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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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I'm not pedant

by CharlieSpencer In reply to You have, in this thread

I wear briefs.

mark, off-topic posts are acceptable, even expected around here. The community policy is to let a discussion wander where it will. About the only things out of bounds are unsolicited spam, gross vulgarity, and blatant discrimination.

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Pedants with a point

by mark In reply to You have, in this thread

Having got over the initial rebuffs ..; I guess there's a point talking about form and what people like to see. As above (blogs for long forums for short bits) but it would also be nice actually getting some content discussion.

One can only assume that not all subjects interest all people, but as we English say in French; ceux qui se ressemble se rassemble (those who resemble one another will come together).

My point is that people with common interests will eventually gravitate together if they are motivated. (More philo / socio / psycho ... )

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Wow

by LarryD4 In reply to Impressions

I'm glad I was out of touch for the last 7 days.

Personal weakness?? Um yeah I do have a personal weakness, I help to much..

It seems Mark is the newest TR (**** ya off) with attitude idiot.. I look forward to more off topic posts/rants, general obnoxious comments.

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Ah yes. -Q.

by boxfiddler Moderator In reply to Then you're gonna love th ...

Isn't he just a marvel?

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Read, "minus Q"

by santeewelding In reply to Then you're gonna love th ...

With gratitude to Neil.

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Here I've been thinking

by boxfiddler Moderator In reply to Read, "minus Q"

in terms of 'negative Q'. Silly me.

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Until Neil

by santeewelding In reply to Here I've been thinking

I had regarded it as dash-Q, as in, "Oh, by the way, Q."

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Personal weakness

by mark In reply to Wow

I was thinking of my personal weakness actually

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