession (Lee, et al., 1995). The different types of jobs often require different skill sets. The job roles in Figure 1, although not an exhaustive list, are considered part of the IS profession (ACS, 1997) and serve as an illustration of the diversity within the profession.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Some of the job roles involve a greater emphasis on the technical aspects of developing systems; others such as user support require excellent interpersonal and communication skills. The level of technical knowledge and skills is therefore dependent on the aspect of the profession being examined. There are those, however, that argue that the IS profession should be recognized as not just a technical discipline but as an engineering discipline and that this would give the profession greater prestige (Johnson, 1997). Traditionally, studies of IS employment skills have focused on the technical requirements of employers in the IS field. As technology is changing so rapidly it is helpful to discover what employers consider as useful technical skills. Athey and Wickham (1996) examined the requirements of IS employers in Australia by analysing newspaper advertisements. The study concluded that PC skills, relational database skills, networking skills and programming skills in C or COBOL were most in demand at that time. Similar studies have been conducted in the USA with similar results (Litecky et al., 1996). Advertisements may actually give a distorted view of employer requirements as they often stress technical skills and abilities at the expense of the softer communication and interpersonal skills.

Categories of skills can be classified as follows. Technical skills describe a person's abilities in programming, systems development and hardware (including networking). Interpersonal skills are concerned with abilities to relate to others and work in a team; the emphasis is on cohesion and understanding. Communication skills are sometimes incorporated into interpersonal skills but they can be viewed as a separate category of skills covering written and oral communication. It is worth noting that in addition to skills individual attributes such as risk facility, adaptability and acceptance of change are also important.

Some studies have examined the broader skills required by employers in the IS field. Lee et al. (1995) examined employer requirements in terms of:

* technical knowledge and skills;

* technology management knowledge and skills;

* business functional knowledge and skills;

* interpersonal management skills.

They found that employers have put an increasing emphasis on business knowledge and interpersonal skills. They state that: `As reengineering becomes more necessary in organizations, the ability to function effectively as change agents may become even more important than business analysis skills and technical competence' (p. 332). Interpersonal and group skills have been emphasized as being important in the IS profession from the results of other studies (Young and Lee, 1997; Misic and Russo, 1996). The term interpersonal skills is used in these studies to cover the ability to: work with others, and in groups; communicate effectively; lead and organize; and be convincing in presentations.

It appears that there may even be cultural differences in the significance attached to skills in IS. In a study of Indonesian and Malaysian organizations it was found that technical skills currently rated very highly and would be increasingly important in the future (Lau et al., 1997). This is in contrast to studies in Western countries, where communication skills are usually rated above technical skills.

Since the late 1980s, researchers in the IS field have been increasingly interested in the importance of the social and political factors in IS development (Hirschheim and Newman, 1991). `Political' in this context refers to the construction of realities and the conflict that ensues from alternative and conflicting constructions that can surface in the struggles for recognition, resources, career progression, power and influence. Political struggles can be seen in the situations that involve user resistance. According to Grover et al. (1988, p. 145) `user resistance to management information systems is common'. While there are several different reasons why systems either succeed or fail an important part to understanding user resistance to management information systems is to recognize the role politics has to play. In some circumstances user resistance may take the form of obstruction due in part to a perceived threat to their parochial interests by reducing their autonomy, increasing their workload or invading their territory. To view user resistance to a project Keen (1981) applied the concept of `games'. The games metaphor and the typology developed by Bardach (1977) and cited by Grover et al. (1988) serve as a basis for a classification of political activities that exist during MIS development and implementation. Keen (1981) believed that the typology might assist MIS professionals, users, user management and MIS managers recognize political maneuovrings as they try to develop high-quality systems with substantial contribution to their organization.

The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary (Turner, 1990) explains the word politic by:

(Of person) sagacious, prudent, (of action etc.) judicious, expedient; scheming, crafty.
   Sagacious: of keen and far sighted judgment

   Expedient: suitable for achieving a particular end or concerned with what
   is opportune rather than what is morally correct

   Prudent: discretion or shrewdness


From these definitions, the word `politic' has both a positive and a more negative connotation. For whilst being described as discrete or farsighted in judgment would be taken as a compliment, being described as scheming or crafty could be taken as derogatory. If the label `political skills' is taken to describe the attributes that a person might have in this area then they are quite different from both interpersonal and communication skills and hence require a category of their own.

