Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Conceptions of an Information System and Their Use in Teaching about IS

Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Conceptions of an Information System and Their Use in Teaching about IS

Article excerpt

Introduction

What is the nature of an information system? This controversial question in IS research is central to the discipline, practice and teaching of IS. This paper considers and reports on:

* the need for IS practitioners and teachers to understand the nature of an IS

* the responsibility of IS education for the development of adequate conceptions of an IS in students

* a review of some of the reported research into the nature of an IS

* the results of an investigation into the conceptions of an IS held by a number of students, users, academics and practitioners

* strategies for assisting students to develop an adequate understanding of the nature of an IS.

We hope that the findings and ideas expressed in this paper will improve our teaching and our students' learning about the nature of an IS, resulting in better-prepared graduates and more informed IS practitioners.

Background

Effective analyst-client communication is crucial to system success. The most important outcome of requirements gathering is a shared perception of the system requirements (Tan 1994, Urquhart 1997). To achieve this outcome, Urquhart found that the analyst and client use interactional tactics (for example imagining and metaphors) in their conversations to facilitate conceptualization of the required IS. Poor communication is likely if the systems analyst is not competent at both interactional tactics and conceptualizing information systems (Urquhart 1997) or the analyst and client bring different conceptual frameworks to the conversations and these differences are not resolved (Tan 1994). Ineffective communication has been consistently related to user-dissatisfaction (Thorn 1995). End-user dissatisfaction is related to poor system utilization (Yaverbaum and Nosek 1992).

Although we recognize the importance of research into conversational techniques during requirements gathering, we are concerned with the problem of conceptualizing information systems. An inadequate IS solution is likely to be produced if a systems analyst:

1. has a poor understanding of the general nature of an IS, as this is likely to result in an inadequate conceptualization of the required IS and/or

2. lacks awareness that the client may have a different perception of the nature of an IS, as this can lead to inadequate communication.

So, where do systems analysts develop their understanding of the general nature of an IS and their awareness of the different perceptions held by their clients? Clearly, IS education has a responsibility to produce graduates who have an adequate understanding of the nature of an IS. We agree with Weber (1996) that most curricula fail to address this fundamental question and hence fail to develop the appropriate conceptions in students. Although the IS '95 curriculum specification for IS degrees (Longenecker et al 1995) identifies desirable course structures and graduate characteristics and mentions systems theory as providing a basis for understanding the major components of the discipline, it does not address the issue of the nature of an IS. Simply providing a textbook definition, as most courses do, is inadequate because learning a definition is a long way from developing a deep understanding.

Even when IS academics wish to address this issue with students there is a difficulty because the true nature of an IS is still being debated in the literature. The debate focuses on whether an IS is primarily a social system or a technical system.

Land (1992) conceptualizes an IS as a social system. His IS consists of 4 components: the information users, the part of the real world in which the information users are operating, the formal system and the informal system. The relevant part of the real world is made up of objects, people, rules, norms and commands. The formal system consists of a variety of artifacts which include the organizational structure, communication channels, all forms of hardware, including the equipment which runs and takes advantage of the communication channels, software tools, training and help facilities. …

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