Cognition Matters: Enduring Questions in Cognitive IS Research

Article excerpt


We explore the history of cognitive research in information systems (IS) across three major research streams in which cognitive processes are of paramount importance: developing software, decision support, and human-computer interaction. Through our historical analysis, we identify "enduring questions" in each area. The enduring questions motivated long-standing areas of inquiry within a particular research stream. These questions, while perhaps unapparent to the authors cited, become evident when one adopts an historical perspective. While research in all three areas was influenced by changes in technologies, research techniques, and the contexts of use, these enduring questions remain fundamental to our understanding of how to develop, reason with, and interact with IS. In synthesizing common themes across the three streams, we draw out four cognitive qualities of information technology: interactivity, fit, cooperativity, and affordances. Together these cognitive qualities reflect IT's ability to influence cognitive processes and ultimately task performance. Extrapolating from our historical analysis and looking at the operation of these cognitive qualities in concert, we envisage a bright future for cognitive research in IS: a future in which the study of cognition in IS extends beyond the individual to consider cognition distributed across teams, communities and systems, and a future involving the study of rich and dynamic social and organizational contexts in which the interplay between cognition, emotion, and attitudes provides a deeper explanation of behavior with IS.

Keywords: Cognition, Interactivity, Fit, Affordances, Cooperativity, Systems Development, Decision Support Systems, Human-Computer Interaction

1. Introduction

In 1977, several landmark events occurred in the information systems (IS) discipline. MIS Quarterly was established as one of the first journals dedicated to the new field. Management Science published the "Minnesota experiments" paper (Dickson, Senn, & Chervany, 1977), since cited more than 250 times (Harzing, 2011). While MIS Quarterly is hallowed as a premier journal in the field, research from a cognitive perspective, such as the Minnesota experiments, has not received such broad recognition. Yet, nearly a quarter of all recipients of AIS Fellow awards1 pursued a cognitive-related topic in their PhD program. Our purpose here is to explore the evolution of cognitive research in IS, and in so doing, identify its future directions and potential for contribution. Consistent with calls to focus on the IT artifact in IS research (Benbasat & Zmud, 2003; Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001), much cognitive research in IS has centered on the IT artifact. With a focus on the IT artifact, and history to the early days of the field, an historical analysis of cognitive research in IS provides a unique opportunity to examine the evolution of IS research with an eye to the future.

The term "cognitive psychology" was coined by Neisser (1967), who describes cognition as "the activity of knowing: the acquisition, organization and use of knowledge" (Neisser, 1976, p. 1). Cognition entails both knowledge structures (organization) and processes (acquisition and use) that occur within a given of (human) cognitive architecture (e.g., short-term vs. long-term memory, and so forth). In parallel, an IS can be viewed as an IT artifact for the "acquisition, organization and use of knowledge". Cognitive psychology is, thus, of fundamental relevance to IS, indeed it is sometimes referred to as information processing psychology.

In our exploration of past cognitive research within IS and the future possibilities it offers, we are cognizant of what Weber (2003) calls the "error of inclusion" - researching questions that are part of the reference discipline rather than IS. Our interest is the advancement of IS as a discipline, not of cognitive psychology. Therefore, while we may borrow insight, theory, and methods from a reference discipline, we must address phenomena "that are not the focus of other disciplines" or "applications of theories from other disciplines or straightforward extensions of these theories" (Weber, 2003, p. …