Politics has been given some attention, especially in its relation to power, by organizational behaviourists (Thompson and McHugh, 1995). Managers often tend to rationalize their activities in terms of technical skills and choose to ignore the influence of politics. The hierarchy of power relations in organizations can be played down by, for example, redefining subordinates by non-managers. Pfeffer defines the internal politics of organizations as `Those activities within organizations to acquire, develop and use power and other resources to obtain one's preferred outcomes in a situation where there is dissension or uncertainty about choices' (Pfeffer, 1981, p. 10). In organizations, people seeking influence often have to work within sectional interests or networks (coalitions). Research on conflict between programmers and analysts (Pettigrew, 1973) showed that the weapons employed by the programmers were ideologies of expertise, exclusivity of technique by avoiding documentation, and control of recruitment policies. Such actions illustrate a cognate group of skills at work.

EMPLOYEE EXPECTATIONS

Previous studies have tended to look at what is important from an IS employer perspective. Fulfilling employer expectations is only half of the employer-employee relationship. Therefore, it is worthwhile examining the IS profession from an employee perspective and from the perspective of which skills are perceived as necessary for maximizing career promotion prospects within an organization. The answer to this question may not necessarily be the same as the employer requirements. Indeed, it is argued, from the case study to follow, that this is not the situation. This is due in part to the nature of organizations, which form complex systems where the political dynamics can become an overriding factor.

Through a case study of a large service organization the significance of technical, interpersonal, communication and political aspects of working in IS and particularly their significance in career progression are examined. This is done from an employee perspective and considers the perceived criteria for internal promotion within the same organization. Obtaining internal promotion is partly dependent on the skills and knowledge that an employee might have and the personal qualities of the individual in terms of their drive and motivation. Whilst this is recognized as being significant, these personal qualities are not examined in the current study. The issue of the skills required within the IS profession is worthy of study because of the changing perceptions of the IS profession as a whole, from a narrow technical activity to a broader set of activities which encompass a wide range of skills.

CASE STUDY

To examine the role of politics in IS development and management a case study is used. The case study method has the potential to yield multiple constructions of reality in an organizational setting, especially if a broad systemic approach is taken where alternative views are represented. The politics of IT cannot be understood within the positivist model of research. For as Knights (1995) says: `In order to intimate at the politics of organizations it is necessary to give voice to alternative representations' (p. 247). This does not mean that any one representation is the correct representation even though the research may uncover dominant representations or even representations that are in conflict with the dominant view.

This ethnographic study looks at the factors that employees consider significant in gaining internal promotion. The role of a structured systems development methodology (structured systems analysis and design methods -- SSADM) is also considered since a technical systems development methodology was very important in the organization at the time of the study (Standing and Bavington, 1996).

The organization targeted for this case study develops computer systems that vary from small PC-based systems to large corporate-wide mainframe systems. The main employees interviewed within this organization were computer systems development staff employed as programmers/ analysts (8), project leaders (3), programmers (9), information technology officer (1), project manager (1), and development review and consulting personnel such as the chief analyst (1), quality assurance administrator (1), data administrator (1) and chief programmer (1). There were 26 participants involved in this research case study and this included all employees of the department.

INTERPRETATION OF THE CASE STUDY

The interpretation of the case study findings was done using a dialectical hermeneutics approach. Hermeneutics is primarily concerned with the meaning of a text or text analogue (Myers, 1995). The data, which in this case are interview transcripts, are analysed in terms of themes, motifs and key words in the same way as a literary text is (Bronsema and Keen, 1983). One of the main difference between pure and dialectical hermeneutics is that, in the latter, the researcher does not just accept the opinions of the participants, but tries to evaluate the totality of understandings in a given situation. The role and understandings of the participants are interpreted historically, and in terms of social structures. The approach is used to make sense of the contradictions and oppositions within an organization. It includes the value conflicts of the participants and the objective social impacts.

For the analysis of the transcripts of the case study the researchers examined the texts for themes. Multiple interpretations were then developed as a way to explore the validity of the participants' views. The themes were then examined in relation to the history of the department, through the social structure in the organization and the role of the IS department as a whole within the organization. The themes are also viewed in relation to generally held views within the IS profession.

FINDINGS OF THE STUDY

The staff were asked what they saw as the key factors to progressing in their IS careers within the organization. In this section of the paper the replies of the participants are viewed from a number of perspectives.

