On Information

Concepts in Information Management – blog by Ronald Fuller

A Key Assumption About Information Systems is False

A widely held assumption in the academic field of business information systems is that technology and behavior are inseparable, but this is false.  One widely-cited source that promotes this idea is Design Science in Information Systems Research, where the authors state:


"Technology and behavior are not dichotomous in an information system. They are inseparable (Lee 2000)" 


The source they cite (Lee 2000) explains their rationale: 


"The problem of 'technology vs. behavior' is a dilemma in the following way:  If we take a technology approach to IS, then how would we be different from engineering and computer science?  But if we take a behavioral approach to IS, then how would we be doing research that any behavioral field could not already do?"


"Just as a physician cannot design a remedy for a patient’s body and emotions separately, and just as an architect cannot design “form and function” independently, the IS field similarly does not have the option of designing the technology subsystem alone or the behavioral subsystem alone – we have to design both together."


My response to the first paragraph is this:  Deciding how business information is organized has nothing to do with engineering and computer science and everything to do with management priorities and objectives.  The role of technology professionals should be limited to implementation and cost-benefit advisement.  This should be an easy distinction to make, but the conventional wisdom is clouded by historical and cultural biases.  For example, technology workers in the 1950s persuaded business leaders to think of information management as an engineering discipline instead of a management prerogative.  This is discussed further in The Legacy of the Systems Men.  There are plenty of purely 'behavior' related issues that the academic IS community could focus on which have nothing to do with technology, such as the problem of poorly-organized information, which I describe further in Sophotaxis.


My response to the second paragraph is that it is false.  Decisions about how information is organized can and should be made before any automated system is created, even when those decisions can change (and they always do). The design of the automated system might raise cost-benefit issues that will impact the information decisions, but those cost-benefit trade-offs cannot be well-understood until decision makers know what the trade-offs will entail, and that is possible only when the information resource is defined first (see Cost-Benefit Value is Ignored).


When business-oriented priorities are subordinated to technology-oriented factors without a deliberate cost-benefit analysis, operational and analytical capabilities suffer.  Organizing information is an act of business administration, which is a role IT departments are not intended for.  The role of IT should be limited to implementation and cost-benefit advisement.


The following statement is evidence of how deeply the issue of information management is misunderstood.  It has been repeated in various forms more than ten thousand times by authors at universities, technology companies, and government organizations:


"With the proliferation of information technology starting in the 1970s, the job of information management had taken a new light, and also began to include the field of data maintenance.  No longer was information management a simple job that could be performed by almost anyone.  An understanding of the technology involved and the theory behind it became necessary.  As information storage shifted to electronic means, this became more and more difficult."


This statement is false; information management has never been a simple job that could be performed by almost anyone – at least not since the birth of modern accounting in the late 13th century.  The techniques used in manual accounting systems rely on a set of cross-referenced and interconnected books which use structures and rules that are fully consistent with the theory behind modern relational database systems, which I explain further in The Ancient Secrets of Information Management


Accounting is the discipline of managing information about money.  The same logic-based techniques can be used to manage other kinds of information as well, but manual accounting is so painstaking and time consuming that it is easy to understand why early merchants only made the effort with the kind of information they considered to be most important.  When relational database software was introduced in the 1970s, business leaders and scholars mistakenly assumed that it had created an entirely new computer-based method to organize information.  But in reality it created a new computer-based way to automate old logic-based techniques that had been used with success for 700 years.  If this were understood the shift to electronic automation would have made things far easier rather than more difficult.


Early merchants certainly did not look to the craftsmen who made their tools to also define their accounts. But that is exactly what modern organizations do.  It makes no difference that the old tools were made from paper, feathers and dye, and the new ones from computers, software, and networks. The old tools served exactly the same purpose as the new with respect to the organization of information.  The new tools serve an additional purpose of automating processes and workflows, but that is no reason to believe that the engineers who create the tools should also be responsible to organize information.  And there are important reasons to understand why they should not.

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