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ON APPROACHES TO BUILDING THEORIES: PROCESS, VARIANCE AND SYSTEMS

Andrew Burton-Jones Management Information Systems Division Sauder School of Business University of British Columbia andrew.burton-jones@sauder.ubc.ca Ephraim R. McLean Department of Computer Information Systems J. Mack Robinson School of Business Georgia State University emclean@gsu.edu Emmanuel Monod Management Information Systems Paris Dauphine University emmanuel.monod@dauphine.fr

Working paper, Sauder School of Business, UBC

February, 2011

Acknowledgments
We thank Omar El Sawy, Allen Lee, Stefan Lukits, Aazadeh Madani, and Frantz Rowe for their comments on earlier versions of this paper, as well as participants in a research seminar at UBC. Support was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to the first author.

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ON APPROACHES TO BUILDING THEORIES: PROCESS, VARIANCE AND SYSTEMS

ABSTRACT
There has been growing interest in theory building in information systems. We extend this literature by examining theory building approaches. We define an approach as a researcher’s choice of the types of concepts and relationships used to construct the theory, and we examine three approaches: process, variance, and systems. Although each one has been used in past literature, discussions of them show some confusion. For instance, some researchers suggest that there are only two approaches (process and variance). Others imply that one’s epistemological orientation (such as positivist or interpretive) or goal (such as understanding or prediction) determines one’s approach. Finally, others suggest that theories should be developed using one approach only (such as a pure variance or pure process approach). In contrast to these views, we explain why there is no one-to-one correspondence between one’s approach and one’s methodology, epistemology, or theoretical goal, and we explain why researchers can often benefit from combining approaches. We also suggest different ways of combining approaches and illustrate how they can be used to improve research on information systems success. Overall, our paper contributes by (1) clarifying the approaches that researchers can use to build theory, (2) freeing researchers from strictures that they may perceive when building theories, and (3) illustrating the feasibility of our suggestions for an important research domain.

Keywords: theory, epistemology, process, variance, system, explanation, understanding, prediction, IS success.

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ON APPROACHES TO BUILDING THEORIES: PROCESS, VARIANCE AND SYSTEMS

INTRODUCTION
According to Glaser and Strauss (1967), the highest rewards in science go to those who generate an important theory. Many researchers also consider a paper’s theoretical contribution to be the main measure of its quality (Straub et al. 1994; Daft 1995; Sutton and Staw 1995). It is widely agreed, however, that the information systems (IS) discipline is at an early stage of theory building (Webster and Watson 2002). This is partly a product of our history. In the early years, we were encouraged to adopt theories from other disciplines rather than develop our own (Keen 1980). During the 1990’s, our field placed great emphasis on research methods (Lee 1989; Straub 1989; Klein and Myers 1999; Boudreau et al. 2001), but the tradition of borrowing theories from other fields remained. Only recently has concerted attention been placed on adapting and extending theory (rather than simply borrowing theory) from other fields (Truex et al. 2006) and on building our own theories (Markus and Saunders 2007; Grover et al. 2008).1 To help support theory building efforts, researchers have recently proposed ways to evaluate theory (Weber 2003), described the goals that different theories may have (such as analyzing, explaining, predicting, and prescribing) (Gregor 2006), and outlined the elements required of theories of system design (Gregor and Jones 2007). Our aim is to complement these works by describing the basic building blocks of theory and the approaches that researchers can use when assembling these building blocks to form a theory. We focus on two building blocks – concepts and relationships among concepts – and we focus on three general approaches for
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In addition to history, there are likely other reasons for the lack of theory in our field, such as the difficulty of theory building or the lack of training on it in doctoral programs.

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assembling these building blocks to form a theory – process, variance, and systems. Although these approaches have been described in prior research, discussions of each one show a degree of confusion. As a result, researchers may be unaware of the many ways they can go about building theory. In this essay, we (1) clarify the approaches that researchers can use to build theory, (2) explain how these approaches can be used, either alone or in combination, freeing researchers from strictures they may have perceived based on past research, and (3) demonstrate how these ideas can be used to improve theory in an important research domain (information systems success). Overall, our paper is not about building specific theories, but rather about choosing how to build theory. Our message is ultimately pragmatic. Because our discipline studies very complex phenomena, the principle of requisite variety (Ashby 1958) reminds us that we need an equally rich variety of approaches to build theories to account for these phenomena. The intended contribution of our paper lies in helping researchers (and reviewers of research) to understand the range of approaches available and use these approaches astutely.

THEORETICAL APPROACHES IN IS RESEARCH
“Theory” is notoriously difficult to define (Freese 1980; Sutton and Staw 1995; Lee 2004). We use the following working definition, which is consistent with previous definitions (Weber 2003 p. iv; Gregor 2006 p. 616): a theory is an account of some empirical phenomenon. Although researchers can construct a theoretical account for different reasons (such as to help them explain, predict, or understand some phenomenon) and from different epistemological persuasions (Orlikowski and Baroudi 1991), all theoretical accounts will consist of at least two elements: “concepts” and “relationships among concepts.” In Table 1, we provide statements from a wide variety of sources that support this view. We recognize that they are not the only elements of theory. For example, to some, complete theories must contain boundaries (Dubin, 4

but we believe these three can account for most theories that IS researchers construct.” “usefulness. and the relationships…among these concepts. Consider the technology acceptance model (TAM) (Davis 1989). the explicit formulation of determinate relations between a set of variables. 5 .” Reference Maxwell 1992 p. Table 2 summarizes each one.” “Theorizing is how we think about the relationships among the elements in the world that occupy our research attention. Weber. the focus of our paper is on concepts and relationships among concepts. Giddens.” and “intentions to use an IT” and relationships such as there being a positive effect of ease-of-use on usefulness. TAM consists of concepts such as “ease-of-use. 1999). more detailed definitions are offered later. and voice (Pentland. It is possible that other approaches could exist (such as “chaos theory” approaches). 1147 Jaccard and Jacoby 2010 p. and a positive effect of ease of use and usefulness on intentions. seemingly deterministic relations) that some would characterize as a “variance” approach.” “A theory is a set of statements about the relationship(s) between two or more concepts or constructs. modalities (Kant. Theories must also be expressed in some means of representation (Gregor 2006 p. then.” “There are.” TAM consists of certain types of concepts (properties of things) and certain types of relationships (one-way. and theories. theoretical laws. This paper reviews three approaches that researchers can use: variance.” “… ‘theory’ means in all empirical sciences. 28 We define an approach to building theory as a researcher’s choice of the types of concepts and types of relationships that they use to construct their theory. At the level of an “approach. 1781.1978. Table 1: Elements of Theory: Concepts and Relationships Supporting Statements “Any theory has two components: the concepts or categories that the theory employs. 1984). theoretical terms. 620).…” “Theory is about the connections among phenomena. process. However. moral context. 2003). 2007 p. because variations in the properties is what drives the relationships posed. and systems. 297 Van Maanen et al. each may be analyzed by reference to the other two. 378 Kaplan 1964/1998 p. 51-52 Sutton and Staw 1995 p. 291 Schutz 1973 p.

