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1.1 What Are Information Systems?

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the parts of an information system
  2. Identify companies that practice user centered design
  3. Identify typical careers for information systems graduates

It’s More Than Just Computers

Information systemsThe combination of people, information technology, and business processes to accomplish a business objective. are the combination of people, information technology, and business processes to accomplish a business objective.

Every information system (IS) has people, processes, and information technology. In fact, many IS professionals add most of their value working with people and processes. They manage the programmers but typically avoid programming themselves. We can represent an information system as a triangle with people, processes, and information technology (computers) on the three vertices. The three parts of an information system are often referred to as the information systems triangleEvery information systems consists of people, business processes, and information technology..

Consider the popular trend of letting the TV audience vote on some talent shows such as Dancing with the Stars. The voting is managed by a sophisticated information system. The voters are the people involved with the system. Voters can cast the votes by phone, by text, or by online poll—three different information technologies. A central server at ABC records and tallies the votes. The business processes include the phone, texting, and online procedures—how and when to cast votes, and rules limiting the number of votes from each household.

In November 2010, ABC had to defend the legitimacy of its business processes when detractors claimed that Bristol Palin, daughter of political candidate, Sarah Palin, received an inflated vote tally from Tea Party supporters. Some of these supporters bragged on blogs about how they had circumvented the ABC business processes to record multiple votes for Bristol. ABC claims that it has systems in place to spot and discount suspicious voting activity. They have publicly revealed some, but not all, of these fraud detection systems. At this point we don’t know for sure if fraudulent votes got through. For more on this story see for example: http://insidetv.ew.com/2010/11/19/dwts-bristol-palin-tea-party-voting-conspiracy/.

The three parts of the information systems triangle must interact in concert to realize business objectives. The job of the IS professional is to ensure that a balance is maintained and enhanced for the good of all the actors and the business as a whole.

Good and Bad Information Systems

Information systems professionals work with others to design and customize the systems that you interact with everyday. When you register at a hospital, the information goes into an information system designed to support administrative reporting and insurance processing. When you buy from Amazon.com, the information goes into an information system designed to support customer relationship management.

Every information system is designed to make someone’s life easier. Unfortunately, that someone is not always the consumer. When was the last time that you had a good registration experience at a hospital? That system probably was not designed with you in mind—but rather designed to support backend reporting for the hospital administration and by proxy for the government and insurance companies. So the administrators are happy, but not the customers. From the hospital’s point of view there is no business need to make the registration experience extraordinarily pleasant. They are betting that you will not choose your hospital based on how difficult it was to register.

Amazon.com, by contrast, delivers an extraordinary experience to its customers so that they will stay loyal. Amazon practices user centered designDesigning websites and applications to meet the needs of the user. While this may seem to be common sense, in practice it does not often happen—especially in internal corporate settings. How user centered are the systems at your college or university?—designing to meet the needs of the user. However, the clever folks at Amazon also have tremendous backend reporting. So it is possible to design systems that please customers and administrators simultaneously—but it takes a bit more effort.

What would hospital systems look like if they were designed to Amazon standards? Imagine 1-click appointments, 1-click payments, shielding the client from the insurance companies. How about an integrated patient record of all past procedures?

The world will continue to gravitate toward Amazon style systems. In the end it is good business to make everyone happy—employees, customers, and administrators. It is also the right thing to do. Think back to the hospital. In a competitive market, maybe you would choose the better customer experience. A hospital worker might choose to work for the hospital with the more user friendly patient information system. No one likes to be yelled at by unhappy customers.

It doesn’t take much to improve the user experience (UX) of a system. You have to design a user interface (UI) anyway—why not make it a good one? In the words of Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?”

Consider the tremendous success of Apple Computer. One of the main advantages that Apple has over its rivals is that it carefully analyzes how people best interact with technology, develops requirements based on that analysis and then designs elegant computers, the iPhone, iPad, iTunes, and so forth based on those requirements.

Google Health, pictured here, has created a user centered patient record—and for free! It will be interesting to see if hospitals adopt it.

