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The difficulty of studying inter-organisational IS phenomena on large scales: critical reflections on a research journey

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We argue that certain theoretical commitments that underpin much existing Inter-organisational Information Systems (IOIS) research at small scales become untenable when IOIS are studied at the scale of whole industries and over time periods greater than individual implementation projects. We make this argument by a detailed analysis of the problems we encountered when applying conventional research design methods in the early stages of a five year international comparative study of IOIS in pharmaceutical supply chains in four countries. We found that the large scale of our unit required a move away from the construction of discrete variables (dependent and independent) as well as from input-output process logic, to an alternate modelling approach derived from Structuration Theory and Practice Theory. We illustrate the revelatory power of this new lens by applying it to two cases. The paper will be of interest to IOIS researchers because we have systematically worked out the reasons for difficulties that limit IOIS research to unit and time scales smaller that the actual phenomenon. Because we refused to limit our own research object in this way, we ventured further into these problematic areas than others.

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  1. The Australian case is based on nine interviews conducted between April 2006 and September 2007, the Chinese case on 14 interviews conducted between October 2004 and July 2007. All interviews lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours; the Australian interviews were recorded and transcribed; the Chinese interviews, due to concerns by interviewees, were documented by students attending the interviews instead of being recorded; immediately after each interview, all interviewers jointly prepared a single set of interview minutes in Chinese and English. Interviewees were drawn from organisations involved in drug distribution including manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, IT vendors and regulatory authorities. In addition, we complemented our data by publicly available documents, mostly in the form of websites. For further details on our data collection methods see Reimers and Li (2008) concerning the Chinese case and Reimers et al. (2009) concerning the Australian case.


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The first and the third author would like to acknowledge support by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, grant number 1328/2-2.

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Correspondence to Kai Reimers.

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Responsible editor: Hans-Dieter Zimmermann

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Reimers, K., Johnston, R.B. & Klein, S. The difficulty of studying inter-organisational IS phenomena on large scales: critical reflections on a research journey. Electron Markets 20, 229–240 (2010).

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