Sometimes one’s approach is so present in one’s mind that it could be called a “worldview. Moreover. and (6) forms of theoretical expression..g.” We use “approach” rather than “worldview. or reciprocal systemic processes). We merely add one’s theoretical approach as an additional element to indicate the types of concepts and relationships that one uses when one perceives and theorizes.Table 2: Three Theoretical Approaches as Espoused in IS Research Approach Variance Process System Types of Concepts Properties of entities that have varying values Types of Relationships Variation among the values of properties Relevant References Blalock 1969. Dubin 1978. Bacharach 1996 Mohr 1982.” because “worldview” is used in phenomenology (Heidegger 1953) with various meanings that may be misleading in our context. and predictions). We recognize that for socio-historical and 6 . sequences of events. Rather. Abell 1987. and (3) a priori concepts and categories used to construct theory (such as constructs and notions of causality). (2) perception of these phenomena (such as perceptions of users’ beliefs about IT). epistemology has focused on (4) the influence of historical and socio-economical context on researchers (Foucault 1972. as variation among properties. (5) researchers’ goals (such as understanding. Since Kant. Mohr 1982. and emergent properties Interactions and parts and reciprocal relationships To further clarify the focus of our article. Abbott 1988. Kuhn 1996). Forrester 1968. research implies at least: (1) human and social phenomena (such as users and IT systems). Monge 1990 Churchman 1968. parts. the word “approach” implies a sense of pragmatism that we believe is important. explanation. Figure 1 depicts a representation of research inspired from classical epistemology.g.. One’s theoretical approach does not determine what one chooses to perceive or theorize about (e. it influences how one perceives and theorizes about such phenomena (e. natural attitudes. According to Kant (1781). or political pressures). Checkland 1999 Entities that participate in Sequences among events or are affected by events (typically probabilistic) Wholes. rational choices.

However. the few sources that exist are only helpful up to a point. they will inevitably face the choice of what approach to use and how to use it. as we will show. researchers should always be willing to choose whatever approach. they deem most useful. After all. However. or combination of approaches. An explicit description of these approaches and how to use them could help these researchers. as IS researchers are called more to build theory. any effort to create or extend theory will involve some approach. and forms of expression (Kuhn. This might not have been so problematic in the past.cultural reasons. Figure 1: Distinguishing an “Approach” from other Aspects of Theory Building The focus of our article—approaches to building theory—is not something new. approaches. researchers in a particular community may have common theoretical goals. 7 . Moreover. 1996). there are few explicit sources describing these approaches. because IS researchers typically borrowed theory. Nonetheless.

Markman and Gentner 2001). Like Mohr. identifying the generic types of concepts and relationships that humans use to theorize about the world is an extremely old. Chiles (2003 p. go a step further than Mohr. and system approaches in light of past and current research. 288) writes that the process and variance approach are the “two fundamental types of theory in social science research. In fact. psychology (Bruner 1986. 4-5): he simply believed that different approaches were suited to different types of research and he wanted to promote awareness of the process approach. For example. Nor did he base his distinctions in classical epistemology. and hotly contested topic.Some History and Claims about Theoretical Approaches in IS Despite the long history of the systems approach in IS research (Churchman 1968). The importance of the distinction is also emphasized in premier journals. We will. Coined by Mohr (1982). and review core elements of the process. a review of IS journals may lead one to believe that there are only two theoretical approaches in IS: process and variance. and ontology (Bunge 1977. Medin et al. sociology (Dumont and Wilson 1967. however. Researchers should be aware that Mohr (1982) was not drawing on these fields when he coined the process/variance distinction. Many IS doctoral students are introduced to the distinction via Markus and Robey’s (1988) seminal article. variance. xix) editorial explains to authors that “conceptual models are generally derived from variance (factor) or process theories….”2 If an approach is defined by the type of concepts and relationships that researchers use when they theorize about some phenomena. Our underlying 2 Likewise. 2000. Webster’s and Watson’s (2002 p. Mohr’s emphasis was pragmatic (pp. then clearly it is something quite fundamental. we will not attempt to identify the elemental concepts that drive human thought. spanning the disciplines of linguistics (Lackoff 1987). the process/variance distinction has enjoyed a wide uptake in organization science (Pentland 1999. 2000) and IS research (Shaw and Jarvenpaa 1997). Poole et al.” 8 . in organization science. Drysdale 1996). Rescher 1996).

but it is useful to describe how they are espoused first. We are not aware of any paper that has described all three approaches in this paper.objective is to clarify what we perceive to be some confusion regarding these approaches in extant literature. laws in process theory provide understanding Example Webster and Watson 2002 p. we are concerned that many researchers seem to assume that Mohr’s distinctions are grounded in an accepted and agreed-upon philosophical basis. For example. one can discuss how it is espoused or how it is used. sometimes for good reason. multiple researchers have described each one. Rather. 388. As we explain later. we will explain why researchers need not always use these approaches in the way that they are espoused. 135 THREE ESPOUSED APPROACHES: VARIANCE. process theories are not Variance theories are positivist. Table 3: Strong Claims about the Process/Variance Distinction in IS Research Strong Claim IS theories are generally one of two forms: process or variance Variance theories are causal. 9 . as Table 2 indicated. This section describes how each approach is espoused in the literature. we attempt in this section to summarize the main points agreed to by most researchers who espouse that approach. different researchers tend to describe different approaches. PROCESS. process theories are interpretive Variance theories and process theories should not be combined Laws in variance theory provide prediction. In later sections. Moreover. Moreover. & SYSTEMS When one describes a theoretical approach. 15 Walsham 1995 p. xix DeLone and McLean 2003 p. Table 3 includes statements by senior scholars that give great weight to Mohr’s distinctions. Wheeler 2002 p. Rather than describe each approach as espoused by one researcher only. we believe there is value in taking a broader perspective on these issues. 140 Markus and Robey 1988. Seddon 1997 Wheeler 2002 p. We take some pains to do so completely because all three approaches are quite rich and no single source does justice to any one of them.

2000). in a recent survey of IT impact research. Different versions of this approach have been described in social science (Blalock 1969. Rows 1 and 3 were noted earlier in Table 2 and concern the types of concepts and relationships in a theory. sufficient. Change in concepts over time 3.Table 4 summarizes the key characteristics of each approach. formal. and their properties can change over time. In terms of theoretical concepts. Table 4: Espoused Differences among the Process. Interactions among parts and reciprocal relationships Time ordering of events and properties are important Causal logic based on material. final. Type of concepts (also in Table 2) 2. Dubin 1978. about 80% of articles in leading IS journals were found to have used a variance approach (Pare et al. Time ordering in the relationships among concepts 5. Variance. 10 . 2008). and efficient causality The Variance Approach Mohr coined the term “variance” to describe the way that researchers view the world when they see it comprised of independent and dependent variables. final. efficient. and reciprocal causality Time ordering among Time ordering of events independent variables is important (properties) is immaterial Causal logic based on necessary. Bacharach 1996) and it is a very popular approach because of the widespread statistical machinery available to test theories created with this approach. their parts. ‘Causal’ logic in the relationships among concepts Variance Approach Properties of entities that have varying values Properties do not change over time (only their values change) Variation among values of properties Process Approach Entities that participate in or are affected by events Entities change over time Sequences among events (typically probabilistic) Systems Approach Wholes (comprising parts) that have emergent properties Wholes. In the next subsections. and System Approaches Dimension 1. For example. Types of relationships (also in Table 2) 4. we describe each approach and clarify the differences highlighted in Table 4. The remaining rows consider two issues associated with concepts and relationships—time and causality—that prior works have found helpful in differentiating approaches (Poole et al. and efficient causality Causal logic based on necessary. the variance approach focuses on properties of entities.