Most Professions Use Information Systems

Marketing, accounting, finance, manufacturing – there are many different professional goals and types of work in the business world. There are also many different industries where this work can be performed – manufacturing, retail, banking, healthcare. No matter what your career goal is or what industry interests you, your success and the success of the business rely on your ability to recognize opportunities where information systems can be used to improve performance. In most lines of work, you will need to store information in and retrieve information from databases. You will have to create persuasive and professional reports and presentations to convince others that your ideas make sense. Using Microsoft Excel and other tools, you will analyze data to find patterns and trends to aid decision-making. You will manage your relationships with contacts and clients using customer relationship management systems. The business’s success will depend on you leading efforts that use technology to support the introduction of new products, efficiently manage supply chains, and effectively manage complex financial activities. Retailers rely on past purchase data to develop sales forecasts and predict purchase behavior. Most businesses utilize collaboration technologies to bring together employees from all over the world to solve problems. Your ability to recognize opportunities to use information technology to create business value is central to both your success and that of your firm.

What Does an IS Career Look Like?

A career in information systems is full of action, problem-solving, and teamwork. It is the goal of information systems professionals to bridge the knowledge gap between business users and technologists, and thus IS professionals must be fluent in both worlds. Work in the field of information systems is exciting, fun, and fast-paced. There is always a new team to work with and new technology to learn about, and projects move quickly leaving openings for new endeavors. In a recent report published in The Wall Street Journal, information systems professionals were tied for the highest percentage of college graduates that were satisfied with their career path. See http://finance.yahoo.com/college-education/article/111000/psych-majors-not-happy-with-options?mod=edu-continuing_education.

When preparing to become an IS professional, students focus on learning about the types of systems that exist, what they offer to businesses, best practices for implementation, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Students also focus on how to work with business users and discover what their system needs are and how they can best be served by information systems. Information systems professionals focus on solving problems in businesses through the use of information systems.

When students start their careers, they frequently work on teams that connect businesspersons with the appropriate system solution for their situation. Usually the organizations they work for adopt a set of best practices to create consistency across project teams. Through the use of these best practices, IS professionals determine what options are available, consider the pros and cons of each, design a customized solution to match the specific business, and develop a plan on how to best implement the information system, including rollout phases and training.

As mentioned, IS professionals typically work in teams. This is because the projects are usually very large and have many interworking pieces. As a result, IS professionals specialize in a particular type of work and contribute their expertise in this area. Specializations include system analysts, software developers, database administrators, and project managers.

Information systems as a career is attractive to many individuals because of the traits above. However, it is also engaging because it is a career in which you get to work on making people’s lives easier. IS professionals focus on developing systems that businesspersons will use to create efficiency and increase their performance. IS professionals design systems that help businesspersons make better decisions (decision support systems) and lead organizations (executive dashboards). Systems are also created to keep track of materials (supply chain management systems) and customers (customer relationship management systems). And given the important role of information in modern organizations, IS professionals record, monitor, and analyze data to learn how the business can improve (business intelligence systems). IS professionals work to design these systems to be more usable, more efficient, and more informative. This book will discuss these topics and allow you to experience many of them. It walks you through what it is like to be an IS professional, rather than telling you about it.

Key Takeaways

  • The information systems triangle includes people, processes, and information technology. It is a good reminder that MIS is about much more than just technology.
  • Well designed information systems keep the user in mind at each step of the process.
  • Information systems are used by every functional area of business—marketing, management, finance, and accounting. For this reason it is good to have a strong background in information systems.
  • Careers in information systems tend to be dynamic, team based, and focused on problem solving.
  • Few information systems careers involve programming. However, IS professionals must be able to communicate with programmers.

Questions and Exercises

  1. Search for news stories on the Bristol Palin vote controversy. What systems did ABC put in place to catch voter fraud?
  2. Pick a user centered web site other than Amazon.com and explain why you think it is well designed.
  3. Find job descriptions for two information systems jobs. Do the job descriptions emphasize soft skills or technical skills or both?