A study of emergent organizing and technological affordances after a natural disaster

Date14 August 2017
Publication Date14 August 2017
AuthorChih-Hui Lai
SubjectLibrary & information science,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Bibliometrics,Databases,Information & knowledge management,Information & communications technology,Internet,Records management & preservation,Document management
A study of emergent organizing
and technological affordances
after a natural disaster
Chih-Hui Lai
National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan
Purpose Drawing on the model of technology-in-practice and the literature on bona fide approaches and
technological affordances, the purpose of this paper is to argue that collectives involved in emergency
response may exhibit similar and different usage patterns for technology due to the combined influence of the
temporal development of the response actions and the existing and newly enacted organizational, social,
and technological structures.
Design/methodology/approach To enrich the argument about the inter-related influence on response
organizationsuse of technology across phases of the disaster response, this research uses a multi-method and
longitudinal case study of citizen-based response organizations after Hurricane Sandy.
Findings Findings show that technologies were used similarly by response organizations immediately
after the hurricane, whereas the later use of technologies exhibited variations. Moreover, Twitter was used
consistently for diverse purposes across the phases of the disaster response, whereas Facebook usage among
organizations first diverged and then converged two months after the hurricane. The organizationsdifferent
patterns of social media use also reflected the construction and reconstruction of resource networks for relief
operations over time.
Research limitations/implications This study integrates multiple theoretical frameworks in explaining
the processes and outcomes of technology use for collectives in emergency response, which presents an
example of bridging and enriching the theoretical constructs from the areas of technology adaptation and
emergency management.
Practical implications Findings of this study provide practical knowledge about the mechanisms of
integrating multiple information systems into the building of resilient social systems for emergency response.
Social implications Findings of this study enrich social understanding about how the use of technologies
for collective activity in emergency situations can go beyond one-time events and lay the foundation for
long-term resilient emergency management.
Originality/value The originality of this study lies in its mixed-method and longitudinal design, which
allows for the examination of the timing, circumstances, and outcomes of citizen-based response
organizationstechnology use.
Keywords Social media, Disaster response, Affordances, Self-organizing
Paper type Research paper
The usefulness of new media technologies such as social media and mobile applications for
the coordination and organization of collective action has been widely proposed and
documented (Bimber et al., 2012). Much of the scholarly attention has been devoted to the
use of technologies for engaging in collective action on a temporary basis, such as disaster
response (Landwehr and Carley, 2014; Starbird and Palen, 2011). However, an implicit
assumption of these studies is that individuals and organizational actors use the
technologies in a similar manner in response to an environmental event. The reasons why
technologies are used similarly (or differently) and, most importantly, at what points these
similarities or differences in usage patterns take shape, and what happens after the event,
Online Information Review
Vol. 41 No. 4, 2017
pp. 507-523
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/OIR-10-2015-0343
Received 31 October 2015
Revised 2 February 2016
Accepted 21 June 2016
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
This work was partially supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID Program,
CMMI-1324180, where the author was the co-principal investigator. The author was affiliated with
the University of Akron when receiving the grant support. The author also wishes to thank
Dr Lisa V. Chewning (Pennsylvania State University-Abington) for her generous input in developing
and refining the coding scheme for the interview and social media data.
are less explored. Answering these questions requires the exploration of gaps in the
literature about the adoption and adaptation of technology in organizations.
The topic of technology adoption and adaptation in organizations has received
consistent interest in the fields of information systems, management, and organizational
communication over the past several decades. Rather than prioritizing technologys
deterministic force or human usersstrategic choices and social action, a common approach
is to examine the mutual influence between users and technology systems (e.g. DeSanctis
and Poole, 1994; Majchrzak et al., 2000; Orlikowski, 1992; Rice and Gattiker, 2001). In other
words, users create a technological structure as they use the technology, and draw on their
existing social norms, rules, and resources in this structuring process.
It appears that these structuration processes attempt to integrate macro-structures into
the micro-practices of technology use. However, two important gaps exist. First, because the
majority of the research has been conducted in work organizational settings, the so-called
social context of technology use usually takes the form of structures, norms, roles, and rules
existing within organizational boundaries. It thus calls into question whether other forms of
organization and social context are being overlooked. For example, when a group of people
mobilizes and self-organizes on social media in response to an emergency, in most cases no
organizational structures, norms, and existing social practices are specified ex ante that
would influence their enactment of social media (Majchrzak et al., 2007). Moreover, as most
of these emergent groups are created on a temporary basis for an emergency, what happens
to their use of technology after the event?
Second, the focus of these models of technology use (e.g. adaptive structuration theory in
DeSanctis and Poole, 1994, and the revised model of structural adaptation in Majchrzak
et al., 2000) is to understand how users in an organization adopt and adapt a new technology
when performing tasks, and how the same technology may be used differently by different
units or organizations. For example, Zack and McKenneys (1995) study found that, even
with the same online messaging technology performing the same task, two newspaper
editorial groups displayed different uses of the technology. Nonetheless, there appears to be
a lack of consideration of whether and how users maintain or modify their use of other
existing technologies when adopting the particular new technologies that are of interest in
the study. Similarly, scant attention is paid to the possibility that multiple new technologies
are available for organizations to use. For example, organizations use an array of social
media technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as part of their operations,
albeit with different purposes and different target audiences (e.g. Briones et al., 2011).
This study draws on Orlikowskis (2000) technology-in-practice model to address these
issues, supplemented by the literature on bona fide approaches and technological
affordances. These theoretical perspectives are used to explicate the processes and
outcomes of adopting and adapting a set of technologies, including social media, by
citizen-based response organizations after an emergency event. Bona fide approaches
(Putnam and Stohl, 1990) emphasize organizationsinteraction and interdependence with
the environment, and the affordances literature (Markus and Silver, 2008) points to the
interplay among user characteristics and the capabilities of technology. Citizen-based
response organizations, including grassroots and voluntary organizations, often meet the
unmet needs left by traditional bureaucratic forms such as government agencies, and
represent important social structures in effective emergency response (Andrew et al., 2015;
Dynes, 2002; Neal and Phillips, 1995). Hence, a case study was conducted focusing on
citizen-based response organizationsuse of technology for relief operations following
Hurricane Sandy. Sandy devastated much of the US Northeast in October 2012.
This study contributes to the existing field of online information systems in the following
ways. First, this study explicates the process of why and when organizations involved in a
particular environmental event exhibit similar and different emergent patterns of use of

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