Technical

One research question was: Is competence or expertise in the methodology perceived as an important factor in career progression? More generally staff were asked for what they saw as the key factors to progressing in their careers. The answer reflected two differing views. A few strongly believed or wanted to believe that career progression was based on technical ability. According to one of the managers:
   The interviews conducted require you to have strong technical knowledge in
   areas such as the programming environment, data modeling, SSADM.


From the analysis of the transcripts it could be argued that some managers see technical skills as important but not sufficient on their own to gain promotion. One of the project managers thought that `narrow technical skills should not be used as a basis to determine promotion but rather the more generic skills such as communication and managerial skills should be considered'.

Another employee spoke of the lack of career path for the technical specialist:
   There is no career path for the technical specialists. I would prefer a
   technical career path. You are not valued by management as a technical
   specialist; they [management] believe the only career option is project
   leading and management. Why can't a technical programmer be more senior
   than a manager?


This view highlights some of the frustration of more technically oriented employees who prefer working at a technical level but feel their chances of promotion are diminished as a result. The employees were asked about the role and importance of SSADM in career progression within the organization. Staff members who had made extensive use of the methodology felt that it had not provided them with better opportunities within the organization. Peggy said:
   I don't see that it would since I have been on training courses before and
   it has not helped, you need to have management commitment at least. I have
   better knowledge of SSADM and it has not resulted in better opportunities.


Politics

The political side of career progression was another view that came through strongly. According to Thomas people progress in systems development for reasons other than technical ability:
   Unfortunately `getting on' depends on who likes you and who does not rather
   than on technical merit. It's obvious from the way people get promoted and
   the way people get allocated analysis tasks according to favouritism,
   prejudice, political expediency. There is no career path except for people
   who want to specialize in analysis and management. My main experience of
   this is due to not towing the political line. I don't play the political
   game and so I don't expect to be promoted.


Getting on with the `right people' meant seeking the friendships of senior staff. Several staff mentioned this as being important in obtaining promotion. In this form, it can be viewed as scheming to secure their own position and hence is political in nature. Clive provided this view:
   You need to know how to `bull-shit' best, you have to know who is pulling
   the strings. It's not what you know but who you know. You can see it
   happening, it's blatantly obvious, they don't even try to hide it any more.


The expedient side of organizational politics came through as a view as can be seen in the following comment:
   You need to be versatile, have a sound technical knowledge, and sometimes
   you need to be conniving and not entirely truthful.


Grover et al. (1988) recognized that the political process can be viewed as systems of games. According to Mintzberg (1983), a system of politics is best viewed as a set of games (p. 187). He defines a game as an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions, progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. They are often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation (p. 48). Several staff members saw the promotion process as a series of games:
   It is a question of how many games you are prepared to play and whether you
   are prepared to be a member of the club.


One person was so disillusioned because of the politics involved in career progression that she was considering leaving the profession altogether. These comments can be viewed as just `sour grapes'; however, they still represent an organizational perspective of the factors that are seen as important in obtaining internal promotion. To those that are oblivious to organizational politics any reference to the less ethical aspects of it could be met with incredulity or a simplistic alternative explanation.

The importance of politics in promotion could be interpreted as an excuse for poor communication skills. Most participants recognized the importance of good communication skills for doing analysis tasks and for management-oriented positions. The majority of IS staff felt confident in presenting or speaking to groups although this does not mean that their communication skills were at a high level. However, some expressed concern over chairing meetings because they saw them as ways to manipulate and exert control.
   I hate presentations and meetings because they are used as opportunities
   for controlling or manipulating people. They should be used more for
   sharing information and ideas.


It is interesting to note that the participants' perspective on the role of politics in career progression almost always focused on the negative aspects. This could be viewed as an inability to interpret the complexities of organizational life where even compromises (deals/expediency), reading trends, comprehending the mood of the situation and culture of the organization are seen negatively.

Interpersonal

Patrick emphasized the importance of marketing oneself with the organization:
   You have to promote yourself using marketing techniques. The work we do is
   conceptual in nature and therefore difficult to assess. It's how you manage
   the process of being seen that matters. I don't think we always promote our
   best people.


Karen said that general skills were important:
   Analytical abilities, following up on loose ends, and so on are more
   important than narrow technical skills.


