: Call for papers

Call for Papers

Special Issue of the journal Systèmes d’Information et Management

The Digital and the Symbolic


Aurélie Dudézert, Université Paris Sud

Nathalie Mitev, King’s College London

Ewan Oiry, Québec University, Montréal


Information technologies have a materiality which we are faced with on a daily basis. Of course, we can interact with and change their material features, but the technical artefact itself bounds us: we can use our smartphone as a flashlight, but we cannot use it as a toothbrush. According to Lev Vygostki [1997] technical artefacts are both objects and schemes, so information technologies can be said to be both objective (material signs) and subjective (use schemes). A technological tool acts as a sign providing meaning and as generic action schemes for its users. A child with a tablet will use her fingers to scroll screens; an adult with a keyboard will type the keys to write. Throughout our lives we learn to associate use schemes to objects.


Technical objects are also accompanied by symbols which influence their users. A symbol can be an abstract sign, a being or a thing representing a concept; the symbol is an image, an attribute or an emblem of a concept. Most objects surrounding us have a symbolic dimension. This dimension can be shared or can be our own. When we see a pencil on our desk, we understand its material dimension (something to write or draw with), but also its symbolic dimension (this pencil was given to me at work, it represents work for me).


Research on IT appropriation has shown that technology use depends on its material aspects and on individual previous experiences, social contexts, and on how users interpret technical tools. In work environments technology appropriation is a socio-material assemblage constitutively entangled with work practices (Orlikowski, 2007; Orlikowski & Scott, 2008; Leonardi, 2011). Appropriation is enacted through a social construction mobilising the materiality of technology through a range of symbolic representations (Pinch & Bijker, 1984; 2012) which makes it difficult to predict. Therefore, the creation of symbols about technology plays a central role in IT appropriation (Orlikowski, 2007; Orlikowski & Scott, 2008). This is at the crossroad of complementary research themes which are too often isolated from each other, such as socio-materiality, resistance, misuse and devious use, symbolism and rituals.


Symbolism also plays a considerable part in designing IT artefacts. In their article Symbolism and Information Systems Development: Myth, Metaphor and Magic, Hirschheim & Newman (1991) were the first to underline the role of symbolic dimensions in IT design. They show that design is more than a rational or mathematical activity. It is embedded in myths, metaphors and magic rituals, with developers sometimes seen as wizards, battling with users and computers. These battles have been illustrated in other fields such as literature or cinema for decades which have shown the force of symbols generated by the creation and use of technologies. Musso (2014) argues that information technologies are both functional and fictional, both instruments and fantasies. Imagination creates them, and new ones are generated from our uses and choices. For instance, touch screens and robots were first fantasies in science-fiction novels and progressively appeared in our daily lives. IT materiality is permeable to symbolic worlds. The symbolic dimension of IT is a powerful sense-making force for users especially in their work practices. We associate meaning to IT artefacts in order to use them and to communicate meaning about our actions (Yanow, 2006).

In organisational contexts undergoing many transformations, mobilising the symbolic dimensions of IT artefacts can contribute to giving meaning to collective action. Indeed, as shown by Karl Weick (1993), the construction of meaning is inseparable from the construction of stories. The symbolic dimension of IT and its imaginary backdrop provide an anchor for users to make sense of their actions, and also to communicate the meaning of their actions to others and to the organisation as a whole. In their article on organisational dynamics during strategic change in a university, Gioa and Ali (1994) demonstrate that the symbolic dimensions of work artefacts reduce ambiguity and cognitive dissonance between the familiar and the unknown and make change less difficult to bear.

However, little research has explored how organisational actors appropriate and make use of IT symbolic dimensions. Feldman and March (1981) are some of the researchers who have opened up this field of inquiry. They study information use by managers and demonstrate that information, and therefore the technologies supporting information processing, are less used for decision-making than for their symbolic dimensions. Managers mobilise IT mainly to legitimate their decisions. IT use provides a signal to employees that the decisions are rational and not based on managers’ intuition or subjectivity. Swanson and Ramiller (1997) draw on neo-institutional theories to show that implementing IT in organisations is not a search for efficiency. They propose that IT deployment occurs through what they call an ‘organising vision’. This vision represents a symbolic world built by practice communities inside and outside organisations (e.g. technical journalists and consultants); and it is mobilised by actors responsible for IT deployment to firstly legitimise its selection and implementation and secondly enrol finance experts and IT users.

Symbols associated to IT are not unique. They depend on the “symbolic worlds” of actors who build their own representations of artefacts according to their organisational status, role and previous experiences (Karoui, Dudezert & Leidner, 2015). For IT appropriation to succeed, the challenge is to assemble a “meta-symbolic” which provides a shared meaning around the technology for all actors (Dudézert, Fayard & Oiry, 2015).

Symbolic aspects of IT can also become associated to power issues, whether to maintain the existing order (ideology) or to contribute to its transformation (utopia). In their research on the use of knowledge management mapping tools by HR departments, Dudézert and Leidner (2011) claim that mastering some IT artefacts imparts symbolic capital, which enables actors to become dominant in an organisation. Owning this symbolic capital provides legitimacy and ensures that arbitrary power is not questioned by other actors. A resource not necessarily seen as crucial by an organisation can therefore become a power stake when it is supported by an IT artefact (Karoui & Dudézert, 2012). Implementing IT to manage such an organisational resource grants a strong symbolic dimension to this resource: it becomes symbolic capital which needs to be controlled to ensure organisational domination.

