On Information

Concepts in Information Management – blog by Ronald Fuller

The Legacy of the Systems Men

Dr. Thomas Haigh tells a fascinating story in The Business History Review that explains why information management is seen as a technical discipline rather than a management one:


The systems men were members of the Systems and Procedures Association during the 1950s and 60s.  The purpose of their association was not to promote research or continuing education, but rather to seek increased status and authority for its members within their employing organizations. Dr. Haigh explains that the systems men offered an implicit bargain to corporate executives: "You put us in charge and we’ll deliver to you more power over your firms than you’ve ever dreamed of”.


Executives for the most part were not persuaded. They understood that technical expertise does not translate into management authority, and by the 1970’s the Systems and Procedures Association was defunct. The various roles of the systems men eventually merged into corporate IT departments. But they left a stubborn cultural legacy that persists still today: the idea that managing information is a job for architects and engineers rather than business experts, as the following excerpts illustrate:

For better or worse, to speak of something as an information system continues to imply that it should be engineered by an information specialist and built using information technology

It seems unlikely that the idea of information can ever truly be separated from these roots: it is just too historically and culturally charged.

Overcoming these cultural and historical biases is the necessary first step towards information systems that reflect a business perspective rather than a technologist perspective.

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