Index

Computing and Information Systems
Volume 3 Number 1
Editorial



What is the use of Information Systems?

Malcolm Crowe


Introduction

The viewpoint of this editorial is similar to a previous one entitled "What is the use of software engineering?" (Jan 1994). Both were written from outside the subject, and intended to provoke discussion. As with the earlier article, there is a feeling that the subject in question has a value, but that it has lost its way, no doubt temporarily.

What is Information Systems?

There have recently been attempts to establish Information Systems as a discipline, with, for example, the founding of the UK Academy of Information Systems. The starting point of this article, then, is that there is something (singular) called Information Systems, which has a value to academia and the world in general. This should concern itself in a general way with information systems (plural), which are mental constructs related to information in organisations (which are arguably themselves mental constructs).

Information Systems research is not the same as Soft Systems Methodology. SSM (introduced in Checkland, 1981) was intended to address the study of human activity systems, not information systems. Some definitions of human activity systems given by Checkland would appear to exclude many information systems, since the components of human activity systems are often limited to human activities, while information systems might have as components people, documents, office equipment, etc. Thus while there is an overlap between human activity systems and information systems, they are not the same, nor is one a special case of the other. Not surprisingly, attempts to apply SSM to information systems (Mingers 1995, Lewis 1993) have encountered serious obstacles, perhaps partly because of the elusive nature of information in organisations, which has been insufficiently studied for this purpose. Stowell (1995) observes:

It will soon become evident to the reader that while the authors have been influenced by SSM as a useful methodology in its own right, the stimulation for their work owes as much to Checkland's contribution to systems thinking as to SSM.

Information Systems research (Galliers, 1993) addresses the issues that arise in the study of information, its growth, accumulation and manipulation, in organisations. Organisations themselves represent a theme of research (Lyytinen, 1987), and in considering them and the associated information processes, systems ideas have been found useful (see Crowe et al 1995 for an overview).

It can be taken for granted that anyone who says anything coherent about business processes or business data has some sort of mental model of the business organisation being considered. Such a model, to be relevant to what is being said about processes or data, would have to deal, albeit crudely, with the relationship between process and data. A useful lesson from Checkland's work has been that models of the business organisation and its processes cannot be taken for granted: there is in general no agreement about that an organisation is or what it is trying to do, still less about how it might do it, or do it more effectively.

Weltanschauung

Checkland's original book (1981) drew on earlier traditions (Churchman, 1971) to assert the importance of considering the people involved (owner, client, agent) and environment when constructing mental models of human activity (transformation). Such a model, according to Checkland, should also include the Weltanschauung it imputes to the people involved: a view of the situation, an interpretation of roles and mission, a perspective on what modes of discussion are appropriate.

The word Weltanschauung has no exact parallel in English since it combines two concepts in one: a way of perceiving (anschauen) reality (Welt), and experience (anschauung) of the world (Welt). In the word, these concepts are inseparable, and the appeal of the concept for many writers lies in this inseparability of interpretation from experience.

Dilthey (1910) beautifully described how an individual Weltanschauung develops from experiences in the world. From each of life's relationships the whole of life is coloured and interpreted in sensitive and thoughtful minds, and individuals adopt different basic attitudes, some clinging to the tangible, down-to-earth things, while others pursue great purposes. These different attitudes to life, for Dilthey, form the lower stratum of the formation of Weltanschauung. In the higher forms of the Weltanschauung, what is understood becomes a basis for exploration of the incomprehensible. The apprehension of reality forms the basis for evaluating circumstances in terms of approval and disapproval: and this valuation in turn becomes the lower stratum for determining the will.

Dilthey described a process by which these stages are repeated and the Weltanschauung continues to develop:

thus, gradually, in the course of time, it achieves permanence, definiteness and power: it is a product of history. ... Weltanschauungen are not products of thought. They do not originate from the mere will to know. The comprehension of reality is an important factor in their formation, but only one. They emerge from our attitude to, and knowledge of, life and from our whole mental structure.

The Weltanschauung of each individual develops as described by Dilthey and includes a view of reality in terms which to the individual seem familiar and coherent. Einstein (1954) describes a process of appreciation of reality not unlike that of Dilthey's for the development of the Weltanschauung:

the first step in the setting of a 'real external world' is the formation of the concept of bodily objects and of bodily objects of various kinds. Out of the multitude of our sense experiences we take, mentally and arbitrarily, certain repeatedly occurring complexes of sense impressions (partly in conjunction with sense impressions which are taken as signs for sense impressions of others), and we correlate to them a concept the concept of the bodily object. Considered logically this concept is not identical with the totality of sense impressions referred to; but it is a free creation of the human (or animal) mind. On the other hand, this concept owes its meaning and its justification exclusively to the totality of the sense impressions which we associate with it.

