Educational Technology & Society 6 (1) 2003
ISSN 1436-4522

ICT and Training: A Proposal for an Ecological Model of Innovation

Arthur Tatnall
School of Information Systems
Melbourne, Australia

Bill Davey
School of Information Technology
Melbourne, Australia



The process of innovation involves getting new ideas accepted and new technologies adopted and used. This paper considers the introduction of ICT in company training as an example of innovation. The question that must be addressed is: what factors inside and outside the company will support, and what factors will stand in the way of the adoption of these new methods? We argue that the acceptance of an innovation is affected as much by the complexity of the interactions between the people and the technology within an organization as by any supposedly objective characteristics of the innovation itself. In order to accommodate these complexities, and to provide a useful socio-technical perspective, an ecological model dealing with the interactions of human and non-human actors within a company ‘environment’ has been found to provide an effective viewpoint. This paper proposes and briefly elaborates such an ecological model.

Keywords: Company training, Ecological model, ICT, Innovation

Approaches to Innovation Theory

It is often stated that the application of information and communication technologies (ICT) to learning and training has great potential to produce significant changes in educational practice (Ben-Jacob, Levin and Ben-Jacob 2000; Naidu, Cunnington and Jasen 2002), but for this to occur the technology first needs to be accepted and adopted. We will argue that applying innovation theory will increase the chances of successful adoption. Conventional approaches to innovation, such as innovation diffusion (Rogers 1995), suggest that supposedly innate characteristics of the innovation are important in determining whether or not it is adopted. Borrowing ideas from innovation translation, in actor-network theory (Latour 1996), we will argue that it is people who are all important, as they may either accept an innovation in its present form, modify it to a form where it becomes acceptable, or reject it completely. As Fullan and Stiegelbauer(1991) note: “If we know one thing about innovation and reform, it is that it cannot be done successfully to others.” Recent research has shown that an innovation translation approach is particularly useful in considering ICT innovation in small business (Tatnall 2002) and education (Busch 1997; Bigum 1998; Tatnall and Davey 2001).

We go beyond innovation translation, however, to propose an ecological framework in which to consider the process of innovation and change in organizations. This socio-technical approach has shown the ability to identify factors at work that do not emerge from traditional approaches to innovation  theory(Tatnall and Davey 2002).


The Need to Accommodate Complexity

In a paper exploring experiences of university teachers working in situations of technology-enhanced learning Naidu, Cunnington and Jasen(2002) show the complexity of the processes people go through in adopting technology. Comments like: ‘the primary issues are design skills and seeing the bigger picture’, ‘we never really considered it until the teaching and learning project grants came along’, ‘it was partly driven by available staff’ and ‘finding people was the biggest problem’ (Naidu et al. 2002 :27) show the reasons people adopt and use new technologies in teaching have at least as much to do with human interactions as with the technology itself.

We argue that if you want to understand how ICT is adopted for training purposes then you need to examine all the human and non-human (technological) interactions involved that contribute to the final product. In this case approaches are needed that allow the complexity to be traced, and not diminished by categorisations(Law 1999) or assumptions about intrinsic attributes of humans and non-humans. A common method of handling complexity in all areas of study lies in simplification, but in this case the danger with simplification is that it runs the risk of concealing the parts played by many actors and so makes the process seem simpler than it really is.


Ecology, Innovation and Change

We contend that most models of innovation and change in organizations are too simplistic to allow a useful view of ICT in training, and its development, as a complex system involving a multitude of both human and non-human interactions (Tatnall and Gilding 1999). Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems(2002) use the concept of a ‘social system’ when defining requirements for a distance learning environment. Where we find this relevant to our work is as an example of how a similar area of enquiry can be used to offer language and concepts pertaining to the new area.

