A Habermasian Perspective on the Requirements Process in Software Development: An Enterprise Systems Project in Healthcare.

Alain Ross (2006)  PhD Thesis, University of Calgary, Haskayne School of Business.

The requirements process is considered to be one of the most important parts of information systems development because it is during this process that system functionality is determined. However, much research and practice it has shown it to be one of the most error-prone aspects of software development and implementation. Howcroft and Wilson (2003) call for a “deeper understanding of the inherent conflict within the systems development process (p.21), arguing that “far from being an intellectual diversion, this constitutes a prerequisite for improving the rather poor record of systems development”. This critical ethnographic study of two information systems projects in healthcare aims to address this question by studying communication in the requirements processes though the lens of Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action.

The research identifies several constraints on communication including bounds on who was allowed to participate and on the extent to which participants could provide input or challenge others. Several conditions that allowed these constraints were explored:  the distribution and construction of knowledge, the construction of the requirements process as a technical process, the project team control over the process, the organisational motivations that were embedded in the process, the imposition of a method that brought with it assumptions not consonant with the organisational context and existing organizational relations of power which privileged some voices and marginalised others. 

The findings provide a theoretical basis on which to evaluate requirements processes, and set the stage for a reconsideration of the requirements process, proposing a process which is more equal and open and makes possible the building of information systems which more closely meet the needs of users. Both researchers and practitioners will, therefore, find these contributions valuable.