Feyerabend (1987) quoting this passage, finds it too positivistic in approach, and too reliant on the notions of a single individual observer. From the point of view of modern systems thinking, certainly, the Weltanschauung develops in communication with others. To be human is to communicate with other humans. In this process we are enriched by the experience of others, and as we adopt a common language (e.g. as a child adapting to one or more received languages), we adopt also some associated attitudes and understandings, ways of attaching meaning to things in the world, ways of building up a conception of the world, values and principles of action. It is our individual Weltanschauung that is being built in this process, and yet to the extent that the language, attitudes etc of others are adopted, we may speak of a collective Weltanschauung.

If individuals have little in common, than any collective Weltanschauung must be limited to this small amount. The emergence at the level of, for example, scientific or other communities of individuals, of shared viewpoints, ways of looking at the world, or principles of what it would be good to do next, indicates the development of a collective Weltanschauung.

This notion, Checkland noted, had strong links with Vickers' ideas of culture and appreciation. The idea of culture as a shared tradition of collective notions is really quite general, cf. Eliot (1964):

For to understand the culture is to understand the people, and this means an imaginative understanding. Such understanding can never be complete: either it is abstract and the essence emerges or else it is lived: and in so far as it is lived, the student will tend to identify himself so completely with the people whom he studies, that he will lose the point of view from which it was worth while and possible to study it. Understanding involves an area more extensive than those of which one can be conscious; one cannot be outside and inside at the same time. [emphasis in original]

Weltanschauung is closely related to culture. It is precisely the hardest part of the analyst's job to appreciate the internal culture of a new organisation. Focussing too much on this aspect would demonstrate the impossibility of setting SSM problems in a university course, since students by their nature have no way of taking sufficient time to gain an appreciation of the problem environment. Regrettably, and perhaps for this reason, Checkland de-emphasised Weltanschauung in Soft Systems Methodology, to such an extent that in his later work, and virtually all the secondary literature, any Weltanschauung is merely to be sketched in a few words - a far cry from the notion of world-experience.

Such simplification renders SSM-like exercises trivial and useless, as the famous gor-tonking example showed. The lessons for information systems research from all this is the importance of maintaining the notion of appreciative context of information to respect its subtlety and complexity.

Hermeneutics

Checkland (1981) refers also to the hermeneutic tradition, extending the notion of the understanding of texts to understanding more generally. Many of the shared concepts, and the traditions we draw on in using them are ancient or remote to us in other ways, and much of ths background to those concepts is therefore not part of our direct experience. There has been an unhelpful tradition in Western philosophy, in reacting to this problem of culture, to focus on the individual thinker, as a kind of perfect logician, in "heroic mood" reconstructing all of the preceding scientific and technological tradition through individual reasoning and experimentation.

The hermeneutic approach is quite different. It recognises (e.g. Susman and Evered 1978) that no knowledge is possible without presuppositions. In fact Schleiermacher had observed that:

We cannot fully understand a language, a person, or a text, unless we understand its parts, but we cannot fully understand the parts unless we understand the whole. Thus at each level we are involved in a hermeneutical circle, a continual reciprocity between whole and parts; a significant 'text can never be understood right away every reading puts us in a better position to understand since it increases our knowledge'.

This was restated by Dilthey as follows:

The whole must be understood in terms of its individual parts, individual parts in terms of the whole. To understand the whole of a work we must refer to its author and associated literature. Such a comparative procedure allows one to understand every individual work, indeed, every individual sentence, more profoundly than we did before. So understanding of the whole and of the parts are interdependent.

Action Research

The kind of learning cycle referred to by Scleiermacher has some similarities with the action research paradigm of Susman and Evered, but some caution is required here, since their cycle is one of action, not merely reading a text: intervention in a situation seen as problematical. The cycle of action research goes through five stages.

The background to the development of the ideas of action research by Susman and Evered, was the failure of some large-scale operational research-based interventions in California and sub-Saharan Africa. In their view it was essential for analysts to immerse themselves as thoroughly as possible in the culture before proposing action, and examine the consequences of their intervention afterwards, to reassess the situation and deepen their knowledge of the situation, before having another go at proposing action. T S Eliot (Eliot 1964) has a similar concept of action:

"We shall try to improve it in this respect or the other, where excess or defect is evident; we must try at the same time to embrace so much in our view, that we may avoid, in putting things right, putting something else wrong." Even this is to express an aspiration greater than we can achieve, for it is as much, or more, because of what we do piecemeal without understanding or foreseeing the consequences, that the culture or our age differs from that of its predecessors.

