Adoption of Portals Using Activity Theory


An obvious goal of a Web site today is to dynamically acquire content and make it available. A portal is a group of services provided electronically, through the Web, to a set of users. The items that are typically included in the portals consist of business intelligence, content and document management, enterprise resource planning systems, data warehouses, data-management applications, search and retrieval, and any other application. The ultimate portal provides the Holy Grail for organizational knowledge, true data aggregation and information integration coupled with knowledge worker collaboration (Roberts-Witt, 1999). A portal is the next evolutionary step in the use of Web browsers.

There are different forms of portals ranging from simple to complex. Beginning with the simplest form of a portal, defined as “an information gateway that often includes a search engine plus additional organization and content,” to more sophisticated forms of portals (McCallum, Nigam, Rennie, & Seymore, 2000). Sophisticated examples include Yahoo and Alta Vista, (examples of horizontal portals) or high level university campus portals such as described in Eisler (2000) as examples of vertical portals. The services provided in a portal also vary widely with the purpose of it. Typically, services are personalization, member registration, e-mail and discussionboards, search engine, organization and indexing of content from internal and/or external sources. To use a portal, a user has to register in it and provide a name and password each time he/she uses it. This allows the system to personalize the services and contents to the specific user. The portal constitutes a single point of entry and a single logon to the services provided.


A modern business environment is complex and expensive, which has motivated many companies to invest in enterprise portals as a mechanism by which they can manage their information in a cohesive and structured fashion. Portals offer many advantages over other software applications. They provide a single point of access for employees, partners, and customers to various types of (structured and unstructured) information, making an important contribution to enabling enterprise knowledge management. Intranet portals also provide business intelligence and collaborative tools. They promise to create significant and sustainable competitive advantages for early adopters.


Portals provide users with a personalized window into the enterprise. They offer users access to relevant content and applications. Because of this, it is obvious that the portal evolution will continue. What factors influence the adoption of portals? In order to study adoption, it is necessary that we talk about diffusion. Diffusion is the means by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system (Rodgers, 1995).

In our example, the content is portal diffusion, the innovation is portal, and the social system is the group of perspective users of portals in an organization. Adoption must be made before diffusion can occur. For study of the diffusion of portals in an organization, the organization first has to make a decision on the adoption of the innovation. In our example, this is the portal. Information about the innovation is then collected. This information then leads to the formation of perceptions about the innovation. A decision is then made whether to adopt or reject the innovation.

Mere adoption of technology does not provide the expected benefits until sustained diffusion is achieved (Quaddus & Xu, 2005). End users must infuse, routinise, and implement the innovation into their daily tasks (Saga & Zmud, 1994). The diffusion process starts from adoption of a technology and continues through various stages of infusion, routinisation, and adaptation until the technology becomes obsolete (Quaddus & Xu, 2005). Several factors influencing the diffusion of an innovation have been identified by researchers (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Davis, 1986; Norton & Bass, 1987). These authors suggest that external factors affect the perceptions of an innovation, which in turn impacts the diffusion of that innovation (Quaddus & Xu, 2005).

It is our belief that several factors affect the adoption of portals. These include motivation of adoption; things that would encourage people to use the portal; barriers to accessing the portal; experience; culture; accessibility. Perceived benefits are education and training; goals and budgets. These factors can be grouped into three categories: cost, user interface, context, and development. Although cost is an important factor that influences the adoption of portals, we believe that other factors would be the determining factors that influence its adoption.

The current design of Web portals is mainly focused on the general technical aspects of World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) <>; on Web technologies and the different proprietary approaches taken up (and even promoted) by the different IT and publishing software vendors, like Adobe and Microsoft (see http://www.adobe. com/ and Both the standardization and vendor-based solutions mostly ignore the aspects of HCI and usability of the portals in building up different technical “windows” to online information. Although some designers applied some HCI principles to their designs, these applications often failed to meet users’ needs. The reason is that traditional approaches to HCI design have limitations (Uden & Willis, 2000). These limitations include treating the human agents as passive elements, not autonomous agents that can regulate and coordinate their behaviour. It treats the actual use of the system as a short-term process. That is, it ignores the development process of the use of the application. Another problem is that design is often restricted to artificial laboratory conditions instead of actual practices. The design is not in context. There is consensus among researchers that the cognitive approach to HCI fails to take account of the social, organisational, and cultural context in relation to the goals, plan, and values of the user, or in the context of development. It is our belief that activity theory, the social cultural historical theory, provides us with the design and study of the adoption of portals. This chapter describes how activity theory can be affectively used in the design and study of the adoption of portals in society.


