An Employment-Oriented Definition of the Information Systems Field: An Educator's View

By Westfall, Ralph D. | Journal of Information Systems Education, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

An Employment-Oriented Definition of the Information Systems Field: An Educator's View


Westfall, Ralph D., Journal of Information Systems Education


1. INTRODUCTION

Defining information systems is much like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Like the elephant, the field is huge. As with the blind men, there are many different perspectives. Reflecting this ambiguity, the general public often has difficulties distinguishing information systems from computer science. Wikipedia's definition (2012)--"Information Systems (IS) is an academic/professional discipline bridging the business field and the well-defined computer science field"--hints at this definitional problem through an implicit contrast between IS and the "well-defined" discipline of computer science.

IS academics agree that the field is concerned with information and organizations, and for all practical purposes includes computers. Beyond that, what is included and excluded varies widely. Alter (2008, p. 448) notes that, "The lack of an agreed upon definition of information system (IS) is one of many obstacles troubling the [field]." And this is a significant problem, because the definition of any academic field is quite important to the stakeholders. For internal stakeholders it helps focus the topics of research and teaching in the field. Externally it affects students' decisions to choose this or some other major, and may impact employers' hiring decisions.

This definitional issue has been subject to investigation and debate since the establishment of the field in the 1960s. IS has generally been defined in broad terms to accommodate the many different subtopics that academics want to include in the field. This has led to problems because it is difficult to provide a definition that is inclusive enough to mollify all the various constituencies without making the definition too vague to be meaningful or useful in determining topics that should or should not be researched and taught within academic programs.

Most previous attempts at definition have also been problematic because they have not focused on what is or should be taught in the field. One of the rationales for research in any academic field is to inform teaching (Clark, 1997) but the potential to do so is somewhat dependent on the amount of congruence between what is being taught and what is being researched. The weaker the relationship between these areas, the fewer opportunities there are to inform teaching.

Banville and Landry (1989, p. 58) note both the amorphous definition of the field and also its employment-oriented nature in the following quote: "MIS is a fragmented field or, to put it in other words, an essentially pluralistic scientific field, especially in view of its vocational character." However they didn't follow through on the vocational aspect with any suggestion of a necessary relationship between what is taught and what types of employment students were expecting.

Hattie and Marsh's meta-analysis (1996) raised serious questions about the supposed carryover from research into teaching. They reported that the "overall relationship between quality of teaching and research was slightly positive. On the basis of 498 correlations from the 58 studies, the weighted average correlation was .06. There was less than .1% of the total variability in common" (p. 525). Note that the measures of teaching quality included studies that used multiple measures--student-, peer--and/or self-evaluations.

Given the breadth of the field and diversity of interests, it might not be possible to ever achieve a definition of this field that would be accepted as the dominant perspective. This suggests that having more than one definition, with distinct definitions focused on different purposes, might be at least a useful complement to a "one size fits all" approach.

As a sample implementation of a definition targeted toward a specific purpose, this paper suggests a specialized definition focused on the topics that students need to learn to prepare them for the types of careers that are and will be available in this field. …

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