.g. (2000 p.e. Poole et al. For example. a change in the antecedents is necessary). from high to low) and different systems could have different values at any point in time. 2000 pp. availability of resources. because each one is assumed to have an independent and continuous effect on Y.. the variance approach focuses on variation among the values of properties. In addition. thus leading to an accumulating body of knowledge about a phenomenon over time.. allowing researchers to assume continuity of effect (Mohr 1982. it is assumed that changes in system 11 . It is assumed that these properties can have different values even though the property itself has a fixed meaning. 38). As espoused in the literature. the variance approach is said to assume necessary. Finally. a variance approach would suggest that users’ intention to use a system will not change unless there is a change in system quality or availability of resources (i. 32-33). a change in the antecedents is sufficient). In terms of theoretical relationships. in relation to causal logic. the fact that the meaning of properties remains constant over time is crucial for theories to be long lived. 34). For example. consider a researcher who predicts that system quality (X1) and availability of resources (X2) explain users’ intention to use a system (Y).” The meaning of system quality remains fixed over time even though the values for any given system could change over time (e. Finally. and efficient causality (Mohr 1982 p. the variance approach assumes that there will be a change in users’ intentions (i.’ Weber 2003). sufficient.e. Each type can be explained using the prior example of system quality. because it allows different researchers to study the same properties in independent research projects. if the quality of a system changes or if the availability of resources changes. According to Dubin (1978).often called variables or factors. a variance approach would consider the temporal order of these X variables to be immaterial. The properties and their associations with other properties are assumed to remain constant over time (perhaps reflect an underlying ‘law. an IT system might have the property “system quality. According to Poole et al. and intention to use a system.

e. (2004 p.g. a person’s income). Crowston 2000.3 The concepts and relationships in the variance approach can be assembled in a wide range of ways. which are properties an entity always has (e. a person’s centrality in a group). Montealegre and Keil 2000).” 3 12 . the pattern by which something was made (formal cause). formal. The Process Approach Despite the flexibility of the variance approach. p. they are efficient causes for the outcome). and the end for which it is made (final cause)…. For example. Mohr felt it was ill suited to studying organizational change.quality and availability of resources influence users’ intentions directly.g. associative properties. He advocated the process approach.. without the need for additional factors or events (i.. the process approach has a long history independent from Mohr (e. a person’s average monthly income). Dubin (1978 p. a person’s age). it has been used in a range of studies (e. or emphasizing efficiency and thus searching for mediating variables that explain how a predictor’s effect works. (2000.g. and final. which are properties an entity has in relation to other entities (e.g. Abell 1984). Since Markus and Robey (1988) introduced this approach to IS.. A full examination of the range of ways that the variance approach can be used would merit its own paper. Abbot 1983. efficient. 78) distinguishes four different types of properties: enumerative properties. the variance approach is quite flexible. Poole et al. emphasizing sufficiency and thus searching for a complete set of independent variables. but it is still used The notion of efficient causality stems from Aristotle. 42) explain “Aristotle distinguished four causes…material.g. Newman and Robey 1992. Respectively they indicate that from which something was made (material cause). for example. Just like the variance approach.. and statistical properties.. which describe an entity’s range of values on a property (e. Shoemaker et al.. 59) give a similarly detailed treatment of different types of relationships. relational properties. which are properties an entity may have (e. that from which comes the immediate origin of movement or rest (efficient cause). but suffice to say. Researchers can also differ in the emphasis they give to the different dimensions of causality.g..

the process approach focuses on accounting for an outcome by reference to a sequence of events involving the focal actors. the process approach focuses on entities participating in events. In terms of theoretical relationships. one of the outcomes is exiting the company. assuming no entities or focal actors (i. This sequence is typically assumed to be probabilistic (Markus and Robey 1988. in Beaudry’s and Pinsonneault’s (2005) theory. and the events are the introduction of new systems or the modifications of old systems. (ii) perceives it to be a threat. the whole world is processual). by exiting the company. Similar observations have been noted in other disciplines (Rescher 1996.. If the entities can act. Beaudry and Pinsonneault explain that when users perceive IT events Some process researchers take a more extreme view. but this view is rarer than the view discussed here (Rescher 1996). Pare et al. in their survey of IT impact research. Emirbayer 1997). (iii) perceives that they have little control over it. Mohr 1982). This might lead the user to react differently to other events (such as performance reviews) than he would have reacted in the absence of the new system. the Coping Model of User Adaptation (Beaudry and Pinsonneault 2005) explains how users adapt to IT events in their organizations. the process approach assumes that entities. 4 13 . The sequence is probabilistic rather than deterministic because it is possible that a different sequence of events might occur. and (iv) engages in self-preservation. In this theory. For example. In terms of theoretical concepts. For example. For example.e. As Table 4 showed. or focal actors.4 For example. Ramiller and Pentland 2009). They explain that “exit” occurs as a result of the following probabilistic sequence of events: (i) the user becomes aware of an IT event.much less than the variance approach. they are often referred to as focal actors (Pentland 1999. For example. (2008) found that only 20% of articles in leading IS journals used a process approach and this 20% was almost entirely found in just one journal (Information & Organization). the focal actors are the users. the introduction of a new system might make a user concerned about his job security. change over time.

These four types of causality can all be seen in Beaudry’s and Pinsonneault’s (2005) study. no single event in a chain is considered sufficient to determine a subsequent event (Mohr 1982). our aim here is not to identify every way that the process approach can be implemented. researchers can distinguish routine events from events that start or end processes (Newman and Robey 1992) and between events that can be examined in isolation and events that can only be understood as part of a series (Peterson 1998). the process approach is said to use necessary. events can be determined by the goals of focal actors (final causality) and/or their plans (formal causality) (Poole et al. but rather to highlight that researchers can use the approach in a wide variety of ways. Finally. formal. and take actions after they have appraised a situation. the concepts and relationships in the process approach can be assembled in many ways. This differs from the variance approach in two ways. 42-43). For example. users appraise IT events after the events occur. 14 . such as organizations that act. and each outcome has an immediate precursor. As with the variance approach. in relation to causal logic. As Table 4 showed. First. For example. users have no need to exit the organization unless an event threatens them (necessary causality). exit being just one. by placing more or less emphasis on final and formal causality depending on the extent to which actors have power in the context being studied. researchers can view entities as things that can influence events. Second. Once again. For example. time is an important element in the causal logic too. 2000 pp. for example. Likewise. the outcomes that occur are driven partly by users’ goals to maintain their well-being (final causality) and their strategies to adapt to events (formal causality). for example. many outcomes are possible. exit occurs as a result of a user engaging in self-preservation (efficient causality). such as organizations constituted by patterns of actions (Langley 2009).to be threats. Different researchers can also emphasize different elements of causality. and efficient causality. or as things constituted by events. final.