Activity theory was originated by Vygotsky (1978) in the former Soviet Union as a cultural psychology. It focuses on understanding human activity and work practices. Activity theory incorporates the notions of intentionality, mediation, history, collaboration, and development (Nardi, 1996). The unit of analysis is the entire activity. An activity consists of a subject and an object, mediated by a tool. A subject can be an individual or a group engaged in an activity. An activity is undertaken by a subject using tools to achieve an object (objective), thus transforming it into an outcome (Kuutti, 1996). Tools can be physical such as a hammer or psychological such as language, culture or ways of thinking. Computers are considered as special kinds of tools (mediating tools) (Kaptelinin 1996). An object can be a material thing, less tangible (a plan), or totally intangible (a common idea), as long as it can be shared by the activity participants (Kuutti, 1996). Activity theory also includes collective activity, community, rules, and division of labour that denote the situated social context within which collective activities are carried out. Community is made up of a number of people sharing the same object with the subject. Rules regulate actions and interactions with an activity. Division of labour informs how tasks are divided horizontally between community members. It also refers to any vertical division of power and status. Figure 1 shows Engestrom’s model (1987) of an activity system.

Figure 1. Basic structure of an activity

Basic structure of an activity

Just as artefacts or tools mediate the relationship between subject and object, rules mediate the relationship between subject and community. Similarly, division of labour mediates between community and object. Activity theory is often associated with three-level schemes describing the hierarchical structure of activity. Each activity is conducted through actions of an individual, directed towards an object (McGrath & Uden, 2000). An action is a single task with a goal performed to achieve a self-contained, preconceived result relevant to the overall activity. Actions are performed by a sequence of operations. Operations are the work functions or routines, with each action determined by the actual conditions and contexts of the action during its performance.

Because activities are not static, but more like nodes crossing hierarchies and networks, they are influenced by other activities and other changes in the environment. External influences change some elements of activities, causing imbalances between them (Kuutti, 1996). Contradictions are the terms given to misfits within elements, between them, between different activities or different developmental phase s of the same activity. They manifest themselves as problems, ruptures, breakdowns, clashes and so forth. Activities are virtually always in the process of working through contradictions that subsequently facilitate change.

The concept of contradiction is important in activity theory. According to Engestrom (1987), any activity system has four levels of contradictions that must be attended to in analysis of a working situation. Level 1 is the primary contradiction. It is the contradiction found within a single node of an activity. This contradiction emerges from tension between use value and exchange value. It permeates every single corner of the triangle and is the basic source of instability and development (Engestrom, 1987). Primary contradiction can be understood in terms of breakdowns between actions or sets of actions that realise the activity. Secondary contradictions are those that occur between the constituent nodes. For example, between the skills of the subject and the tool he/she is using, or between rules and tools. Tertiary contradiction arises between an existing activity and what is described as a more advanced form of that activity. This may be found when an activity is remodelled to take account of new motives or ways of working. Quaternary contradictions are contradictions between the central activity and the neighbouring activities, for example, instrument-producing, subject-producing, and rule-producing activities.

Benefits of Activity Theory for HCI Design and Studying of Adoption

Firstly, there are several benefits of using activity theory for designing usable interfaces for portals. Among these is that activity theory:

• offers an approach to conceptualise relationship between individuals, communities, technologies, and activities;

• models expertise as an active, collective phenomenon, and in the importance it ascribes to collective learning; and

• provides the understanding of context, in which computer supported activities take place during design and evaluation.

The author concurs with Engestrom (1999) that activity theory offers benefits for the analysis of innovative learning at work (Engestrom, 1999). The benefits include:

• Activity theory is deeply contextual and oriented at understanding historically specific local practices, their objects, mediating artefacts, and social organisation (Cole & Engestrom, 1993).

• Activity theory is a developmental theory that seeks to explain and influence qualitative changes in human practices over time.

• The use of mediating instruments. This mediating instrument makes it possible for an instrument to mediate and change a supporting activity as subjects invent their activities’ context.

• Activity theory enables the study and mastering of developmental processes. It regards contexts as dynamic systems mediated by cultural artefacts. In activity theory, contexts are seen as internally contradictory transformations, which imply transformations and discontinuous development.

Three principles from activity theory have important implications for our study. These are context, development and contradictions.


In activity theory, activity and context cannot be separated. The activity system itself is the context. Context is therefore the activity system, and the activity system is connected to other activity systems.