Rorty (1989, p.56) observes in relation to deliberate changes:

.. the terms used by the founders of a new form of cultural life will consist largely in borrowings from the vocabulary of the culture which they are hoping to replace. Only when the new form has grown old, has itself become the target of attacks from the avant-garde, will the terminology of that culture begin to take form. The terminology in which a mature culture compares other cultures invidiously with itself, in which it couches its apologetics, are not likely to be the terms which were used to bring about its birth.


Checkland, as an operational researcher, refers to Susman and Evered's work and also felt keenly the need for a new paradigms avoiding the errors of systems analysis as practised in the 1960s by the Rand Corporation. Checkland's contribution in SSM can be seen as his contribution to analysts' ensuring they embrace as much as possible in their view.

Checkland applied the term "action research" to the manner in which SSM was developed. Susman and Evered envisage the analyst learning more about the situation of concern, and available mechanisms of intervention: they are not concerned to improve the methodology. There would appear to be serious difficulties with Susman and Evered's approach if it was to be applied to many application areas at once: if the shared worldview sought between the analyst and the clients was to be shared with many groups of clients.

Checkland's version of action research claims to improve the research methodology through learning by applying it to many domains. It is not clear, at least from the secondary literature, what improvements have actually been made to SSM during this process, despite the hundreds of applications of SSM that have appeared since 1981. Reviewing these in 1990 (Checkland and Scholes, 1990), a more subtle "type 2" model for SSM was suggested by Checkland, which is a totally generic learning cycle, as is found in operational research, engineering, or science generally (Checkland 1995):

'Mode 2', in its most extreme form, would consist of users making sense of a problem-solving activity by trying to describe it to themselves using the epistemology that defines SSM.

As noted above, perhaps it is the approach of SSM, and generally the interpretivist paradigm, that is the real contribution, rather than the details of the methodology itself. The real value, of course, of carrying out the kind of analysis described by SSM, in learning about an organisation, is precisely to be able to take useful action: to change priorities, responsibilities, allocate resources, delegate tasks etc for the greater benefit of the organisation. Thus, although in principle the learning cycle is never-ending, at some point the customer wants to see a clearer path ahead (Checkland, 1995):

analysis is never enough: beyond analysis it is necessary to create something - to make something happen, to 'engineer' something. ... [but] the outside world would never interpret the word 'engineering' in this broad sense...

Many people have recently focussed on the value to the organisation of its own learning activities (Senge, 1993, Schein, 1993); the way that culture grows more or less naturally in any successful organisation. Carrying through SSM may actually enhance people's perception of organisational learning, but it is not the only, or even the normal, way that it occurs.

Cult of "the analyst"

An uncomfortable legacy of the operational research origins of SSM is the cult of the analyst. It is striking that in all the documented failures of computerised systems, i.e. failures of software engineering, it is the technology that is blamed rather than the process of analysis that underlay the failure. At least Checkland and Susman and Evered pinned the blame appropriately in the examples they considered.

But in both there is still too much mystery and mumbo-jumbo about these skilled practitioners whose ministrations are essential for even the simplest organisational change processes. Like their psychoanalyst counterparts, ordinary mortals are not allowed to criticise the pronouncements or methods of the analyst. They know best, and if things don't work out, they will find someone else to blame. Even in "critical systems thinking" (Jackson 1992), despite all its talk of emancipation, there appears to be no interest in enabling the client to do their own thinking.

Stowell and West (1994) have proposed "Client-Led Design", summarised as follows (in Stowell, 1995, p.xii):

Client-led design is defined as an attempt to demystify technology and provide the client with greater control over the definition and specification of business information systems. By providing clients with a means of expressing their information needs, the IS requirements for the whole enterprise can be more readily appreciated by all those involved. The idea behind the approach is to provide clients with simple but powerful ideas that will allow them, firstly, to express their information system requirements and then participate in the whole design process.

This, it seems to me, does not really amount to empowerment. The users are merely being given a new set of ideas to express their requirements, and a seat at the experts' table. Empowerment means self-sufficiency.

There used to be a cult of forms design. Ordinary business people were unable to design their business forms, and consultants were required to do it for them. This rather simple task had its own mysterious high-priesthood (and "systems analysts"), nicely satirised by C Northcote Parkinson. It is laughable today, since advances in technology have reduced the costs of producing new forms (e.g. with word processing software and photocopiers). It is attractive to think that many current domains of pseudo-expertise will go the same way, with the development of simple tools. For example, what is done nowadays by end-users using spreadsheets, required programming by experts (or hand calculations): the emergence of suitable tools and methods is what is required, not new ways of expressing our requirements to experts.