emphasizing the interrelations of the system’s components…. The system is sliced into organization. [and its] function or purpose…” The systems approach can be traced back to the debate between holism and reductionism in Greek philosophy (Klir 1991 p. Clark et al. Porra 1999. Webster and Watson 2002) may suggest that they are the only approaches. Hence. It derives from a conviction that the world is comprised of wholes and interacting parts. Trist 1981. and terminations” (Abdel-Hamid 1988 pp. Shaw and Jarvenpaa 1997.The Systems Approach The emphasis given to the process/variance distinction in IS research (Markus and Robey 1988. Checkland 1999). In fact. However. von Bertalanffy 1968). but it advanced most rapidly in the two decades after the second world war (Dubin 1978) when it had a strong impact on many academic fields. group. each level the province of different disciplines. origins. 1999. IS researchers “continue to believe that there are such things as unilateral causation. as multilevel researchers noted: “[D]espite the historical tradition and contemporary relevance of organizational systems theory. As one systems theorist opined. Rivard and Lapointe 2010). there has been renewed interest in the systems approach (Anderson et al. another is the systems approach. the properties and boundaries of the system vis-à-vis its environment…. and approaches” (Kozlowski and Klein 2000). and events (Boulding 1956. this approach looks at systems holistically. A similar trend occurred in organization science. not merely entities. 24). theories. Interest in the systems approach dissipated in the 1980’s and 1990’s. however. 397398). properties. at least in North American IS research (Lee 2004). Forrester 1968. many of our field’s forefathers were systems theorists (Churchman 1968. Mattesich (1978) explains: “…the systems approach is based on the insight that the interrelations of certain components may result in an entity (system) with its very own properties. its influence is merely metaphorical. and its use became rare. 2007. 15 .. independent and dependent variables. and individual levels. In the last decade.

parts. the systems approach focuses on the interactions among parts of the system. 471). Reciprocal relationships. The fact that properties “emerge” means that entities change and thus time is a key part of one’s theory.” “…collective properties [tend] to emerge and change more gradually than individual ones …. groups. unlike the process and variance literatures. Such researchers also study how properties emerge and entities change over time: “The structure of a collective construct refers to the actions and interactions among individuals that generate the collective phenomenon that a collective construct [reflects]. In terms of theoretical relationships. the relationship between predictor and outcome variables may take time (e. “Positive” feedback can also be posed to explain how vicious or virtuous cycles arise (Garud and Kumaraswamy 2005). this may not be the case. Clark et al. systems 16 . 672) . which then leads to reduced commitment to systems.g. However. Multilevel research is a good example. as multilevel researchers have noted: “Although researchers often assume that the effect of independent variables on dependent variables is instantaneous. Finally. time is also an important factor. and emergent properties that arise from interactions among parts.In terms of theoretical concepts. known as feedback. 661. are also typical. the systems literature does not contain much discussion of necessary or sufficient causality. by examining patterns of interaction among members of a collective. months or years) to emerge” (Burton-Jones and Gallivan 2007 p. especially in collectives. the systems approach focuses on wholes. This increased commitment leads to reductions in IT gaps. and so on” (Burton-Jones and Gallivan 2007 pp. (2007) offer a causal loop to explain how executives respond to perceived IT gaps by increasing commitment to systems. This is known as “negative” feedback because it leads to equilibrium. dyads. Multilevel researchers often create constructs to reflect emergent properties of collectives. such as a group’s memory. the emergence and change of collective usage is likely to be gradual because changes in collective usage require coordination among individuals. For example.. days. For example. When specifying relationships in the systems approach. in relation to causal logic.

As a result. open. BurtonJones and Gallivan (2007) argued a group uses an IT only when its members use it in an interdependent fashion. and inherently unpredictable (Burns and Stalker 1994. it is also typical for a systems researcher to propose feedback effects. and the closely associated issues of time and causation. researchers can assemble systems theories in many ways. organic. final. when a researcher concludes that a group’s use of a system enables the group to perform well by helping it make better decisions (Sarker 2006). such as group members reflecting on their group’s performance and revising their use of an IT so that the group can perform more effectively (reciprocal causality). Material causality is invoked when a researcher explains how the “whole” comes into being. and systems approaches can be described and distinguished using a fairly small set of dimensions: by the types of concepts and relationships they use. For example. For example. process. to those that assume that systems are soft. Final causality is invoked when a researcher accounts for system-level phenomenon by reference to the goals or aims of those in a system (Poole et al. Finally. while still holding true to the general characteristics of the systems approach that we have described. Just like the variance and process approaches. mechanistic. 2000). Efficient causality is invoked when a researcher studies the mechanism by which a system-level outcome occurs. and reciprocal causality.researchers often do invoke material. At the risk of oversimplifying distinctions among different traditions. for example. Morgeson and Hofmann (1999) describe how collectives often organize themselves into different configurations depending on the goal they wish to achieve. the systems approach can be implemented in a wide range of ways. and relatively predictable. efficient. RECONSIDERING THEORETICAL APPROACHES The prior section showed how the variance. closed. This is a useful 17 . Checkland 1999). one can think of a continuum ranging from approaches that assume that systems are hard.

Theoretical Approaches are not Methodological Approaches Although research requires a close interplay between theory and method.discovery because it highlights the essential similarity underlying each approach. these two aspects of research are distinct. there is no reason why a researcher could not use a variance approach to develop a theory in which a construct has a discontinuous effect on another construct over time (Shoemaker et al. 59). researchers should not equate theoretical approaches with methodological approaches because this may lead them to underestimate the capabilities of the theoretical approaches they are examining. and systems approaches. noted earlier in Table 4. such as positivist. and critical perspectives (Orlikowski and Baroudi 1991) and human and natural science perspectives (Hirschheim 1985). consider the widely held view. interpretive. We see no reason why researchers could not use a variance approach to develop a theory in which there are temporal distinctions among antecedent factors (such as relationships among a property at time 1. For example. Although the timeordering of independent variables is indeed immaterial in a regression model. that variance theories are positivist 18 . This stems from the argument that the variance approach can be likened to a regression model (Abbott 1988). this is a statement about a statistical technique. that the time-ordering of independent variables is immaterial in the variance approach. a second property at time 2. one often finds that the discussions mix theoretical issues with methodological ones. Likewise. 2004 p. We believe their similarity has important implications for how researchers treat and use the approaches. Some researchers suggest that these perspectives are associated with specific theoretical approaches. In short. when one reads discussions of process. variance. for example. and a third property at time 3) and then test it with a structural equation model rather than a regression model. However. not a theoretical approach. as Kim (2009) did. Theoretical Approaches are not Meta-theoretical Perspectives IS researchers often distinguish among meta-theoretical perspectives.

events. all can benefit by being open to multiple theoretical approaches. a key aim of interpretive research is to understand a social setting from the actors’ point of view (Lee 1991).and process theories are interpretive (Walsham 1995. Research on classification tells us that things can always be classified in a multitude of ways and that individuals can be instances of a class even though they lack properties of that class (Lackoff 1987). This has two key implications. Just as researchers use scientific concepts and theories to understand the world. 72-73). It would seem prudent not to assume that actors will only adopt one specific type of concepts when thinking about the world. 232). being open to multiple theoretical approaches could only help researchers. Medin and Atran 2004). Wheeler 2002). Therefore. A similar logic can be used for researchers who adopt a positivist or critical perspective. Each one has examples in IS research and each one has roots as far back as the ancient Greeks (Klir 1991. as noted earlier. and processes (Bruner 1991). and among wholes and parts (Zacks and Tversky 2001. For example. they also think in terms of relationships among properties of things. we believe that theoretical approaches are distinct from metatheoretical positions. providing them with more conceptual tools with which to understand and describe the way that actors themselves understand and describe their social settings. of organizing and representing them” (Kaplan 1964/1998 19 . However. Rescher 1996). we can use them to classify existing theory just as we can use them to guide the creation of new theory (Shaw and Jarvenpaa 1997 pp. Much like our discussion of methods. First. we cannot say that the three approaches we outlined are the only approaches. such as the type considered in the process approach. just as “theory is a way of looking at the facts. actors in day-to-day life use lay theories and concepts (Markman and Gentner 2001 p. Although people in their day-to-day lives do often think in terms of actors. That is. This long history is probably a good indication that they are useful in some way. Theoretical Approaches are not Rules The approaches we have outlined are categories or classes.