Communication

Staff generally felt that good communication skills were an important factor in career progression. Most staff said that they did not have problems in speaking in groups, making presentations and chairing meetings, although we cannot be certain that their communication skills were of a high standard:
   Generally, I have not got a problem with speaking in front of groups,
   making presentations and chairing meetings. If I feel strongly about a
   point I would raise it.


Several, who felt confident about their communication skills, expressed how these could be used in a political sense to achieve an objective:
   I feel confident about presentations and speaking in groups but not about
   controlling a meeting. No, I don't feel confident about influencing the
   decision-making processes of others because I can't manipulate people. I
   don't care about scoring points.


Culture

One person felt that males have better career opportunities than females because of the culture of the organization, which they felt was male dominated.

MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS OF THE ROLE OF POLITICS IN IS CAREER PROGRESSION

The aim of this section is to explore multiple interpretations of the participants' views and by doing this try to come to a better understanding of the conflict and concerns about the role of politics in IS promotion.

Politics as a Negative Influence

It is possible that those that viewed politics purely in a negative sense fail to understand the complexities of management where compromises have to be made and where a certain amount of shrewdness is called for. Hence, their criticisms may serve as an indication of their deficiency in these skills and lack of comprehension of political subtleties. However, a number of people expressed concern over the role of friendships and what they saw as the use of favours to gain an unfair advantage in the promotion stakes. It is difficult to explain these away as misunderstandings of legitimate political activity.

Politics as a Means to Secure Identities

It could be interpreted that the unsavoury side of political activity was used by employees to secure favourable positions within the department and therefore to secure their own identities. Some felt their chances of being promoted could be increased by making certain friendships, doing deals, making others feel obligated to help them in the future, and engaging in a form of self-promotion that exists in any political campaign.

Politics as an Excuse for Poor Interpersonal Skills

Those that stressed the importance of politics may have used it as pejorative term. In this respect, it could have been used disparagingly and wrongly to cover for their lack of interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills in the IS profession cover the ability to work with others, lead groups and communicate effectively (Young and Lee, 1997).

A Likely Explanation of the Role of Politics?

Political activity in organizations is seen to thrive where there is uncertainty or ambiguity (Pfeffer, 1981). The whole issue of job assessment in the organization in the study was poorly defined and as a result created uncertainty and ambiguity for many employees. There seemed to be no conscious effort on the part of management to manage job assignments effectively and assess staff performance and manage that information. This ambiguity may have led employees to misinterpret the relevance and importance of skills. The IS Department stressed technical skills at initial interviews and also promoted the use of a technical methodology within the organization. In reality, there was no career path for the technical specialists, which led to frustration. They were unwilling to accept that they would have to demonstrate other skills or remain in their current position.

The frustration of the technical specialists are born out of the contradictions within the IS profession where technical skills are revered and promoted but limiting if not married to sound communication, interpersonal and political skills. This is not to deny, however, that there appeared to be political activity within the department where friendships formed alliances to achieve ends. A key point is that the technical specialists were also making a political statement by stressing the importance of technical skills, since this was being done to achieve preferred outcomes.

It is probably safe to conclude that all interpretations of the role of politics in the case study have some credence. It is unlikely that the influence of negative political activity was the only factor in securing promotion or a favourable position within the department. More likely, politics, interpersonal and communication skills, and technical abilities all play a role and are almost impossible to disentangle from one another, and in the case of politics it would be meaningless to try. However, there is also no reason to suggest that both legitimate and unfair political activities are not significant in gaining promotion. What can be concluded, therefore, is that the studies that have viewed the skills requirements from an employer perspective and which have not examined the influence of politics (Litecky et al., 1996) have made a serious omission.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EMPLOYERS

What can employers learn from this study? They can attempt to legislate against the unfair side of the political dealings by making sure short-listing and selection committees do not favour certain candidates. In the day-to-day work of the department they should monitor that there is equal opportunity to perform higher-level tasks. This could involve an anonymous suggestion/ concerns box to bring any problems associated with perceived favouritism to the attention of management. Employers should recognize that career progression is important to staff and encourage staff to undertake training on career management and how to market themselves. In addition, managers should take steps to manage career-related information more effectively. This should have a pay-back to the organization as one would expect improved morale and increased motivation.

