THREE KINDS OF INFORMATION SYSTEMS PROGRAMS
Michael Buckland. Nov 20, 2001.
I was recently asked by a foreign visitor with a limited command of English for a simple explanation of how SIMS differed from other information systems programs. My explanation was as follows.
There are three different basic types of Information Systems programs, which have had different emphases:
Type 1. Programs in Computer Science departments: CS departments are fundamentally concerned with algorithms, with theories of computability, hardware, software, and networks, computing performance, and finding new application areas. They may also be concerned with human factors (ergonomics, screen display, and other forms of interaction between human and machine. But the primary emphasis is on extending the application and performance of software.
Type 2. Information Systems programs in Business schools are fundamentally concerned with the management of corporate information technology. They are concerned with choosing and installing hardware and software, installing network, negotiating licences, back-up and security. They are primarily concerned with well-defined data derived internally as a by-product of an organization operations to support corporate decision-making -- and, for this reason, they are often called "Management Information Systems." Database optimization and decision trade-offs require an element of industrial engineering. Intellectual property, human factors (as in CS programs) and training (and trouble-shooting) for the employees whom they support add some breadth.
3. "Information" schools are concerned with what human beings want, need, or have a right to know. So they are concerned with: What do they need to know? What can be done to help them know what they need to know? What resources are available? How can they be helped to find whatever would be most relevant to their needs? These and related questions tend to form two broad clumps of study: (i) The creation, distribution, and use of (mainly recorded) knowledge in society - and individual, group, and macro levels; and (ii) the techniques and technologies for enabling coordinated access to distributed collections.
In practice, since all three tend to use the same technology, a cursory inspection of may suggest that the three kinds of programs are much the same - and there are areas of overlap. But there are significant differences:
A. Selecting. Needham's classic definition distinguishes two kinds of information retrieval:
"The expression is used for two quite distinct activities. In one (sometimes known as data retrieval) the complexity arises from the detailed structure of the data and from their bulk, all enquiries being unambiguous as are the encodings of the data. In the other (sometimes known as document retrieval or reference retrieval) the complexity arises from the impossibility of describing the content of a document, or the intent of a request, precisely or unambiguously. In the first case the difficult question is "What is the thing I am looking for?" and in the second "Is this thing the one I am looking for?"
Type 2 schools specialize in the first question; Type 3 in the third.
B. Interdisciplinarity. Type 2 schools are more disciplinary than Type 1, because they need to draw on heavily on management techniques as well as information technology, though those in Type 1 may become interested in and knowledgeable about any topic as an application area. Type 3 schools differ radically from both Types 1 and 2 in this regard. Firstly, the "softer" social sciences and some humanities (cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology, language (semantics, pragmatics), sociology, and related areas have a major role to play simply because the point of departure and the end goal are both concerned with what human beings know. Secondly, because there is a broad concern with society, the political, societal, and policy issues are wider.
Where is the anchor? All three types rightly say they are concerned with information and with information technology. And there are any number of application areas that each might be interested in, e.g. publishing. But what they mean by "information" is progressively broader from Type 1 through 3, the range of "technologies" is correspondingly broadened from the formal to the social, and the concerns that they have are likely to differ. In all three cases Type 3 is the more diffuse and requires the broadest range of skills. A Type 3 program, however intrigued by new information technologies, cannot be limited to digital technology or to bits.
SIMS. The Information Planning Group intended a genuinely broad program and that cannot be achieved without the really broad base of interests and expertise of a Type 3 school. Recruiting a faculty suitable for a Type 1 or a Type 2 program, for example, would ensure that the IPG intent either would not be done or could not be done well.