2000):    the variance approach involves sufficient causality. The second implication is that there is no reason why any single theory must exhibit all characteristics of any one of the approaches we have described (just as there is no reason why all animals classified as birds must fly). the approaches we outlined simply tell us what typically ‘goes together’ in theories. Researchers should also feel free to construct theories that combine elements of different approaches. we would still say that this theory followed a process approach (just as we would say that a non-flying bird such as a penguin is still a bird). More importantly. 20 . or combine elements of more than one approach. the variance approach does not the variance approach and the process approach should not be combined We believe that all of these views can and should be superseded. we could not deny a theory’s legitimacy simply because it did not follow some element of the process approach. Researchers could propose other ways of looking at theories and thereby identify different approaches.. researchers should feel free to use a variance approach to develop a theory that includes elements of final causality. and how they are organized and represented. In this light. the approaches we have outlined are simply ways of looking at theories. Knowing what typically goes together is useful. for example.g. much like one domino falling can be sufficient for many dominoes to fall. by having a construct to represent the influence of an actor’s goals.p. much like nature has animals with characteristics of both birds and mammals (e. but it should not be viewed as a rule. assume that a researcher constructs a theory that follows a process approach in every respect except that it includes an event that is sufficient to cause a distal outcome. It is quite possible that a good theory will lack an element of one of the approaches. Poole et al. the Australian platypus). In contrast to past views. the process approach does not the process approach involves final and formal causality. 309). For the same reason. consider the following widely espoused views (Mohr 1982. Like all classifications. For example.

For this reason. 2008). and this is done in each approach. or interactions among parts (a systems approach). 1978. Intuitively. e. The “why” in theories is explained by the relationships among concepts in the theory (Kaplan 1964/1998 pp. each one can provide a basis for an explanation. Predictions foretell the state of a property or event (Dubin 1978). because all three theoretical approaches contain relationships. We will briefly review three goals often mentioned in research and explain why each approach can support each goal.g. Weber. Explanations say why something occurs (Salmon. The strength of a theory’s explanation derives from the accuracy of these relationships. 21 . 333. a researcher might explain an outcome by referring to lawful relation among properties (a variance approach). i. 5 The strength may also depend on additional components in a theory (such as boundaries) (Dubin. 2003). Hovorka et al. 1998). Nevertheless. The degree to which any of these explanations is good depends on how well the relationships specified reflect the phenomenon being studied. The basic reason in each case is that each goal depends on researchers specifying relationships among concepts. The details of the explanation will differ in each case because the nature of the relationships differs. all three can provide a basis for prediction. these additional components are outside our paper’s scope.. however. researchers can make predictions without being able to explain the mechanisms involved—the intervening processes or intervening variables. a sequence of events (a process approach). 346). some argue that explanations and predictions are simply reverse logical operations (Suppe 1977).A Theoretical Approach is not Determined by the Researcher’s Goal Several IS researchers have reviewed the goals of theory (Gregor 2006. Explanation. Again. Prediction.e. Like explanations.. the strength of the prediction depends on how accurately the relationships specified in the theory match the phenomenon being studied. they depend on a theory’s relationships. As noted at the outset of our paper. however.5 Because each approach we have outlined includes relationships. they say what state or event will occur.

Schwandt 1997). There are two common meanings of understanding in research: scientific understanding and verstehen.6 Theoretical Approaches do not Determine Precision Theoretical approaches are often distinguished in terms of determinism. process.g. researchers can use any one of the approaches to support understanding. none of the theoretical approaches require researchers to specify strong.Understanding. Verstehen (a German term for understanding) is used by researchers who follow phenomenological approaches (Schwandt 1997). Moreover. lawlike relationships. Thus. as we note below. (2) they tend to ground their research in ideographic rather than nomothetic details (Klein and Myers. however. researchers interested in verstehen tend to develop theories that differ from those developed by researchers interested in scientific understanding in three ways: (1) they tend to use theories as sensitizing devices rather than as objects to falsify (Klein and Myers. and systems approaches. 1999). Hovorka et al. each approach can support scientific understanding. For example: “By their very structure. and (3) they seek to understand relationships among concepts but they do not assume strong lawlike relationships (Maxwell 1992. “not all real-world phenomena will ultimately become deterministic if we spend enough time analyzing them. This assumption may simply be too stringent for social phenomena. 1999). These are not central to the distinction among variance. theories to support verstehen may also need additional elements to support understanding. 2008). For the reasons noted above. … As Sutherland put it. Pentland 1999). According to past research. process theories may [be attractive alternatives]” (Markus and Robey 1988 p. modalities and moral context (Giddens 1984. the extent of understanding gained in a given study depends on how well the researcher’s theory fits the setting studied. e. so are not considered here. 592) 6 As with theories that support explanation. Scientific understanding refers to explanation (Salmon 1998.” …In circumstances like these. As with explanation and prediction. variance theories posit an invariant relationship between antecedents and outcomes.. This third difference is the only difference that relates to one’s theoretical approach. 22 . the preceding differences relate instead to how one uses an approach.

have no expectation that the antecedents are truly necessary and sufficient.” In all three theoretical approaches. if the outcome of interest occurred. it can be determined. a researcher following a variance approach may use the logic of necessary and sufficient causality as a heuristic device when thinking of antecedent factors but. then X. For example. for researchers following a process approach. A different way of thinking about this issue is to assess the precision of relationships in a theory. researchers can specify relationships in more or less precise ways. without any doubt. we would simply say that the relationships specified in the theory have low precision. For example. Ultimately. a researcher following a process approach may use the logic of necessary causality when thinking of precursor events to some outcome but may be completely open to the possibility that the outcome might occur without the precursor events specified in the theory. Much like our previous arguments. A broader view is useful because it allows us to see that the process approach also results in explanations that are deterministic. For this reason.” In other words. In both cases. that the prior event occurred. In other words. We use the word precision according to its dictionary meaning of “exactness. 23 . we believe that this view can be broadened. whereas the process approach involves necessary causality only.The view expressed in this statement stems from the notion that the variance approach involves necessary and sufficient causality. even if it was not observed. 59) explains: “To say that X is necessary for Y is to say that Y is sufficient for X: If Y. More precision may be gained over time as research in an area progresses. Likewise. As Mohr (1982 p. researchers may identify additional mediating variables (in the variance approach). the presence of determinism per se is not the best way to differentiate among theoretical approaches. and important interactions (in the systems approach). triggering events (in the process approach). however. in fact. just in a different way. the causal logic of necessity invokes its own kind of determinism.