A model that we have found useful in describing complex situations, such as the adoption of ICT in training and education, is an ecological model. In ecology, organisms are seen to operate within a competitive environment which ensures that only the most efficient of them will survive. In order to survive, they behave in ways that optimise the balance between their energy expenditure and the satisfaction they obtain from this effort. These two key principles underlie the discipline of ecology, which is concerned with the relationship of one organism to another and to their common physical environment (Case 2000; Townsend, Harper and Begon 2000). In particular, ecology is concerned with the way that organisms respond to the various forces that operate within the environment.

An ecological model (Truran 1997) offers two main advantages:

  • A way of allowing for the inclusion of complexity.
  • A new language and set of analytical and descriptive tools from the ecological sciences.

An ecosystem contains a high degree of complexity due to the large number of creatures and species living in it, and to the variety of interactions possible between each of these (Tatnall and Davey 2002). The ‘ecosystem’ represented by new ICT-based training in a company contains (at least) the following ‘species’: ICT trainers, ICT developers, company staff (students), managers and company administrators. The ‘environment’ also contains many inanimate objects relevant to the formation of the training, including: computers, software applications, programming languages, textbooks, training rooms, analysis and design methodologies, networks, laboratories, programming manuals, and so on. It has been shown that it is the interaction between the ‘species’ and the ‘environment’ that determines adoption of the innovation rather than just the nature and supposed potential of the innovation itself (Tatnall and Davey 2002).


The Ecological Model of ICT Innovation in Companies

To ignore complexity in the adoption of ICT training will not make it go away, it will just give you less control over this process. An ecological model can be used to identify the socio-technical factors that lead to this complexity and encourage us to look at the technology as a new entity attempting to grow and thrive in the environment of the organization. Rather than looking just at the attributes of the new technology we must look for ways in which the technology will interact with the environment to either grow or wither. Successful organisms will grow if they can succeed in some way such as:


  • Energy Expenditure and Satisfaction Obtained

The introduction of any new technology requires expenditure of energy in costs, time, and training. The ecological model suggests that if people find use of this technology requires the expenditure of too much energy, they will not use it. To determine what is ‘too much’ we should look at the satisfaction they obtain from this expenditure.

When examining the potential for a new ICT training method we should measure the effort required in its implementation, and the satisfaction likely to accrue from its use.


  • Competition

When a new ICT method appears on the training front examination of its benefits might show that it will be good for an organization. How then are so many useful technologies not implemented? One explanation is that the employees might feel that they are employed because of their current expertise, and see the new ICT method as competing with them personally. Competition may also be perceived in the form of scarce resources being used up by a competitive technology. For instance a new ICT may require a server that is incompatible with an existing server.

When examining a new ICT training method it can be useful to examine the environment to discover any competing organisms, and to see whether the new technology will be able to compete successfully.


  • Co-operation

A new technology can thrive by being co-operative and may be very similar to one that is in the skill set of important staff. The technology can also co-operate with the physical environment. A simple example is that of software and the operating systems they work in, for instance when a browser is designed to co-operate only with a specific operating system.

When examining the potential place of a new ICT training method we can examine the environment to discover people, technologies and other elements that will co-operate with the new method.


  • Filling a niche

A new ICT may survive by having some aspect that fills a niche. It may be that a particular client group is not receiving training due to distance problems, equipment being peculiar, or content not being available. An ICT that fills a need here will become established in the niche and then can survive through co-operation as a skill set develops in the technology.

When examining the potential place of a new ICT training method we can look to see if a boundary exists around the situation intended for the method that will create a niche.



This model gives us the opportunity to improve the chances of successfully innovation. We do this by looking at the ways in which the new ICT-based method can improve the balance between energy expenditure and satisfaction obtained, or succeed in this environment by co-operation, successful competition or filling a niche.

The advantages of an ecological model for the implementation of ICT in companies include the presumption of complexity and interaction. We are not suggesting that the training process is a biological system, but just that concepts taken from this field can be seen to be applicable to the use of ICT in training. This model then gives a framework in which researchers can attempt to develop and test models of the adoption of new methods of training that include the obvious complexity of the real processes. Use of an ecological model can provide useful insights into whether or not an ICT training innovation is likely to be adopted.



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