Mobile information systems and organizational control: beyond the panopticon metaphor?

Reference: Leclercq – Vandelannoitte, A., Isaac, H., Kalika, M. (2014). Mobile information systems and organizational control: beyond the panopticon metaphor? In European Journal of Information Systems, 23(5), 543-557


The focus in this article is on organizational context and individuals as employees in the work place as well as outside the workplace. As mobile technology is innovating day after day, their uniqueness of being ubiquitous, meaning being present anywhere, anytime and easy to carry around, have made it easier to shift work to other places, anywhere and anytime whether at home, in the car, at the park. Connectivity, ease of carrying, exchanging information on the spot, getting in touch with people, all are many reasons why people work away from the office sometimes even after their usual working hours. However, for control reasons, this particular aspect makes it more challenging for higher level management to keep track on what is happening when people work outside the work premises because they somehow have to “follow” their employees outside of the workplace. A metaphor is used to portray the use of control in ancient times, the panoptic metaphor which illustrates the idea of a prison. The panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe all inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behavior constantly. The main question asked in this article is: “can control systems in the mobile age be reduced to the Foucauldian panopticon or does the advent of mobile information systems herald the need for another model of social and political organization? Does the enactment of mobile information system in the work place support an extension of panoptic IT-based control systems, as might be enabled in enterprise systems, or does it include other logics of control?”

This paper investigates whether the way mobile information systems are engaged in the workplace reinforce panoptic control systems or generate other types of control logics. “This qualitative exploratory case study reveals the emergence of a subtle, invisible form of “free control” through mobile information systems: a shift in location of authority, a time-related discipline, a deep sense of trust, and adherence to organizational norms that the professionals themselves co-construct”. “Through the concept of free control, the study makes visible the invisible control logics that operate through mobile information systems and illustrates the dissolution of the boundaries between professional and private lives intentionally reinforced by the users”. A sense of trust between managers and employers was developed and people are now more productive than before when given the freedom to work from the comforts of their own homes. They take responsibilities of their actions and do the tasks as asked and answer when needed with the help of the all-time connectivity. So the adoption of the free control inside the organizations has shifted authority and observability and has created a sense of trust and co-operation between employers and employees and were able to dissolute the boundaries between higher level management and employees. However, one thing to keep in mind is the limitations this study offers since it was only done on a small company with a low level of formality, unlike most other companies who are bigger in employee size and have a more top down management style, rather than a flat line management style just like in the case of the company studied in this article which was referred to as “Bankco” to protect its confidentiality.