g. the authors listed in Table 5 contributed significantly to research. process theories are not Citation Webster and Watson 2002 p. the view we have advanced is motivated by the fact that building good theory is difficult and researchers need all the flexibility they can get. approach and one’s meta-theoretical position. it would recognize that theoretical approaches are guides. By increasing researchers’ awareness and understanding of theoretical approaches. process theories are interpretive Walsham 1995 There is no one-to-one relationship between one’s theoretical p.g. and empirical approaches. and systems).. p. 15 A Broader View At least three approaches to theory building are used in IS research (variance. While some dimensions of causality are common to each approach (e. Moreover. Markus and Saunders 2007).philosophers remind us that relationships specified in social science will always be imprecise. efficient causality). we think now is an important time to build upon their work and adopt a broader conception of theoretical approaches. process. xix DeLone and McLean 2003 p. 140 24 . others are unique (e. Each approach to theory building offers causal logic. we now briefly revisit some prior claims about theoretical approaches. Each approach Wheeler 2002 can be used with each position. which is unique to the systems approach). Researchers can also combine them. whatever one’s approach to theory building (Kaplan 1964/1998 pp. not rules that must be conformed to. material causality. theoretical approaches. Table 5: Broadening Conceptions of Theoretical Approaches Conception IS theories are generally one of two forms: process or variance Variance theories are causal. Overall. Revisiting Claims about Theoretical Approaches Having reviewed and clarified each approach. but different dimensions of causality are addressed in each one. 351-355).. With increasing calls on researchers to build and extend theory (Weber 2003. This broader conception would recognize that there is no one-to-one relationship among research elements—such as researchers’ goals. 388. There is no reason why researchers should limit themselves to the process or variance approaches alone. Variance theories are positivist. metatheoretical positions.

they might argue that researchers should not comply with our advice. We then hired two independent and qualified coders to assess the theories developed in these papers against a detailed set of coding criteria.Conception Variance theories and process theories should not be combined Laws in variance theory provide prediction. and in contrast. 135 Considering Two Possible Counterarguments Several criticisms could be made regarding our arguments. The aim was to determine if these papers: (1) contained at least some characteristics that were consistent with our arguments (because this would refute the first criticism above) and/or (2) showed a complete understanding of the three approaches (because this would support the second criticism). there is no one-to-one relationship between a theoretical approach and any particular goal. Thus. Two would be particularly fatal if true. with various degrees of precision. researchers might claim that our arguments are misguided. A theory should not be judged by its conformance to an approach but by its ability to help a researcher account for some phenomenon. but they can be obtained from the authors upon request. or understand something depends on the precision of the relationships specified in the theory and the extent to which these relationships reflect the phenomenon being studied. A theory can also be built that follows one approach predominantly but fails to follow certain characteristics of the approach. All three approaches allow researchers to specify relationships. researchers might claim that our arguments are not new. we reviewed all of the papers given “Best Paper” awards by MIS Quarterly since 2000. they might argue that researchers are well aware of the three approaches and use them fully. We omit the detailed results of this review for space reasons. Researchers’ ability to explain. 25 . Because MIS Quarterly weights the theoretical contribution of a paper heavily. laws in process theory provide understanding Citation Markus and Robey 1988. Wheeler 2002 p. predict. First. To obtain evidence for our position. that is. Seddon 1997 A Broader View Researchers can combine theoretical approaches. Second. We believe that neither of these arguments is true. we could be assured that these papers provide reasonable examples of theory in IS research. that is.

finding that this article primarily used a systems approach. Based on our earlier analysis in Table 5. (2000) primarily used a systems approach but also used elements of the process approach. we also wish to provide guidance for how researchers can improve their use of theoretical approaches. Seddon 1997). the coders found several papers that used a systems approach (Lamb and Kling 2003). In addition.. 2008 that researchers very rarely combine approaches. As noted earlier. 2008) or a process approach (Majchrzak et al. nevertheless. the coders found evidence that our arguments are not completely understood by all researchers. Overall. For example. GUIDANCE FOR COMBINING THEORETICAL APPROACHES In addition to providing a description and analysis of theoretical approaches. Moreover. We decided to focus on providing guidance for one of these areas: combining theoretical approaches. These results suggest that our arguments do not contradict good research practice.The results of the review supported our position. e. We chose this because we believe it offers a particularly significant opportunity to improve theory in IS research in light of the results in Pare et al. not just papers using a variance approach (Dennis et al. Mohr (1982) advised against combining variance and process approaches and several IS researchers have restated his view (Markus and Robey 1988. p. 2000). there were even papers that explicitly stated that they adopted one approach but in practice appeared to have adopted a different approach. 659) stated that they used a variance approach but the coders disagreed.. For example. not simply a restatement of what researchers already know. Burton-Jones and Gallivan (2007. Our view 26 . At the same time. none of the papers explicitly discussed all three approaches and explained their reasons for using the approach that they used.g. they found that some papers used elements of more than one approach.g. it appeared from our review that our arguments are consistent with good practice in the field but are. e. there are several ways we could do this. the coders found that Majchrzak et al.

other combinations are possible. (2008) found only one article in their entire sample of 161 that combined approaches. and the benefits that can be obtained from each one. e. but all 12 combinations offer opportunities for research. e. Two of these combinations (#1 and #6) correspond to the combinations referred to in Langley’s quote above. Improving understanding of concepts: Understanding whether the state of an entity is affected by events or processes 2. It may be important to understand the effect of events on the state of an entity (a variable) or to identify the effect of a contextual variable on the evolution of events (Langley 1999 p. Table 6 highlights 12 different ways that combinations can be developed.. we are not aware of any guidance on how to go about doing so.g.: I would argue that the insistence on exclusion of variables from process research unnecessarily limits the variety of theories constructed. The article they found combined the process and variance approach. 693). Van de Ven 2007). Improving understanding of relationships: Understanding the process by which a relationship among properties occurs Systems Approach: 3. To highlight these opportunities for researchers.g. Pare et al. For example. Improving understanding of concepts: Understanding whether the state of a component (lower-level) property is affected by a higher-level property of the system 4. Instead. Table 6: Benefits of Combining Theoretical Approaches Original approach Pure Variance Benefits that researchers can obtain by combining the original approach with: Process Approach: 1.is more in line with those who point out benefits of combining approaches. Improving understanding of relationships: Understanding whether a relationship among properties is affected by a higher-level property of the system 27 . guidance on using theoretical approaches has focused on each approach in isolation (see. However. Perhaps this is one reason why so few papers explicitly combine approaches. in their analysis of ‘IT impact’ research from 1991-2005. Despite researchers such as Langley (1999) and Shaw and Jarvenpaa (1997) touting the benefits of combining theoretical approaches over a decade ago.

