The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be: Anticipatory Organizing in the Digital Transformation of Water Infrastructure
This dissertation is organized around one central research question: How do organizations anticipate new technologies? I advance the thesis that technological anticipation shapes both structure and action in organizations long before the technologies themselves arrive on site. I provide support for this thesis through an ethnographic study of two organizations conducted over a three-year period before an expected technological change was to take place. In total I conducted over 830 hours of observations, more than 90 interviews, and nine surveys and collected more than 13,000 pages of documents. With my study of two water agencies that managed the production and distribution of drinking water, I show how field workers, office staff, and managers anticipated a new automated and digital metering system. I find that not only do people not need to interact with new technologies for the process of technologically induced organizational change to begin, but that the changes brought about, in part, by technological anticipation are themselves a significant phenomenon for the organizations that experience them. Specifically, I find that through the activities of information seeking, organizational action, and anticipatory control people in both organizations developed changing predictions of their organizations’ technological future. The predictions people held about their organizations’ future states shaped action in ways that influenced not only the formal structures of the organizations themselves, but also the material qualities of the anticipated technologies. Consequently, I find that technological anticipation shapes the conditions under which technologies are selected, implemented, and eventually used by the adopting organizations. These findings help us to reconsider the process of technologically induced organizational change. Importantly, I argue that predictions of probable futures actively shape work and organizing in the present. I also suggest that anticipatory organizing is likely to shape phenomena that occur much later. I present a model of anticipatory systems and urge scholars to consider the social and material implications of how actors imagine and predict technological futures in organizations.