Unbundling IS from IT

ISACA Wellington Chapter has restarted their lunctime series of Think Tank sessions.

Yesterday I took part in the first of a new series. This one was led by Ron Segal and considered the issue of the unfortunate  conflation of the terms IS and IT.

Ron set the scene thus:-
Whilst the term ‘information systems’ could simply be a modernisation of the earlier, ‘automatic data processing’, I would like to propose that ‘information technology’ is effectively an update of ‘automatic data processing’, whereas ‘information systems’ is profoundly different.
The difference goes something like this. Every business requires systems of information irrespective of any technology at all. Take a time machine journey back to 1900 and auditing information systems is 100% relevant, whereas for information technology this is 0%.
Bundling information systems under information technology skews the emphasis from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’. It’s similar to logistics being bundled under the motor pool.
Is this a real issue that significantly impacts organisation attitudes and governance, or is it just me being picky?

We seem to confuse:

  1. Specification of systems of information that are critical to core business; with
  2. Management of information technology services and assets; and
  3. Engineering design of information technology.
These are all bundled under ‘IT’. Yet arguably 1 is materially distinct from 2 and 3.
Our discussion group had a good conversation. It would be interesting to know what others think on this issue.
In the course of our conversation we looked at how ISO 38500 might be relevant in this context, we considered as well how organizational assessment of risk impacted in this area. Additionally, we wondered whether confusion was caused by the fact that many people, including executive management, use terms such as IS and IT interchangeably and in many instances look at the issue as some sort of ‘black art’.
Hopefully we can continue the discussion here, look forward to your comments.
NB: Many thanks to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who kindly made a room available for the session.

5 responses to “Unbundling IS from IT

  1. Is this like calling garbage men “sanitation engineers?”

    I guess it really depends where you are in the world. At one point in time, departments I worked for were called Information Systems, then gradually transitioned to Information Technology. I never saw anything wrong with calling it the Computer Department, but I guess it doesn’t sound “professional” enough for some people.

    There are people who get into debates about what “Knowledge Management” should actually be called and I don’t quite understand why it’s even an issue.

    When it comes to college degrees, “Computer Science” and “Information Systems” are definitely two different disciplines. Maybe the problems start here. =/


  2. In the right context it doesn’t matter whether the IT department is called IT or IS, or whether a computer system is simply referred to as a system. Problems occur when the contextual meaning starts to be applied in all contexts, then we suddenly lose a piece of the lanaguage that has previously expressed key concepts, then the concepts themselves disappear off the radar.

    I have to say that IT folk in particular are notorious in this regard.

    Some examples of information systems are a:

    * Codification system for uniquely identifying library books.
    * Protocol and terminology for expressing the quality of a product.
    * Reporting approach for providing steering information to a company board.
    * Method of disseminating board directives to different roles within an organisation structure.
    * Process for ensuring that appropriate business intelligence is gathered and effectively used.
    * Series of steps to provide information to prove a benefit entitlement.

    None of these systems of information necessarily involves any technology whatsoever.

    The point is that there are many systems of information in business that can and should benefit from a methodical approach to their design, where the primary concern is business effectiveness rather than automation. Design of information systems isn’t design of information technology systems, despite the strong correlation these days.

    Such IS design I would argue needs to be understood as an important business activity in its own right, which typically doesn’t fall under the remit of the majority of CIO’s. Most CIO’s are concerned mostly or entirely with the management of IT assets and services, and the engineering of IT systems.

    So there are two choices as I see it, either expand the scope of CIOs to truly drive the use of all information in business, or establish a separate business capability that has the appropriate skills and focus.

  3. Back in 1984 when I graduated from technical school, IS and IT were very clearly demarcated. IS was software and systems, IT was hardware. Within 10 years that all got mixed together and confused.

    So I find this development interesting. T…here are alot of things in the IT/IS space that ought to have been done differently, and if we had our time again, we would have.

  4. Interestingly when I trained as an accountant in the late 1960s and early 70s, what we actually did was audit Information Systems, which of course they were although they were not computerised. Now of course with the change of language we tend to call what were truly Information Systems, Business Processes. Ah the march of progress.

  5. Andy, yes, and that kind of split was still a typical technology perspective at the time, which as you say became increasingly confused. What I think we need to do now, is put the history of the terminology to one side and reset the thinking to be more along the lines that Peter indicates. That is to realise that business processes are largely systems of information.

    Consequently, information systems design is primarly about understanding and specifying what information is needed where, when and by whom, and its required characteristics, e.g. correctness and reliability.

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