Personal Statement on

The Development of Information Systems at Sydney University

by Prof. Jon Patrick, Sybase Chair of Information Systems

A Definition of Information Systems

Information Systems as a discipline covers a large variety of topics many of which have previously been seen as in the province of other disciplines, principally computer science and business management. However, with the explosion of computer usage into all aspects of modern life, the craft of producing effective and efficient computer systems to satisfy the complex needs of individuals and organisations has lead to the emergence of the discipline of Information Systems.

 

In being a new discipline Information Systems suffers from two somewhat conventional problems, which are the battlegrounds for rival opinions. The first problem is the definition of what is encompassed and what is excluded from the discipline and the second is what constitutes research and therefore what are the appropriate research methods of the discipline. I personally take a broad definition of Information Systems and call it "applied computing". This label is in fact a little too broad as it would encompass areas of scientific and industrial computer systems I would not normally regard as information systems. However the label is meant to encompass more than business computing which is one of the restrictions it is commonly given.

 

I believe information systems should be a label that represents in the widest sense the issues apparent in creating a system that uses computers to satisfy individual and organisational needs beyond highly specialised functions. So while a numerically controlled lathe is a computer system it is not an information system. By this definition, information systems can be a system with as few as one computer, as long as in it's construction the issues beyond making the machine perform a computation have been dealt with. That is, an information system is all the issues involved in creating a system for the management of data in the context of a human organisational need. Hence Information Systems encompasses issues such as strategic planning, system development, system implementation, operational management, end-user needs and education. I differentiate Information Systems and Computer Science by the description that Computer Science is about developing and improving the performance of computers, hence computers are the focus of attention, whereas Information Systems is about making computer systems work for people and hence people are the focus.

 

The development of the Information Systems discipline at University of Sydney presents challenges and also offers many opportunities. The University Sydney in comparison to the other nearby educational institutions has opted to develop Information Systems in direct contiguity with Computer Science. I think this can create significant advantages for us. No discipline can truly succeed in properly equipping young graduates for professional life unless it instills a healthy understanding and relationship with its technological base. This is because professionals without sufficient knowledge of the capabilities of technology arising from intimate familiarity with it will always be at a disadvantage to the more technologically experienced. As well, with the already resident high expertise in quantitative methods in the Faculty of Economics it should be possible to create an Information Systems major that produces graduates who are quantitatively capable and technologically competent. Hence it is my aim to produce Information Systems professionals who will understand and value the dominant importance of people and interpersonal relationships in making systems work, and at the same time be technologically more informed and experienced and quantitatively more competent than their counterparts. This approach does not mean that IS professionals are to be trained as programmers, but rather that they be educated sufficiently well in the technology and quantitative methods especially in dealing with qualitative data, so that they can contribute more effectively to their personal professional contexts. Hence graduates, from say, a Commerce degree will feel confident that they can apply their information systems knowledge to the betterment of the businesses they work in, after receiving the broadest education in Information Systems that is available in Australia.

Information Systems Research

The second problem of the academic discipline of Information Systems is the nature of appropriate methods for use in research. This is a challenging topic where two broad camps having emerged. There are the social scientists who believe the success of information systems rests on understanding the human needs that have to be satisfied, which in turn requires a wide variety of qualitative research methods. On the other hand the scientific empiricists demand quantitative methods to provide "proven facts" of cause and effect. The reality of practical life shows us that a staggering 2 out of 3 large information systems projects fail and this represents a substantial loss of time and money to the businesses and organisations that invest in them. Typically the classical failure scenarios are: investment in futureware (untried software); poor piloting and changeover strategies; development of multiple systems with different vendors; and poorly defined output requirements.