The management of political activity in organizations is difficult. The very nature of politics aims against any form of regulation or management. Politics in organizations relies on informality and an oral tradition, in that written records are not kept. Political events, networks and informal deals are rarely documented and may even be unknown to many in the organization. It is fluid; politics is influenced by individuals and group dynamics, and these are constantly changing. Managers often de-emphasize the role of politics, tending instead to rationalize their behaviour and actions as a set of rational events (Thompson and McHugh, 1995, p. 132). Political information is in most cases unstructured and difficult to manage.

All this begs the question: is it possible or even desirable to manage the events and knowledge of the political arena within an organization? Having discussed some of the less desirable implications of politics in organizations it would suggest that some form of intervention by organizations and management of the situation is desirable.

It we start with the premise that political action (good or bad) requires forms of knowledge, we can start to think how this knowledge can be managed to prevent unwanted behaviour or actions. Knowledge relevant to organizational politics takes many forms but usually involves individual and group behaviour and the history and culture of the organization.

What can the organization do to manage this? Vecchio et al. (1997) explain a number of things managers can do:

(1) Manage job assignments Managers need to manage the allocation of job tasks to individuals and monitor and manage the data on job performance. When employees are given clear assignments and the assessment and recording of performance are clear, game-playing is less necessary as a device for gaining personal attention. Managers can reduce some of the uncertainty in the performance and assessment areas of their organizations but they need to make a conscious effort by detailed planning and record-keeping. This can be addressed with a management-by-objectives strategy (Vecchio et al., 1997). Subjective job appraisals are not adequate; there should be clearly documented assessment procedures and these should be clearly recorded and maintained.

Management by objectives relies on a large degree of trust of the superior by the subordinate; without this it is unlikely to work well. There are also many subjective factors at work within specific job roles and these are difficult to quantify. An example would be giving excellent service in a user support role.

(2) Monitor cliques and coalitions The manager needs to be in touch with what is happening in the work place. Job rotation can help counter the establishment of cliques. The whole issue of which jobs and tasks individuals have worked on needs to be recorded and managed along with who they have worked with.

(3) Reduce uncertainty and manage the rules of behaviour

Political behaviour, it is assumed, primarily occurs in the context of uncertainty. To limit the uncertainty, open and accountable systems need to be developed where the rules of the game are clearly established. This also means that the systems must be presented to employees, such as on an intranet Web site. One problem with value statements, rules of behaviour and internal procedures is that they are rarely maintained and updated. Managers need to be serious about them and make sure that they are kept up to date. This would be relatively easy to do if the information was recorded on an intranet.

Hopefully these types of actions will help managers manage the knowledge and behaviour related to organizational politics, especially in relation to careers.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS

The following comments are aimed primarily at IS courses rather than narrowly defined technical IT or computer science courses. For educational institutions offering IS courses a more balanced view of skills would include not just what employers require but also what employees need to maximize their potential in the IS profession. This would, based on the findings in the case study, include some teaching on the politics of careers. It is especially important for IS students to become aware of the role of politics in their career progression because they may be mistaken into thinking that their future progress depends entirely on the level of their technical skills.

Communication and interpersonal skills may already be given some attention in IS courses because of the influence of studies that have stressed employer requirements in written and oral communication and group work. However, there should be some recognition that it is not the same as developing awareness and skills in organizational politics. An effective way to teach something of the role of politics in IS careers might be through the use of case studies. These could be incorporated into IS management units and be followed by open discussion. It would also be an opportunity to address ethical codes of conduct that are associated with most professional computer societies. IS departments should encourage students to become members of computer societies and prepare to take on the responsibilities of a professional.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EMPLOYEES

Employees need to develop their communication and interpersonal skills and be aware that their technical skills are not the only thing that will get them promoted. Perhaps more significantly, the lesson from the case study is that employees must become more politically astute. Whether an individual wants to get involved in the politics of careers is an individual decision but they must acknowledge that it exists or potentially become disillusioned by the process. They must understand that `getting on with the job is not enough to secure promotion.

They could improve their chances by making certain friendships to help in achieving their ends, doing deals, making others feel obligated to help in the future, and engaging in a form of self-promotion that exists in any political campaign. Perhaps more ethically, they could position themselves in a favourable situation by performing certain tasks or by changing to a section where their promotion prospects are increased. Employees need to develop legitimate political skills in the sense of becoming politically shrewd. In the organization in the case study some employees were not prepared to do this and so felt out of the running.