In activity theory, context is not persistent and fixed information. Continuous construction is going on between the components of an activity system. Humans not only use tools, they also continuously renew and develop them, either consciously or unconsciously. They not only use rules, but also transform them.

In the design, it is important to understand how things get done in a context, and why. This is because different contexts impose different practices. To analyse context, we need to know the beliefs, assumptions, models, and methods commonly held by the group members, how individuals refer to their experiences on other groups, what tools they found helpful in completing their problem, and so forth. In addition, there are also external or community driven contexts. These include issues such as (Jonassen & Rohrer Murphy, 1999):

What type of limitations are placed on the activity by the outside agencies?

How are tasks organised among the members of the group working toward the object? What is the structure of the social interaction surrounding this activity?

What activities considered to be critical? How flexible is the division of labour? How well are these roles and their contributions being evaluated? • What formal or informal rules, laws, or assignments guide the activities in which people engage?

Situated Context

The context within which a portal is adopted comprises of social, organizational, and technical issues that can be analysed at different levels of abstraction. Furthermore, the temporal interconnectedness needs to be taken into account explicitly (Pettigrew, 1990). Activity theory is ideal for analysing the adoption or diffusion of portals in an organization. The reason is that activity theory emphasizes the importance of a systemic analysis of an organizational setting by considering it as a network of activities


Activities are not static or rigid, they are constantly evolving. To understand a phenomenon means to know how it has developed into its existing form (Kaptelinin, 1996). This applies to all the elements of an activity. The current relationship between subject and object includes a condensation of the historical development of that relationship (Kuutti, 1996).

History is also important because it is not simply an event in the past, but also is alive in the present and may shape the future. The structures and behaviour of today’s learning reflect culture and circumstance-specific historical development (McMichael, 1999). Historical analysis allows existing and emerging organisational structures to be examined as the result of their evolutionary development, sometimes intentional and othertimes not. This means that we must also describe and analyse the development and tensions within the activity system (Boer, van Baalen, & Kumar, 2002).

Activity theory provides us a way of understanding the adaptation of portals. It helps to determine the ways in which artefacts are made sense of in everyday activity through historical context. This provides a basis for designing new technological artefacts that mediate activity in ways that are sensible and meaningful to the user. Based on the historical perspective, artefacts such as portals are not merely to be seen in functional terms, but as objects that bear meaning. The historical context can be reflected through its description of the activity system. It depicts the portal as an artefact that mediates between users and their uses. Recognising this historical context allows for an understanding of why an artefact has taken on such a role.


Contradictions are present in every collective activity. They indicate emergent opportunities for the activity development. Contradictions are not weakness, but signs of richness, and of mobility and the capacity of an organisation to develop rather than function in a fixed and static mode. They are not points of failure or deficits within the activity system in which they occur. They reveal the growing edge of the activity system, the place where growth buds are able to expand and expansive development takes place (Foot, 2001), and are starting places, not ending points. Contradictions are not problems to be fixed, and they cannot quickly transcend through technical solutions. Engestrom (2001) defines contradictions as historically accumulating structural tensions within and between activity systems (p. 137). Contradictions demand creative solutions.


It is our belief that there will be more Web sites on the Internet. These Web sites will get bigger, and the content will be more diverse. New services will be developed. Portals of the future will be more business-oriented, user centred, and integrated. For the portals to be usable, they must be designed so that they are easy to use and meet the users’ needs. Activity theory offers a theoretical approach that overcomes the limitations of tradition interface design. It takes into account the actual human activities and context of use. A highly usable portal would enable the fast adoption of portals. To study how portals are adopted, it is important to take the historical development into account. There are internal as well as external activities that have impact on the organisation portals. Activity theory provides us the powerful means of studying these different factors.


Activity Theory: Incorporates the notions of intention-ality, mediation, history, collaboration, and development (Nardi, 1996).

Diffusion: The means by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system (Rodgers, 1995).

Portal: A group of services provided electronically, through the Web, to a set of users.

Primary Contradiction: Can be understood in terms of breakdowns between actions or sets of actions that realise the activity.

Quaternary Contradictions: Contradictions between the central activity and the neighbouring activities.

Secondary Contradictions: Those that occur between the constituent nodes.

Situated Context: The context within which a portal is adopted comprises of social, organizational, and technical issues that can be analysed at different levels of abstraction.

Tertiary Contradiction: Arises between an existing activity and what is described as a more advanced form of that activity.

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