 

We are not going to find the answers to such a large scale problem in simplistic linear causal models of explanation, but rather we will have to deal with complex intertwined systems of feedback and interaction, whose understanding is achieved by the use of a variety of analytical methods that draw on the strengths of many different disciplines on opposite sides of the science-social science divide. Information Systems to progress to a discipline of maturity will need to show how diverse methods of research can be integrated so as to produce a greater strength and conviction in its results than is possible from a blinkered adherence to one way of doing things. A combination of "systems thinking" and respecting and learning from each person's view of the world will advance our understanding of Information Systems more effectively than any other approach. Hence the location of Information Systems within a College of Science and Technology may produce its own challenges to accepting and understanding the diversity of methods for collecting and interpreting new knowledge.

Information Systems for Undergraduate Programs

There are many client groups for Information Systems education. I think of four categories of careers that undergraduates can choose with Information Systems as a component. Firstly, and by far the most common group is those who wish to have some understanding of using information technology software tools in their chosen profession. It is estimated that there are 10,000,000 personal computers in Australia with an average of one per desk in business. Hence this ubiquitous use of computers within business and society means that no undergraduate can afford not to have some level of computer expertise and comprehension. This is the first level of Information Systems curriculum, that is, basic computing skills with the ability to understand the role of application software tools in decision making and an appreciation of the variety of ways information systems contribute to workplace practices.

 

The second group is the cohort of students who want to be professionals in a chosen discipline but are keen to act as the go-between between their profession and the information systems professional. They will take on the role of the expert and technology wise-user and will hold link roles of great importance and influence in any organisation. There will be students from every discipline represented on campus who seek this rare niche role for their future. These students will study the IS curriculum into second year and occasionally into third year. Many students studying a Commerce or Economics programmes are already aware that this option is particularly valuable for their career development. However what is only just appearing is the relevance of Information Systems knowledge to all careers whether it be in engineering, health & medicine, law, social science, or the arts and humanities.

 

The third group of students are the IS professionals who will study most of the IS curriculum in tandem with another major that represents their interest area for applying Information Systems expertise. Virtually every profession needs staff trained in their own discipline who also can claim an extensive IS professional education. Someone they can trust to be aware and sensitive to their problems. This person will work on the introduction of Information Systems into their chosen profession knowing they have the expertise to solve significant problems in the integration of technology to the satisfaction of their colleagues from their original profession. A special sub-group of this cohort are the Computer Science graduates. Many of these graduates find themselves cast into the role of a systems analyst without having developed the Information Systems skills nor the interpersonal competencies. Yet at the same time they have the technological knowledge that organisations generally need. The addition of Information Systems to the curriculum will particularly enable these graduates to round off their education so that they are more client friendly and so can better facilitate the application of their expertise into the workplace without frightening or boring their clients.

 

The fourth group of students will be the complete Information Systems professional who has studied the full programme of courses. This graduate will consider Information Systems as their chosen profession and will work in software houses or in consultancy teams to bring the best solution to the client. These people will work hand in hand with Software Engineers in creating the working systems that get installed in businesses and organisations.

 

The undergraduate academic curriculum of Information Systems will initially be developed to satisfy these four particular career pathways. I believe Sydney University is uniquely placed to define an Information Systems program that will satisfy this range of professional careers due to its currently established diversity of undergraduate teaching programs and the already expressed commitments from colleagues in the Science and Economics Faculties.

Information Systems in Graduate Programmes

There are further important groups that offer significant opportunities for the development of new programmes of study. These opportunities are in the graduate area of IS education.

 

Ideally it would be useful to have a Masters of Information Systems but that will take some careful planning to achieve. The area of postgraduate education has certain minefields that need to be neutralised. The call for postgraduate education comes from at least three groups. Firstly the business and industry mid-career managers who have gravitated into the role of IT manager and want greater IS skills so that they can deal more effectively with the task of managing IT projects and personnel. These people will have some form of tertiary education but not in Information Systems, in which they want to attain professional accreditation. The second interest group is the young graduates who want to change careers but have no IS experience and, the third group is the long-term IS professionals who have no formal qualifications but are exceedingly skilled in certain IS specialisations. Marrying the needs of these different groups will be a challenge in the development of a postgraduate program, however collaboration with the Master of Commerce program is an attractive starting position.

