I've been writing about Information Systems for over three decades, mostly to I.S. professionals, and I've spent in inordinate amount of time trying to clarify our terminology and concepts, as well as dispel basic misconceptions about systems. For example, there are those who believe an Information System is a computer. Sorry but, No, that is a piece of equipment, a tool used within a system. Then there are those who think it is a computer program or collection of programs like what you find on an iPhone. As an aside, the word "app" (for "application") is indicative of the sloppy thinking in the industry; an "application" of what? No, let's call a spade, a spade; they're not "apps," they're "programs," but I digress.
Perhaps the biggest misconception regarding Information Systems is that you cannot have one without a computer. Sorry, but this is simply not so. The day a company goes into business, large or small, is the day when its Information Systems are born. For example, companies need to routinely manage their finances, pay employees, manufacture products, process customer orders, manage assets and inventory, schedule deliveries, etc. This has been going on well before the advent of the computer. The only difference is systems were implemented by manual processes as opposed to computer automation.
Perhaps the best way to think of an Information System is as an orderly arrangement or grouping of processes dedicated to producing information to support the actions and decisions of a business. Hundreds of years ago, systems were implemented using logs, journals, ledgers, spreadsheets, and filing cabinets. Over time, equipment was introduced in the form of such things as cash registers, typewriters, adding machines, and tabulating equipment, all of which eventually gave way to the computer. Incidentally, there are many manual processes still in our companies serving critical business functions, much more than you might think, most of which are not properly documented.
When I teach a basic class in this subject, I ask the students to design a totally manual system just to overcome the handicap of only thinking in terms of computers. For those imbued in programming, this exercise represents an epiphany and teaches them to think outside the box. Suddenly they realize writing a program is only a small part of a much larger puzzle.
The reason people have trouble understanding the difference between systems and programs is actually quite simple; a program is much more tangible than a system. You can touch and feel a program, particularly its screens, reports and source code; but a system is much less tangible as you are talking about several business processes that operate routinely, and are implemented by people and technology that will come and go over time.
This brings up an interesting point, the basic business processes of a system (aka "sub-systems") are logical in nature and only change when information requirements change. They are implemented by manual procedures and computer programs that are physical in nature and change dynamically as technology changes, but the business process remains essentially the same. Consider this, for any company who has been implementing payroll for a number of years; Has the process of paying your employees really changed or was it the method of its implementation? If, years ago, you paid your employees on a weekly or monthly basis, you are probably still doing so. The only thing that has changed is physically how you have been doing it. Whereas you may have started out preparing payroll manually years ago, this was probably replaced by a commercial package to do the same thing, which has probably been updated or replaced several times; but your employees are still paid weekly or monthly aren't they?
Next time someone promises you a womb to the tomb Information System on a computer, remind them that the first on-line, real-time, interactive, data base system was double-entry bookkeeping which was developed by the merchants of Venice in 1200 A.D. .... and there wasn't a computer within miles of it.
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Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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