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How Business Enterprises Use Technology: Extending the Demand-Side Turn
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How Business Enterprises Use Technology:
Extending the Demand-Side Turn
Abstract

Today, we are all aware of the importance of technology to modern business, including process technologies as well as consumer and industrial products incorporating technology. The significant role of technology in business (and vice versa) is not, of course, new. Although the history of technology and business history have different professional organizations and often focus on different theoretical and empirical phenomena, the large number of historians who work at the intersection of the two today reflects the importance of each to the other over a much longer time period.1 Yet historians of both types still too often give short shrift to the role of business enterprises as technology users as well as to the actual business use of technology.

Today, we are all aware of the importance of technology to modern business, including process technologies as well as consumer and industrial products incorporating technology. The significant role of technology in business (and vice versa) is not, of course, new. Although the history of technology and business history have different professional organizations and often focus on different theoretical and empirical phenomena, the large number of historians who work at the intersection of the two today reflects the importance of each to the other over a much longer time period.1 Yet historians of both types still too often give short shrift to the role of business enterprises as technology users as well as to the actual business use of technology. [End Page 422]

During the time I spent researching and writing my recent book, Structuring the Information Age: Life Insurance and Technology in the Twentieth Century, I became increasingly aware of two issues around technology users and technology use in business. First, although my business school colleagues are quite familiar and comfortable with the notion of "user firms," this terminology has received an odd reaction from some historians, who typically see technology users as individuals, not as firms. Second, in studying the transition from tabulator use to computer use in my chosen user industry, life insurance, I was, as I expected, learning a great deal about the development path of commercial computer technology and about the dynamics of the vendor industry. Yet even though I saw my book as addressing a gap in the history of computing, the Library of Congress originally catalogued it under the history of life insurance, omitting any mention of computing.2 Clearly, these cataloguers, like many historians, did not fully understand the notion of studying firms and an entire industry as users of a technology that they did not, in the traditional sense, invent or develop. Indeed, both business historians and historians of technology have traditionally focused on inventors and manufacturers of technology, not on its users.

Recently, scholars of technological innovation, in both business history and the history of technology, have ceased to focus solely on inventors and producers and have increasingly taken up the demand side of the story, studying the users of technology artifacts, including their role in innovation. These users, however, are typically seen as individuals. Relatively rarely have firms and other enterprises—with the exception of government or military organizations—been considered as users. In this essay, I argue that business historians as well as historians of technology would benefit from broadening the demand-side notion of technology users (or consumers as they are often cast, especially in business history) to include enterprises as well as individuals.

In addition, I suggest that the historical study of technological innovation in both subfields would benefit from extending its focus beyond users to studying technology use—or "technology-in-practice," as my MIT colleague Wanda Orlikowski has put it.3 Although scholars have recently focused increased attention on (individual) technology users, most have assumed that once the technology [End Page 423] stabilizes, examination of ongoing technology use is irrelevant; moreover, scholars who look at users or consumers typically focus their study on the period up to adoption or purchase rather than on the subsequent actual use of the acquired item. I will argue that studying technology use will help us better understand the early and ongoing influence of technology...