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What do Claudio Ciborra and Sandro Botticelli have in common?

What do Claudio Ciborra and Sandro Botticelli have in common?

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Published by Rik Maes
A personal tribute to Claudio Ciborra, published in European Journal of Information Systems, no. 14, 2005.
A personal tribute to Claudio Ciborra, published in European Journal of Information Systems, no. 14, 2005.

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categoriesTypes, Research
Published by: Rik Maes on Feb 19, 2011
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 What do Claudio Ciborra and Sandro Botticellihave in common? On the renaissance of laPrimavera
Rik Maes
and Ard Huizing
Department of Business Studies, University of Amsterdam Business School, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Correspondence:Rik Maes,Department of Business Studies, Universityof Amsterdam Business School, Roetersstraat11, 1018 WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands.Tel:
31 20 5254265; Fax:
31 20 5254177;E-mail: maestro@uva.nl
European Journal of Information Systems 
480–483.doi:10.1057/palgrave. ejis.3000555
Received: 2 August 2005Revised: 19 September 2005Accepted: 28 September 2005
We like to remember Claudio Ciborra (1951–2005) as a postmodern nomadtirelessly meandering through the academic world, at all times leaving apermanent mark wherever he stayed. Amsterdam was no exception to thisrule. Over the more than 15 years that we knew him, he was a visitingprofessor at the Department of Information Management, Faculty of Economics and Econometrics of the University of Amsterdam (nowadaysUniversity of Amsterdam Business School), a productive member of ourPrimaVera research programme regularly contributing working papers andgiving seminars, and an inspiring teacher in our postgraduate ExecutiveMasters in Information Management programme. As important as hisscientific contributions, we cherish the warm informal meetings we had ascolleagues and friends, consistently avoiding Italian restaurants: ‘Do youcall this Italian food
’.The PrimaVera research programme (http://primavera.fee.uva.nl) is atthe heart of our endeavour in information management. Its outset andadvance were incessantly challenged by Claudio: for us, Claudio Ciborrastood for Continuous Challenge (
and in his most masterly moments also for Constant Complainer 
). In what follows, we briefly describe PrimaVerasmajor developments over the last decade related to Claudio’s inspirationand its vital interaction with our educational programmes, in particularthe Executive Masters in Information Management programme. From itsvery conception on PrimaVera found (and lost) in Claudio above all aCritical Companion.
PrimaVera’s conception
Little short of a decade ago, PrimaVera (a rather stretched acronym forProgramme in Information Management at the University of Amsterdam)
European Journal of Information Systems (2005) 14,
2005 Operational Research Society Ltd. All rights reserved 0960-085X/05 $30.00
emerged from previous research on the business–ITrelationship. Contrary to the predominant view of ‘strategic alignment’ (Henderson & Venkatraman, 1993)and inspired by Claudio’s relentless critique on the latterconcept (as pre´cised in Ciborra, 1997a), our perspectivestarted from a double observation: (1) any contribution of IT to the ‘busy-ness’ of an organization is indirect, viz.through the information generated and/or the commu-nication supported; and (2) the infrastructure is thelinking pin par excellence between Henderson andVenkatraman’s external (strategy) and internal (opera-tions) domains. Both missing and, as a consequence,hardly understood constituents were considered vital to aclear and all-inclusive comprehension of the business–ITrelationship (Abcouwer
et al
., 1997; Maes, 1998).More decisively, our growing insights departed fromthe very essence of ‘strategic business–IT alignment’:alignment was not only found unproductive and evenimpossible, but equally detrimental to any innovativeenterprise. The strategic alignment
, pretendingpurposiveness and therefore directiveness, was replacedby an extended
, nothing more (or less) than amap for positioning business–IT issues of topical interest(as was recapitulated in Maes (2003b and 2005a)). It tookseveral discussions
– and even more dinners – 
to (partly?)persuade doubting Claudio of the non-mechanisticnature of our approach; after all, he was unconvinced,if not sceptical, about the value of formal models in IS(Ciborra, 1998).