Some aspects of the political game are quite ethical but others, such as talking down colleagues, are not, according to the ethical codes of computer societies. This study does not encourage employees to do such things but rather to be aware that it occurs. It therefore recommends that practitioners become `street wise'. Some individuals may see ethical standards as a matter for personal interpretation. Most professional societies, such as the Australian Computer Society and the British Computer Society, have a code of ethics which cover some of the undesirable aspects of workplace politics. The problems of relying on professional societies to legislate against inappropriate action is that they generally rely on other members to do the `policing' and so it is sometimes ineffective. Secondly, some IS professionals are not part of any computer society.

Organizations should not rely entirely on the professional bodies but should articulate their ethical standards and organizational values. Levi Strauss & Co. is an example of a company which has made some attempt to define and record the core values of the organization (Howard, 1990). The Aspirations Statement starts with:
   We all want a company that our people are proud and committed to, where all
   employees have an opportunity to contribute, learn, grow and advance based
   on merit, not politics or background. We want our people to feel respected,
   treated fairly, listened to, and involved. (p. 135)


While organizational politics can lead to unprofessional conduct, some awareness of these strategies can help individuals make sense of their life in organizations. Awareness alone may not help them get promoted but it can help them determine how complex the task or obstacles they face are. They can then decide if their best option is to remain and fight, live with it or to move to another organization where those same barriers may not exist for an outsider entering the organization.

SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE

If a systems perspective is taken of developing a successful IS career within an organization then a large number of factors could be seen as relevant. These could include:

* Technical skills

* Communication skills

* Interpersonal skills

* Political skills

* Business skills and knowledge

* Organizational history and knowledge

* Understanding of the culture of organization

* Personal qualities such as motivation and ambition

This list goes beyond the few areas usually considered by employers, even with the inclusion of politics. It is not argued in this paper that every career decision is influenced most by the organizational politics of the situation. Knights (1995) sees the systems development process as a matter of securing the identity of the individual and so puts great emphasis on the role of politics in IS. We do not subscribe to this view in relation to careers in IS but rather a more balanced view is taken where any number of factors could be the most significant at any particular time.

Tertiary courses in information systems tend to focus on the technical, business and communication skills. The political aspects of organizations and reading the history and culture of the organization are rarely given much attention. Clearly, how these interact with the individual forms a complex system which can only be really comprehended by taking a systems perspective. It could be argued that due to the increase in competition within organizations and the rise of individualism generally within Western societies political intrigue will get worse and not better. The rise of individualism in society will increase the number of those who take a subjective ethical standpoint rather than subscribing to a societal viewpoint (cultural ethics) (Wreckert and Adeney, 1997).

It is suggested that IS courses have much to gain by including units on systems thinking. Students should be encouraged to think about and reflect upon the social consequences of designing systems in particular ways. The partiality of the system designs and methods used should also be critically evaluated. Thinking about the bigger picture and the emergent features of complex systems, such as the politics in the case study, is an intellectual and relevant activity with a simple and profound objective: `to work out the right course of action to take' (Jackson, 1995, p. 40).

CONCLUSIONS

There is some overlap between employer and employee assessments of the skills required for a satisfactory career in IS. The common ground is in relation to communication skills, interpersonal skills and technical skills. The role of politics is rarely mentioned by employers, other than superficial references to working in groups, but is seen as being very significant by many in the case study used for this paper. The implications are that IS practitioners should become more `street wise', take more time, and make more of an effort to evaluate the contribution that legitimate political skills can make to their careers. Educators can also attempt to raise the awareness of students in relation to workplace politics by the use of case studies. Employers can recognize it is a major concern for staff and take the steps suggested earlier in the paper to improve the situation. They can start to acquire and manage knowledge and information related to organizational procedures, job assignments and job assessments and so take steps to minimize the potentially disruptive influence caused by organizational politics.

To develop a successful career in IS requires a wide range of factors to be considered. If practitioners can begin to look at their working environment systematically they should be able to make sense of the complexity of organizational life. Understanding the bigger picture will provide less potential for IS professionals to become disillusioned, even though there appears to be no easy options in dealing with the less savoury aspects of organizational politics.

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Received 2 June 1998

Accepted 30 September 1998

Craig Standing(*) and Susan Standing

Department of Information Systems, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, Australia

(*) Correspondence to: Craig Standing, Department of Information Systems, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, Western Australia, Australia
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Author:Standing, Craig; Standing, Susan
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Words:6748
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