Improving understanding of concepts: Understand whether the occurrence of an event is affected by the state of a property 6. Improving understanding of relationships: Understand the process by which a system emerges or has effects Pure Systems Variance Approach: 9. Improving understanding of concepts: Understand whether the existence of a system or emergent property hinges on particular events or processes 12. Table 7: Strategies for Combining Theoretical Approaches Strategy Independent Hybrid Description Theorize about the phenomena using two or more approaches independently Theorize about the phenomena once using a hybrid approach Benefits Corroboration Insight Completeness Ecological validity Risk Redundancy Uncertainty Reduced parsimony Complexity/error 28 . Each of these approaches has associated benefits and risks. Improving understanding of relationships: Understand whether interactions among parts of a system depend on properties of the parts Process Approach: 11.Original approach Pure Process Benefits that researchers can obtain by combining the original approach with: Variance Approach: 5. Improving understanding of concepts: Understand whether an emergent property of a system is affected by a lower-level property of the system 10. Improving understanding of relationships: Understand whether the influence of an event in a process depends on the state of some property Systems Approach: 7. Improving understanding of relationships: Understand whether interactions among parts of a system follows a particular process In addition to identifying specific combinations that researchers can seek and the benefits that can be obtained from each one. which we describe in turn below. Improving understanding of concepts: Understand whether the emergence of an entity or the occurrence of an event hinges on a higher-level property of the system 8. The key for authors using either of these strategies is to maximize the benefits while minimizing or accounting for the associated risks. we also suggest two strategies that researchers can use to combine approaches (see Table 7).

it is not clear why it is used so rarely. and/or predict the phenomenon in question. Kaplan and Duchon 1988). The second strategy for combining approaches is the hybrid strategy. but it is still an exemplar. only Sabherwal and Robey (1995) have used this strategy explicitly. The two benefits are related because theories are only partial accounts of the world. more confidence can be gained regarding one’s ability to understand.g. the researcher may remain uncertain about his/her findings and need to perform further research before submitting the research for review and publication. If the propositions and results are the same between approaches. and only considered process and variance approaches (not the systems approach). They conducted separate analyses of IS development practices from a process view and a variance view and then corroborated the two sets of results. The theories are then evaluated by conducting independent inquiries of propositions emanating from each approach. The world is not limited to entities and properties.The first strategy in Table 7 is the independent strategy. a researcher may consider this extra work to have been redundant. Webster and Watson 2002). If the results from each inquiry corroborate each other. This is based on Kaplan and Duchon’s (1988) advice for multimethod research. processes and 29 . Perhaps the reason why the independent strategy is used rarely is the effort that it entails. we highlighted several ways that hybrids can be constructed in Table 6 and two benefits that be obtained in Table 7. More importantly. process. Several researchers have recommended it (Shaw and Jarvenpaa 1997. they concentrated more on methods than theory. but it has not been clear exactly what types of hybrids can be constructed and what benefits they offer. if the propositions and results differ. To help address this problem. To our knowledge. this approach might lead to novel insights if different findings arise (Davis 1971. a researcher builds a theory from two or more approaches independently (e.. Given that the independent strategy offers two strong benefits. and/or systems). Alternatively. explain. Admittedly. In this strategy. variance.

2000). 30 . not just one or two of these elements. researchers must use a hybrid approach only if the increase in understanding afforded by the more complex theory outweighs the loss of parsimony that results.. Neither of these errors is a necessary outcome of using a hybrid strategy. a hybrid strategy can enable researchers to build theories that offer more realistic (ecologically valid) insights to practitioners. errors are perhaps more likely with this strategy given that it is the most complex and there are few exemplars to learn from. and parts and wholes.events.g.g. As Table 7 shows. when a researcher attempts to use a process approach but transforms the elements of the process into variables that he or she is used to working with) (Poole et al. Thus. Consequently. rather. it contains all these things. thereby failing to obtain the benefit of the first approach (e. Two common errors are that researchers (a) apply a theoretical approach that is not applicable to the setting studied (e. This is because practitioners operate in a world that contains entities and properties. Thus. Nevertheless.. or parts and wholes. Another risk is that researchers may make errors in applying the hybrid strategy. The independent strategy can be implemented by a research team made up of experts in each approach alone. a hybrid strategy enables researchers to obtain a more complete account of the part of the world that is of interest to them. applying a systems approach when the phenomenon is not systemic) (Morgeson and Hofmann 1999) or (b) transform one approach mistakenly into another approach. this also improves researchers’ ability to generalize findings to practice. processes and events. a major risk with the hybrid strategy is that theories constructing using this strategy might lack parsimony. In addition to advancing theory. but the hybrid strategy requires researchers who are experts in combining approaches (a rare skill).

determining IS success remains an ongoing concern in practice and research. DeLone and E. 1992. Although the field has several accepted theories regarding IS adoption. it was originally proposed merely as a ‘model. D&M’s success model is one of the most well cited models in IS research. Information Systems Success: The Quest for the Dependent Variable. Figure 2 illustrates each one. but has been criticized for using a hybrid approach (Seddon 1997). The Institute of Management Science (INFORMS). The model has two underlying propositions: (1) the success of an IS depends on what dimension of success one examines. 21090 USA. Copyright 1992. we would like to provide guidance for improving specific theories in IS. The six dimensions in the model illustrate the first proposition. MD. McLean. there is less in the way of solid theory regarding performance outcomes from using IS. 60-95. 3(1). this is an area in need of theoretical attention. Figure 2: D&M (1992) IS Success Model: Original Form The objective of the D&M model is to define IS Success. System Quality Use Individual Impact Organizational Impact Information Quality User Satisfaction Reprinted by permission.USING APPROACHES TO IMPROVE THEORY: AN EXAMPLE In addition to providing general guidance for improving theory. while the arrows between the dimensions illustrate the 31 . 2003) IS Success Models as a case illustration (see Figure 2). we use DeLone and McLean’s (1992. Moving it from being a model to a theory is a significant opportunity for our field. Suite 400. pp. For two reasons. Linthicum. 901 Elkridge Landing Road. Second. Thus. W. and (2) the dimensions of success are related. First.’ not a theory. Information Systems Research. Also.

we examine what the D&M model would be (and could be) if the model used the variance approach. it should be clear that the conclusions would be the same irrespective of the formalism. In the sections below. focusing particularly on clarifying the concepts in the theory and the relationships among the concepts. our analysis is motivated by an opportunity that has always existed with their work—discovering what it would take to extend their “model” into a “theory”—and identify ways that researchers could proceed in this endeavor. It is similar to the original model. many researchers have adopted the D&M model uncritically. However. or the systems approach. 7 To conserve space. much more theoretical work is needed. We highlight several improvements that should be made along these lines in Table 8. narrative.second. our aim is not to criticize the D&M model. and Systems Perspective In a variance approach. Figure 3 shows what the D&M model would become if it followed a pure variance approach. On the contrary. 32 . we rely primarily on diagrammatic representations of the D&M models. To date. Seddon (1997) undertook a notable extension to the model from a pure variance perspective. The D&M IS Success Model from a Variance. the process approach. except that we explicated the relationships among the properties and we excluded the link to ‘organizational impact’ because this link seems to imply a different level of a social (organizational) system.7 We then describe what theoretical approach we believe the D&M model actually utilizes and discuss how this approach and others could be investigated more fully to improve theories of IS success. whether diagram. Translating the D&M model into a pure variance form is useful because it reveals how its underlying theory needs to be improved. but as Table 8 shows. a model’s concepts are properties of things that vary. Overall. or formulae. Process.