In software engineering, the only sensible way forward (Crowe 1995) is to forget big projects and concentrate on empowering end-users to develop their own solutions, free of gobbledygook and experts. Similarly, in information systems, the solution must be to dispense with analysts. In software engineering, products are designed for markets, not for individual customers: individual customers can provide feedback about what extra features might be useful, and there is a role for experts in helping people find out what's available.

Similarly, in organisational analysis, the people best placed to reflect on what they are doing are those who are doing it. This is not very different from total quality management mechanisms: where these have not worked it has usually been because of a cynicism that the kind of changes that were required were unlikely to happen. What is needed, therefore, are ways of improving organisational learning, so that reflecting on the organisation and how it can develop becomes a normal part of everyone's job, as does carrying such ideas through into action.

Info-sclerosis

In relation to information systems, especially of the computerised variety, the problem in business is that while everyone is able to tell you how awful the computer system is (inflexible in not allowing even routine variations, inappropriately detailed in places, inaccurate, incomplete, etc), nobody is in a position to improve things: they are not empowered by their tools (cf. Friedman 1989).

Requests for changes meet with deaf ears, or absurd cost estimates. There is a kind of info-sclerosis, with existing bad practices frozen in place.

The technology certainly exists to overcome problems of inflexibility. There are certain extremely routine areas where standard forms are a legal requirement (e.g. accounting systems), but in general, the specification of rigid forms for things, fixed field sizes, etc ought to be a thing of the past, a relic of printed stationery. Cross-references of any kind ought to be easy nowadays.

So why do the problems persist? Simply, people have not made aspects of flexibility per se their first requirement. Too readily they accept a redesigned form for an intractable process, rather than insisting on doing without forms altogether. People should be more radical in their demands: technology is a good servant but a bad master.

What happens when you computerise things?

In some of the Information Systems literature, the impression is given that everything in a computer is objective, so that somehow, storing something in a computer "changes its ontological status". It is no more true than the impression gained from Checkland (1981) that what he calls 'public knowledge' (e.g. in a newspaper) is objective. Something published in a newspaper or on a computer is intended to be widely understood and used, but this is a very different matter from being objectively true.

Most people would consider that storing a document in a filing cabinet, using a typewriter or word processor to format it, sending it by fax, or scanning it into a computer makes no difference to the ontological status of the information readers would gain from it.

There is a spectrum of computerisation, however, that stretches from simple use of office equipment to the use of special software. Formerly, some ways of doing this have tended to alienate of "users" from the processes involved, and led to a suspicion of computerisation generally. Opportunities exist today for more human-centred, personalised forms of assistance, which hold out the hope of genuinely valuing individual contribution and initiative, and contributing to organisational learning.

None of this, however, affects ontological or epistemological status of the data or even the information that individuals might gain from it. In relation to computer software, computer scientists understand very well that there is no right way of implementing anything: and any implementor's final choice is no more than that. Thus in particular, data models, since they are part of implementation of a data processing system, are not objective: they have merely been chosen by the implementation team.

Outside of the research laboratory, things are computersied only if an advantage is perceived in doing so. Usually these days, this is to improve responsiveness, or simplify a process, reducing rework. For example, the popularity of word-processors and spreadsheets is attributable simply to the reduction in retyping and recomputation of business analyses that their use has brought. Linking up data sources could result in savings of re-typing information, and this is happening bit by bit.

Information Systems analysis

Data can be stored on paper in filing cabinets, or digitally on computer storage media. In neither case is it information, though some of it may be intelligible, thus potentially informing suitably knowledgeable readers. In the typical business organisation most such data is redundant, wasteful, or misleading. The challenge of information systems analysis is to identify such redundancy, eliminate waste, and ensure that data is better understood (Mingers, 1995):

It should be possible to keep a number of different conceptual models/Ws going throughout the process and to try to develop systems that are compatible with them all. This may well involve maintaining different definitions of apparently the same concept. ... the same system might appear quite differently to different users and would contain different concepts and sets of information, each reflecting different shared views of reality.

If the information system is even partly computerised, this can only be done by someone who knows enough about the technology to appreciate the possibilities and pitfalls, and enough about organisations not to take simplistic "solutions" or "specifications" at face value. Computerisation is getting easier and more affordable all the time: this is the easy bit; while the hard bit is letting go: empowering the end-user rather than prescribing what in our over-simplified (reductionist) view of things is what they need.

We all need to work together to make the current breed of dinosaur extinct.

Conclusions

Summarising the points made above: from the viewpoint of this paper it seems that Information Systems, as a discipline, should

References

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What is the use of software engineering? Computing and Information Systems, 1 (1994) p.59-64

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Schleiermacher, F.:
the quotation is from Honderich, T. (ed.): Oxford Companion to Philosophy, OUP, 1995

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M. K. Crowe is the Head of the Department of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Paisley

Index

University of Paisley, 1996.