Haselkorn, Mark. "5 Technology Risk as a Socially Embedded Issue." Strategic Management of Information and Communication Technology: The United States Air Force Experience with Y2K. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2007.
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Strategic Management of Information and Communication Technology: The United States Air Force Experience with Y2K
testing, and security may be more successful, recognizing the enduring impact of people on technical systems.
This report rejects the idea that the Y2K problem was simply one of fixing the technology, recognizing that it was driven instead by a concatenation of institutional, leadership, economic, and political factors, as well as technical ones. As the introduction to Chapter 2 observes, “the problem… taught those who worked on it more about their overall organizational operation than about their technology.”
A key organizational issue identified by this report is that no single unit “owned” the problem, that “no single group could fully control the issues. Enterprise-wide perspectives…had to be considered.” This meant, for example, that “efforts to decompose the Y2K problem and organizational responses into discrete components were largely unsuccessful.”1 Cross-unit interdependencies were the single biggest challenge to remediation.
As the report observes, these problems were not unique to Y2K. They just became more obvious under its intense spotlight. We should therefore understand the Air Force’s Y2K experience not as a freestanding phenomenon but as typical of large-scale software systems embedded in a complex institutional setting. As the Air Force gradually discovered (see Section 2.3), this meant shifting the focus from hardware and software to organizational issues.
The extent to which remediation efforts were successful can be attributed in part to a shift in perspective—an evolution from techno-determinism to a broader social understanding. A “technical” problem like Y2K may initially be seen as sui generis, to be described only in its own terms. Its effects are seen as direct, widespread, and determinative of other social outcomes. Eventually, these initial erroneous enthusiasms are subdued and put into perspective when traditional paradigms of analysis in the social sciences, engineering, or even the humanities reveal this “unique” thing to be a member of broader social categories with their own determinants and well-known laws of motion.
This general trajectory has been true for the Information Revolution as a whole.2 The arc of understanding starts with an unhealthy dose of techno-determinism. As the report notes, “Over the course of Y2K it became clear that changes made to hardware and software generally did not address the central Y2K … issues.”3 The shift to a broader contextual focus on knowledge, management, and institutions, away from a more narrow hardware and software focus, is imperative for successful action, whether in Y2K or beyond. This experience underscores that more research is needed to understand and support individuals and organizations shifting from a techno-perspective to a strategic and managerial one.
Related examples from the safety field reinforce the hazards of treating large technological systems as consisting purely of technology. Consider the most notorious technology-heavy accidents of the past quarter-century: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the Challenger and Columbia shuttles, the USS Vincennes, and Bhopal. In