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What is an information system

By mark ·
markjl
11/6/08

Typically one thinks of an information system as being the internal management system such as the ordering system, the payment system, resource management system etc. that the company uses. A good example is an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system which deals with the whole supply chain. (See a later section for a definition / description of an ERP).

Although this is true it is also limiting since, there is generally not one IT system and second, the IT systems are not the only information systems that a business uses. The IT systems can therefore be best defined as the formal information systems. There are however, also the informal or non-structured information systems. These are typically the verbal systems, the satellite IT systems and the external systems. See wikipaedia for a further definition. While these systems are not the formal ones and the formal ones are often the known backbone of an organisation, a business information system should be understood to include the people networks too.

Why? Make no mistake, it is not sufficient to implement an accounting system and expect a company to run. Although this may seem obvious, the fact that people need to communicate and need systems, methods, and channels to do so is not always considered. So a business information system should also include the escalation and delegation channels such as regular team or board meetings and the communiqu?s that issue from them, notice-boards, email systems, intranets, document sharing sites, the internet etc.

What to do about this?

One approach is simply to be aware of the different systems in play. However what happens in the time of crisis, when people leave and suddenly productivity drops? One notices that information holders are crucial. What is the solution to this? Insist on information sharing? Prohibit information retention? or build an information system which incites, encourages, rewards information sharing and helps people to understand that information is the life-blood of an organisation.

So how to do this? Focus on tools, on methods, on training, brainstorming, cooperation or goodwill? All these things. This is where it is crucial to understand that company attitude is crucial to the functioning or dis-functioning of a company information system.

First a typical information system. While there is no "typical" information system as such since all organisations are unique. The example is given to demonstrate the idea of what we see as a typical system such as a simple purchasing and sales system.

The aim here is to contrast with the wider information system which not only includes the formal management system and satellite IT systems but also informal networks and systems. The key here is to understand that these systems, whether vital or not, formalised or not, do exist and have an effect, directly or indirectly on business operations. This topic is examined further later.

A more concrete approach may be to examine in the short term the various formal IT systems. This is certainly easier, because their functionality can be or may already be documented through technical analysis. An appraisal can be made of where functionality overlaps and a plan made to build a new all-encompassing system (or consciously remove or do without some functionality)

What is information systems architecture and how does one go about it?

Simply put, the approach here is twofold. One is to formalise the documentation of formal systems. This means ensuring that existing functionality and procedures are written down so that the information system remains "known" despite the coming and going over time of different people. (It useful to ensure in your quality system that this documentation is managed and at the very least updated when changes are made)

Second, the approach is to document (formally) the informal systems. Does this seem like a paradox? Not necessarily. Formal documentation of informal systems means, generally using a formal methodology (notation) to document informal systems. And in the best case to use the same notation for both formal and informal systems. Why? Simply to be able create one single top level overview of the company information system.

Using a methodology.

Why use a methodology, what is the added value of a methodology and why not do something else? The answer is simple. First we aim to use, as much as possible, a graphical tool. Although a clich?, it still rings true that a picture speaks a thousand words. This is true for information systems design more than ever, since systems are more complex than ever. Second, a graphical tool has codes which mean the same thing throughout. In UML (as above) a little man means an actor (either human or systemic) and an oval means a use case. In SSADM, boxes mean processes and so on. The point here is consistency. When a symbol is used it means the same thing everywhere and links between symbols mean that things interact in the same way.

This all means one thing; clarity and readability. And this is essential when documenting and when communicating the sense of things. When I send my documentation to others or it is consulted, it is more easily understood. (rem interviewing techniques; where when a question is asked, the interviewee is asked to repeat what they have understood). The same difficulty occurs here: reducing ambiguity saves time.

Conclusion

Ok well that's all well and good but what is the point? The point is that with a vision of what an information system is, what information is used in the organisation, what the difference is with just the formal systems, what the impact and presence of informal systems has on operations one can determine whether both the formal systems are adequate, whether the informal systems function "properly" and even whether some of the informal systems can be or should be formalised in whole or in part.

To do this accurately and cost effectively, documentation (formalisation) is required, especially when using external contractors or consultants. Indeed, why use external contractors? Because it is rare that an internal manager has the time, the mandate, the motivation to effect such an analysis and because quite often this type of work requires specialist skills.

Why is documentation required? To enable discussion, debate and decision making. Documentation, while useful to store for reference, is most useful when talking. And what are we talking about here? How an organisation functions, how it can be improved, where savings can be made and productivity improved, how lives and processes can be made smoother and easier and, the bottom line, how to make more profit, of course.

All this may smack of business process re-engineering and other like buzzwords of the past. And it is. But that's no reason to ignore it and its no reason not to do it and we don't necessarily need another buzzword. However, what is important is to focus on operations, efficiency, improvement by eliminating duplication, rework, inefficiency and by reducing business reactivity through efficient system processing.

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Oooooooooooo-kay.

by CharlieSpencer In reply to What is an information sy ...

I'll take free slaps from anyone who wades through this and summarizes it in 25 words or less. I'll even take the helmet off first.

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Not even trying

by GSG In reply to Oooooooooooo-kay.

Is this like a manifesto?

Makes me wonder if this is some kid writing a paper for school and thought he'd post it here and we'd make corrections for him.

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Wow.

by boxfiddler Moderator In reply to What is an information sy ...

A methodology for collecting, storing, maintaining, and disbursing information.

edit: no wading, but I'll answer OP's question in 25 words or less. Does that count, Palmy?

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Slap away, boxy!

by CharlieSpencer In reply to Wow.

<Ouch>

<OUCH>

Hey, who said you could use mae's shovel?

<OUCHOUCHOUCH>

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Put that helmet back on

by boxfiddler Moderator In reply to Slap away, boxy!

This could be fun. B-)

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I always thought you were that kind of girl

by CharlieSpencer In reply to Put that helmet back on

"Cruel to be kind", huh?

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Is this something you turned in for a grade?

by CaptBilly1Eye In reply to What is an information sy ...

Did you pass and are looking for praise.
or
Did you fail and are looking for sympathy?

...Sorry Mark, you probably won't get either here.

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Your a sarcastic lot aren't you

by mark In reply to What is an information sy ...

Apart from all the remarks about this being a grade paper etc, is there anything interesting you might have to say? Since there is a point here, and while it might be a bit long ...
1. There are formal and informal systems
2. The world has changed and the informal systems are much more important than before but much more difficult to define and
3. Its a challenge, is it not, to document and describe them.

P.S. My background is not grade school but 15 years in multinationals. So mock you might but documenting things is pretty usual and useful in that environment, mostly when you need to know quickly what the info system does. This is not just about screwdrivers but writing manuals and guides
and accompanying business managers through change.

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Yes, we are. Who were you writing for?

by CharlieSpencer In reply to Your a sarcastic lot aren ...

This is called a Discussions forum; posting here implies you want to discuss something. You posted a -very- long piece of text without explaining why you posted it or what type of feedback you were looking for. Without any indicators of what you wanted, we reverted to our default sarcastic mode.

This isn't an archive or web-based storage area. If your goal is storing documentation, this is probably the wrong place to do it. Who is your target audience?

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A discussion [forum]

by mark In reply to Yes, we are. Who were yo ...

My proposal [for debate] is:
IT systems are often formal but people and people networks are not and do not [always] adhere to procedures. How can a business account for this in the context of an IT system which runs their business? How to improve communication on informal matters and yet say "this is part of my information system"? Forums? Mail? Portals? How to structure the unstructured and make it useful? Knowledge bases? These systems to me seem flawed and time consuming for this purpose. I'm asking for suggestions and discussion on what could be better.

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