 

Another aspect of graduate programs that receives little attention is the education of students in the craft of being a consultant. This is usually left to "practice in the field' that is meant to be accumulated over the long course of experience. Information Systems are one of the major sources of change agency in our lives. Hence, I believe it is appropriate to educate graduates about their roles as consultants and as change agents, so that they recognise the humanistic dimension of the of the effects they have on people's lives. The process of consulting requires three layers of expertise. The upper layer is the technological expert which students develop principally in their undergraduate program of study. The second layer is the business manager where they have to manage the operations of their own professional activities. The third layer is interpersonal communication where they have to know how to relate to their clients and deal with the vagaries of working with and for others. It is the last of these layers and its interaction with the second layer that is important for a well rounded graduate education in Information Systems.

Research Directions for Information Systems

In my time as a researcher I have found that the practical world of business, industry and other academic disciplines have all provided me with the opportunities to tackle interesting and challenging problems. In particular the needs of those groups have forced me back to theoretical computing foundations to seek solutions. I find that such a source of motivation for seeking more effective theoretical conceptualisations are a worthy and satisfying activity and I hope to continue that approach to my research.

 

There are many themes emerging from industry needs that are taking the attention of Information Systems academics including such areas as Workflow Management Systems, Computer Supported Co-operative Systems, Organisational Memory and Learning, Health Informatics, etc. However the fact remains that the most uncertain problem, with the largest ramifications if solved, is the determination of the usefulness or otherwise of particular methodologies of Systems Analysis and Design and the concomitant data modeling paradigms. It is evident that no-one has any real understanding of how to determine the merits and value of different methodologies let alone demonstrate that one is better than another. Given that the use of such methodologies is the single largest activity of information systems then the greatest gain to the profession and therefore professional efficiency will come from solving these problems.

 

The other most important development that is looming for Information Systems is the use of natural language for a variety of functions including IS analysis mechanisms, database modelling descriptions, and verification between database schemata and requirements descriptions, as well as in general interface environments. Hence the next major paradigm shift for the Information Systems discipline will be the targeted use of domain specific natural language. We have passed from the stages of text interfaces into the current realm of visual or iconic interfaces. The language industry has emerged in Europe driven by the need for machine translation in the European Union (EU) but although this is still a problematic area of research many spin off products that operate effectively in restricted domains have proven very effective. Voice recognition systems are now close to a level where they will be rapidly deployed across industry. The combination of these two technologies reaching acceptable thresholds of performance, along with the intrinsic problems of graphical and algebraic reductionist approaches to systems analysis, design and modelling will drive the introduction of natural language processing into the Information Systems discipline. This will not only change the intrinsic nature of the systems we deliver to users but also revolutionise our own work practices as IS professionals. To this end I hope to set up a Natural Language Information Systems research group whose aim will be to bring to the fore the issues of using natural language within information systems and the issues for maintaining and supporting natural language systems per se.

 

Personally, I have had a great deal of involvement in Machine Learning as a sub-discipline of computer science, where I have applied it to a number of fields, such as psychology, sport, linguistics, medicine and aeronautics. Now the field has found value in the arena of Information Systems and is lauded as an important innovation, renamed as "data mining". The methods are applicable to a wide range of problems in many disciplines not just Information Systems and it will be a useful adjunct to our mainstream research to continue to develop theoretical solutions to questions posed by Information Systems and, show that they can answered and, then applied to other disciplines, particularly to the field of linguistics so that feed back into the Natural Language Processing for Information Systems can be achieved.

 

It is clear that there is significant opportunity to take the lead in Information Systems research by tackling these problems and I hope we can take on this task over the coming years. At the same time I shall continue with the research I am already engaged in, that is the development of quantitative and qualitative information systems for the study of human behaviour and psychotherapy, the application of Machine Learning techniques to both modern and historical linguistics, the development of dictionary databases, and the federation and semantic interlinking of multi-databases of dictionaries and other encyclopedic knowledgebases, and the development of professional consultant education.