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The social aspects neglected in e-commerce

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue June, June 1 - June 30, 2000 | BY Kecheng Liu , Samuel Chong 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

The development of e-commerce offers a promising and innovative way for companies to trade in the ever-changing market. With the advent of advanced Information Technology (IT), companies can reach out to consumers in any part of the world. However, a mistake that most system analysts make is to perceive e-commerce systems from a purely technical viewpoint.

The general conception is that once the technical issues are resolved (e.g. network infrastructure, security, encryption strategy, etc.) a successful implementation of e-commerce will automatically be brought into existence. This is not the case. We need to draw together both business and the technical considerations when designing e-commerce systems.

Any e-commerce system can be studied from two main viewpoints: the technical and the human/social. While research and work based on the technical viewpoint are advancing at an incredible rate, the human/social viewpoint has been neglected in e-commerce system design. Since a key barrier to the spread of e-commerce is security, in practice, focus is given to the technical aspects and using schemes such as password protection, secret-key encryption, fingerprinting, smart cards and firewalls. Just take a look at the current literature on e-commerce, and you will find that most attention is technically oriented. While these technical approaches are important and provide the means for us to deal with the secure physical transmission of bits of data, they do not help us in establishing the social and business norms that companies and consumers abide to. We need to do more on the social issues if we want to obtain a truly functional e-commerce system that supports business activity.

Like any other information technology systems, e-commerce systems have a social role in our society and have the ability to make a social impact in our lives. For example, through the use of information technology, this article has a means of reaching you, the readers, and in some cases, causing a change in the state of your social world. By reading this article, you may have a change of attitude or mental state toward some issues. The benefits gained are from the ways we use IT to reach the readers, not from IT itself.

Likewise, we assert that e-commerce systems are part of the human communication and social system. E-commerce systems, as part of our social system, enable us to send, manipulate and interpret information across global networks. Business is about getting things done through information, and through information our meanings and intentions can be brought across to the recipient to alter the state of our social world, for example, as new owners of a product we just bought over the Internet. An e-commerce system cannot be treated as a trading tool isolated from business norms. Benefits are gained from the way we use e-commerce systems, not from their technological components.

A purely technical solution alone is not sufficient for a successful implementation of e-commerce. Business is about getting things done by manipulating information in the most effective way, not simply the most efficient way. Current practices do not tell us what and how business norms are conducted. The thorny and difficult social issues need to be understood by analysts before e-commerce systems can yield their full economic and social returns.

Every human communication and social system has a culture, which embodies social norms. E-commerce simply employs information technology to conduct business according to socially established business norms. These business norms were in place long before the invention of the Internet. Information technology enables these business norms to be more efficiently carried out. While the medium of conducting business changes (from paper-based to advanced computer-based, networked systems), these socially agreed to business norms do not (a failure to deliver goods at the agreed date constitutes a penalty, for example). Apart from mediating coordination and communication between companies and consumers, business norms also define the authorities and responsibilities of each participating role in the trading process (for example, who has the authority to place a bulk order).

One of the critical steps on the path to developing a high quality e-commerce system is to understand the business norms that govern how humans work together, and to develop methods in which the meanings and intentions of the human users can be captured. After all, e-commerce systems are used for communicating our meanings and intentions to alter the state of our social world.

Without a clear definition of the business norms involved, there is no basis against which an effective e-commerce system that supports the business activities can be developed. We now have the opportunity to shape one of the most exciting and important issues of e-commerce for this century.

Samuel Chong is a researcher at the School of Computing, Staffordshire University, England. His main research is in the field of semiotics, agent-based systems and e-commerce systems.

Kecheng Liu holds a chair of Computing at the School of Computing, Staffordshire University, England. He leads the research group on semiotics for information systems. He created the research (Specialist) award of Information Systems with Semiotics, the first of this type in the United Kingdom.


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