Finally, could organisational interest in information technologies be located in their symbolic rather than their performative and utilitarian aspects? In the current digital transformation of firms, it seems important to understand further the links between the digital and the symbolic. In this increasingly dematerialised and disembodied world, how do actors appropriate the symbolic dimensions of information technologies? What role do they play in the development of new working practices (makers, fabbers, intrapreneurs, egopreneurs, slashers, etc.), new working spaces (flexoffice, news ways of working, etc.) and new managerial governance? Can the symbolic worlds surrounding digital technologies be mobilised to support current organisational transformations?

In this proposed Special Issue on “The Digital and The Symbolic”, the journal Systèmes d’Information et Management aims to encourage research on how organisational actors appropriate and use the symbolic dimensions of IT. Particular attention will be given to research based on qualitative methodologies (case studies, action research, etc.) and offering insights in information systems management and organisation theories.

The following themes are suggested:

  • IT symbolic and organisations: how does the IT symbolic impact work practices and organisational governance? How are IT design and organisational use impacted by the symbolic of work practices and organisational governance?

  • IT symbolic and appropriation: what role does the IT symbolic play in its appropriation? How do IT users handle its symbolic to develop devious, innovative or unexpected practices?

  • IT symbolic and power: what actors’ games does the IT symbolic provoke? How do actors influence the IT symbolic?

  • IT symbolic and performativity: artefacts mobilised in collective action are far from only ‘representing’ our world, they also ‘perform’ it (Orlikowski, 2005). How can we account for the symbolic in IT design, use and performativity?


Submission Instructions

Submissions are open to all and papers can be submitted in French or English.

Full papers must be submitted for 1st September 2018 on the SIM website, mentioning in the covering letter “Dossier SIM- Numérique et Symbolique”. They must follow SIM authors’ instructions, see http://revuesim.org/sim/about/submissions#onlineSubmissions

A writing workshop for this Special Issue will be take place during the AIM conference in Montreal, 16-18 May 2018, see http://aim.asso.fr/index.php/colloque-aim/234-aim2018-presentation

Authors wishing to participate to this workshop must submit an extended abstract (5 pages) on the SIM website for 8th January 2018 mentioning in the covering letter “Dossier SIM- Numérique et Symbolique”

All papers will be double-blind reviewed.


Cited References

Dudézert A., Fayard P., & Oiry E. (2015). “Astérix et la gestion des connaissances 2.0: une exploration de l’appropriation des SGC 2.0 par le mythe du Village Gaulois”,  Systèmes d'Information et Management 20(1), 31-59.  

Dudézert A., & Leidner DE (2011). “Illusions of control and social domination strategies in knowledge mapping system use”, European Journal of Information Systems 20(5), 574-588.  

Feldman, M. S., & March, J. G. (1981). “Information in organizations as Signal and Symbol,” Administrative Science Quarterly 26(2), 171-186.

Gioia D.A., Thomas J.B., Clark S.M., & Chittipeddi K. (1994). “Symbolism and strategic change in academia: The dynamics of sensemaking and influence”, Organization Science 5(3), 363-383.

Hirschheim R., & Newman M. (1991). “Symbolism and Information Systems development: Myth, metaphor and magic”, Information Systems Research 2(1), 29-62.

Karoui M., Dudezert A, & Leidner DE (2015). “Strategies and symbolism in the adoption of organizational social networking systems”, Journal of Strategic Information Systems 24(1), 15-32.  

Karoui M., & Dudezert A. (2012). ”Capital social et enjeux de pouvoir: Une perspective socio-politique de l’appropriation d’une technologie de réseaux sociaux au sein d’une collectivité territoriale”, Systèmes d'Information et Management 17(1), 49 – 80.  

Leonardi (2011). “When flexible routines meet flexible technologies: affordance, constraint, and the imbrication of human and material agencies”, MIS Quarterly 35, 147-167.

Musso P. (2014), Séminaire techno-imaginaire et innovation technologique, IHEST, Thursday 27th February 2014 : http://www.ihest.fr/la-mediatheque/collections/seances-publiques/ouverture-officielle-du-cycle-278/techno-imaginaire-et-innovation


Orlikowski, W. J. (2005). “Material works: Exploring the situated entanglement of technological performativity and human agency”, Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 17(1), 183–186.


Orlikowski W. (2007), “Sociomaterial practices: exploring technology at work”, Organization Studies 28(9), 1493-1448.


Orlikowski, W.J. & Scott, S.V. (2008). “Sociomateriality: Challenging the separation of technology, work and organization”, Annals of the Academy of Management 2(1), 433-474.

Pinch T. J. & Bijker W. E. (1984). “The social construction of facts and artefacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other”, Social Studies of Science 399-441.

Pinch, T. J., Bijker, W. E., & T. Pinch (2012). The Social Constructions of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, MIT Press.

Swanson, E. B., & Ramiller, N. C. (1997). “The organizing vision in information systems innovation”. Organization science, 8(5), 458-474.

Vygotski,L. (1997). Pensée et Langage, éditions La Dispute.

Weick, K. E. (1993). “The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster ». Administrative Science Quarterly, 628-652.

Yanow D. (2006). “Studying physical artifacts: An interpretive approach,” in Rafaeli, A., & Pratt, M. (Eds.), Artifacts and Organizations: Beyond Mere Symbolism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 41-60.