Our recurrent and well-appreciated remarkthat ‘all models are less than reality, except photo models whoare more than reality’ did a great job in this respect 
.In hindsight, PrimaVera started as an attempt to mingleCiborra’s deconstruction of managers’ and consultants’too obvious assumptions such as strategic business–ITalignment, stringent management command and con-trol, the supremacy of planned action, etc. with thefundamental day-to-day prerequisites of practitioners:reconstructing the world Claudio Ciborra was persis-tently and vigorously questioning.
Infrastructural and architectural thinking:dis-engineering information systems
Even before PrimaVera’s conception, the notion of ‘information infrastructure’ was key in our researchefforts. The previously stringently technical connotationof this concept was, from the very beginning, expandedon in order to encompass organizational and informa-tional issues (Truijens
et al
., 1990). This vision was furtherbroadened through interaction with Claudio (Ciborra,1997b) and successfully introduced as one of the keyconcepts in our flagship curriculum, the ExecutiveMasters in Information Management programme. Lateron, the inherently unexpected outcomes and side effectsof infrastructure development as exposed in FromControl to Drift (Ciborra & Associates, 2000) broughteven more bewilderment to the participants of thisprogramme, despite the fact that Actor Network Theorywas discovered as a prolific tool for the dynamicinterpretation of information infrastructures (Beyer &Maes, 2005).A related, yet distinct concept appeared to be similarlycentral to PrimaVera: (corporate) information architec-ture, a theme not dealt with by Claudio (the onlyexception, to our knowledge, being some minor remarksin chapter 7 of Ciborra (2002)). In our continuingattempt to reconcile organizational stubbornness, asplainly unravelled and nourished by Claudio, withorganizational effectiveness, information architecture isinvestigated as the outstanding concept to give guidanceto organizational change (Winterink & Truijens, 2003).At the same time, and influenced by Claudio’s decon-struction of various related concepts, we unveil informa-tion architectures in use as technology-dominatedstructures implicating additional complexity (instead of reducing complexity), instruments of organizationalpower (as they establish regimes of truth) and disembo-died virtuality (as information systems are in reality neverbuilt under architecture); information architectures ap-pear to be politically significant, yet communicativelyimpeding. We reconstruct the concept as the space to befilled between structure and communication on the onehand and between meaning and action on the other; tothis end, we liberally go back to the postmodernphilosophy of (building) architecture (Maes & Bryant,2005).
This reminds us of Claudio’s comments on the hotel Botticelli we once booked for him in Maastricht, being aremake of an Italian palazzo: ‘Gentlemen, your hotel is very  postmodern, but not authentic’. After which he was refused access to the hotel
From information and communication tomeaning and identity
Claudio’s organic view on the business–IT relationshipled to envisioning this relationship in hitherto unfamiliarterms such as bricolage, tinkering, cultivation, moods,hospitality, etc. (as summed up in Ciborra, 2004). Apeculiar aspect of his vision was that he never elaboratedon the nature of ‘information’ as such; the subtitle of ‘The Labyrinths of Information’ is for good reason‘Challenging the Wisdom of Systems’ (Ciborra, 2002).Conversely, a basic premise of PrimaVera is that thebusiness–IT relationship can only be understood throughthe explicit formulation and investigation of the (tech-nology independent) information and communicationfactor. This focus enabled us, for example, to differentiatethe genuine CIO, first and foremost being a businessinformation manager, from the traditional CIO, too oftenbeing a CTO in disguise (Maes, 2005a).On the other hand, our continued investigation of information and communication led us back to Claudio’svisionary interpretations of what is germane in thebusiness–IT relationship. This journey brought us firstto the exploration of the subjectivistic, interpretativeview on information and communication related tophenomena such as sense making, interpretation differ-
What do C. Ciborra and S. Botticelli have in common?
Rik Maes and Ard Huizing
European Journal of Information Systems
ences among people as a critical source of innovation andlearning, the creation of meaning, social networks andtrue belonging (Dirksen
et al
., 2005), etc., all denying theengineerability of organizational reality and the conclu-siveness of management control. Ongoing research,previewed in Maes (2005b), builds on these insights byrelating information and communication to the (con-struction of) identity of an organization. This PrimaVeraresearch subarea, dealing with the social construction of information and, for example, emphasizing in practicethe proper organizational use of information above theIT-generated production of more information, is com-plementary to the social construction of IT in general(Ciborra, 2004) and to identity building vis-a`-vis IT inparticular (Ciborra, 2002: 112 and 128).