Explicating this process is useful because it highlights the extremely simple process assumed by the D&M model.. We summarize several improvements that can be made along these lines in Table 8. according to DeLone and McLean (2003 p. Create system s Use system s Consequences of system use Figure 4: D&M (1992) IS Success Model: Process Approach Finally. if it followed a pure process approach. These parts interact through individuals using systems. a systems approach requires that a model’s concepts involve interacting parts and emergent properties. Figure 4 shows what D&M’s model would become. The figure shows organizations (wholes) consisting of information systems and individual users (parts). In short. 16). it reveals opportunities for improving the rigor with which the concepts and the relationships among the concepts could be specified. Figure 5 shows what D&M’s model would become if it followed a systems approach.System Quality Use Individual Impact Information Quality User Satisfaction Figure 3: D&M (1992) IS Success Model: Variance Approach A process approach requires that a model’s concepts be events that follow a probabilistic sequence. These interactions can then lead to changes in attributes of these parts. users become more or less 33 . e. translating the D&M model into a process form once again reveals how its underlying theory can and should be improved.g. Moreover.

g. Once again. e. whether they refer to amounts of use and impact. but with the exception of Kanungo (2003). positive or negative) of the relationships between concepts (b) the model does not explain why the relationships among all concepts are mediated and linear.g.g. why there are no unmediated relationships or moderated relationships Relationships Process Concepts The scope of each event in time is not clear. effective use) and impacts (e. Organizational system Properties:  Organizational impact of information system Emergent effect Information system Properties:  System quality  Information quality Interaction between IS and user (i.. Moreover. transforming the D&M model into a systems form helps reveal improvements that can be made to it. or to specific types of use (e. performance) Necessary and sufficient causality is unclear because: (a) the model does not explain the direction (i. i.. out of these interactions can emerge a change in an organizational-level property.. organizational impact. e.. whether it refers to one or many events 34 . usage) Individual user Properties:  Experience with using IS  Satisfaction with IS  Impact from using IS Figure 5: D&M (1992) IS Success Model: Systems Approach Table 8: Theoretical Improvements to be made to the D&M Model Approach Dimension Variance Concepts Required Improvements It is not clear what “impact” or “use” mean.. We summarize these in Table 8.e. i. This offers significant opportunities for research.g.. what “create system” includes/excludes It is not clear what “consequences” mean.e. e. DeLone and McLean (2003) acknowledged the importance of feedback effects...e..satisfied with a system over time based on their interaction with it.g.e. few have examined IS success from a systems approach.

. as DeLone and McLean (1992. and so on. 88) noted when they first proposed it. our analysis demonstrates that it uses elements of all three approaches: variance. However. use. whether to performance or something else) It is not clear why “organizational impact” is the only concept at a higher level (i. In a ten-year review of their model. process. as Table 8 shows. their model used the process and variance approaches.. shown in Figure 3). p. 35 .. rather than events. but these are not shown.e. The process approach is evident in its conceptualization of three general phases of success: creation. the organizational impact of a system will have feedback effects on individual systems and users. Presumably.g. and systems. usage and satisfaction. Nevertheless.e. Our analysis suggests that this strategy is unwise because the D&M model needs to be refined and improved. What approach does the D&M IS Success Model use? According to DeLone and McLean (2003). The systems approach is evident in its conceptualization of multiple levels of an organizational system. the use of each theoretical approach in the D&M model could be improved. DeLone and McLean (2003) noted that many researchers have adopted the model uncritically. The variance approach is evident in its use of properties such as system quality. user satisfaction. why there are no other emergent properties) Relationships Formal and efficient causality are unclear (as noted also for the process approach above) Material and emergent causality are unclear because the model does not explain exactly how impacts emerge at the organizational (whole) level from the individual (parts) level Reciprocal causality is unclear because the only feedback in the model is between properties of an individual user (i. and consequences.Approach Dimension Relationships Required Improvements Final causality is unclear because the model’s final outcome (consequences) is ill defined Formal causality is unclear because the model does not theorize how events are planned Efficient causality is unclear because the model does not theorize how soon events occur after one another Systems Concepts It is not clear what individual and organizational impact refer to (e.

1995). In the case of IS success..g. Properties such as system quality and user satisfaction can reflect IS success. This paper examines three archetypal approaches: 36 . the D&M model created “a level of muddled thinking that is likely to be counter-productive to future IS research. For all of these reasons.Seddon (1997. it would seem that multiple theoretical approaches would be useful because it is a very complex phenomenon. which would be of substantial value to both research and practice. and/or predict it. Although useful contributions can be made from a pure variance perspective. we do not believe that this is an inherent problem of the D&M model. we suggest that each theoretical approach adds a layer of meaning to the nature of IS success and should improve researchers’ ability to understand. whether users are trained before phasing out an old IS. a researcher must use a particular approach. To create or extend a theory. our analysis suggests that the problem with D&M’s IS Success Model is not that it combines theoretical approaches per se. CONCLUSION Theorizing serves an important role in any discipline. elements of different theoretical approaches can and should be combined if it is useful to understand the phenomenon of interest. As we have noted already. whether an IS is implemented on time. Pursuing such research would enable their work to move from being a model of IS success to being a theory. p. instead the problem (and opportunity) is that the particular combination they used could be clarified and refined and other combinations could be sought. and so on). In contrast to Seddon (1997). Moreover. therefore. explain. 242) argued that by combining several theoretical approaches. but the levels of these properties and their interrelationships depend heavily on the timing of critical events (e. IS success can differ in important ways across levels of an organization and links across levels can be complex and reciprocal (Harris.” Seddon suggested that the D&M model should use a pure variance approach.

more research has come to light regarding the nature of the process and variance approaches and research on the systems approach has once again captured attention (Sawyer 2005). Theories are just one part of research. and finally. This makes it an opportune time to reexamine the theoretical approaches available to researchers and understand how these approaches can be used.g. Over that time. process. It can help researchers who wish to build new theories. by enabling them to see additional types of concepts and relationships that may complement those in the existing theory.. it can help researchers in their reviewing roles. it can help researchers who wish to extend theories. to some. researchers try to analyze and improve theory building practices in their own discipline (e. and in applied fields. Our work is an example of the second approach. by helping them understand the types of concepts and relationships available to them. researchers debate the logical and philosophical bases of theory (e. explain. Finally. and we focused on just one aspect of theories. 37 . our focus on theories may seem misplaced (Greenwald et al. Nonetheless. whatever one’s research interest or epistemological orientation. and systems. Suppe 1977). all researchers want to improve their ability to understand. it suggests how researchers could use these approaches in new ways to improve the field’s ability to understand. Many years have passed since Mohr’s and Markus and Robey’s seminal papers on theory building. or predict empirical phenomena. by enabling them to see ways in which authors can clarify the concepts and relationships in a theory and improve their justification. 1986). Research on theory building tends to be undertaken in two basic ways: in the field of philosophy. It also clarifies these approaches in light of past research. explain..variance.g. A more sophisticated understanding of theoretical approaches can assist this process. Mohr in management and Markus and Robey in IS). and/or predict an important IS phenomenon. Moreover.

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