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Who Are You: Finding Identity in IT

Nov. 19, 2020

By Justin Walker

Innovation and creativity have become crucial aspects of the workplace. From unique working environments to one-of-a-kind marketing strategies, companies and organizations are adapting to gain a competitive advantage in their market.

This should also be the case for information technology (IT), Information Systems Professor Stacie Petter said. It is often a challenge for some organizations to be innovative and creative, she said, as many IT systems are being used in their intended purposes to be more efficient or to meet goals.

"An organization is not able to gain a competitive advantage by using IT in the same way everyone else is using it," Petter said. "We need to find ways for people to use IT and information systems creatively to gain an advantage that other organizations might not be able to, but that requires the right people being creative or innovative in their approach to using the technology."

But a person's ability to be creative or innovative within a technology or system depends on their view of themselves in regards to that technology or system, also known as their IT identity, Petter said. People have different types of identities, including social or material. Social identity defines people for who they are in a group, such as their career or the university they attend, while material identity reflects how people view themselves in relation to objects, such as possessions or things they value.

This latter concept introduces IT identities, where people can develop a sense of who they are when using certain information technologies, in the article "IT Identity: A Key Determinant of IT Features and Exploratory Usage," written by Petter, Michelle Carter of Washington State University, Varun Grover of the University of Arkansas and Jason Bennett Thatcher of Temple University. The article was recently published in MIS Quarterly.

In the study, Petter and the research team attempted to discover if people change the way they use technology and how much they explore the features of new technology based on their IT identity. The team surveyed 303 full-time working professionals who use a program—Microsoft Excel—and 320 professionals who use a device—their smartphone in the workplace. The survey focused on novel and innovative features on both platforms and gauged how users utilized these elements, if at all. Three weeks later, a second survey was sent out to the same group to gauge whether or not the participants had used the features.

"We wanted to see if a person's IT identity was related to exploratory use of a technology," Petter said. "It was a sense of, ‘Did you know you could do this?' and then, ‘Did you try it out?'"

Petter and the team found feature usage was positively impacted by the availability of organizational support and resources when the user has a high level of IT identity. This is an important finding, she said, as it shows that building a sense of IT identity can motivate employees to use technology and information systems in unique ways.

"Part of our role in information systems is to help people, managers and organizations to use technologies in efficient, effective and creative ways," Petter said. "This research helps us understand that IT identity plays a role in the range of features people use and how creative and innovative they are when using technology."

The information the team discovered in this study adds another piece to the puzzle, Petter said. Most of the information systems research currently published focuses on the use of the systems, but this study dives into understanding an additional reason why people use or don't use a technology. From a practical standpoint, the research helps managers understand the importance of promoting a strong IT identity in the technology and providing needed resources to be creative and innovative.

Several other studies spawned from this particular project and while the topic of IT identity is not the sole focus of Petter's research, she does see how it relates to her other work.

"This study is one piece of my focus," she said. "Overall, I am interested in the impacts of technology. What do those impacts look like? How do they change who we are as individuals, groups, organizations or society? IT identity definitely impacts how we use technology. It is one piece of the bigger puzzle that I'm interested in studying."

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