Looking through Armani glasses: reflectivelearning-by-sharing
Ask random participants of our Executive Masters inInformation Management programme about Claudio,and they will spontaneously bring up ‘Armani glasses’:the metaphor Claudio used to draw on to introducehis data/decision making/transaction/learning views oninformation systems (Ciborra, 1993, pp. 111–114).However, they will also recall Claudio’s unorthodoxteaching style, his now and then caustic humour andabove all his vision on learning, inspired by Argyris andScho¨n.From its very beginning, the EMIM programme wasaiming at ‘reflective practitioners’: professionals who‘think in actionand ‘learn by doing’ (Scho¨n, 1979);through shared reflection on past experiences, they cantake responsibility for their acts and their lives. Open-mindedness and vulnerability are key to this type of intensive learning; the EMIM programme attempts toprovide a low-risk environment for intensive dialogue,where artistry, improvisation and problem-framing,terms all dear to Claudio, lead to learning as personaltransformation.Unlike traditional business schools, where executiveteaching is commonly considered as an inconvenientdiversion from serious research, we advocate the mutualinteraction of both learning practices (Maes, 2003a). Tothis end, we developed the learning-by-sharing approach,where teachers, researchers, students and practitionersalike engage in a common learning effort, graduallyexchange their fading distinct roles and build a reflectivelearning community (Thijssen
et al
., 2002 ; Huizing
et al
.,2005). We believe from conviction that the insight of reflectiveness being an integral part of an integral life is acornerstone of Claudio’s heritage.
Leaving our own comfort zone
Relevant research in information systems and informa-tion management should relate to the fundamentalproblems organizations are facing and deviate frombeaten tracks. Claudio’s research was disruptive, ques-tioning accepted beliefs and anything that goes withoutsaying. We believe that researchers in our field should beready to leave their own sterile comfort zone, as we try toprove with PrimaVera. It is our intention to do so byinvestigating information management at the interorga-nizational and societal level and by reinforcing ourmultidisciplinary approach.With information and IT more and more shaping therelationships between organizations and the actualidentity of a dematerializing society, time has arisen tostudy information systems and information managementat the appropriate interorganizational and societal leveland to consider, for example, information managementat the level of a single organization as just one instance of a much broader reality (Maes, 2005a). This was also theapproach taken by Claudio in one of his last papers,dealing with the interaction of IT and good governancein a developing country (Ciborra & Navarra, 2005).The fundamental problems we are confronted with canonly be tackled through multidisciplinary research acrossthe borders of traditional academic disciplines, because itis on these borders that genuine innovations occur.Claudio balanced on borders and sought inspiration inart, philosophy, religion, music, etc., thereby deliberatelytaking risks and provoking surprise if not astonishment;his last PrimaVera seminar, in the beginning of 2004 on‘The Mind or the Heart? It Depends on the (Definition of)Situation’, treated one of Saint Pauls letters to theRomans as case study. Similarly, our treatise of informa-tion architecture by heavily relying on the philosophy of architecture (Maes & Bryant, 2005; Truijens, 2005) andour intention to organize a workshop in the ExecutiveMasters in Information Management programme, whereparticipants are asked to develop a corporate informationarchitecture with real architects as coach and supervisor,are examples of how we try to cross academic andother borders in search of innovative and generativethinking.
With Claudio Ciborra as our Critical Companion,PrimaVera and its twin Executive Master in InformationManagement programme survived as nomadic adven-tures without predefined final destination
and evenwithout restful accommodation along the road, as themanager of our university hotel so often reminded us: ‘For God’s sake, can you tell Mr. Ciborra we’ll call him daily at 6 PM to list his complaints, but please ask him to stop calling the reception desk at every hour of the day and the night’.
Sleep well, Claudio!
What do C. Ciborra and S. Botticelli have in common?
Rik Maes and Ard Huizing
European Journal of Information Systems

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